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Builder Spotlight

January 2012 Issue




Maintenance Matters

Setting up shop.

You've sent off the check. Before long you will receive a big box containing parts for your airplane. It would be a vast simplification to say, "All that's left is the assembly," because there will be 1001 details to work out between the day the kit arrives and the day the completed airplane first flies. But isn't that the fun of it all?

Let's talk about getting ready for the arrival of the big box and about organization. Most people have already developed their personal slant on organization, so I'll focus primarily on the aircraft workspace and tools.

OK, so it's less than elegant and multitasking, but it gets the job done. Boxing small engine parts makes them readily available in one spot when needed.

Maintenance and Shop Basics

The ideal shop space is divided into four or five separate areas: an area for receiving and inventorying incoming parts, an area commonly called a "dirty room" where engines and other mechanical parts are disassembled and cleaned, an inspection area where the clean parts are inspected, and a general working or assembly room. If you're doing a lot of work with composites, it's best to set aside a separate area for those tasks. However, most of us don't have enough square footage to break out five separate areas, so we make do with what we have. Those hours or days spent planning and setting up a workspace organization system suitable for the room available always pay off big in efficiency, builder satisfaction and in the end, the airworthiness of the finished airplane.

Receiving and Inventory

Establish an inspection and inventory routine. Every parts order must be inventoried when it arrives. Few things are more frustrating than the "Oh, no!" feeling that dawns when you realize that you don't have everything you need for a productive workday—especially if you've rounded up helpers.

A common scenario occurs when you remember ordering the part but didn't inventory the order when it arrived. Pulling out the paperwork, you see a check in the "back-ordered" box. The order arrived last week. If you had inventoried it on arrival, you would have had plenty of time to reorder the missing part from another vendor before the workday.

Inventorying not only catches parts shortages before crunch time, it also lets you see what the parts actually look like, so you can begin to visualize how they go together.

The Dirty Room

While there's not much need for a dirty room area during the airframe period of construction, you'll use it regularly both during engine build-up and after the airplane is flying. The farther the dirty room is located from the rest of the work area, the better. The dirty room should have a solvent washer (and a pair of oil- and solvent-resistant gloves) for initial cleaning of parts, compressed air to blow parts dry, and a bench with a strong vise to hold oil filters so the cans can be cut open and the filtering media removed and inspected. This is where oily and greasy parts such as wheel bearings are cleaned before inspection. A dirty room should be stocked with face shields or eye protection, the aforementioned oil-proof gloves and respirators to minimize contact with oil, gas and solvents.

Keeping your tools well organized will save time over the course of the build.

The Inspection Room

After cleaning, parts are inspected. Many shops find that a table-mounted magnifying glass/lamp combination on a flex arm is helpful. The FAA often calls out the use of a 10x magnifying glass for mandated visual inspections, so get a good one. Good lighting is essential. This room or section of the shop must be clean and well-lit.

General Working or Assembly Room

This area is where most of the action takes place. When it comes to setup, there are two schools of thought and operation. The linear thinkers give the project good consideration before each step. They create calendars and define each construction goal with a well-defined, colored time block. Linear builders are most comfortable with steady day-by-day progress. They operate and are comfortable with goals and checklists; these are their tools.

Versatile 30-60 wrenches such as these will come in handy.

Then there are the non-linear or visual builders. These builders operate from and are guided by their individual internal clocks, and by their systems of checks-and-balances. Visual builders are inspired to work long hours on a project; they are energized by a problem or process and make great progress only to stop work on the airplane, or at least that section of the airplane for a few days.

If the actions of a hard-working visual builder were charted, his or her actions would resemble the meandering path often seen in the "Family Circus" comic to illustrate the track of one of the children from point X to home.

If a linear builder walks into the workshop of a visual builder, the reaction will be a shake of the head and perhaps even an offer to help straighten things out. Conversely, the visual builder won't be able to resist telling a linear builder friend that he noted not one but two dull pencils when he last visited.

Organization—It's What Works for You

The point of sketching out personality differences is to illustrate that the organization of one's individual work area must fit one's working style.

If you're linear, there had better be cork boards on the walls to post those detailed and all-important flow charts. If you're visual, cork boards also have a place, because visual builders want everything out where it can be seen.

Let's spell out basic needs for everyone. First, the work area must be well-lit. This is especially true for seasoned citizens. Bad lighting causes eye strain, headaches and other physical ills. It also contributes to frustration and sloppy work. If normal fluorescent lighting is troublesome, pay a little more for a set of full-spectrum fluorescents. If you can't go full tilt on banks of lighting, buy a couple of full-spectrum standing lights that can be moved around your work area. Ott Lites are one brand that I've used. Ideally, the shop is well-lit by natural light streaming in from north-facing windows.

Label any storage containers in a way that makes sense to you.

You're going to need a vise. Nothing will take the place of a heavy-duty solidly mounted vise. Get a bigger one—with at least 5-inch jaws—than you think you'll need, and bolt it down. If you can afford one with a rotating base, that will certainly increase the utility of this important tool. One night you'll need a helping hand; the vise is always ready to help, won't complain and never asks for a day off.

Shelves and storage areas go without saying. If you don't have built-in units, the wide variety and sizes of plastic storage bins available at any home-supply store provide a lot of storage with a small footprint, since they are made to be stacked. These bins can be used to store everything from special tools to parts to hardware to shop supplies. Go ahead and devise a color-coded storage system; buy bins in different colors or use spray paint on the end panels to build your system. I use this system and have bins for tools, Piper-specific parts, generic parts, paint tools and supplies, and a bin for everything else.

A bolt bin. You don't want to have to stop the project to order spare hardware.

Buy some Sharpie permanent markers. These are available in different colors to help you set up that color-coded system. Bins holding firewall-forward parts might be red or at least labeled with a red Sharpie, while empennage parts might be white or green. Bins holding landing gear and brake parts would be another color.

One builder I know organizes his shop with a cluster of inexpensive wheeled metal carts that he buys at a home-supply store. He labels them and has one for sheet-metal tools, one for engine tools and trays, one for electrical work and so on. He's a visually oriented builder and his organized-down-to-categories technique works for him.

A vise, preferably one that rotates, is a good investment.

I buy and use segmented organizer boxes to store common size nuts, washers, screws and other assorted hardware. I don't like to stop working just to place an order for common hardware items.

Power Tools

There are a number of outlets for aviation tools. A few of the better-known suppliers are Aircraft Tool Supply, Avery Tools, Brown Tool Supply, Plane Tools and U.S. Tool. But often it pays to look at non-aircraft tool vendors, too. One is Harbor Freight. Many of my mechanic-builder friends have small 110 VDC solvent washers or air compressors from Harbor Freight. Another is Summit Racing, where moderately priced sheet-metal bending brakes, hand tools and even bench vises are available and reasonably priced.

Most professional light aircraft maintenance shops have a hefty air compressor feeding quick-disconnect outlets around the shop area. Shops use air-powered tools (drills, grinders, small air ratchets, etc.) to reduce the chance of igniting explosive vapors from solvents and gasoline during maintenance. However, if gasoline or solvents aren't present during the airframe construction phase of building, it's possible to work without buying a compressor or a selection of air-powered tools. Electrical plug-in and battery-powered tools are readily available and will help builders get started without laying out a big chunk of cash for an air tool setup.

Hand Tools

Professional light airplane mechanics performing general maintenance get by well with a comprehensive quarter-inch socket set. By comprehensive, I mean at least one high-quality ratchet, a set of normal depth and deep sockets, extensions up to 12 inches long and a set of universal-joint sockets. I have found that there's no reason to get 6-point sockets when 12 point are more versatile and are plenty strong enough to handle the torque required in 90% of applications. I have a few 8-point sockets in my quarter-inch set to take out pipe plugs. You'll also need a screwdriver or two—preferably the ones with interchangeable tips—a good pair of diagonal cutting pliers and a set of what I call 30-60 open-ended wrenches; 30-60 wrenches have the jaws on one end of the wrench handle, offset from the handle centerline by 30, and the other set of jaws on the other end offset in the opposite direction by 60. These are sometimes called obstruction wrenches. They're invaluable; I use them all the time.

I purchased a nice set of Snap-On combination wrenches (open-ended on one end of the handle and box-ended on the other) years ago but find I don't need the box-end wrenches as often as I thought I would. Box-end wrenches are the best when dealing with high torque—they won't slip, and the jaws can't spread under heavy loads—but few of the fasteners used on light airplanes are large enough or are turned hard enough to require the use of a box-end wrench; the 30-60 wrenches are used most often.

Tool Kits

Aircraft Spruce & Specialty, Plane Tools and other tool stores stock a wide variety of aircraft tool kits that range from a starter-type aircraft builder tool kit on up to a master builder tool kit. Kits are also available for composite work and electrical work.

Also, builders who make good use of the informational and builders' forums on the Internet will be one step ahead. Take advantage of the knowledge of those who have gone before you. There's no better source of information for builders.

Clean out your workspace, and decide how you're going to set it up and what organizational tools will work best for you so you'll be ready to inventory the parts when that first big box arrives.


Steve Ells is what you call a gen-u-ine mechanic, a bonafide A&P with an Inspection Authorization. Former West Coast editor for AOPA Pilot and tech guy for the Cessna Pilots Association, Ells has flown and wrenched on a wide range of aircraft. He owns and wrenches (a lot!) on a classic Piper Comanche. But don’t hold that against him.

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