Monday, May 23, 2016

Perfecting Your Rocket Building Skills Can Be Scary

I'm trying an experiment today, and it's got me nervous.

The rocket you see above is the Estes Reflector, a small, BT-50 (0.976 inch diameter) payload-carrying model rocket with a classic "model rocket" look to it. It's... not a big deal. I keep telling myself that.

I bought the Reflector when it was on deep discount, partly because I was considering building this model rocket camera payload project from, and the Reflector happens to be the rocket used in the project. I decided to simply build the rocket as a stock kit model, though I did drill a couple static port holes in the payload compartment so I could use an altimeter.

I'm not in love with the Reflector - I keep telling myself that. It was just a cheap, simple payload rocket I got so I could play around with it.

While writing this, I realized that this was the first rocket I started building after my move from Indiana to Boston last summer. I've been working on this little rocket since July - ten months. Which is far too long to spend on a little model rocket like this. It's not a big deal. I keep telling myself that.

To be clear, I have started and finished other rockets in the last ten months. And a lot of things went wrong on this build, so I really shouldn't care if it turns out alright. I keep telling myself that.

To begin with, the fins warped when I filled the wood grain with Carpenter's Wood Filler (CWF). I got them back to mostly flat, but when sanding off the filler, I had a hard time getting the darned things smooth. Photo not found.

While attaching the fins, I realized that the thumb tab from the motor hook would have prevented the rocket from standing upright on its fins for display, and I didn't like how far out the hook stuck from the back of the rocket. So, halfway through attaching fins, I tried to clip off the thumb tab. But I didn't have the right tool, and ended up bending the tab badly.

This is partly why it took me so long to complete building the Reflector - I kept screwing it up!

Unfortunately, I didn't take many pictures of the Reflector build. Since I was having such a hard time with the rocket, I thought I might never finish it, and didn't really see how I'd use it on the blog, and kept telling myself the rocket didn't matter that much. It was a slightly screwed up rocket that I'd probably never finish, and if I did, it probably wouldn't look great.

Once I'd started and finished a few other rockets, I decided I needed to get the Reflector built. Each problem I'd created, I seemed able to fix more or less. With plenty of automotive filler primer and lots of sanding, I was able to get the fins relatively smooth. They weren't badly warped - just enough so I had been unable to get all the texture of the wood filler sanded off with a sanding block. Using just a piece of 400 grit sandpaper and my fingers, I got them to where I found them acceptable.

Suffice to say that it took me ages to decide how I wanted to fill the wood grain on the balsa wood nose and transition piece. I'd never used a balsa nose before - this was my first! I didn't know if I wanted to use wood filler, creating dust, possibly leaving the pock marks I occasionally don't notice in the surface until the rocket is painted; or sanding sealer - a model rocketry standby that I've only recently started playing with; or something else.

I opted for the CWF. Turned out alright, especially after spraying on the primer and sanding it smooth. Almost as perfect as plastic.

Fast forward to the painting process. The white went on with little trouble, though I did have to sand a few flaws out of the first layers of white and touch them up with a new can.

The black nose cone and payload section got some orange peel on them - a bumpy texture you sometimes get with spray paint, so called because of its resemblance to an orange rind. I considered sanding it smooth and either repainting or trying to polish it, but decided I shouldn't spend so much effort on a rocket which wasn't that amazing and which had already caused me trouble.

Then came the red fin can...


Because of the payload section, the launch lug has a wooden standoff, and if you put the launch lug where the instructions tell you to, there's not much room between the leading edges of the fins and the trailing edge of the launch lug standoff. That means that in order to get a clean, straight line of tape down where you want the red bottom to stop and the white upper part to start is tricky, because there's almost no space.

I usually use clear Scotch tape to mask lines on rockets, because it's cheap and leaves a nice, sharp line.

I used Chris Michielssen's trick of marking a piece of tape with permanent marker and cutting through the black with a hobby knife and ruler to get a sharp, narrow piece of tape.

Getting a piece of tape perfectly straight around a body tube to create a seamless, perfectly straight circumferential line can be tricky. It took me several tries and three pieces of tape to get it right. You're never really sure until you take the tape off.

Once a narrow tape line had been laid down, I had to construct a mask, using blue painter's tape to protect the launch lug standoff from overspray, and paper to keep the rest of the rocket clean.

(I really wish I'd taken pictures here).

When you mask off a base coat to apply a second color, you first want to seal the edges of the tape down with a thin layer of the original color. My fins would be red, but I'd seal the edges with a blast of white.

It turns out that Sharpie markers, the kind I had on hand, while "permanent," are not the best markers for this application.

The white Krylon paint melted the sharpie, and I got a gray ooze down the rocket. Also, I got minor paint runs from doing too heavy a coat of paint.

No matter! I told myself. This rocket was doomed from the start! It. Will. Still. Fly...

I went on to do the red top coat. It was actually going not too badly. A bit bumpy, but not quite orange peely, and pretty much OK. The paint runs were hard to see, so I figured it wouldn't be a big deal.

While the paint was still tacky, I began taking the mask apart, starting with the paper, moving on to the blue painter's tape, then finally, carefully peeling back the Scotch tape at the edge, all while trying not to touch the fresh paint on the fins.

Then the Scotch tape tore.

I could not get all of it off. I have a little bit of fingernail, but I could not lift the tape off. As I became more and more frustrated, I found I was smudging the edge of the paint, getting fingerprints in it, and making a big mess, but I was getting angrier and angrier, and was not about to let the paint dry with bits of tape stuck under the edge of it. (I get really frustrated when I have something stuck to a rocket and can't get it off).

This was the result.

From the side, you can see how little room there is between the fins and the standoff.

I nearly smashed the rocket with my bare hands. HA HA HA!! WHO CARES?? I NEVER LIKED THIS ROCKET TO BEGIN WITH!!!

The problem with being a perfectionist is that you don't have the luxury of not caring. Even if you're building a little rocket that was inexpensive, and maybe not your favorite, is that the process of building is such a pleasure, especially when it's going well. If it goes badly or if you make a mistake, you might tell yourself that you don't like that rocket, and you don't care how it turns out, but it bothers you. Then, if you're able to fix the problem, you are back to feeling good about the project.

One thing I've realized when building this rocket is that, even if it's not my favorite, one that I'd been eyeing for months on some website, dang it, I do care about this rocket. There's no rocket build, large or small, where I decide I don't care.

But sometimes, to develop a craft, you have to take the risk of ruining your work in order to try a new technique or skill, or even to practice techniques you already use. I've only been doing this for going on two years now, so I'm not an old hand yet. I'm still the Rocket N00b.

Also, when you make a mistake, sometimes if you set the rocket down, breathe, and think about it, you can fix things. Even this.

First of all, in my frustration, I'd gotten some pink marks from fresh paint on my fingers all over the rocket. No problem. I grabbed a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser (a tip from Chris Michielssen), and got rid of that.

Those red smudges were sticky the next day. That told me that there was mushed up tape mixed in there. I knew how to take care of that. The dark marks were either primer (I did take a hobby knife to the rocket while trying to remove the tape) or Sharpie. Again, I had a plan.

Mushy adhesive stuff can be removed from dry paint (test before you try on your rocket, but it has worked for me) with a little Ronsonol lighter fluid (as you'll see I found out if you clicked the link above leading to the Quest Quadrunner post). I dabbed a little on a Q-Tip and got most of the gummy red off. It also loosened up the few little bits of tape I discovered once I cleaned off the gummed-up red bits, which I was able to carefully lift off with the tip of a hobby knife.

I finally wet-sanded the edge where the red meets the white with either 600 or 800 grit wet/dry sandpaper.

This was the result.

Not perfect - but much better than what I'd had before. Also, you can see that I got that tape line perfectly straight, so that was encouraging. Smaller rockets are harder to build, because the details are harder to get right.

There is a black decal which goes around the rocket just below the launch lug standoff. You're supposed to leave a bit of white between the black and red, but in this case, I decided the decal would hide the flawed edge. It would be slightly different from the stock look of the rocket, but it would look better this way, and that one little detail would make it my own.

I finally ended up with a rocket which didn't look too bad, considering everything that went wrong. I could have left well enough alone, but I decided to try one more thing. Not that I don't care about this rocket, but I figured this one, with all I messed up and all I was able to fix, would be the ideal candidate to try a treatment I'd read about, before using it on a rocket I really cared about.

The experiment I'm trying is to make the rocket shiner, using Pledge with Future Shine - a floor polish which is said to give a high gloss shine to your rockets, and I hope may seal the decals in place and protect them from damage.

Doing something I've never tried like this is a little scary. The Reflector has gone from being a problem build to a pretty nice looking little rocket, and now that it's done, I don't want to mess it up. But I really don't want to try it for the first time on a more expensive rocket or one I'm really attached to.

How will it turn out? We'll see in the next post. But sometimes you gotta break a few eggs.

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  1. Hang in there Daniel - your "flawed" Reflector looks pretty good. I have a Dr Zooch Mercury Redstone that's been in-work for nearly 6 months - I'm on my third set of fins! Hopefully the black roll pattern goes on well - finally. I'll let you know how the escape tower goes...though it may get launched at least once without the LES.

  2. Wow Daniel - I've had "cursed" models before! No matter what you do or how you do it, certain models are cursed.
    I've never used Krylon on the Scotch tape masks before. Some paint solvent in the Krylon might have broken down the marker ink. I usually use the Rusto 2X, Testor's or Duplicolor and haven't had that problem.
    You cleaned it up very well!
    Regarding Future - I only us it sparingly on just the decals. I apply it using a Q-tip "brush". It's never worked for me when using a brush or spraying it. It seems thinner than water and drips everywhere. On a hot, humid day it gets gummy and sticks to your hands.
    Fingers crossed the rest of the build!