Getting Started in Homebuilding, Part 10 of 11

Budd Davisson, EAA/Experimenter, 1994

Finished Components - to Buy or Not to Buy

Sure looks tempting, doesn't it? Just as you were getting ready to build the jig board for the horizontal tail, you ran across an ad for a company that is already building them. Two-bits spent on a phone call, you get the price and you choke. But not so much you quit breathing. .

There you are in the old quandary. Does it make sense? Does trading a bunch of hard earned green backs for something your elbow grease can build, buy you enough and solve enough problems that it is worth it?

Good question.

Since just about any part of any homebuilt is available from someone some where already to bolt on, the buy or build decision comes up a lot more often than it used to. In some ways, this is obviously good. In others, it makes for a lot more anguished hours trying to make what are some very gray decisions. Once in a while the decision will be black and white, but not often.

There are lots of good reasons for going ahead and writing the check for the part, whether it's a stabilizer or a pre-punched instrument panel. It doesn't make any difference what the part is. Unfortunately, for every reason to buy the component, there is an equally good reason not to buy it.

Yes, there are a very few components, generally those requiring a bunch of machine work, that fall into the "must buy" category, but we're not going to worry about those. Not many of us are tooled up for machine work.

Let's get organized for a change at look at the pros and cons of buying versus building components. Then let's do a couple dollar and cents (or is that sense?) evaluations.

The benefits of buying
The "pro" column is going to be filled with reasons that have nothing to do with price. They generally have to do with convenience and skill factors, although tooling and out-and-out lack of confidence figures in there too.

Speeds up Building Process. Convenience and impatience are probably the two driving factors behind most buy decisions. And they are hard to argue against. On the one hand, the builder can pick up the phone, rattle off his credit card number or drop a fat check in the mail, which reduces the building time of that part of the airplane to the amount of time it takes to get it delivered. His entire input will consist of waiting impatiently by the door for the mail man. If the delivery time is acceptably short, the building process moves ahead. If it isn't, the process hits a bottle neck and what looked like a benefit turns into a liability. More on that later.

The Component is Built Correctly. Assuming the supplier knows what he is doing, the assumption on the builder's part is that the component will come to him built to plans and ready to use. It eliminates all of the jigging and tooling that must be done to get the part just right. That's what part of the price is for. The supplier invested his time in developing hard tooling for the part and the buyer is paying for that time.

The Builder Doesn't Have the Skill and Doesn't Want to Learn it. You'll get tired of hearing us constantly say anyone can learn any skill. The back side to that statement, however, is he has to want to learn it in the first place. If he doesn't have the time or inclination, then that could very easily be reason enough to eliminate that skill from the project. That is the biggest reason there is a steady market in completely welded or riveted fuselage and tail assemblies for Skybolts, Pitts, RVs, etc. People think the skill is too hard to learn, so they pony-up the cash and buy it. At the same time, they are leaping nearly a year ahead in their project. So the decision has two benefits, from their point of view: It eliminates a skill and saves a huge amount of building time.

Builder Doesn't Want to Tackle Critical Component. Some components, like motor mounts, are more critical than others, both in alignment and in fabrication. If the builder's confidence or time is such he'd rather not have to worry about it, then buying that component is an investment in peace of mind. Parts that fall into that category include completed spar/wing fitting assemblies, control torque tubes, landing gears, etc.

Tools Aren't Available to Complete Operations. The lack of proper tooling is a valid reason to purchase a finished, or semi-finished component. This is probably more true of aluminum airplanes than others because the material requires some specialized tooling to do a few basic operations. Very few builders, for instance, have 8 foot shears or breaks sitting around. Those operations can be faked, but the results almost never approach the quality of the factory work.

Reasons To Build, Not Buy
The reasons to build, rather than buy, the component sometimes have absolutely nothing to do with the builder. Others, like finances, are strictly builder oriented.

Component is Too Expensive. Don't you just hate to have to worry about money? Unfortunately, however, the cost of a component is probably the biggest deal breaker. It also becomes less of a factor the smaller the component. For instance a completely welded Skybolt fuselage costs $11,000, while the landing gear is $900. When sitting in the living room agonizing, it is a lot easier to write a check with three figures than one with five.

I Want to Be Able to Say, I Did It. Pride! That is a great reason not to buy. Being able to stand by your airplane and say you did it all yourself is the stuff homebuilding is made of. That's where we came from. But, that's not for everyone.

Builder Should Tool-up For Future Use. If tools are lacking to make a particular component, the builder should look down the road and see if the tools are something he could use in later projects. Big sheet metal tools, like shears and breaks, won't be in the cards unless there another couple sheet metal airplanes in this builder's future. The same thing is true of heavy machines like milling machines. However, welding equipment, metal lathes, power hacksaws are all available used at price levels that make them affordable. The builder will have to look at his own future and make that decision.

Supplier Quality May be a Problem. The unfortunate thing about buying something handmade is there is no way of knowing for sure what the quality will be until it shows up on the front door. Even if the supplier is willing to take it back, that amount of time was lost and there will undoubtedly be a lot of shouting and screaming before the return is agreed upon. Who needs that aggravation? More on that later.

Supplier Delays May Eat up Time. Some parts from some suppliers are sitting on the shelves ready to ship. Most of the time, however, the parts are either custom made for each order, or the supplier keeps a very short inventory. That being the case, the amount of time it takes to get the part to the workshop door could just as easily be spent building the part and the money saved. This depends on whether the skill and equipment factors would let the builder make the part in the first place.

Do's and Don'ts of Buying
Okay, so let's assume the decision has been made: The checkbook is laying on the work bench and the builder is pen in hand and ready to commit. The first word that should be said to him is "wait." Wait at least long enough to fill in a few squares in an imaginary check list that will, in the long run, save him a huge amount of aggravation and probably some money, as well.

All suppliers are not created equal and it is absolutely necessary the builder sort out the rotten apples before tossing the envelope in the mail slot.

Check Suppliers Reputation. It would amaze most homebuilders if they could stand back and listened to what is being said about some companies that supply finished components. Some of the biggest have the worse reputations while some of the smallest have the best. For that reason ,it is important to call others who are building the same airplane and ask them their experiences in buying finished components. The questions should center first on quality, then on customer service and finally customer back-up.

Get Complete Price. Make sure the price you think you are paying is the price you are actually paying. The bottom line figure should include the component, crating, shipping and insurance.

Confirm Shipping Date and Withhold Payment. Make certain you have a confirmed shipping date. Don't settle for a "...sometime early next month..." That is too indefinite and too easy to let slip. Nail the supplier down to a time window that gives them a week or two-week grace period, but no more than that or they won't take the deadline seriously.

Get Firm Return Policy. There should be a written agreement of some sort in which both parties clearly understand the terms under which the component can be returned. The usual acceptable reasons for returning something are poor fit, bad quality or overdue arrival. The definition of quality, however, can sometimes get pretty sticky. Obviously, a supplier wouldn't ship something unless if at least meets their quality standards. Therein lies the rub. Their standards may be well below yours and the stage is set for a rhubarb. That's one of the biggest reasons for checking their reputation for quality and/or service back-up in the first place. A reputable supplier won't ship trash and will take it back, if the customer isn't satisfied.

An Example
Just for the fun of it, let's do a short case study using a Skybolt horizontal tail as an example. The component is a steel tube frame with sheet metal ribs formed into "C" sections.

The structure is fairly straight forward with the leading edge bent cold. The hinges are simple pins through bushing stock and welded to pads. The sheet ribs are all different sizes, so each would need either a steel form block for forming or a good guy on a sheet metal break. As an alternative, the ribs could be made out of 1/4" tubing with an abbreviated truss between the top and bottom. If a person were to scratch-build the stab, the tubing rib alternative would make the most sense.

If the complete horizontal tail assembly was bought it would come with the elevator and trim tabs all hinged and ready to cover. The cost including crating but excluding freight would be $950. The raw material costs would be less than $125. If the pre-bent and ready to install rib package was purchased, the cost would go up another $225 (ribs for horizontal and vertical tail are $300 total).

Using an apples to apples comparison, both with sheet ribs, the raw materials would save about $600 over the finished components. If the pre-bent leading and trailing edges, along with the pre-welded hinges and ribs were purchased, but the builder welded them all together, the cost would be $405 (approximately) and the savings would be down to $545.

Using a much larger example on the same airplane, the fuselage, on the gear and with the tail surfaces is $11,000 with crating included. The steel cost is approximately $1,800.

The Skybolt is pretty representative of the aircraft we're talking about here, in terms of relative component versus materials cost. They say using all of their finished components nearly doubles the cost of the airframe.

In this case, to get the fuselage on the gear and ready to mount wings would take the average builder at least a year and a half, maybe more. By writing one check and building wings, while waiting three months for the fuselage to arrive, he could save all that time and get himself in the air in about half the time. Is it worth an additional $9,000? How much is that year or more of spare time worth? How much is it worth to him to be able to say he built every piece of it himself?

As we said at the beginning: The final decision is a very personal one. Only the individual builder can say what is most important to him.

The important thing is that he consider all the ramifications before writing the check. BD