Building Fighter Kites

These instructions cover the basics of making a modern fighter kite. Really fine fighters are only made after a search for the best balance of components and design, after making lots of kites. I’m not there yet.
A search of the Web will turn up a growing list of fighters to make. Most of them are varieties of the Indian or Hata kite and share common construction methods. I’d like to share some techniques to fill those pizza boxes with kites. Experienced builders should skip this page, as your methods are exotic and secretive. This is just for us beginners! The tools shown here are about all you need. The tweezers are helpful when you fingers feel like sausages, and the little metal ruler in the middle has a cork backing that makes it slip less often. The Felt tipped pen has a thick and thin end, useful for signing your kites or decorating them. The needle is set into a dowel with a cork to protect it and you. I’ve gathered a lot more tools but use them less as time goes by, and those at right all fit in a big coffee cup. A piece of glass, formica, masonite, or melamine laminate makes a good work surface. Look for something hard, smooth and flat that you can get cheap or free since it will get tired after a while.
Make a template
The template only needs to be of one-half of the kite, from spine to wing tip. Print the plan from your computer printer as tiled pages and assemble the sheets with a glue-stick or tape. Stick the plan onto a stiff piece of non-corrugated cardboard. Choose material that will guide a knife smoothly. If the kite has tabs that fold down over the bow-ends or a folded hem to reinforce the leading edge, provide them on the template. Cut the template out with sharp scissors or a razor knife and metal ruler. Mark the bridling points on the template along with any other information from the plans such as spar material, length or bridle dimensions. This is helpful if the kite becomes a favorite design or even if you give the template away.

Cut the sail
Cut a piece of Orcon, polyester film or other fabric slightly larger than the finished kite will be. On a flat hard surface such as glass or Formica, fold the fabric in half along the axis of the spine. Lay the template on the fabric, aligning the spine of the template with the folded edge. Cut smoothly around the template with a sharp razor knife while holding the template down firmly. This should produce a symmetrical sail.

Decorate the sail
Felt-tipped pens, acrylic paints or fabric dye pens work pretty well for Orcon kites, and polyester film can be spliced together in patterns but some of these fun methods can add weight and imbalance. The transparency of white Orcon lends itself to easy tracing of designs with paints or markers. Bold designs are more visible in the sky.
Reinforce leading edge
I run a piece of clear wrapping tape along the leading edge from spine to just past the inside edge of the tab for the bow, leaving a 1/8″ or 4mm strip, and cut away the excess. A razor knife guided by a straightedge works best. This prevents starting a rip here, especially when using poly film sails. Some kites use a glued and folded hem to serve the same function.

Make spine from bamboo
Many kites have carbon rod for spines and curve them with tensioning lines. I use bamboo because it’s cheap, holds a bend without lines and fastens easily to the sail. Carbon likes to poke through tape at the nose, while laughing in a tiny voice.

Starting with a piece of bamboo about an inch (26mm) or so in diameter, split it in half lengthwise with a sharp knife. Make the split as straight as possible. Gloves might be helpful to avoid splinters, I guess. Keep a box of bandages nearby for luck. Now split one piece from one of these halves, about 6mm or 1/4″ wide, steering the blade by twisting it to keep the cut parallel to the first split, giving you a rough spine. Shave this strip down with a razor knife by pulling the blade along, with your thumb pressing the bamboo against the blade. Sight down its length as you work and try to correct any curve that develops. As you work, go for a rectangular cross-section, with the skin on the long side. For lighter or smaller kites shave it down to a smaller width. If you make a bundle of them, you can later select the right size for the kite you are making. The piece you have produced will likely be curved slightly with the outer skin of the bamboo on the outside of the curve. Since the skin side is denser than the inside of the plant, this is normal. Keep in mind that the skin of the spine will go against the sail of the kite. Cut the spine to length a bit longer than the kite.

Getting the right spine thickness is a matter of practice and flexing the spine, testing the feel and trimming accordingly. Some plans give dimensions, but bamboo stiffness varies.

Most fighters have a curve in the spine that starts below the bow and bends the nose back a bit. Bending the spine over a hot light bulb works well although other heat sources will work. Bend it gently, as more curve can be added while flying by flexing it occasionally.

Attach spine to sail
Many types of adhesive or tape can hold the spine in place. I prefer vinyl tile adhesive, applied with a cotton swab. A quart of this water-based sticky stuff is $4 at Home Depot. The glue I use for the bow would also work here, but the tile adhesive is a little easier to work with. Coat the skin side of the spine lightly, and set it aside to dry. Now fold the sail in half down the middle with the back on the outside. Run a line of glue lightly along the edge and let this dry for a few minutes. With the sail laying flat on its face, line up the spine above the kite and press the nose in place first. The glue will grab it tightly, so take care in the positioning. Now lightly push the spine toward the nose to stretch the sail flat and “rock” it down against the sail. Now trim the ends of the spine to the edge of the sail.

Cut the bow
Even if the plans give the length for the bow, it’s good to check first by bending the rod in place on the sail and marking the length first. Sometimes minor variations in the sail size can crop up. I cut the rod by rolling it back and forth while bearing down on it with a razor knife. This is simpler than hack sawing or getting out a Dremel tool.

Carbon Rod Stiffness Data

Mount the bow
I use 3M 77 spray adhesive for the bow, as it is stronger than the glue used on the spine. I spray a bit onto a sheet of cardboard, and use a cotton swab to apply it. Other types of contact cement would be easier to use, but I like the strength of this glue and it won’t melt film fabrics.

This part can be tricky, but gets easier with practice and clean fingers.

Lay the kite face down with the tail facing you. Attach it to the work surface with some not-too sticky masking tape with one piece about an inch below each wing tip, with the sail stretched flat. Fold the tabs down to where they will go, crease them along the leading edge and let them spring back up. Apply a thin coat of contact cement to the tab and the area it will fold over. Let it dry as you apply a thin coat to the ends of the bow, a bit less than the length of the tabs. This will bond the rod in place, preventing it from creeping out of the wing tips. If you have sticky fingers now, clean them well. Bend the bow rod between your fingertips and lay it into place on the crease of the tabs flush with the outer edges. Press it in place firmly and say “Stay!” With luck, it should remain in place as you fold the tabs over and press them in place over the rod ends. Clothes pins can be used if it’s just not staying put.

Some kites have tabs that curve along the rod’s arc, and require little wrinkles to fit the curve. I make these kites from Orcon and space the wrinkles out symmetrically so they look a little better. You can’t see them in the air anyway.

Reinforce with tape
More tape makes the kite heavier and less balanced. The idea here is to prevent rips or separations from starting at points of stress, not make the kite bombproof. Lay a 3/4″ (19mm) strip of tape across the nose and tail at right angles to the spine and trimmed flush with the outer edge. Two squares of packing tape about 1/4″ (6mm) are attached to the back of the sail over the points where the bridle will attach to the bow on each side of the spine. One similar but wider piece goes on the front at the lower bridle position, to reinforce the area that will be pierced on each side of the spine. 1 1/2″ (39mm) strip of filament strapping tape the width of the spine is folded over the nose and tail tips to further strengthen these points. If the bow is under a lot of tension I’ll put squares of tape overlapping the inner ends of the tabs to help prevent creeping, but his might be wishful thinking.
Battens
These are little rods or toothpicks that keep the trailing edge from fluttering. I stick them on with 1″ x 1″ (26 x 26mm) squares of tape. They are very popular but I hate them. Okay, maybe I just mildly dislike them.

Pierce the sail
Done with a needle held in a wine cork, heated in a flame. One hole on each side of the lower spine and one each in the bits of tape in front of the bow. I poke the needle just under the bow, as it settles down there with age. Don’t overheat the needle or the holes will be huge.

Tie the bridle
To make the bridle, poke one end of a piece of line through one of the holes in the upper sail and tie it around the bow rod. Repeat with the other hole and the other end of the line. (Yellow line) Here I prefer a slipknot. Leave enough slack in this line so that the center will pull down halfway to the lower bridle point.

A foot-long piece of line with a 1 inch (26mm) loop tied in one end will form the lower bridle line. (White line) Tie the prussik loop to the center of the upper bridle as shown and put the other end through one of the lower holes and out the other, gripping the spine in a slipknot at the right length to allow the towpoint to lie near the wing tip as shown. If there is more length in the lower bridle, the bridle can tangle around the wing tip. If the bridle resembles the one shown here, the kite should fly readily but will still need fine-tuning later.

Tie a 3″ (78mm) loop to form the tow point and attach to the upper part of the lower bridle forming a second prussik loop (Blue line)

The prussik loops can be unlocked for adjusting as in Figure 3 or locked to prevent sliding as in Figure 4. A drop of water-based glue or clear nail polish to hold spine and bow knots in place can help, but superglue can abrade cotton line.

Tune the kiteIf the kite doesn’t climb raise the tow loop.
If it spins out of control, lower it.

If the kite climbs to your left, move the upper prussik to your right slightly.

If the kite climbs to your right, move the upper prussik to your left slightly.

If it doesn’t fly well at all one or both adjustments are way out of range. Just try to make it resemble the pictures here and fly some more. After a few kites you’ll be able to adjust them very well before even trying them out.

I hope this page helps someone enjoy making and flying a fighter, especially Mike!

I know that prussik is misspelled.
So what?

Originally created by, and reproduced here with permission of, Stan Kellar.

Thanks Stan

Stan Kellar of California had a very informative web site aptly named Stan’s Toy Shop. Stan recently retired his website and has granted me permission to reproduce portions of his site. Hopefully this information will prove valuable to you, I know that when I first started building Stan’s site was very helpful.

Thanks Stan!

–Bill

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