Make Your Own Spoke Wheels!
Use thread and the "lost jig" method to build your own spoke wheels
Spoke wheels are almost a requirement for building a scale RC model planes such as the 1912 Blackburn, Fokker Spider or 1909 Demoiselle that flew in the era before World War I. These early pioneers of flight, from the time period of roughly 1907 to 1914, made truly remarkable progress with the art and science of successfully flying an airplane.
Spoke wheels were also common in aircraft used during World War I such as the Fokker D.VIII. Aircraft construction techniques, engines and basic airmanship skills all advanced at a very rapid pace.
Due to their light weight and inherent strength spoke wheels were a standard feature on all these aircraft. It has always been a challenge, however, to build your own spoke wheels for model aircraft.
A model’s spoke wheels need to be strong yet lightweight for the smaller aircraft. Building spoke wheels usually involves constructing complex jig arrangements to properly install the spokes to the wheel rim. One can purchase spoke wheels on the market place, but they are expensive and oftentimes too heavy for typical micro model aircraft use.
Below is are the first two pages of the article I had published in the February 2010 Quiet and Electric Flight International magazine.
Following is a very simple to follow method for producing your own model airplane spoke wheels using what I call the “lost jig” method. Using common modeling tools and building materials of balsa and plywood, a brass tube, thread and neoprene fuel tubing, you can easily and quickly make convincing spoke wheels in your home workshop. Let’s give it a try!
The concept involves building a tire rim from two layers of 1/16” balsa with the wood grain of the two rims set at 90 degrees to each other. Setting the wood grain at 90 degrees is a CRUCIAL step for the light weight and strength of you RC plane plan spoke wheels.
Add the jig
A simple, removable jig of 1/8” balsa is inserted across the diameter of the wheel rim holding the brass tube axle in place. Thread spokes are installed. Once the initial "thread spokes" are in place the temporary jig holding the axle in place is cut out and removed, hence the term “lost jig”.
The remaining thread spokes are glued in place at the axle ends and on the balsa wheel rim. Neoprene fuel tubing is glued to the balsa rim, and your spoke wheels are complete.
Let’s now go through the building process in more detail. The first step is to cut out two wheel rims from 1/16” balsa. Use a medium to hard grade balsa for strength.
Use whatever diameter wheel your model requires. The width of the wheel rim depends on what you desire for the overall look of the finished wheel. I recommend at least ¼” rim width to maintain wheel strength.
Use a sharp razor blade to cut these two wheels rims out of the 1/16” balsa as the circular wheel shape can break easily at the grain. CA glue the two rims together with the wood grain 90 degrees apart for strength. The wheel rims made from these two 1/16” balsa pieces is surprisingly strong.
Now is the time, before any spokes are installed to apply whatever finish or paint you desire. Mark the spoke locations on the top of the wheel rim which will be used for a guide as the thread spokes are woven into place. The marks will be covered later by the tire.
Building the temporary jig
Next, build the temporary jig that will hold the axle in place as the thread spokes are installed. Use a soft 1/8” balsa for this temporary jig. Soft wood is important, as you will have to carefully cut the jig out after the first set of spokes are installed.
It is very important that this jig hold the brass tube axle firmly in place as the thread spokes are installed, so add some ¼” balsa fill on the jig for lateral support where the axle will be installed.
Trim the ends of the jig to fit snugly in place inside the rim and hold the jig in place with pins. Do not glue the jig to the wheel rim as you will be removing the entire jig shortly.
Drill a hole in the exact center of the jig for the brass tube axle. Drill the hole slightly undersize from your axle, to ensure a firm press fit. Insert the brass tube axle into the jig.
Make two 1/16” plywood washers and glue the washers onto the ends of the brass axle. These washers will retain the thread spokes at the axle ends as you weave the spokes in place.
Now for the fun part, actually installing thread spokes. Use whatever size and color thread you wish. Start by tying the thread to one end of the brass tube axle. Weave the thread over the balsa wheel rim, and back to the opposite end of the axle outside the plywood washer.
Continue this application of the thread on alternating sides of the wheel. When you have around eight thread wheel spokes in place, tie off the thread at an axle end. Use a bit of CA glue to hold the thread in place at the axle ends and on top of the balsa wheel rim.
This will not be the complete number of thread spokes, as we need to allow room between the spokes to carefully remove the jig. However, there are enough spokes to hold the axle in place.
Remove the jig
Remove the pins holding the jig in place to the balsa wheel rim. Carefully cut out the jig from around the axle taking care not to accidentally cut any of the thread spokes.
Once the jig is completely removed, you can see the beginning of the completed wheel. Add additional thread spokes as before until you have the desired look.
We are almost done. Use thick CA glue to install neoprene fuel tubing onto the outside of the balsa rims to simulate the rubber tires.
Cut the tubing slightly long. Glue the tubing on to the wheel leaving the last inch unglued. Once dry, trim the tube to fit and glue the final length of tube to the wheel rim. If you cannot find black colored tubing use a Sharpie black marker pen to color the tube before gluing to the rim.
That’s all there is to making your own spoke wheels. The method allows for RC plane plan spoke wheels of just about any size. Go ahead and give it a try.
The “lost jig” spoke wheel method is a fun, easy and inexpensive way to add character to your next scale RC model airplane.
Author: Gordon McKay