Build Scale Model Rockets

Written by: admin@makezilla

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Semi-scale? Super-scale? Fn good-enough-for-government work-scale? Make realistic model rockets based on real rockets. This is the Little Joe II, test vehicle for the Apollo space capsule which was launched on a Saturn V rocket. Wow, it's been 45 years since the first landing on the moon with Apollo 11. I remember watching that on a black and white TV.

This is a recreation of a model rocket that I built from scratch as a kid. Estes had a Little Joe II model rocket and the Saturn V which were the coolest things and top of the line. Couldn't afford to get one at that time so I built my own. Model rocketry was a great thing to get into since it was a way to learn about the "Space race" or who was going to get on the moon first. Any geek worthy of attending Starfleet Academy would know their spacecraft history. From the Mercury program, Gemini, and to the development of the Apollo program, space capsules that carried astronauts into outer space have always been fascinating. And Soyuz was the only other game in town.

Model rocket launch day was always exciting because that meant we had saved up enough to buy a pack of engines. It was a rare occasion to get C6-5s since they were more expensive. We launched from the middle of a small park in Brooklyn, always hoping for favorable wind conditions so that the rockets would not drift into the creek or hit the trees(yes, they grow in Brooklyn) when the parachute deployed. And also, hoping that big dry cell battery still had enough of a charge to make the nichrome wire ignitors glow to fire up the engine.

This turned out more of a static display model bigger than it ought to be but with slight modifications it could still fly, maybe with a couple of E or F engines. Cool to hang from the ceiling. Way back when, I only recall from seeing in magazines that people in Poland or Czechoslovakia were experimenting with high power model rockets. But alas, here in post 9/11 NYC, it would be difficult to fly even small model rockets without causing alarm, not even sure if it is legal now but supplies are sold at local craft stores.

Paper, thin cardboard, glue, some balsa wood and paint were all you needed. Model rocketry encompassed all the basics of crafting and the thinking of engineering. I just wanted to put up this instructable to show everyone what little it takes to stoke the imagination. Even if you do not have building skills, that's what it is all about. Learning, doing, making mistakes, try again. Get hands on. Get experience. Make it better.

CAUTION: Follow the National Association of Rocketry guidelines and credo for safe flight. SCUDs parked in your backyard should not be aimed at your neighbor, okay, only if they drive over your lawn trying to get into their blocked driveway, blocked by their own second car...wait

Step 1: Blueprints and basics...

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You need a set of plans or else you reverse engineer things by looking at photos and drawings. Maybe one day I will put up an ible on how to do technical drawing, maybe people would get a better grasp at what those CAD (computer aided design) packages do.

Anyway, the internet has a wealth of info available for you to use. I originally built mine based on the pictures out of the Estes model rocket catalog. If you were lucky, there were some photos in a set of encyclopedias or books and magazines at the library.

This model will be built using cardboard destined to be recycled. Thin cardstock from cereal boxes and bigger corrugated stuff from discarded packaging.

Since rockets are cylindrical in shape, cardboard tubes from paper towel or toilet paper rolls can be harvested and used. If you really wanted a giant premade tube, get one of those cement form tubes. You can also roll your own.

You need glue. Lots of it. Experiment with different kinds of glue to see what sticks things together better.

You can paint the model with whatever medium you have on hand. I had some acrylic paints which is good for easy soap and water cleanup. I also had my big bucket of house primer paint.

Lastly, whatever you need to cut your cardboard. Various scissors, utility knives, or anything that can cut the thicker cardboard.

Step 2: Scaling...

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Since this is more of a fun project for me, I was not going to be a stickler for completely accurate scale. You can calculate and measure in exact proportion to your blueprints but I just went by eye. Yes, I am that good, haha.

The scale of the rocket is based on what I had as a key piece to the project, a paper towel roll tube.

That part would be perfect to make the escape tower rocket part. If you are building something else develop your sense of what shapes can be morphed from various cans, jars, water bottles, paper plates and styrofoam packing parts.

You can glue up a tube by laminating paper strips around a form. I guess because of manufacturing efficiencies nowadays, paper tubes from paper towel rolls are minimalistic in that they are flimsy. Create some bulkheads or endcaps to glue into the tube to stiffen it up. Trace the end for size and then cut away from that circle about a quarter of an inch to splay out for gluing tabs. Push in the tube to shape and glue in place.

Twirl up a piece of cardboard to be the pointed nose cone. It helps to rub the cardboard against a table edge to get it to curl. You can shape custom nose cones out of a block of balsa wood or get one that fits the dimensions of your tube.

The tube still felt flimsy with the endcaps so I wrapped the whole tube with a layer of thin cardboard from a cereal box.

Build up any other shapes with more cardboard filler and skin with the thin cardboard. Any gaps or seams will be covered with papier mache to smooth out the surface.

Step 3: Here in my tin can...

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Once you have the escape tower rocket part established, figure out how big the command capsule should be.

I couldn't find a big compass to use to draw perfect circles so I traced a big can to get my starting dimension. Okay, I did have string and a nail handy and a tape measure...too much work to improvise...

From here you need to build a superstructure or frame for the skin to attach to.

You create various sized bulkheads and attach the ribs that span the gaps to make the structure. This is the general method to make craft of any kind in order to make it lightweight and use less material.

If you wanted to make one of those cool cutaway models, you can do a bang up job of modeling the interior.

Skin over with pieces of thin cardboard. You could probably get a pepakura model and get exact folds for the cone shaped capsule. I think you get the feel for cutting out arc shaped pieces to fit the curves of the capsule after a while. I like the glue-up from separate pieces of cardboard to give it that slight texture of metal plates on the real capsule.

Step 4: Escape tower...

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Pencils make a great substitute for more expensive dowels. IKEA pencils make a great substitute for more expensive pencils. Use pliers to pull off the metal eraser holder. Put back on another pencil to make a double eraser ended pencil novelty gift.

There is a truss structure that supports the escape rocket. Traditionally, it would be modeled with pieces of wood dowel with each side built up first and then glued together. You would cut pieces to size and just glue up over the the actual size truss layout covered with plastic wrap.

I inserted the pencils into holes punched with an awl. The legs or main supports were glued in. I then built up the rungs of the tower with pieces cut from drinking straws and hot glued in place.

I made some paper nozzle cones which were glued into place in holes punched with an awl.

Step 5: Main body...

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The capsule bottom diameter came in about 10 inches.

I needed a big tube that was 10 inches in diameter and roughly 2 1/2 feet long.

I wasn't going to buy a concrete form tube so I made one. I am a cheap b.. wait, frugal.

I cut some bulkheads and glued some cardboard strips to form a tubular frame to skin over with cardboard.

Again, I pieced the skin together because a big single piece of the heavier cardboard would be more difficult to work with.

The corrugated cardboard left bigger seams and gaps which would be covered over and smoothed out with papier mache. I just applied glue directly to pieces of typing paper. The irregular seams would add a nice detail texture for the rocket.

The bottom half or the silver metal part of our rocket should actually be a corrugated sheet metal skin. You can use faux painting techniques like drawing darker shadow lines underneath the paint coat or actually duplicating the texture by building up the skin with a similar textured material. I tried to peel off the outer layer of a piece of corrugated cardboard but the exposed layer is fragile. If it was saturated with a resin of some sort or hard glue to stiffen it up it may have worked.

Step 6: Fins

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Lay out the fins on a piece of cardboard.

What is unique about the Little Joe II fins as compared to other model rockets was that it had a thickness to it. Regular model rockets had fins cut out from a single sheet of balsa wood. Since this was a control surface with an actuator housing on it, there is opportunity to model that detail. I formed it with a piece of drinking straw and some cardboard. It was covered with papier mache to smooth out the joints.

Build up the fin thickness and glue on L shaped pieces to help form the gluing bracket to attach to the main body.

Add additional cardboard to build the fin fairing or cover on the base of the fin.

My original rocket flew one time. I had build its fins the same way. Maybe because the fins might have been glued slightly off perpendicular or it had that two part bend in the bottom fin, the aerodynamics gave it a slight spin as the underpowered rocket took flight. It was spectacular. Too bad we didn't have a movie camera back then to capture its maiden voyage.

Step 7: Rocket motor details...

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Look up the engine configuration of this bad boy.

I glued on some cardboard disks as glue tabs for the engine nozzles.

Buiild up the engine nozzles with cardboard.

I put some cardboard tabs on the outside of the nozzle to simulate piping that is routed to the exhaust.

Papier mache any of the rough exposed edges.

Did you know that large rocket motor exhaust nozzles move in a swirling motion to direct the thrust? I never noticed that part until I watched a video of an Apollo launch on youtube. All you used to see was just the big plume of smoke at the bottom of the launch tower and the gantry pulling away. That's some nifty engineering.

Step 8: The prime directive...

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I had some house primer to use for my basecoat. Raw cardboard soaks up a lot of paint and you shouldn't waste your good paint in trying to cover it.

Primer always has a way of speckling things even 10 feet away. Do not wear good clothes when priming and try not to do this in the kitchen or living room late at night. Primer paint will stick to most everything. Let dry overnight. Resist the urge to check to see if it is dry every hour on the hour.

When the primer has dried, you can give it a light sanding to remove any hardened cardboard fuzz or glue bumps.

You can then start painting with your paints. The metallic paints seem to need several coats to get an even look.




Step 9: NASCARizing...

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It's the little details that make a model realistic. Depending on the scale that the model is built at, some features may not even appear on your model. The level of realism is up to you. You can even paint little dots for rivets.

I outlined all of the markings in pencil on the rocket. I used magic markers to go over the outlines.

If you are lucky enough to be able to make or get water slide decals or peel off stickers from graphics pulled from the internet, it would look super realistic.

I just used freehand techniques to do the lettering and fill in the the black panel markings. As you can see, I do not have any good brushes for detail work so I experimented with everything from cotton swabs to shaping the end of a flux applicator brush. Toothpicks and bamboo skewers are good to use too.

Don't be afraid to touch up your work afterwards to get things looking just right. I did use masking tape to mask off the top white portion from the bottom silver portion of the rocket. It was just faster to do everything painted freehand.

You can even try to weather your rocket with paint glazes to give it that been once around the planet look.

Go ahead and start modeling rockets. Work your way up to The Enterprise, that one too.

"Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars."

Casey Kasem