Rocket Build: The Skytracer

Full view of the completed Skytracer

Seeking to up the challenge rating after the simple Alpha rocket build, I chose the Skytracer, a Level 2 rocket by Estes. It’s a sleek looking starfighter-like rocket with horizontal wings that end in weapon pods, a tail fin with fuel pods, and a taper nose cone. It also uses wooden dowels to add some technical detail to the horizontal wings.

It’s certainly a more difficult build. My biggest problem was the fins. My standard approach with rocket fins is to apply a thin strip of Elmer’s glue to the base edge, let it get tacky (slightly sticky) and then attach it to the body tube. Usually, it works just fine. With this model, I simply could not get the fins to stick. It took me an hour of trying, failing, and trying again to finally get a good fit.

After that, the build went quickly, and I ran into my second challenge: the paint job.

I sealed the balsa wood fins with my traditional Elmers glue solution (glue + water) and sanded them down. I then skipped right to spray painting the base coat, without priming it.

This was a mistake.

The paint made the fins “fuzzy” – they’re slightly rough to the touch. In addition, the attachment points between the fins and the body aren’t smooth; there’s beading that went from being subtle to obvious after the paint job. At the time, I didn’t care and pressed on to the next thing I wanted to test: the decals.

All of the rockets I’m building are 30-40 years old. The balsa wood and card board tubes aren’t really impacted by the passage of all that time. The decals however, are a different story. They’re basically very thin plastic attached to cardboard. In the Alpha build, the decals worked fine, but given past history, I knew this might not always be the case.

I was right. I placed the Skytracer decals in water, same as I usually do, but when I went to apply them, the decals disintegrated. I ended up using leftover decals from a different kit, which worked fine and gave me a distinctive version of the Skytracer.

The Skytracer also included modeling clay, which is meant to be inserted into the nose cone to counterbalance the weight of the wing assembly and increase the rocket’s flight stability. Unfortunately, the passage of time turned the clay into a rocket; I’ll need to find and shape some new clay before flying the rocket.

Future Improvements

Based on this build and my experience with the Alpha, there are some things I want to try:

  • Identify a new sealant: As with the Alpha, the diluted Elmer’s glue solution was ok, but not great. It could be that I’m not as patient as I once was, but the Elmer’s solution doesn’t provide the sort of smooth surface I was hoping for.
  • Primer: With the Alpha and Skytracer, I didn’t use primer to prepare the models before painting. The end result is adequate, but I can do better. And, as I get into the more advanced models, I want to do better. For my next builds, I want to experiment with applying a primer coat before adding the base coat. It requires time and patience, but with the holiday’s coming up, I’ll have the time. And I can be patient. Probably.
  • Masking: Unlike the Alpha which had a different colored fin and thus required masking, the Skytracer had a basic white base coat. The higher-level rockets usually involve more complicated paint schemes. For my next build or two, I want to experiment with masking techniques.

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