Early Days, 1956 Part Two – RAF, Airfix, Flat Pack Furniture and DIY

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Following Britain’s rude world humiliation at the hands of the USA over the Suez crisis it was significant that also in 1956 the Royal Air Force decommissioned the Second-World-War bomber, the iconic Avro Lancaster.

Along with the spitfire this was the most successful British wartime plane and I have my own fond memories of them both because I can remember struggling to assemble an Airfix plastic model of the famous old aircraft.

Although the Spitfire is probably the most famous and the most recognisable of all the British planes used by the Royal Air Force during the Second World War the Hurricane was in fact the principal fighter in the Battle of Britain and not the Spitfire as most people might think.

In 1940 there were thirty-two squadrons of Hurricanes and only nineteen squadrons of Spitfires.  They looked similar but there were differences between them and they complimented each other and worked closely together to shoot down enemy aircraft and rule the skies.   The swifter Spitfires were best for engaging the Luftwaffe’s fighter planes like the Messerschmitt, whilst the Hurricanes took on the fleets of bombers like the Junkers and Heinkels.

spitfire-model

I can tell the difference between them quite easily because when I was a boy I used to like making model aircraft from Airfix self-assembly kits.  The Spitfire was much better looking with sleek elliptical wings, a slim body and a long raking nose.  The Hurricane was chunkier with a higher cockpit and stumpy little wings.  My first Airfix kit was the Hawker Hurricane and I have to say that for no other reason than this after that it was always my favourite of the two.

I used to buy my Airfix kits from a shop in Rugby called Moore’s Handicrafts which was a DIY and hardware shop but I wasn’t especially interested in the tools and the key cutting service because I liked the train sets and the Scalextric and the Airfix Models but also the little packs of balsa wood that I would buy for 6d or 1/s with real genuine construction optimism and then take it home and inevitably make a modeling disaster!

moore's handicrafts rugby

In the beginning Airfix was sold in F.W. Woolworth & Co. Ltd. for two shillings (that’s 10p today) and the first in the range, in 1952, was a very small scale model of Francis Drake’s ship the Golden Hind.  It was so successful that Woolworths than began to ask for additions to the range and soon Airfix began to produce more polybagged model kits.   The famous duck-egg blue Spitfire model appeared in April 1953.

An Airfix kit was notoriously difficult to assemble and the only absolute certainty was that once it was finished it definitely wouldn’t look anything like the picture on the box.

Getting the fuselage and the wings snapped together was usually a fairly straightforward procedure but things quickly became increasingly complicated after that, with fiddly little bits and pieces that required huge dexterity, great precision and unnatural amounts of patience to position into exactly the right place.

I was often a bit over eager at this stage and would prematurely glue the obvious parts together without reading the instructions properly and then realise that some of the fiddly bits needed to be planned for and carried out before the larger parts were put together.  Two good examples of this were the propeller on the Spitfire and the tail gunner’s position on the back of the Lancaster bomber which would only turn or swivel as intended if placed in position before permanently attaching the fuselage section together.

What made things especially difficult was the Humbrol plastic cement glue with its curious smell and a nasty habit of exuding the tube nozzle in far greater quantities of stringy ooze than you could ever possibly need for such a delicate operation would end up in sticky white flakes on the end of your fingers or big dollops on the dining room table that would strip the varnish off and end up in a good telling off.

I always found the gluing together part of the operation especially tricky when finally putting the cock-pit window into position at the end and my model was always left with smears on the plexi-glass that if this was a real plane would have made it virtually impossible for the pilot to see where he was flying or to shoot down any enemy aircraft.  And thinking about the pilot, one of the most irritating things was to discover that I had got the cockpit in place and the whole thing finished before I had placed the pilot into his seat and there he was rattling around in the bottom of the box along with all of the bits of discarded plastic and the double sided page of incomprehensible assembly instructions.

airfix spitfire

After the gluing together stage came the painting and this was an equally messy affair with paint dribbling down the fuselage, bits of wool off your pullover and hair getting stuck on the model and fingerprints in various places where I had tried in vain to rectify the damage.  Most of this was a consequence of the fact that I was naturally impatient.  Paint came in little tins and it was sensible to let one colour dry before applying the second but I rarely had enough time for that which mostly led to disastrous results.

Finally there was the delicate process of applying the decals which had to be separated from the backing paper by soaking in water and then requiring a most delicate touch to slide them carefully into position on the fuselage and the wings.  Sometimes if I was lucky they could be used to cover up the dodgy paintwork but mostly they would end up on first contact in the wrong place and crease and tear as I tried to correct the error.

I finished the Hurricane and the Lancaster to some sort of messy sub-standard but I can recall making such a catastrophe of a bright red Westland Lysander that as soon as it was completed I was so ashamed of it that I immediately consigned it to the waste bin.

Airfix model aircraft were an important part of my childhood in the days before computer games and a really significant thing about Airfix was that it taught important life skills like reading assembly instructions that were as deeply impenetrable as the Amazon rainforest and which were useful later in life for dealing with flat-pack furniture assembly.

This was a popular DIY magazine from 1956…

DIY Magazine

Twenty-five years later I had my own house and my first tool kit and carried away with optimistic enthusiasm I bought a weekly DIY magazine in ninety-eight weekly parts called ‘The Knack’ costing 55p each issue which was over ten times as much as the ‘Practical Householder’, I should really have remembered how bad I was in woodwork lessons at school and not wasted my money.  I think I threw them away eventually.

The Knack DIY

39 responses to “Early Days, 1956 Part Two – RAF, Airfix, Flat Pack Furniture and DIY

  1. Thanks Andrew for bringing back many memories of Airfix models. I made all those mistakes too!

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  2. I’m so old that I can remember when Airfix kits were 1/3d ! The simplest one I ever made was the Fokker Triplane which had a tiny number of pieces…well under twenty. I can remember getting my first Japanese kit, a Hasegawa in the late sixties. All of the big bits fitted together without glue and stayed in place! It must have really embarrassed Airfix and Frog!

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  3. As well as “the big four” I had a Gloster Gladiator ….. very fiddly! But …. did anyone graduate to balsa wood aeroplanes you could actually fly? Brilliant especially if your home was surrounded by hills. Gliders mostly but some propelled with bloody big elastic bands!

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  4. Wonderful descriptions of battling with Airfix. I blame my inability to assemble a flatpack today on the trauma Airfix inflicted on me.

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  5. I was so jealous of my brother and his Airfix models! Girls never had such interesting things to do. I was fortunate that my brother allowed me to watch and sometimes help him. I do remember the smell of the runny glue and the mess, though my mother always insisted on us working where she could see us and supplied lots of newspaper for the table. Bits of newspaper and black print added a certain something to the finished planes and battleships.

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  6. Who would have thought that there are now young people who like the smell of the cement so much that they lose all interest in making the models.

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  7. “unnatural amounts of patience” Indeed! I had exactly the same experiences as you while trying to put together model airplanes. I think that’s why I laughed all the way through this post. When I reading “dining room table” I said “Oh no,” and yes, your experience was the same as mine there too. One can glance at a dining room table and see whether kids live in the house by the presence of gouges, dried glue, and paint.

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  8. I remember my brothers having those.
    My late husband purchased a couple of sets plus model car kits for our son but he wasn’t the slightest bit interested and yet he would happily spend hours watching the planes take off from our nearby airport and could tell you each plane and any model of car from the age of three! He never saw the point of building a model! Much to my husband’s disappointment!

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  9. Having 10 thumbs, neither models nor flat pack furniture would work for me! I’m sure I got up to something equally messy though.

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  10. Nice.

    They do look similar

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  11. Sorry for all the links . . . just adding them in case anyone is interested in the planes themselves:

    https://www.luftkrieg-ueber-europa.de/en/comparison-of-the-supermarine-spitfire-mk-ia-with-the-messerschmitt-bf-109-e/

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  12. We were just talking flatpack furniture and MFI yesterday! Not the best memories 🙂 🙂

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  13. I avoided kits as a child, Andrew. My favorite hobby was collecting rocks and breaking them apart with a hammer. I can’t say I’ve changed much in my 76 years of non tinkering. I did learn last week that we have a second grade class in the area where the kids are being taught to use power tools. One can only wonder about the results. Also last week, we broke out the 2000 or so Legos we keep in bins for the grandkids when they visit. Our whole library became the center of building everything from castles to space ships. The library is still in recovery, and grandma has dutifully saved some of the creations. –Curt

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    • From the Danish words ‘LEg GOdt’ meaning play well.

      I would keep my grandson well away from power tools, he can do enough manual damage!

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      • Heck, I tend to keep myself away from power tools, Andrew. 🙂 Thanks on the ‘Leg GOdt.’ I didn’t know that. It’s all about kits now days, which can be very expensive. The couple of thousand (or more) free floaters we have, however, allows the kids to use their creativity. I really like that. –Curt

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      • Too many small parts these days Curt that find themselves down the back of the sofa or sucked up in the vacuum cleaner!

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  14. I’m not sure I ever did a kit anything.. sewing was my worst..

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  15. I don’t suppose I could have got my nose out of a book long enough to do models, though that wasn’t a girl sort of thing. Come to think of it, I wasn’t much interested in the girly things either. Your post brings back fond memories.

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  16. I can actually recall seeing the real things flying, especially the Lancs, huge formations, also the Yanks flying fortresses,
    I lived in Dagenham, which wasn’t that far from Hornchurch where there was an RAF Station for the Spitfires, during the war.
    Right up until the time we left for Australia, we had a large piece of a Spitfire that was shot down and my dad managed to grab as a souvenir; we kept it in our coal cellar,
    I can also recall one very low flying M109; it’s vividly impressed on my memory; They were a fine aircraft too.

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