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In an organized way, Ray Carlson’s basement is absolutely littered with small bottles of enamel, drawings, brushes, razor blades, Styrofoam molds and other tools of the trade for modeling enthusiasts.
Using sheets of plastic, he has cordoned off a little portion of his workspace for the sole purpose of painting his flying replicas. Stuffed into the rafters are rolls and rolls of blueprints he drafts to guide his handiwork.
He calls it “a builder’s workshop.”
Carlson, 81, has been building model airplanes in this fashion for decades. He belongs to the Checkerboard Field R/C Club, a Broadview-based group of enthusiasts who build and fly their radio-controlled model planes in a field near Loyola Medical Center in Maywood. The group meets monthly at the community center in Forest Park. Carlson, however, is a slightly different breed – and his basement is exhibit A.
In the cluttered workspace in the bowels of his home on Elgin, Carlson builds his planes entirely from scratch. No kits, no molded plastic, no plans. He flips through magazines and hobby publications looking for nothing more than a picture and a scale. From there he draws his own blueprints, usually on a 1.5-inch scale, builds his own molds and adds as much detail to each plane as he can.
“He’s one of the best builders in the club,” fellow Checkerboarder Hal Parenti said. “He’s determined to do it. It takes a lot of patience.”
Coming from Parenti, that is high praise. Like Carlson, Parenti is a “scratch builder” and has had several of his planes purchased by kit manufacturers. He has competed internationally, is a 12-time national champion and in 1999 was inducted into the Model Aviation Hall of Fame.
“Young people want to fly,” Parenti said of modeling today. “We want, and that’s what Ray wants, to get as much detail as possible.”
Carlson didn’t get serious about building model airplanes until some 25 years ago. His son, Ray Carlson Jr., needed a healthier hobby, he said.
“Years ago I wanted to get my son interested in something other than television,” Carlson said. “He was always watching television.”
Carlson Jr. didn’t take to the craft like his father. Senior, however, loved it.
“I never built from a kit. I always wanted my own plane,” Carlson said. “Who wants what everybody else has?”
After carving a piece of foam into the shape and size needed for his model, Carlson uses balsa wood and fiberglass cloth to build the wings, body and fuselage. It’s a painstaking process that requires some creative problem solving. To build the canopy that protects his miniature pilots, Carlson uses heat to shrink plastic soda bottles into the correct shape.
The planes typically carry an engine with 1.5 to 2 horsepower, and the wings span somewhere between 50 and 60 inches. Carlson’s largest model weighed 9 pounds and measured 6-feet 6-inches across the wings.
According to Carlson, not many of his neighbors know that he can spend hours at a time concentrating on the small details of an airplane, though he’s lived most of his life within the same two blocks just south of Roosevelt.
Mary Ellen Budas has shared an alley with Carlson for 12 years or so, but has only gotten to know him in the last few months.
“This quiet man I was beginning to know and bond with over the summer took on a whole different intellect,” Budas said when Carlson invited her into his workshop. “That he could look at a picture and make a blueprint and work on it steadily, and then go out and fly it; it’s the completion of a thought.”