Getting Started in Homebuilding, Part 6 of 11

Budd Davisson, EAA/Experimenter, 1994

Skills - Which to Learn, Which to Buy

Skill, the ability to do a particular thing well, means different things to different folks. To some the ability to take nothing and craft it into an exquisite artifact is a holy grail to be sought after and perfecting it is often made a life's work. To them the only correct answer to the often asked question is, "...why yes, I did do it all myself.."

To others, skills are something to be orchestrated and directed, like a maestro on the podium. He may be playing no instrument but he/she is making beautiful music by bringing together the most skilled artisans and molding their skills in such a way the final product is a work of art that he considers his as much as that created by the single craftsman.

Building airplanes is an arena ready made for either approach. Both the rennaisance man who does it all and the orchestral director have a blank canvas upon which they can create their own vision of a flying machine. Neither is right. Neither is wrong. It depends very much on the individual.

There is a middle ground between the extreme of doing it yourself and orchestrating a team of specialists and that is where the majority of builders find themselves. They might like to do it all themselves, but for a variety of reasons find it more realistic to buy some of the skills, rather than learning them. The skills may be purchased in the form of finished components or by hiring a specilaist to perform functions out of the builder's reach.

The airplane is ready made for a rennaisance man because even the kits, which on the surface would appear to eliminate the need for so many different skills, still demand a wide variety of skills. Besides fiberglass work, the builder has to be an electrician, seamstress, painter and mechanic.

If the airplane is plans-built, the rennaisance man may find even his ability to learn taxed to the limit. In addition to the foregoing skills, he'll probably have to learn to weld, rivet, do dope and fabric work and may even find himself playing machinist.

The homebuilt airplane in any of its incarnations involves more different skills than any other backyard project in which an individual gets his hands dirty in the act of creating.

Almost all builders eventually have to ask for help because a skill is either lacking or not worth developing. The big question, when deciding which skills to learn and which to purchase depends on two very basic parameters. The first is what the builder hopes to get out of the building process and the second is what skills are required by a given airplane design.

Skill Goals
People build airplanes for different reasons and those reasons figure heavily in the buy/learn decision. Some view the building process as a serious educational opportunity. They view improving themselves as being as important as building the airplane. When the airplane is finished, they will clearly see they have added so much to their own bag of tricks, that the airplane comes very close to being secondary.

Other folks build airplanes because they want the airplane. The process of building may be enjoyable, but they don't want to slow the building process any more than is absolutely necessary to learn a skill that could just as easily be bought.

Of course, finances, the dirtiest word in homebuilding, has to figure in the skill acquisition question somewhere. Quite often the decision as to whether the skill will be bought, either by bringing it in from the outside or purchasing a finished component, is eliminated by the question of finances. If finances are tight, the builder always knows elbow grease is essentially free and, since elbow grease is the basic component of learning a new skill, he jumps in and starts learning.

Skills Can be an Investment
Learning a new skill is never wasted time, but again, this outlook is very dependent on the goals of the builder. Several questions need to be asked before the builder can decide whether the investment is a good one or not.

One question is how much time will it take to become good enough at that particular skill that it not only produces airworthy parts, but is at a craftmanship level that makes the builder proud. No one starts out a Michael Angelo. We all paint by numbers at the beginning. But, if the time investment is out of propotion with the return in the builder's mind, it might be wise to buy that particular skill.

Quite often the return on time invested has little to do with the builder's goals and a lot to do with the characteritics of the design. If learning a skill will make that particular design move more quickly and effeciently then maybe the skill is worth learning.

Different Skills for Different Designs
The amount of a given skill that a particular design requires is probably the biggest factor in deciding whether to learn it or not.

Trying to build an RV without knowing how to rivet would be excruciatingly slow and complicated. The same thing could be said about welding and building a Skybolt. If the design is based on a single skill for its entire basic assembly, then the builder would be dependent on outside help and he would lose a tremendous amount of flexibility.

Here too, there is a middle ground. In buliding an RV, for instance, if the builder doesn't want to take a chance on fouling up the skin rivets because of appearance, he could bring in a specialist just for the skin rivets. If a Skybolt builder isn't quite sure of his welding, he could hold the critical welds, wing fittings, motor mount, cabane, etc for a specialist and do the rest himself.

In both examples, if the builder can't perform the basic skill, the little details are going to drive him nuts. The Skybolt builder will sit around with his thumb in his ear waiting for help, when he could be attaching tabs and installing control mounts himself. The RV builder who can't rivet the small pieces together will forever be calling his riveter in to do minor jobs that really aren't worth paying for.

Confidence in performing the basic skills are not valid reasons for not learning them. As we've said over and over: Everyone can learn any skill. And that is a concrete fact.

All homebuilts, with the possible exception of something like a polished RV, is going to need painting. Ditto electrical work, in varying amounts. The same thing is true of machine work. Whether the builder choses to learn the skills is based on other parameters.

Different Skills, Different Learning Curves
If two individuals with similar backgrounds are turned loose to learn a particular skill, like welding for instance, there will be some difference in how fast they learn, but not much. Most people learn most skills in about the same amount of time. Those who learn faster don't have any built-in super intelligence, they are generally bringing some experiences with them that transfer and make learning easier.

The biggest difference between learning curves has to do with the skills, not the individuals involved.

Some skills naturally take longer to get good and "good" has two levels of definition: structurally sound and aesthetically pleasing. The first is critical, the second is personal.

Welding is one of those skills that is grossly overrated in terms of difficulty. Once the very basics are understood and certain no-nos are observed, a safe weld for most airframe applications can be made fairly quickly.

Now let's talk about the aesthetics of a weld...they don't come quite as quickly. It is important however, that a builder doesn't confuse a pretty weld with a safe weld. That isn't necessarily the case. A weld can be unbelievably ugly and as long as it has penetration and the temperatures were right going in, it will still be perfectly safe. Conversely, it is possible to do a flawless appearing weld and have it break like glass. The strength is in the technique, not the appearance.

Just the reverse is true with riveting. If it is a pretty rivet put in a pretty hole, it is a safe rivet. If it is an ugly rivet put in an ugly hole it is an unsafe rivet. If it is a pretty rivet put in an ugly hole, it is unsafe. If it is an ugly rivet put in a pretty hole, it is unsafe.

What are we saying here in regards to riveting? If the hole and the rivet look good, it is good. But they both have to be done right. Fortunately, a good rivet is more a question of attention to detail than technique. The hole should be round and deburred and the rivet should be the right length with the right amount of upset. These can all be determined as the rivet is being driven. Once it is driven the hole can't be judged but the quality of the rivet can be.

There is some technique involved in riveting, but it comes fairly quickly. The difficulty, as opposed to welding, is a minor mistake in riveting is very visible and hard to fix. In welding it is easy to fix.

Basic fiberglass work is the easiest skill to learn, but it is just about the most difficult, if wieght is considered. The tendency is to build heavy by trying to build too pretty.

Machine work generally shows up only ocassionally on a homebuilt, so it is seldom a skill worth tackling. Most of the time the machined part is either purchased of farmed out.

Upholstery is one of those areas of a homebuilt that very few builders do, usually because they don't want to screw it up and don't have the machines to do the job. Most builders who have decided to do their own upholstery have been surprised with the results. If the tools aren't present, the builder can either chose to hand stitch it, which again, isn't as bad as it sounds, or can tack it together to be sewn at an upholstery shop. Of course, a lot depends on the complexity of the design.

Electical work varies a lot. If it's just a matter of getting the airplane running, the skills required are really quite easy. If, however, an IFR-quality panel is involved, it gets much more complex and is usually where a specialist is called in. No one wants to fry a stack of expensive radios.

One of the most difficult skills to master is shooting flawless paint. To get a fairly good paint job isn't that difficult, especially if the paint being shot is something that can be sanded and buffed out. That way runs and other mistakes can be corrected. In fact, shooting any paint requires only a little practice to produce an acceptable job. If, however, a prize winning finish is required, that is usually the result of lots of practice or a lot of luck. The hand with the gun has to have been there many times before.

The best finish is the lightest finish, so the ability to put on the smallest number of coats and make it look as if it is a foot thick is important. That kind of experience isn't like shooting rivets or welding. In an afternoon several hundred practice rivets can be driven. How many paint jobs can be done in the same length of time?

Compound forming aluminum is turning out to be one of those skills we all may have over rated in terms of its difficulty. Quite a number of builders are finding that forming aluminum can be a really satisfying skill to learn and, depending on the technique used, isn't that difficult. This is especially true of hammering parts into concrete molds. Forming larger sheets requires more tooling and finesse.

Tool Requirements May Make the Decision
Some skills require more tools than makes sense. For instance, it doesn't make sense to go whole hog in riveting, if building a Skybolt. A rivet sqeezer will do fine. The same is true of welding in regards to an RV. There just isn't enough of it to justify buying the equipment and learning the skill, unless education is one of the builder's goals.

No airplane design has enough machine work in it that the purchase of a lathe and/or milling machine is justified. The same is true of purchasing or building an English wheel for compound forming aluminum. Unless the skills themselves are valuable enough to the builder, the equipment cost far outwieghts the return.

Tooling up to shoot paint is one of those grey areas. The aircompressor is going to be needed for aluminum airplanes, regardless, and is a big help in building almost any other type homebilt. Yes, small components can be done with spray cans and tubing structures can be brushed, but being able to spray paint comes in handy and doesn't require expensive guns. Finish paint, however, requires quality guns, good air filters and a shop environment that is both clean and safe for shooting paint.

Yes, paint can be shot out doors, but dirt is a constant headache. Here again, it depends on the type of paint and the quality of finish required. Anything can be done anywhere, but sometimes it just doesn't make sense.

This is where prepping the airplane and getting it all ready to shoot and then taking it down to your local body shop may make some sense.

To Learn or Buy?
Obviously the decision to learn or buy a skill is very individual, but again, don't make the decision based on the difficulty of the skill. That is not a factor. Make decision based on whether you really want to learn the skill and whehter it fits your own personal definition of being a good investment. Is it worth your time? If it is, go for it. If not, pick up the phone.