Craft & Design
Made On Earth — Big Balsa


When New Zealand artist Christian Nicolson was a kid, he played backyard World War II games with a model of a British Royal Air Force Spitfire, the sort of cheap, fun toy you’d press out of a single sheet of balsa wood. They often ended up stuck in a tree or shattered on impact.

Now fully grown, Nicolson wanted to represent his childhood fantasy of piloting a Spitfire through his art. The result is a full-sized fighter based on the old balsa models. Like the hand-launched toy, the sculpture is printed on one side only. The nose shroud may be made from lead rather than Plasticine, but the look is true to form.

Nicolson built the Spitfire in late 2008, throwing every spare dollar into the project. He also recruited volunteers, paid only in beer, to help out. “I called in all the favors I could. The problem was that even to turn the wings over, I needed a hand,” he says.

Clad in 6mm (¼”) Fijian kauri marine plywood, the sculpture is built with steel bracing and a polystyrene interior to keep the weight down. Nicolson says pre-production was vital, and a lot of time went into research. “It had to be rigid; I didn’t want the wings to droop,” he says.

Coming in at 1.3 metric tons (1.4 tons), it may be too big to throw, but it’s also too solid to break. It’s 10.4 meters (34 feet) long with a wingspan of 11 meters (36 feet). It comes in five sections that bolt together, and when disassembled it fits easily onto a domestic trailer.

Prior to building the Spitfire, Nicolson built a wingtip and rear fuselage for a “crashed” Japanese Zero fighter sculpture, made from laminated sheets of macrocarpa (aka Monterey cypress). Tying the two ideas together, the Spitfire bears a small “kill” flag suggesting that it was the plane that shot the Zero down. “Some make-believe play going on there,” he explains.

The Spitfire has been shown at a couple of New Zealand art exhibitions, and Nicolson is now seeking a buyer. Ships flat!

Spitfire Replica: