How to build a P51D Mustang

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30 Apr 2021
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New Zealand
How to build a P51D Mustang. Part 1. General info.

I hope that you will find the following on wooden aircraft modelling interesting or perhaps helpful, and you will have to forgive a few of my idiosyncrasies because I've never done anything like this before.

There are a couple of points to touch on first before we get into the how-to.

Firstly, I'm not going to insult anyone's intelligence by saying if I can do it, anybody can. That seems to me to be a type of inverse humility. Quite obviously not everybody can. However, seeing the quality work that is regularly produced by members on this forum I have no doubt that modelling in wood is well within the capabilities of all here. Thinking about it as dispassionately as I can, I assess my own woodworking skills as average but slowly improving. What is required is a degree of patience to get the result you want. At the beginning I binned a fair few components because I was not happy with them. I don't bin so much now.

Secondly, the tools. I have a lot of tools because I have a tool fetish but not a lot is needed to build a model. Apart from basic hand tools I use an 8 inch circular saw bench for ripping the timber down to size - a wonderful machine 70 years old, cast iron and weighs a ton. A Stanley No.5 plane and a block plane as well as a Record spokeshave with a curved base for shaping. A Dremel tool with a couple of cutters, also for shaping and a roll of 40mm 120grit emery tape, again for shaping. A couple of pin vices to suit a 1.5mm, 2mm and 2.5mm twist bits, a Scriber, stanley knife etc, and a 2X magnifier that clips onto my spectacles. You may not need this but I'm only a couple of years short of 80 and my eyesight isn't what it was. And, I have a scroll saw for cutting out the profiles once the timber is ripped to the correct thickness. Now a scroll saw is not necessary. I cut out the first four models I built with a jigsaw however this is not so easy and undoubtedly a scroll saw is better. In order to get a scroll saw I had to apply to The Keeper of the Purse for the release of funds which is always a very traumatic experience.
Me: I want to buy a scroll saw.
Wife: Why?
Me: Because people are ordering my models and I need one to cut out the components..
Wife: How did you cut them out before?
Me: With a jigsaw.
Wife: So.......?
My scroll saw is a cheapie Ryobi but it has a tilt table and will handle 30mm thickness ok. The Chinese blades it came with are rubbish and I replaced them with American Ohlson blades, 20tpi.
I also have a lathe, a homemade job cobbled together out of scrounged parts and wishful thinking. There is a bit of turning, propellor spinners of course and the undercarriage wheels or at least the tail wheel if the model is built gear up. However, you don't really need a lathe. Clamp an electric drill down on the bench, cut the head off a little screw and put it in the chuck as a mandrel, mount the timber, devise something for a chisel rest and you're in business. But this is my lathe.

I have been using the lathe to make the exhaust ejectors by drilling a 1.5mm hole down the middle of a bit of 2.3mm alloy rod but in retrospect putting a dab of black on the end of the rod with a felt tip pen conveys the impression of a pipe just as well. There will be other tools I've forgotten about but I can mention them as the post progresses.

Materials. I am not so familiar with your timber but what I think you need - my opinion only, is something with a decent bit of grain and colour variation. I built a Mosquito out of NZ Kauri which is pretty bland and the model didn't look like much. Obviously grainy timber doesn't really look like camouflage on a WW11 aeroplane but it does convey something of the idea. Conversely, I built a SR71 Bkackbird using a dark featureless mahogany and it worked quite well as the Bkackbird was constructed of black Titanium. Your personal preference as to what finish you want will decide your choice. Usable bits of timber can be found from beaten up old furniture sold for a song in secondhand shops, here in NZ anyway. For the metal bits, engineering shops will let you rummage around in their scrap bins. What you need is off cuts of 1mm to 1.2mm aluminium sheet and welding rod ends, 1.6mm And 2.3mm in aluminium and bronze. I should say that I like to use a little bit of metal here and there on the model for contrast but you can just as easily build the whole thing from timber if you prefer. Other things, epoxy glue, PVA glue, a lot of sandpaper (tba), 30mm x 1.6mm panel pins (tba) thin cardboard and again, other stuff I've probably forgotten. Oh, and if you're like me, you will need a box of bandaids. Fiddly work seems to encourage bloodletting.
Right. On with the build.
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How to build a P51D Mustang. Part 2. Plans and templates.

After deciding what you want to build the first thing you will need is a set of drawings. For detailed scale drawings of aircraft, cars, boats, ships, guns, machinery etc I use the website :
You can look at all the plans on their database but it is necessary to sign up to the site in order to download. This is easy and free.
Next, you will need access to a printer to enlarge the plans to the scale you wish to build to. I messed around with scales quite a bit and since the majority of my stuff is WW11 fighters, decided on 40:1. The majority of fighters from the period had a wingspan of 11 - 12 metres so the model wingspan will be around 30cm, plus or minus. A model this size allows for a reasonable amount of detail without going crazy on it. Bigger models e.g. Lancaster of Wellingtons will require an adjustment to the scale unless you have a very understanding wife and a really large coffee table to display it on. Concerning scale, when you print the plans at 40:1, the aeroplane looks really large on paper but not so big when cut out in timber. I don't know why that is. You will need two sets of plans, one for reference which doesn't need to be enlarged and one to cut out as templates. From the paper templates I make 3mm MDF templates to allow for repeat orders but this is not necessary for a one-off.
Here the plans for the P 51D and MDF templates. The plans for this particular aeroplane are very poor - usually they include all the cross sections of wings and fuselage.

When making templates you need to consider how the model will be built and adjust accordingly. If you compare the fuselage MDF template with the paper plan you will note that the under wing radiator air intake is shorter than shown on the plan. This is because that bit on the end is not actually attached to the bottom of the fuselage and will be made separately and drilled out to replicate the intake. Easier to do on the workbench, perhaps with a different timber for contrast.
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How to build a P51D Mustang. Part 3. Cutting out.

Actually, due to another order, it's become 'How to build two P 51D Mustangs.'
Here are the components cut to the required thickness and then profiled on the cheapie scroll saw.

The tail fin is not completely cut out - the tab is left on to provide a way to hold the fin in the vice whilst doing the initial shaping with a block plane and also as a hand hold when finishing on a bed of sandpaper. The other bit of the tailplane and the wing do not require a holdy-on bit as each side is shaped separately and then cut in half when done.

The shaping of the fuselage is the next bit and probably the most time consuming part of the build and you need to go at it carefully. As a wise man once said to me, it's easy to plane or sand a whisker more off, not so easy to plane or sand it back on.
First, these are the tools that will be involved in this process:

So just a normal block plane, the spokeshave is an antiquated Record A63 and has the rounded bottom which I like it very much as it enables you to adjust the depth of cut by slightly rotating the tool to suit without the need to adjust the blade. The emery tape is 40mm 120grit which you can tear lengthwise to get the width you want. The only use for the chisel is to cut the shape around the forward end of the cockpit but it needs to be razor sharp. The file has a few different uses in the construction of the model, on the fuselage it is used to shape the bottom end of the nose. It is canted in the photo to show that the edge is smooth, a desirable feature but not essential. And the white things are templates for fuselage shaping. I cut these out of a big sheet of 0.4mm plastic that I have but you could use anything - thick paper, card etc.
The first thing to do is put in a centre line all around the fuselage, mark out the tapers fore and aft, poke a hole in the front end which will be the centre of the propellor shaft and use the hole as the fulcrum to draw a circle which is the diameter of the spinner and which you will shape the fuselage to :


I'm labouring the fuselage thing a bit but it is the crux of the whole model and it embodies just about every skill you will need in the construction of the entire aeroplane. After this bit, everything is easy.
And now we are ready to put the thing in a vice and hack into it.
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How to build a P51D Mustang. Part 4. The fuselage.

The first thing of course is to cut the tapers fore and aft. Its not worth a picture but here is one because I wanted to show the leg vice. I have three vices - a small modellers vice, a 4 inch engineers vice and the leg vice, my favorite.
I built it high to suit the work, the jaws are, to a degree, multi directional which assists with holding odd shaped bits and are rubber lined. Its a bit budget and beaten up but it suit me.

With the fuselage cut to shape its time for the block plane and spokeshave. It doesn't matter which bit you attack first, but I start at the front and work my way back. In a preceeding post I mentioned one of the uses of a file was to shape the bottom of the nose. Here it is.

The bit under where the prop spinner goes is a air intake. It will be slotted with a Dremel tool cutter once the shaping is completed.
Also mentioned among the tools was a chisel. This to carve the front of the canopy where it curves around to meet the armour glass at the front.

Once you have gone as far as you can with plane and spokeshave its onto the 120 grit emery tape. It is used wrapped around the fuselage in a seasaw motion which will (hopefully) shape both sides the same.

You need to be careful here as the tape is pretty vicious and the work needs to be constantly checked against the templates.

And when that's done, you end up with this :

From here its sanding and more sanding until you're heartily sick of the whole business. At this stage I work up to 240 grit, again keeping an eye on the form with the templates. From first putting the fuselage blank in the vice to the shaped stage (above) is about two hours.
Now for some of the detail work on the fuselage and two jobs I really dislike. The first is drilling the 8mm hole to accept the prop spinner. The reason I don't like doing this is because my beloved Rimu is a grainy timber with different densities and this sometimes causes the drill to wander off a fraction when drilling down end grain. And the second job is to carve out the air intake with a dremel. Mess this one up and its game over, make a new fuselage. But it went OK, just need a little bit of sanding around the nose to mate the nose and spinner as seamlessly as possible.

And the final job on the Mustang fuselage is the radiator air intake. Because of the way it is, this is made separately and epoxied into position. I havent said anything about the propellor spinners for the Mustang. This is because when I'm on the lathe I like to make all the turned bits at the same time for all the aeroplane models that are currently in the order book. But they are very simple - just shaped on the lathe with a standard chisel and sandpaper to a template taken from the plans. The shaft is turned to 7.8mm, the same for all models as then they fit into the same little jig used for drilling the holes for the blades.


For air intakes, I darken the bottom of the insides with a black felt tip pen.
There are some more little things to do - drill a 1.5mm hole for the aerial, scribe some lines here and there to indicate various openings, maybe some very minor shaping where the wings and tailplane will be attached, but that concludes building the fuselage.
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How to build a P51D Mustang. Part 5. The tailplane.

With the tailplane (and wings) precision goes a little bit out the window.
Although the outlines of these bits will be exact to the plan, the precise aerofoil cross sections will have to play second fiddle to what is realistically achievable in wood. It would be possible to replicate the cross sections exactly, but parts such as the trailing edges would be far too thin and fragile to resist any sort of handling. But I think a reasonable representation of taper and aerofoil is acceptable on a 40:1scale model. Work on the principle that if it looks ok then it is ok.
I like to start with making and attaching the tail fin. With a little care to ensure the fin is exactly vertical on the fuselage, it serves as a visual reference point for correct alignment when gluing on the rest of the tail and wings.
To start, I clamp the tail fin in the leg vice by the little tab that was left on when cutting the part out on the scroll saw, and then plane a taper bottom to top and then the initial cross section shaping. One of the unexpected benefits of having rubber lined jaws on the leg vice is that it acts as a shock absorber as well as protecting the work. The fin is a fiddly little bit and I used to break a few with the plane but now hardly any which I think is due to the rubber. Either that or I'm getting a bit more delicate with my work in my old age.
Now onto my favorite file - I mentioned a couple of posts back that it has one smooth edge. So I secure it up by the neck in the engineers vice, clamp on a bit of the 120grit emery cloth and it provides a nice stiff surface for shaping these little pieces on. And the smooth edge provides a guide for the fingers without tearing all your skin off.

When done with shaping, cut the tab off and finish down to 240 grit. Whilst its still off the aeroplane scribe in the rudder line. The scriber in the picture is one of my all-time favorite tools in the aircraftery. Its just a bit of 2mm stainless bicycle spoke drilled into a piece of alloy rod but its a scriber, center punch for wood, wet varnish crud picker and is my go to tool for just about anything in modelling.

To scribe, just use the scriber and a little straight edge. But if scribing across the grain the first cut will have to be with a Stanley knife to slice through the wood fibres. Without doing so the scriber will tear the wood and leave a raggedy line. If you're wondering, I think the line made by a Stanley knife on its own is too fine. And if you're wondering more, yes, I do have secondhand carpet on the floor in my assembly room. I like my comfort.
I attach wings and tailplane to the fuselage with epoxy glue and 1.6mm cut down panel pins - one pin to the fin because it has a right angle glue joint and two pins to each wing and tailplane. The holes for the pins are 1.5mm so they're a snug fit. The aim is for about 8-10mm of pin into the fuselage and 15mm into the wings/fin/tailplane. Actually you should ignore all this measurement stuff. Its not to say its right, its just the way I do it. I take a few panel pins to the lathe and dress up the points to ensure they are dead centre and then cut them down to about 5mm long. With the pilot hole drilled in the wing or whatever, I insert the little cut down pin with about 1mm of the point sticking out and then press the whatever into position on the fuselage. The little pointy bit makes a mark on the fuselage where the corresponding pilot hole has to be drilled. You then pull out the marker pin with a pair of long nosed pliers which tends to chew them up a bit which is why you need a few of them. Then its just insert 15mm of panel pin into the whatever, cut it of at 8-10mm sticking out, file any burrs of where you cut the pin to size and drill out the marker point. Put the bit with the pin into position back onto the fuselage and repeat the process with the marker point in the second hole and then glue it onto the fuselage. Easy. I like to use masking tape around both sides of the glue joint. It makes the clean up easier.

The rest of the tailplane is just a repeat of the fin.

In the above picture the horizontal parts of the tailplane are not glued on yet, just held in place by the pins. The other piece of the tailplane shown on the floor is shaped as one bit and then cut in half when done.

And finally, the completed glued up tail sections.
I have taken to scribing the engine cowling lines on the front of the fuselage recently. This I hope adds something to the appearance but is essentially for my own benefit. When it comes to gluing on the aluminium exhaust extractors I seem to have great difficulty with the correct alignment, I don't know why. I note that on the real aeroplanes the top cowling always opens up at exhaust level so the scribed lines give a useful reference point for correct positioning.
Now its onto the wings.
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How to build a P51D Mustang. Part 6. The wings.

I like making wings, probably because making and attaching them to the model means the aeroplane is almost finished and it starts to look like something.
But having said that the wings on a low wing fighter have an added complication that shoulder winged aircraft do not. If you look at the wings on a shoulder-wing aeroplane, Mosquito, Lancaster etc you will see that they just butt up against the fuselage. The top of the wing on low winged WW11 aircraft invariably curve upward into the fuselage - there is no sharp angle.
In the past I got over this woodworking dilemma by pretending it didn't exist and just butted the wings to the fuselage with a sharp angle. But this is not really satisfactory from an accurate modelling perspective and the solution was really pretty easy once it got figured out.
The first thing is to shape the wings to an aerofoil cross section. Doing this with both wings joined pretty much ensures that both wings will have the exact same cross section. Once planed and sanded then cut the wings in half. Now for the curved wing root. With the Mustang the curved bit is rather small when compared to say a Kittyhawk, and on a 1:40 scale the curvy bit goes from the fuselage 5mm out into the wing. So from a bit of 5mm timber cut out the shape below.

The outline of this shape is the edge of the curved wing root. One of the now sawn in half wings is placed on the the wing root bit and drawn around - that's the pencil line in the photo. Now with a block plane or spokeshave remove the timber from the pencil line to the back edge. The next step is to put a hollow into the chamfered bit. I do this with a bit of 180grit wrapped around the shaft of an appropriately sized twist bit and then epoxy it onto the base of the wing. There is a little dressing to do when the epoxy is hard, and you end up with this.

I have put a little pencil line on the wing and root to show the curve. Until such time as the wing is glued onto the fuselage, the wings need to be handled carefully. The top of the curvy bit is very fragile.

The wing is attached to the fuselage in the same manner that the tailplane was, via the use of pins, marker points etc, and bearing in mind that the wing root will have to be planed to a little angle for the correct dihedral. One other thing to deal with is the curvature. The Mustang is a fairly slab sided plane in the vicinity of the wing so the only curve is nose to tail. On a more curvaceous aeroplane eg the Spitfire there is a pronounced curve top to bottom as well. The way I deal with this is to hold the wing in position on the fuselage and draw around it with a pencil. Then with a chisel or scraper flatten the area within the wing shape pencil line. Then you only have to fit to the nose to tail curve. It simplifies things a lot.
And this is how it looks glued up prior to sanding.

The 50 cal gun barrels are drilled into the wing and are from 2.2mm leftover bits of aluminium welding electrodes courtesy of our local engineering shop and with a 1.5mm hole drilled down the middle. On the model they are a little oversize but not by much. The guns together with the exhausts are the bits I like to do in alloy for the sake of a little contrast to the wood.
And that essentially is the aircraft. Now we dress the thing up a bit with a propellor, exhausts, an aerial etc.
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How to build a P51D Mustang. Part 7. Prop, exhausts, stand, finishing.

Propellors are fun to make too, but not so much on the P51D. I searched high and low on Google and it appears that all the 'D' variants only had the 4 bladed prop.
I dislike the 4 bladed prop from a purely aesthetic viewpoint. A 3 bladed prop on the nose looks elegant. A 4 bladed prop on the nose looks like the aeroplane is being pulled along by a ceiling fan. But I suppose I will have to do the correct thing for my customers otherwise they pull me up for it when I do something wrong.
Amongst the British fighters the favorite model is the Mk.VB Spitfire and I have built a lot of them. One customer asked me for a Mk. 7, 8? I can't remember now. So I checked the plans and the only superficial difference I could see was with the armaments and the position of the air intakes so I duly built and couriered him his model. He phoned me back, 'Its wrong, he said. 'What is?' I asked. It transpired that this particular Mk had the Rolls Royce Griffin engine together with modifications to the gearing and that meant that the propellor rotated in the opposite direction to that of the Merlin spitfires, and therefore I had the blade pitch the wrong way round. So I sent him another correctly pitched propellor. My customers are generally aircraft enthusiasts and a picky lot as well and I'm sorry, I digress... but interestingly, in the south island we have an event called Wings over Wanaka. This is an annual air show featuring a lot of WW11 aircraft, many of them owned by a chap called Sir Tim Wallace. He owns and flies a few spitfires. A new(rebuilt) one was delivered to his place at Wanaka, whether his own or not I don't know, but he hopped into it for a test flight. So as usual he applied full rudder to counteract the torque, gunned the engine for take off and the spitfire spun around on its axis and flipped over onto its back and was pretty well completely destroyed. He had apparently forgotten or was not told that it was a Griffin spitfire and not a Merlin one and had applied the wrong side rudder correction for the prop rotation. Unfortunately he ended up permanently in a wheelchair as a result.

The blades are roughly cut out on the scroll saw and then tapered and aerofoiled on my nifty vice clamped smooth edged file with the bit of 120grit emery on it.

In the picture is a rough cut blade and a finished blade. The piece of metal is a bit of 0.6mm stainless with a 1.5mm and a 2mm hole in it. The holes are to shape the base of the blades so they can be inserted into the hub. The blade bases are shaped approximately with a little flat file and then twisted gently through the hole in the metal bit and the burr on the hole leaves them nicely round and ensures a correct fit to the hub. The hi-tech particle board jig in the picture is self explanatory. But you will note that it is marked out for proper 3 bladed propellors. It needed a couple more lines added for ceiling fans.


Setting up the blades in the hub.

And we need a stand for the model as well. This is just basic wood chipping with not much to be said about it. There's not much fun to be had in building stands either so I tend to build half a dozen or so at a time when I can muster a bit of enthusiasm for it.

I leave all the tops of the stands parallel to the base and then trim as required to the customer's preferences as to the aspect of the model. In the case of this Mustang the plane is to be in a shallow dive and banking left. The mounting pins are cut down 2mm stainless steel bicycle spokes and the white thing is the template for the pins and the corresponding holes in the bottom of the fuselage. I love templates. They are such a simple little thing and yet they save so much time, especially in a semi production line scenario.

I don't love engine exhausts though - in fact I detest them and I don't really know what to do about them. Do I try and replicate them exactly or should they just give a generalised representation of the ejectors? Either way I find them incredibly difficult to make and in over 50 models to date I have never built exhausts with which I was happy, current Mustangs included.

The trouble with exhausts is that they're all different. In the case of the Mustang the engine exhausts into some sort of box arrangement first and then into the individual pipes. So its not possible to figure out some system of building where one basic design suits all models. They're a real pain in the bum.

Aerials represent another small departure from the plan. I used to make them from wood in the proper aerofoil section but they were always being broken due to the recipients of the models being overly enthusiastic when cleaning with the feather duster, even though both aerial and prop are removable. So now I use a piece of 1.5mm brass rod, taper it and then brush them with a drop of ferric nitrate which darkens the brass and makes it almost indistinguishable from the wooden fuselage.

And that completes the construction of the P51D Mustang.

Now the entire structure will get a sand down through the grades to 400 grit, a wipe over with acetone and its onto the finishing. This will be interesting. I finish the models with Briwax teak oil. The instructions on the tin say 2 -3 coats but I find I need at least 6 to get a decent gloss. This takes a week and is costly in Teak Oil so I'm going to try a sanding sealer coat first hoping it will save a little time and money.

These are all the components of the models drying after a coat of sanding sealer. The next step will be a sand with 400grit and then masking off the cockpit area for spraying with black paint.

And this is the cockpit canopy masked up after sanding.

I used to have a lot of trouble with the black paint bleeding under the tape which resulted in a time consuming clean up with a scalpel blade. Then someone told me that all I needed to do was to apply a light spray coat of clear polyurethane from a rattle can over the area to be painted and this would seal the edges of the tape preventing the paint from creeping under.
It works well and I wish I'd thought if it. I will leave the black paint for a day or so to harden and then cut it back a little with 600 grit, mainly to tidy up the paint edges a bit.

And then the final bit, the teak oil.
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How to build a P51D Mustang. Part 8. Finished.

Finally finished. And the models will sit on the sideboard in my lounge for a week or so to allow the teak oil finish to fully harden before the are swathed in bubblewrap and couriered off to their recipients. With the sanding sealer base coat the models needed 4 coats of teak oil instead of the usual 6, not a huge saving but I will continue with the sanding sealer as the end result is a little better. Total build time is around 25 hours - I think. Never really timed it. There is quite a bit of down time now in our winter because my workshop is not heated and lately I really start to feel the cold. Its a darned nuisance.

People think I must have quite a collection of model aeroplanes but in fact I do not own a single one. The pleasure of course is in the building but I do get to enjoy an ever changing panorama of aircraft that occupy space in our lounge whilst curing - that is to say I enjoy, wife tolerates. When these Mustangs get couriered off they will be replaced by a Mk.1V Wellington that should be completed by then, and when the Wellington goes its place will be taken by a Sopwith Camel - looking forward to that one! So I have the best of both worlds.

And that is it. The Mustang is a simple aeroplane to build and I'm afraid somewhat boring as a model to look at. In my opinion.

In closing, I would like to thank the forum members who prompted me into doing one of these WIPs. It had unintended but very welcome consequences. Photographing and writing about the build caused me to think about certain processes in the construction which in turn has resulted in what I expect to be improvements to the way of doing things in the future.
Thanks to all.

Some photos :
P51D Mustangs.jpg




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Well may I be amonst the first to thank you for an excellent write up! I’m somewhat in awe of your skill and have some doubt that ‘anyone’ on here could produce the same (I’m really thinking me here!).

I intend to have a look at the plans site and see if I can find something simple enough to have a go at as a starter. I do fancy a Lysander but that’s going to have to wait a while.
Brilliant write up, very interesting and very skilful work. A beautiful product.

When I retire from being retired I might try make one
Looks incredible. I really like the wood, what is it? Sorry if you have mentioned this already, I didn't see it.
Looks incredible. I really like the wood, what is it? Sorry if you have mentioned this already, I didn't see it.
The timber is a New Zealand conifer called Rimu. It is or was a favorite timber amongst cabinetmakers but being now a protected species is almost impossible to get these days. Fortunately I only use small pieces in the aircraftery and my customers kindly keep an eye out for old and discarded bits of Rimu furniture for me.
Superb work Kittyhawk, and "an example" to us all. Before I became aware of plastic scale aircraft kits (Airfix, etc) in the '50's/'60's, in UK we had a range of balsa kits to make static scale aircraft models, the recommended techniques for which are/were very similar to those you have described above.

But take, for example, the wing/fuselage fairing (where the wing root joins the fuselage), or the prop boss, it's one thing trying to get that very complex shape into a piece of balsa (with a sharp knife and sandpaper) and entirely another to achieve such a brilliant result in a hardwood! Hats off to you Sir.