Balsa Dreams

Fun & Games
father and son
Model Relationship: Andrew Leonard admires the first wooden model airplane that his 13-year-old son, Eli, made. Today they build balsa airplane kits together.

“This is pretty cool,” my 13-year-old son, Eli, admitted, as we waited for the glue to dry on the wing of a Cessna 150 balsa wood model airplane. I couldn’t disagree.

Way back in the last century, when I was 13, I devoted many happy hours to building scale model “stick and tissue” airplanes — Sopwith Camels, Fokker D.VIIs, P-51 Mustangs, and Mitsubishi Zeros. To see my son groove to the simple pleasures of balsa wood construction struck a familiar chord. Snapping together the plastic parts of a sci-fi Japanese robot is fun; building a wood-and-paper plane that can fly generates a higher class of satisfaction.

My son’s interest in the Cessna was all the more rewarding when I considered that, as a kid in the early 1970s, we didn’t have Xbox 360s or Angry Birds or all the Japanese anime we could stream from Netflix to while away the hours. My son’s generation enjoys unlimited access to the most immersive, distracting, and addictive digital entertainment options the human mind has ever devised. But there he was with a sanding block in his hand, carefully smoothing out fuselage joins — and enjoying it!

Time froze as we stood in front of my basement workbench. We were using the same set of X-Acto knives my grandfather gave me for my 11th or 12th birthday. Our Cessna came from a kit made by Guillow’s — the same company that manufactured all the airplane models I put together as a boy. When I examined the construction plan, I noticed that the copyright date was 1971, and it occurred to me that I had hunched my back over the identical plan three and a half decades earlier.

The die-cut balsa wood part sheets were also intimately familiar — for all I could tell, they had been crunched out by the very same machines in use 35 years earlier. When I clumsily snapped a wing former out of its sheet and accidently broke it, the déjà vu feeling was as strong as the smell of the airplane “dope” that modelers use to stiffen the tissue covering the wings and fuselage. I convinced myself I could recall breaking that same piece, long ago.

But how was this possible? The striking fidelity with my memories suggested Guillow’s stagnation, if not terminal decline. I conjured up a grim globalization scenario, imagining that a giant toy multinational had long ago scooped up Guillow’s and moved its manufacturing plant to China or some other cheap-labor locale. What else could explain such stasis?

I could not have been more wrong. Curiosity piqued, I soon learned that while the golden age of the model airplane hobbyist scene belongs to the distant past, and nearly all the competitors that Guillow’s battled for market share in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s are as dead as the dinosaurs, Guillow’s is still independently operated and chugging forward. Remarkably, the firm still operates in the same Wakefield, Mass., warehouse complex that Paul K. Guillow, its eponymous founder and World War I Navy aviator, moved into back in 1933.

After digging deeper, I realized I was also wrong to create such a strong dichotomy in my mind between the visceral pleasures of glue and the digital distractions of the 21st century. Guillow’s isn’t frozen in time — it continues to roll out new model kits and modernize its own manufacturing technology in ways that serve its customers while staying true to the past.

And can there be little doubt that the internet is a hobbyist’s best friend? As any amateur who has struggled with the sometimes opaque instructions of a Guillow’s kit will recall, building a balsa wood model airplane can be enormously frustrating.

And that, I believe, is why God invented YouTube.

Quality Time: Leonard and Eli making a Cessna 150 balsa wood model airplane from a Guillow’s kit. Leonard says YouTube is a terrific resource for answering tricky build questions. “I felt a great sense of relief in knowing that, were we to become baffled at how to proceed, we knew exactly what to do — log on!”

The Guillow Legacy

In 1926, Guillow capitalized on his experience as a Navy pilot by creating, in the barn of his family home in Wakefield, a line of simple balsa wood construction kits based on World War I combat aircraft that retailed for the backbreaking price of 10 cents each. His timing could not have been more perfect. Charles Lindbergh’s successful 1927 cross-Atlantic solo flight in The Spirit of St. Louis ignited a national aviation obsession — what one historian of the model airplane industry excitedly described as “the greatest torrent of mass emotion ever witnessed in human history.” A score of model airplane kit makers popped up to feed an insatiable hunger born from the romance and futuristic promise of air flight.

Guillow died in 1951, at just about the same time the balsa wood stick-and-tissue hobbyist sector began a long decline (pick your own reason: the rise of plastic, the emergence of TV, the ascendance of Lego). But his wife, Gertrude, kept the company going while other model makers fizzled out.

A key explanation for the company’s survival, says current president Tom Barker, who has been with Guillow’s for 35 years, is a policy of diversification. Only about 30% of the company’s $5–$6 million in annual revenue comes from the scale model construction kits. A larger share, 40%, is generated by the sale of simple balsa wood gliders constructed from just two or three pieces and retailing for a couple of bucks. Another 30% comes from promotional business: cheap balsa flying toys that sport individualized company brands. “We’ve got everything down to a science,” says Barker. “We’ve been doing the same thing for a long time.”

But Guillow’s isn’t standing still. Senior designer Mark Tennant says the company routinely rolls out new kits — most recently, a scale model Wright Flyer. Tennant says the increasing popularity of cheap and light radio-control technology has inspired the company to figure out ways to design its models to accommodate modern electronics.

The company is also gradually phasing out its old die presses, cumbersome machines that have been chomping on balsa wood for 40 years or more. Eventually, says Tennant, all the part sheets for scale models will be laser cut — a shift that vastly simplifies the design and production of new models and also enhances the user experience. No more broken balsa parts! “They almost fall out,” says Tennant. “It’s a night and day difference.”

Old School, New School

No more broken pieces? The notion initially struck me as sacrilege that broke the covenant connecting my present-day experience with my son to my past incarnation as a preteen modeler. If you aren’t forced to jury-rig a solution to a piece of broken balsa wood, or discover for yourself that gluing together two pieces of balsa wood creates a join that can be stronger than the wood itself, what’s the point? If your son isn’t shivering in nervous tension as he attempts to free his own parts from the sheet, where’s the challenge? Lasers? Bah, humbug! But as my son and I continued building our model and I started researching this story, I realized that drawing a firm line between old-school purity and the age of digital simulacra wasn’t as cut-and-dried as I initially surmised. Where would today’s hobbyist be, for instance, without the web?

Back when I was 12 years old and working on my Guillow’s kits, I felt completely on my own. I had to decide for myself how to interpret the often-cryptic instructions, depending on my own ingenuity and plenty of wasteful trial and error.

I’m sure there were hobbyist clubs in New York at the time that I could have tapped for information — although not as many as flourished in the 1930s and 40s — but I was a pretty shy kid, and that wasn’t my scene. So I ignored stuff I didn’t understand and made horrible mistakes. I once botched up the process of covering my model with tissue so badly I had to junk the whole kit and start over. And then there’s the day I took my Fokker D.VII out for a spin in Manhattan’s Central Park to test out its rubber-band propulsion system and crashed my pride and joy straight into a tree. A tragedy beyond belief. Balsa wood is gloriously light — and terribly fragile.

My son, however, not only has the benefit of what I remember of my hard-won experience, but everyone else’s as well. He’s a member of a generation whose first step to solving just about any problem is checking YouTube for a tutorial.

As Barker told me, the internet does a fabulous job of providing tech support that his 45-person company simply isn’t equipped to handle. You want to talk about the physical and chemical properties of wood glue? It’s online. Curious as to the best strategy for properly bending piano wire into landing gear? The hard part is picking which tutorial to follow. Your local hobby shop has closed? There’s a wider selection of everything available online than any hobby store was ever able to offer.

So even as Eli and I built a connection to generations of hobbyists before, I felt a great sense of relief in knowing that, were we to become baffled at how to proceed, we knew exactly what to do — log on!

And that digital boon stretches far beyond materials and techniques, it also helps expand and deepen our own grasp of history. In 1973, I didn’t have a clue that long before Guillow’s established its dominance over the balsa wood model scene, an outfit called the Cleveland Model and Supply Company reigned supreme as the ultimate provider of detailed, ultra-accurate, ultra-challenging kits.

Today, after reviewing photographs and analyses of every model in the Cleveland catalog, I can bid for intact 50-year-old Cleveland kits on eBay. I can review, via Google Books, ads for Guillow’s models published in issues of Boys’ Life from the 1960s or marvel at a collection of 40 years of beautifully illustrated covers of the periodical Model Airplane News. In short, my son and I could connect with the whole universe of model airplane hobbyists, breaching the annoying physical restrictions of space and time.

Thanks to the internet, I was even able to get my hands on a yellowing copy of Building an Airplane — an illustrated guide to balsa wood model construction written by Guillow and published in 1943. “Just Follow the Pictures,” says the friendly looking, disembodied head of a man in aviator goggles and leather flying cap.

I was particularly struck by the fifth page: “Tools and Materials.” There’s a drawing of the “strip stock” — the slab of “stringers” that serve as the raw material for wing struts and the fuselage frame. It is identical to the strip stock included in my Cessna kit 70 years later. A sketch of the “print board” looks remarkably similar to the sheets of parts in modern Guillow’s kits, but note the instructions: “Cut out the parts from the printed sheet with a razor blade.” This booklet predated the widespread use of die-cutting.

There’s also a recommended tool not yet part of my arsenal — a miniature coping saw useful for such tasks as carving small blocks of wood into the shape of a nose cowl. Talk about old school! As a 13-year-old, I might have been intimidated, but today, if there isn’t already a coping saw/nose cowl tutorial on the web, there will be one soon.

A laptop at one end of the workbench, Guillow’s Building an Airplane at the other, my son standing with me in the middle, messing around with glue and X-Acto knives, while the entire internet cheers us on. Has there ever been a better time to build a balsa wood model airplane? I don’t think so.

More photos of the Leonards and their Guillow’s:

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Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard ( is a staff writer at Salon. He lives in Berkeley, Calif., and is still cleaning the glue off his fingers.

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