It’s a material world

So, when last I left you, I was threatening to talk about materials and tools. And so I shall.

Some MDF sheets

Some MDF sheets

If you’re truly going to make your cockpit project realistic and professional, you’re going to need to use sheet metal and a variety of cast metal parts. If you have a lathe, forge, milling machine and properly-equipped workshop, then go to it. If you’re like most of us, and have access to some power tools and an overly optimistic assessment of your DIY prowess, your main material is going to be wood. Or more specifically, MDF.

Medium Density Fiberboard is widely used in furniture construction and other kinds of woodworking. Chances are you’ve got a fair bit in your house already, even if you didn’t know about it. It’s made from wood powder at – wait for it – medium density infused into a hot glue solution and then veneered with the same but denser. The result is relatively heavy and stiff boards, knot- and grain-free, at various thicknesses from 6mm to 30mm+, with a nice shiny surface just aching to be painted. What’s not to like?

MDF is cheap (ish), easy to work with just about any power tools, and is stiff enough to be useful at relatively thin sizes. It’s not a metal replacement, but it will do the job, and spray-painted with a decent gloss paint it can look a lot like a painted metal surface.

The only thing to watch out for is that the glue that holds MDF together is made with formaldehyde and a bunch of nasty chemicals. When you cut or sand MDF, the dust contains copious amounts of this glue, so you should always wear a face mask when working with it and not inhale. Seriously. It’s no fun, and some people reckon MDF-osis could be the new asbestosis of the 21st Century.

A circular saw

A circular saw

A jigsaw

A jigsaw

You may think you can work wonders with your shiny hand saw and hammer. Er, yeah. Forget it. You need a decent set of power tools to work large quantities of MDF and wood. At the very least you’ll need a circular saw, and most likely a jigsaw since you’ll almost certainly find yourself cutting curves and slots. A reciprocating saw is also a good buy if you need to cut steel or plastic as well as wood batons and wood sheet. If you can get access to a workshop with a table saw and table jigsaw, ignore the above; that’ll do you. A decent support for sheet wood is a must – I bought a Black & Decker Workmate and a couple of sawhorses and that’s done pretty well so far.

Also, take my advice and invest in an electric screwdriver. Yes, you can probably use your drill for that, but it doesn’ t have the torque and changing the bits all the time is a real pain. I bought a nice little Bosch model that will apply much more torque than I can on a full charge.

A hand-drill press

A hand-drill press

Speaking of drills, you’ll need one. A drill press (where you mount the drill and press it up and down with a lever) is advisable as you’ll be making lots of precise holes.

A detail sander

A detail sander

Beyond this, a sander comes in handy to save your elbow grease. I found a detail sander (aka mouse sander) worked well for what I needed to do, and is small and lightweight. And if you happen to have one, a rotary tool such as a Dremel will find a thousand uses on this project. A decent tape measure, metal rule, some pencils, wood glue, screws in various sizes, and possibly some nails (although I didn’t end up using nails on mine) will come in handy.

Beyond MDF, you’ll probably want to consider using some softwood – pine, plywood etc – for various parts of your build, notably frames and batons. MDF is no good for this. One of the major problems with working MDF is that it’s easy to drill or screw into from the faces, but not from the edges, where there is no stiffness. Push a screw into the edge of an MDF board hard and it’s likely to split the board. For places where you need to drive screws from all sides, softwood is a must.

If you want to do backlit instrument panels for that real airliner feel, you’ll probably need to go buy some clear acrylic or perspex plastic sheet. Other places where you want a transparent surface may require this, so find a local source if you can – most DIY stores will sell you 3-5mm sheet intended for greenhouses. In this build I tried using white nylon boards (converted cutting boards from Ikea, actually) for their light-diffusive properties, but in the end they swallowed too much of the light and I’ve moved to perspex.

So much for tools and materials. Next time I’ll talk about the electrical and electronic side of the cockpit building process – switches, lights and PC interfaces.