Cutting A Dash

Instrument panel for a Schempp-Hirth SHK-1 glider.

Brian Hoddy reveals some of his secrets to making a realistic scale instrument panel and cockpit components.

I think we can all agree that our hobby has undergone quite a revolution in the last few years. Compared to earlier models they are getting more and more refined in appearance and complexity. Attention is also being centered on detail, especially scale models. Suppliers are bowing to the needs of the more discerning model pilots regarding panels, cockpit accessories etc. I have seen some great 3D printed cockpit panels, which lend themselves to the use of modern technology in design and production.

Cockpit instruments are perhaps the final touch in finishing your model. If you are like me then you appreciate detail in your scale model and perhaps especially in the cockpit. There are so many options and levels of detail; the sky is the limit, but our resources are not! There are a few commercial products on the market but not too many. Perhaps you have considered making the panel yourself but lack the instrument images of the correct size and quality to make the instrument panel yourself. The sandwich method is a simple, inexpensive and well-known method that I have used in my models; maybe I can help you in the process of making your panel?

Background
I am retired expat living in Norway, with an interest in building models and flying them from as early as I can remember. This passion progressed to me gaining my PPL at an age of 58 and flying full size light aircraft (a Saab Safir 91B) for 10 years before retiring. At present I fly 1/3 and 1/ 4 scale gliders, mainly produced in Germany, and electric models. I also enjoy the pleasures of ridge soaring. Being retired, a modeller and a person with an eye for detail, I started some years ago experimenting, designing and making my own instrument panels. It’s been a long and enriching path, experimenting with different techniques in design, use and source of materials and production. All this has been, and still is, a learning curve.

In the main it has been a challenge to give back something to the model aircraft community in my local area here in Norway, but my work has also ended up in various other countries.

How Is This Achieved
When I started, I drew the panel on a full-size graph paper template. There is so much symmetry and alignment that graph paper is a good starting point and easily gives guides and check points. This can be transferred on to good quality plywood, which has been suitably prepared before cutting and painting.

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Panel sandwich construction.

Originally, I used hole cutters or conical cutters when making instrument holes. This is a process which requires accuracy and patience; I work with a margin from 0 - 1mm. The panel itself comprises of a sandwich, a well-known process.

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Salto panel with accessories.

A plywood backplate, a thin card for mounting of instruments, instrument images, a thin acrylic sheet and a plywood facia drilled for instrument screws and instruments. My instrument images, to start with, were good quality jpeg downloads.

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Prototype panel with carbon fibre facia.

I have included pictures of Maule, ASW-24 and Challenger Pitts 1 (with joystick) panels to show what is possible using the above method.

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Maule panel.

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ASW-24 Instrument panel.

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Pitts S1 panel.

Adopting Adobe
Part of the evolution has been to improve on processes, image quality and finish. Adobe IlIustrator has become more and more my tool for image design. I have built up an image/instrument library, which easily lends itself to small changes in appearance, color and size. My instruments are based on 1/4 and 1/3 scale sizes of full-size instruments, whether they be for sailplanes or motor models.

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Polish Wilga panel.

Lately, I have also used a CNC machine in production. This, combined with Adobe Illustrator, gives me the flexibility and accuracy I need. My methods lend themselves to replicate full-size panels, which gives a great deal of authenticity and satisfaction. Indeed, I could not imagine making a panel today without Adobe and CNC. I get a great deal of satisfaction when presenting a finished panel to its new owner. It’s a great way of meeting new people and making friends.

Other Components
There are, of course, many components that lend themselves to hobby production - knobs and levers, joysticks and headsets.

Here the methods are well documented on the web. How to make plugs, moulds and, finally, casts. A little surfing will give you an idea as to which silicone products and resins to use for moulding and casting.

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Panel mounted in the SHK-1 cockpit. All those knobs and levers help bring it to life.

As an example, I thought I'd like to share my process of making a headset! The one in question is for a 50% Tailored Pilot. I also have dimensions for a 50% Axel pilot. I fly with a 30% Axel pilot myself in my ASW24.

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Various knobs and levers.

It all starts with a wooden plug, which has to be shaped and refined, and which is the centerpiece for a RVT silicone mould. Using casting resin, I can then reproduce as many headsets as required. The same process is used to make headsets in different sizes. Over time I have refined the process somewhat and incorporated some improvements to the manufacture.

• Aluminium inserts in earpieces for the headset framework provides a more robust solution.

• Deeper inserts in the earpieces for large ears, which gives better latitude when fitting.

• Longer down-struts for mounting of the framework; it can be cut to size and gives better latitude when fitting.

• Inclusion of two aluminium tubes so that the framework can be cut, reduced or extended, which gives better latitude when fitting.

• Use of EPDM sponge on the earpiece face to give a 'soft' fit against the pilot's head.

It has taken time to find the right materials on the web.

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Headset selection.

Making a headset that fits, without having the pilot to hand, is not that easy if the fit is to be good and the thought of making a headset kit with some latitude in assembly does exactly that. It also saves on postage as the kit can be sent in a 'bubble envelope' and not a box.

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Unpainted headset components in kit form.

I can assure you that it’s not a task for the faint hearted; it’s all in the details and it takes time and patience, but the effect is good.

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Headset kit ready for assembly.

Joysticks
Nearby are pictures of a small collection of joysticks made using the same process.

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F16 joystick.

Making your own panels involves learning new skills (e.g., Adobe Illustrator), mastering new techniques and using new materials. You will be the richer for it! I hope you have enjoyed this article and perhaps you already have your next panel on the drawing board?

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A selection of joysticks.

Meet me on Facebook at Model Aircraft Cockpit Instruments

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