December 8, 2011

Tinplate plane

Project and description by Tinplate Dad.

A friend of mine, Joe Crea, is a superb model builder. One of the things he likes to do is to download airplane models from various websites on the Internet. These he prints out on heavy card on his color printer, then meticulously assembles them. The resulting models are invariably beautiful. He’s built many of these fragile craft and I have always been impressed by them.

Paper is not my medium. I have tried paper modeling but it never took. However, I’ve always felt that anything that could be made in paper could be made in tinplate. After all, they’re both two-dimensional media, right?

So, inspired by Joe’s planes, I downloaded a J3 Piper Cub from the Fiddler’s Green website, along with the floats, which I thought gave the plane more character.

The drawings (three sheets, total), were nicely done. Assembly instructions were clear and the charming presentation reminded me of drawings from 1940s do-it-yourself books.

I set to work using our standard tinplate techniques. I cut the metal with scissors and bent it in a vise or with pliers. Wing and fuselage ribs, along with other details (windows, ailerons) were scored in with a glass cutter.

Slowly the plane began to take shape. I regret that I have no in-progress photographs. Along the way I learned that, theoretically, yes — tinplate can be worked much like paper. However, it isn’t paper, and there are some things that just aren’t that easily done. Making folds on tiny parts is difficult, as is precision folding of the larger parts so that they fit comfortably together. I recall that bending the leading edges and top surfaces of the wings to form a nice airfoil shape was particularly tricky.

However, I’m pleased with the end result. It is a scale model of a recognizable aircraft and it was a tremendous learning experience. Certainly, parts of it could be better but the overall effect pleases me. While it confirmed my belief that tinplate was a great modeling medium, the process of building the model also helped to define its limitations. The finished plane is a fun artifact to have sitting on a shelf.

10 Responses

  1. Peter Rombold says:

    Well done. I’m working up Tinplate Girl’s Airship project, and so know just a little of the work that went into your model. Do you have any ideas of where one would get similar drawings of railroad cars?

    • tinplategirl says:

      Hi Peter,

      Thanks for your note. If you Google “Paper railroad models” you’ll get a number of hits. These tend to be fairly undetailed models, though, or the detail is all printed on. I’m hoping to come up with some more large-scale tinplate railroad models in the future but have nothing on the drawing board at the moment. Stay tuned.

      Meanwhile, I hope that you’ll send us some pictures of your airship when you’ve finished it. Good luck on the project.

      –Tinplate Dad

  2. karin says:

    Making folds on tiny parts is easier with the right kind of tools such as those shown below


  3. Elizabeth says:

    Great model. Though the unfinished tinplate gives the effect of a WWII bomber, any Piper Cub floatplane immediately makes me think of Alaska. Don’t buzz those bears!

  4. EeeGee says:

    Really nice work. Did you create some sort of jig to bend the radius required by the leading edge of the wing?

    I admire all the tinplate work on this site, but when I started messing with metal, I found tinplate from cans to be so thin that edges and corners represented a cutting hazard and I sadly had to switch to thicker sheet metal. Unfortunately, thicker material is not so responsive to folds and embossing.

    You solve the cutting problem by hemming some of your edges, but many are not. Is there a way you dull the edges by knocking them with files or sandpaper? I have not had adequate success doing this. Do you have techniques you can share?

    Again, beautiful work!

    • tinplategirl says:

      Many thanks for your comment. No, I didn’t use a jig per se for the leading edge — I just carefully bent it over a stiff rod.

      Regarding the sharp edges, we haven’t found them to be too much of a problem. Sharp corners are a much greater hazard. If we find that we have a sharp edge, or an edge with a nasty burr on it. we just go over it with a fine, flat file held about 45 degrees to the edge. This quickly dulls it down. Care should always be exercised, of course, when handling tinplate, but the edges really shouldn’t pose much risk. We routinely handle the pieces we’ve made. Once the edges are dulled down, there’s no problem.

      Hope this helps. –Tinplate Dad

  5. John Prophet says:


    Nicely done, if painting tinplate was desired what are the preparatory steps one would take to put a nice livery on this airplane?



    • tinplategirl says:

      1. Clean the metal thoroughly, making sure all traces of flux and oil are gone.
      2. Use a good spray primer.
      3. Paint, using your favorite paint in an airbrush.

      –Tinplate Girl

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