Workshop and Tools

Woodworking minus patience equals firewood.

Author unknown

One of the first things that happens when you start to build an aluminum aircraft is that your woodworking skills improve. This might seem counterintuitive but not only do you need several good-sized workbenches on which you will measure, drill and rivet, but some assembly steps require custom jigs or cradles be built. Furthermore, while I suppose you could assemble and airplane using nothing but hand tools, having a variety of power tools (in particular a band saw, drill press, sander and grinder) make the process go much, much faster. Therefore, one of the first steps in the aircraft construction process is to outfit your workshop.

Now I’ve been a bit of a workshop nerd for most of my life. I grew up on my grandparent’s farm and, like all good farmfolk know, you need a well appointed workshop if you expect to survive more than a few harvest seasons. My grandfather was the first influential person in my life when it comes to nurturing my DIY talents. Some of my earliest memories were following him around as he built (and repaired) all manner of farmhouse facilities. I had plenty of opportunity to observe. For instance, we got our fresh water from a spring near the Penobscot River, which was pumped several hundred yards up to to the house. It seemed like several times per year my grandfather needed to drive his tractor through the forest to the pumphouse and climb down into the pump fit to execute a repair. I never knew exactly what he was doing but was fascinated by the process. Likewise, his basement workshop was filled with amazing tools (including, as I recall, a dedicated saw blade sharpening machine). He built an apartment for my mother and sister in the farmhouse attic. As the kids say today, he had ‘mad skilz’.


The second major influence on my “craftiness” was my Uncle Bob, whom I got to spend time with during and after my stint in business school in Rochester, New York. Uncle Bob was a Kodak “lifer” who, along with his wife, Dallas (my mom’s older sister), had raised his family in a beautiful, turn of the century, arts and crafts home. He was planning his retirement during the time I lived nearby and I helped him rework part of his basement into a proper woodworkers shop (including chiseling a channel in the concrete floor for his table saw’s electrical connection). His passion was furniture construction but I learned a lot from him about general carpentry and, unlike during the time spent with my grandfather, I now owned a home and had reason to invest in some tools of my own.


Over the course of many years (and homes–and wives!) I slowly built both a modest workshop and modest carpentry (and other) skills. By the time we arrived in Colorado I was able to fabricate basic necessities like bookshelves, desk drawers, crown molding (through admittedly just barely) as well as tackle basic electrical and plumbing jobs. I was also comfortable with attempting basic plumbing and electrical tasks. My workshop consisted of few decent hand tools (gratefully bequeathed to me by my grandfather), some cheap power tools, and a basic workbench I built from plans found online. As the reality of an aircraft building project began to settle in I filled out the stable with few additional workshop tools that had been on my wish list and started work on additional workbenches for my impending assembly activities.

Like many builders my first task was to construct two Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 1000 workbenches–or EAA 1000 for short. Their design, 2′ by 5′ with a shelf underneath, has proven imminently practical for a variety of homebuilt aircraft projects. By building two you have the flexibility of being able to push them together to work on large pieces (I’m looking at you, wings!) and, like other builders, I opted to create a lip on one side (all the better for clamping!) and fit them with casters to facilitate easy, single-person repositioning.

In addition to the standard workbenches I also fashioned a separate rolling work table for my power tools. This was a mashup of an old restaurant tabletop I bought at auction a few years ago (see, honey, not a hoarder!), some crappy drawers I had built for my wife when we were renters and kept around in the garage (see, honey, not a hoarder!) and some plywood (see, honey, that’s why we own a pickup truck!).

And, while not strictly a requirement for airplane building, I decided to (finally) have our garage floors finished, replacing a half-arsed job I started when we moved in. It is officially the second highest expense in the building process thus far but well worth it to create a space I’ll enjoy spending hours at a time in.

Now that I had a space worthy of highly technical and time consuming activities it was time to fill it with (more) tools. There is a small part of me that sometimes wonders if the real attraction of aircraft building is the opportunity to acquire more tools but I try take my mind off it by browsing the Grainger website.

While most well-appointed workshops do contain many tools that can be used in aircraft building it’s not to say they always should, especially when higher-precision and purpose built tools are available. I, like many homebuilders, chose to “jump start” the tool acquisition process by purchasing a kit tailored to RV construction. Realizing the popularity of Van’s designs, several companies specialize in selling kits with most of the tools that most people don’t already have. While all kits contain the same basic collection of implements there are differences in optional tools as well as a range of prices. After comparing the options from companies listed on Van’s website I decided to order a package from Cleveland Aircraft Tool. They are certainly not the least expensive option but–based on feedback on the online forums–have a reputation for great service and tool quality. They also allow for some customization of the kit. After a couple weeks I got a pre-Christmas gift from my new best pen pals, Mike and Annette.


Experienced builders will notice a couple things in the above photo. First, I went with a C-frame dimpler. I’ll leave the endless “C-frame vs. DRDT-2” debate to others. Suffice it to say it’s what I learned on (during that one class I took) and I’m building my airplane in an apartment so noise be damned! Plus, I find the rhythmic “whack-whack-WHACK” to be a very soothing, Zen-like experience. Second, you can see a hand squeezer in the photo. I was impressed with the design of Cleveland’s “Main Squeeze” so I got one…along with a pneumatic squeezer that’s on backorder. I selected a Sioux air drill because of the reputation and often hook it up just hear it go, “Whizzz! Whizz!”. I also purchased Cleveland’s lightweight air hose and manifold kit so I didn’t have to constant swap the airline between tools. I attached the manifold to one of the benches so a simply quick-connect to my compressor supplies all my air-powered needs.


Speaking of compressors, another important building decision, I upgraded from my tiny (and loud) portable compressor to a 26 gallon oil-less Kobalt model from Lowe’s. While it’s not as quiet as a two-stage, oil-lubricated model it is rated the quietest among comparable models. I would have liked a bit more capacity but, hey, if it’s good enough for Plane Lady then it’s good enough for me. I did end up ordering a few more items form other suppliers like Aircraft Spruce and Arrow but I’ll save discussions on those for a future post where they actually get used. Until then, time to build something!

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