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Saturday, September 4, 2010

Balsa or Foam?

With the latest surge in foam plane popularity, most serious hobbyists own at least one.  The beauty of foam is the speed at which a decent looking model can be stamped out.  But that's where the beauty ends.

Even the toughest foam is delicate and difficult to keep looking crisp.  It is especially weak in a crash where foam cracks with light to moderate force.  While it is relatively easy to repair with foaming gorilla glue, epoxy, or if you are really in a hurry, hot glue, the fragility of foam means it needs to be repaired more often.

A high quality balsa and ply frame covered using a name-brand plastic film can last for a decade or more without looking worn.  Balsa and ply is about five times stronger than foam, making it more resilient in a crash.  If you manage to break a balsa and ply frame, the damage is usually substantial because of the force required to do serious harm.  However, it is possible to reconstruct a wooden structure from scratch with very little cash outlay, unlike foam planes where spare parts are rare and too often, pricey.  It isn't uncommon for foam plane manufacturers to gouge customers $20 or even $30 for a foam replacement part that only costs pennys to mint.

Laser cut wood kits, assembled en mass, have brought the price of balsa and ply kits down to the foam level, or even less.  Since wooden kits are generally aimed at a more sophisticated crowd, pre-builts are usually sold as ARFs.  The great thing about purchasing a film covered-wood ARF is that base kit is relatively inexpensive, so you might buy two for the price of a similar scale foam RTF--one to build, and one to keep for quick-replacement parts.

Finally, balsa and ply models fly straight and true long after foamies are twisted, scratched, bent and broken.  Foam deforms and bends under aerodynamic force making the plane a lot less predictable during maneuver, especially at high speeds and G forces, and also in gusty winds.The additional strength of quality wood kit lets the plane cut the air with greater speed and agility at a similar power level. 

Hands down, if you have a choice, go wood. 

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