A favourite ‘silk purse’ model is my third scale Cub, modified to be the ‘clipped wing’ version so it would just fit in my car.

In his retro column Shaun Garrity fettles some basket case models

A silk purse from a pig’s ear? Yes, I know it’s a strange proverb. Originating from Scotland, its first recorded instance was apparently in 1699: “Ye can ne make a silk purse of a sows lugg (ear)”.

It implied that inferior products can’t be used to create quality items. So, what’s this got to do with model aircraft? Read on I’ll get to the point eventually.


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I’m sure many modellers have picked up the odd part finished (or in desperate need of refurbishment) bargain airframe over the years – and I use the term bargain in the loosest sense of the word! A few years prior to lockdown I had started taking a serious look at my ever-growing pile of unloved balsa and ply firewood and glass fibre scrap to see if it was actually possible to bring anything back from the dead. Or was it time to have a bonfire.


Pre internet it was common for kit manufacturers to supply hobby shops with pamphlets covering their range of models.

The list was frankly embarrassing but consisted of a vintage Mercury Magna, Matador, Veron Cherokee, Tomtit, Cardinal, Sky Skooter and also a Krick 1/4 scale SG38, a Pat Teakle 1/4 scale ASW17, Balsa USA 1/3 scale Morane and a newer 1/3 scale Piper Cub (manufacturer unknown).


“My name is Shaun and I’m a serial basket case purchaser!”

There, I’ve admitted it, but thanks to my deep Yorkshire roots (we’re known for having tenacious negotiation skills along with short arms and deep pockets) they weren’t outrageously expensive.


I attacked the Mercury Magna first and after the mind-numbing task of removing torn 60-year-old tissue from the airframe, then checking and, where required, repairing all the joints, it was recovered with Litespan. Simple rudder only R/C was installed and a new old stock FROG 80 from my small engine collection was bolted in (I’ve never understood the point of keeping these engineering jewels stuck in a box on the shelf, lifeless). It probably took no longer than building from scratch, so I justified this as a win.



Nearly a pensioner at 60 years old, the Magna was the first basket case I restored. Apologies for the quality of the photo; I never intended it for publication.


Magna finished and ready for flight using a 2.4g converted OS Pixie for rudder only. The new old stock Frog 80 burst into life after a few flicks.

Lulled into a false sense of achievement the Cardinal was next. But this time I kept it free flight and powered this little retro classic with another previously un-run motor, an Allbon Merlin.



This part-built Cardinal needed some major surgery to get flight ready. Another new old stock Allbon Merlin was bolted in to get it skyward.


Phil Smith’s original Cardinal that he displayed with other models from the Veron range at many model shows around the UK. It is now owned by Ali Machinchy of Al’s Hobbies.

Now oblivious to the hours spent on the previous two models it was time to up my game and attack the Cherokee (my first junk purchase) with gusto. As basket cases go this was the front runner – numero uno in the garbage stakes. I picked it up for peanuts as a part-built wreck at the BMFA Nationals ‘Bring and Buy’ event, where the owner had thoughtfully left it out, along with the kit box and plan, in the rain so all the old dust and muck would be washed away. I’m assuming he was hoping nature’s bath would improve its appearance, making it worth more!


The basket case that defined basket cases.


After an inordinate amount of rebuilding the Cherokee turned out to be a brilliant model and a pleasure to fly.

On digging it out from my workshop graveyard it amazingly hadn’t warped and after many, many hours re-gluing, rebuilding and general fettling it eventually turned out to be a great aircraft. In retrospect it definitely would have been quicker to start from scratch, so you’d have thought I would have learned from the experience. Sadly, not the case…


Not what you would traditionally consider retro, the third scale Piper Cub (originally manufactured in the early 1930s by the Taylor Aircraft Company and designated the E-2 for the bargain price of $1,325) was next to be resurrected. However, here’s another sad story. I was told by the vendor that it had been professionally built and covered and was an ex-display model and never crashed.


After many, many hours working on this Cub I’ve ended up with a model I’m proud of.

Note to self – never again buy a model at dusk, in the rain and from a poorly lit car park! Not wanting to be disparaging to the creative description used by the seller but on removing the decidedly sub-average covering job I found that the Cub’s fuselage had been epically stuffed, badly repaired and needed rebuilding. Clearly my interpretation of professional building and covering was a country mile apart from the previous owner. Again, it was eventually finished and is still a favourite flyer. It’s a good job that I’m retired and have plenty of free time, eh!

Time to clear the decks and attack the Balsa USA Morane next, as this was a big lump of wood taking up valuable junk space. Sold by the original builder to a mate, it had been partially stripped by him pending a re-cover, so I was lulled into a false sense of security (I had seen it flying previously). A deal was struck in a moment of madness. Oh dear – instant regret…


Almost finished Balsa USA Morane A1- an emulsion painted silk purse!

Of its many foibles one humdinger was that it had 16 bolts to fix the wings, struts and undercarriage in place. To make life interesting the original builder (who obviously had a sense of humour) had managed to find a different diameter bolt and thread pattern for almost every fixing. Why, I have no idea, but replacing them took hours (the nuts were embedded and epoxied into the structure). It was not a good start, but this was nothing like the fuselage.


Starting to look like a model again after countless hours of workshop time.

That was not only twisted but bent like a banana. How it flew so well I have no idea, but I can only assume that my mate was a far better pilot than I ever realised. The rear of the fuselage, from the back of the cockpit, had to have all the stringers and formers removed to straighten it up. But with dogged persistence (read that as stubbornness and a refusal to be beaten, even though it should have been scrapped) and many days in the workshop it was finished.


First test assembly of the airframe. Again, apologies for the poor photo; another one not intended for publication.

The wings were not quite as bad but were still far from great. More time was required but there was a small bonus. I used a great finishing technique – Valspar Matt Emulsion paint applied over Solartex with a small foam roller and sealed with water-based floor varnish. There are thousands of colours available from the range so it’s easy to replicate virtually any colour scheme and no spraying is required. I’m certain you would need a proprietary fuel proofer if powered by a glow motor, but polyurethane varnish seems to work around the nose for a petrol engine.


Scale detailing is easy. A split plastic tube simulates the hinge and the engraved info plaque was replicated from litho plate, with a laser printed clear vinyl label stuck on.

In retrospect, I could have again most likely scratch built this more quickly but that would have been far too easy for this junk addicted masochist. However, I’ve proved the old Scottish proverb wrong; it may not quite be a silk purse but it’s far better than a sow’s lugg!


From the early 1970s Phil Smith designed some excellent near scale power models for Veron. The aforementioned Cherokee (originally intended to use reed gear), along with a Sopwith 1 ½ Strutter, Avro 504N, Tiger Moth DH 82a, Fokker D8, Cessna Skylane, Tipsy Nipper and, my favourite, the Hawker Tomtit.


Veron produced some great near scale models. True builder’s kits packed with balsa and ply.

These 50-year-old kits are still a great traditional build, packed with balsa and a true aeromodellers delight, so this had to be the next one to sort out.


This Veron Tomtit was another ‘Bring & Buy’ bargain. Originally looking nothing like this, it’s now well on the way to being flight ready.

Another Nat’s ‘Bring & Buy’ purchase, the Tomtit was a job lot that included a mostly built airframe, an unbuilt kit and a spare basic fuselage. The airframe, constructed around 40 years ago, was accurately built and still in reasonable condition. However, it was obvious every glued joint would need revisiting as a slight knock caused a worrying number of stringers to ping off. Countless hours using penetrating aliphatic and thin cyano glues eventually did the job.

Originally the model was supplied with heavy weight tissue in the kit, but most examples were covered in traditional nylon and dope. Mine used Solartex heat shrink to help save weight.

One of the worst jobs was getting rid of all the rust on the piano wire components prior to painting, as some of the soldering was decidedly suspect. I have a confession, however; my mate Gary (who built last month’s free plan Nieuport 11) offered to get it to the finishing stage for me, so I’m going to actually enjoy sorting this one out.

Originally reviewed in September 1971 Radio Modeller by Brian Reed and Ron Yates this 1/6 near scale beauty of a 1928 RAF trainer was favourably received by modellers. Phil Smith always considered model performance over absolute scale accuracy, so he tweaked the tail surfaces, increasing the areas a tad to improve flying characteristics. A proper traditional aeromodeller’s kit, it required a level of skill to successfully construct but it came with a useful 36 step by step photo assembly sheet to supplement the excellent detailed drawings and instructions. Intended for a 0.29 – 0.35 cu. in. glow motor, mine will be using a 4S brushless set up.
As you can see, I still have a way to go.

The full-size Tomtit was developed to replace the RAF’s aging training fleet of Avro 504Ns. After its testing period at Martlesham Heath the RAF ordered 10 aircraft, with a further 14 ordered by 1931. Constructed from dural and steel, fabric covered, it was robust and able to survive the rigours involved when training new pilots.

The Armstrong Siddeley five-cylinder Mongoose radial engine provided ample power and proved to be a reliable unit in use. A great feature of the Veron version were the replica moulded cylinders included in the kit; they saved a lot of whittling!


In pre 3D printing days a set of moulded cylinders would save you hours of work when replicating a radial engine.

Five civilian examples were built, and all were flown in air races from 1930 to 1936. Four more were supplied as trainers to the New Zealand Air Force and a further two to the Canadian Air Force. At 28 foot 6 inches span its max speed was 124mph, with a service ceiling of 19,500 foot, a climb rate of 1000 foot/min and a range of 350 miles. It was replaced by the Avro Tutor for the RAF.
Hawker Aircraft Ltd donated K1786 to the Shuttleworth Trust in 1960, then in its civilian guise as G-AFTA. It was restored to its original RAF scheme in 1967 and is maintained in flying condition.

What have I learned from this so far? Well, you need to be very enthusiastic (and slightly gaga) to take on some of these projects, but if you’re a die-hard traditional aeromodeller who loves building and are not time poor then it can be very rewarding. Whether it’s quicker than starting from scratch is definitely up for debate but it’s certainly a cheaper option when you see the price that many classic retro kits sell for these days.


My all-time bargain, this 1/4 scale Krick SG38 is still available for around £350 and it cost me £50. Stuffed with balsa, ply and scale metal work components it definitely isn’t a quick build.

Additionally, I guess I’m doing my bit for the planet by recycling. (Does this qualify as being Carbon Neutral?)


A couple of years ago I included a photo of a free flight ornithopter designed by Neil Lockwood flapping away at the UK Nationals ‘Chuck & Duck’. At the time Neil had just started his new hobby of 3D printing and he utilised a few bespoke components he’d designed on the model.

I recently bumped into him again at our local slope soaring site and his old grey matter had been working overtime. Looking like an old school hole punch, Neil’s latest widget will cut sheet and strip balsa at various angles up to 1/4-inch, I believe. He was keen to stress that this was the Mk.1 version and a more elegant and quicker to print model was in development.


Neil Lockwood’s 3D printed gusset and strip cutter works well.

This would be an absolute boon for the traditional aeromodeller to produce accurate parts. I’ll have to see if I can convince him to release the print files when he’s finalised the design.


I received this email from Richard Cox in Australia:

Thanks for your article on the history of Davies Charlton diesel engines in RCM&E March 2021. I live in Alice Springs, Central Australia and I have returned to the hobby late in life and now fly R/C with the Alice Springs Aeromodellers.

As someone ‘of a particular age’, I am indeed familiar with DC engines and owned a DC Super Merlin with the red anodised cylinder head, spinner and ‘Quickstart’, which I think I removed having ‘mastered the flick’.

In the 1960s it was possible to make one’s own fuel. I remember the local pharmacist providing the necessary constituents of diesel fuel – this to an 11 or 12-year old schoolboy! I remember my Merlin once running way too hot as a result of my experiments. The free flight aeroplane that I flew with the Super Merlin was a KeilKraft Snipe.


Richard’s missive reminded me that I too used to play at chemistry as a youth and make my own fuels. As he noted it was bonkers to allow someone so young access to Ether (yes, Ether that could be used to render people unconscious!), Naphthalene, Ethyl Nitrate, Amyl Nitrate, Toluene, Nitromethane, Methanol, Petrol, Paraffin etc. and the list goes on.


As a teenager making your own fuel was not uncommon. Many books of the day included a chapter on fuels and how to make them.

Our local chemist was also an aeromodeller, so he carried a decent range of suitable chemicals – all highly inflammable, explosive and dangerous – when health and safety advice was virtually non existent. I remember reading on the can of Nitromethane (that I would liberally, and no doubt excessively, top up my ‘Contest Blend’ glow fuel with) that it only advised using gloves as it could be absorbed through the skin, but no mention that you may possibly mutate growing extra limbs and heads… Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration but you get the point.

Basic diesel fuel was easy to make though. I favoured an Aeromodeller recipe for engines such as EDs that was basically 50% Paraffin, 30% Ether and 20% Caster Oil. Although it worked, I would add Amyl Nitrate, petrol and even lighter fluid in an attempt to pep it up. I’m fairly confident that my total lack of knowledge seriously shortened the lifespan of these now highly prized motors.

I had more success with glow fuels when I discovered the basic 30% Castor Oil and 70% Methanol mix, together with a few percent of Nitromethane. All my chemical concoctions were stored (blissfully ignorant of their destructive potential) in my parents’ wooden garage, who were equally blissfully ignorant that they were there, proving the old adage that ignorance is bliss…

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