How To Build An RC Helicopter: A Complete Guide For Beginners


How To Build An RC Helicopter

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Remote-controlled (RC) vehicles, especially RC helicopters, are a fun hobby to get the whole family outside playing! Whether you purchase out of box ready or build your own with a kit, they’re a wonderful and accessible recreational activity for all ages.

How do I build an RC helicopter as a beginner? To build an RC helicopter, you will need to:

  • Choose between building from a kit, doing a full DIY project, or just buying a prebuilt model.
  • Gather the materials needed, especially specialized tools like a helicopter pitch gauge, Dubro balancer, metric hex or metric nut drivers.
  • Ensure all parts are balanced and even.

When it comes to building your own RC helicopter, there are a ton of different types you can choose from. Between indoor, outdoor, gas powered, electric powered, and the different phases of completion you can purchase them in, there are a few things you should know before you even open the toolbox. Continue reading to find out!

Why an RC Helicopter Over All the Other Vehicles?

Between fast driving cars, motorized boats, and even remote-controlled dirt bikes, it can almost be overwhelming when deciding on which all-terrain vehicle to purchase. However, the helicopter has always been the go-to favorite of many people.

It’s perfect for families! Not only is it an excuse to get everyone off their phones and outside, it’s also a great way to remember what playing is. When was the last time you went into an open field and felt the grass between your toes as you looked up into a clear, blue sky? If your answer is anything other than, “Yesterday,” an RC helicopter controller should be in your hands.

It can also be in the hands of your kids. They’ll be practicing how to refine their fine motor skills from the intricate building process and they will also gain a sense of responsibility from knowing they had a hand in creating such a machine. (Plus having an engineer as a kid wouldn’t be too bad either!)

Between the building itself and the reward of flying, RC helicopters are a perfect fit for anyone!

Store bought vs. Kit Built vs. DIY: Is It Worth Building Your Own?

We all agree having an RC helicopter is the goal. The question now is, what is the best route to achieve that goal?

When it comes to building an RC helicopter, there are a few routes you can take: Pre-built RC helicopters, Kit built RC helicopters, and DIY RC helicopters.

Pre-built RC Helicopters

These are exactly what the name states; these are any remote-controlled helicopters that come completely built and ready to use. When you walk down the toy store aisle, these are the RC’s that greet you.

Pre-built RC Helicopters do have their advantages, especially at the beginner level. They’re typically less powerful with softer propeller materials and lower speeds. They also have the obvious advantage of being ready to use straight from the box. All of these combined create a package deal ready for any beginner.

However, because they are designed to be used immediately, most usually fall on the more expensive side. Another disadvantage is that most are not sold with a battery and/or charger (if electric). This could delay the process and push the bill higher than the price you see on the tag.

One final aspect to look out for when purchasing Pre-built RC helicopters is longevity goals of the unit. Are you looking for something that will last until its first, fatal crash? Or are you looking for something that can stand the test of time and be improved upon as you become more advanced? If your answer is the latter, consider skipping a Pre-built and building your own RC helicopter with a kit.

Kit Built RC Helicopters

For more control over the specs and functionality of your Remote-Controlled Helicopter, consider purchasing a kit built one. These kits contain all the necessary basic parts needed to build an RC helicopter at home.

It should be noted that some kits may require outside purchasing of mechanical parts and/or specific tools needed to properly build the RC helicopter. The manual that comes with the kit will go into further detail about what units should be obtained.

Although ordering parts may seem like a more expensive endeavor, the advantage is more control over the aspects of the RC helicopter’s needs. Whether if you want it to have more speed, control, or even fire-painted wings, the choice is yours with a Kit Built RC Helicopter.

Full DIY RC Helicopters

If you really want to have full control over every aspect of the RC helicopter, then a full Do-It-Yourself build is the best option. Not only will you be creating the main body, swashplate, rotor head, cyclic control system, and tail rotor, you’ll also be installing the servo!

The advantage of a Full DIY build is absolutely the direct impact on specs of the RC helicopter. You have complete control over the speed, materials, aesthetic, and power. There is also a chance to save some money due to the ability to purchase the parts separately from different manufacturers and sellers.

One drawback of building a remote-controlled helicopter from scratch is the risk of malfunction. One crossed wire or slightly imbalanced rotor blades could lead to a devastating crash landing. Because of this, a Full DIY Built RC Helicopter is not recommended for beginners and even advanced RC enthusiasts should be careful to make sure everything is connected and built properly. 

There is also a need for mechanical and electronic knowledge in order to complete a Full DIY build. Some physics knowledge wouldn’t hurt either! Though it may seem a daunting task, it is doable with lots of patience and intuition.

Unless you have access to a manufacturing plant, you will need to purchase parts from outside sources- regardless if it is store bought, kit built, or built completely on your own.

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What You Need to Build a RC Helicopter

No matter how you decide to build an RC helicopter, there are specialty tools you will want to add to an already extensive toolbox. This is due to the unique needs of each part as a remote-controlled helicopter works at higher rotary speeds, causing vibrations. These vibrations would loosen and damage ordinary screws and bolts.

Building an RC helicopter also means a need for specialized equipment in order to ensure each part is correctly measured as one false reading could lead to the RC helicopter from being able to take off, or worse- crash land.

The Must Haves for Building an RC Helicopter

Luckily, John Salt from RC Helicopter Fun has created an extensive list of his “must have tools.” The absolute most important ones needed (especially for a Full DIY build) are listed below.

  1. Helicopter Pitch Gauge– helps to set the pitch angle (basically controls how smooth the helicopter flies through the air) on the main rotor blades
  2. Dubro Balancer– balances main and tail rotors
    • Without proper balancing, the RC helicopter will spin out of control
  3. Metric Hex/Alan Drivers– as stated before, there are specialized screws used in RC helicopters due to the constant vibrations. These drivers are fitted for those screws.
    • Invest in sizes: 1.5, 2.0, 2.5, and 3.0mm
  4. Metric Nut Drivers– to keep the RC helicopter’s weight at the lowest possible, they use specific nut sizes.
    • These nut sizes are: 4.0, 5.5, 7.0, and 8.0mm.

And You’ll Probably Want These As Well

The following tools/accessories are not completely necessary to build an RC helicopter; however, they are a benefit to invest in.

  1. Specialty Drivers– these include but are not limited to Philips Heads, Flat Heads, and Torx.
  2. Ball Link Pliers – these are similar to needle nose pliers, but they have a slit on the end of each tooth. This makes removing and attaching ball links within RC helicopters a lot easier.
  3. Swashplate Leveling Tools – The swashplate absolutely has to be set to 120 degrees CCPM and leveled properly, or else the RC helicopter being built will not steer properly.
  4. Computerized Charger– this is specifically for electric powered RC helicopters. It will save you a headache and frustration to invest in a higher-end one now rather than later.
  5. Basic Tweezers Set– While building an RC helicopter, you’re going to come across a lot of narrow spaces. Tweezers become a handy tool to gravitate towards in these situations.
  6. Metric Ruler– Because precision is so important when building an RC helicopter, most of the measurements come in the metric system.
  7. Epoxy Glue– A lot of the parts need to be in a specific setup in order to function. Epoxy glue will help keep them in place.
  8. RC Soldering Tools– If you are looking into building an electric RC helicopter, you’ll need to solder wires.
    • In this tool purchase, consider investing in wire strippers.
  9. Calipers- These can be either digital or old-fashioned. The main use for these is measuring diameters of the smaller parts.
  10. DMM (Digital MultiMeter)– This will measure battery voltages, small current loads, and diagnose opens and shorts in wiring harnesses or circuits.

Different Types of Remote Controlled Helicopters

Just like how there’s an extensive world of options when it comes to remote controlled vehicles, there are even more options when it comes to remote controlled helicopters! No matter which type of RC helicopter you choose to build, each will have its own advantages and disadvantages.

Gas vs. Electric Powered

It’s important to know the different build needs between gas and electric powered RC helicopters. As a beginner building your RC helicopter, it may be easier to focus on electric powered rather than gas. However, if you’re ready for a build challenge, read on!

Gas

Gas powered RC helicopters usually run off of a mixture of regular gasoline and racing two-cycle engine oil. Their engine designs are similar to those you would find in a gas powered chainsaw.

Some important build designs you’ll want to keep in mind are:

  • Size- They are larger than their electric powered siblings with the average unit weighing around 4.5kg (9.9lbs). This bulkier build does mean there is a need for higher power (around 2.5hp).
  • Rotor Blade Spin Rate- The gas powered RC helicopters will have a faster rotor blade spin. This is important when building an RC helicopter as this will have a higher vibration
  • Support Structures- Because there is a higher vibration rate on gas powered RC helicopters, you’ll want to reinforce any support structures for the rotor blades during the build. This can be done with something as simple as craft glue.
  • Engine- If you choose to build a gas powered RC helicopter, you’ll want the 2-stroke gasoline engine. This will give you the most common engine build and allow for easier maintenance. Most repair parts are built around the dimensions and needs of a 2-stroke gas engine.

Advantages of Building a Gas-Powered RC Helicopter

The main advantage when it comes to using gas powered RC helicopters over electric powered is the flight time. Most gas-powered ones can run for up to thirty minutes before needing to be refuelled. The other advantage of this is that getting back in the air is a simple process that takes minutes. Just refuel the unit and start flying once more!

They are also very user friendly, especially for beginners. Their heavier weight forces a smoother transition between movements. As John Salt put it, “More weight means more stability and longer, more pronounced cyclic commands to slow or change directions.”

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One note to keep in mind when building a gas-powered RC helicopters is the fact that they have a higher cost. It may not be the most beginner friendly If you have some experience with building larger electric powered RC helicopters or even some nitro engine RC helicopters, then a gas-powered RC helicopter is the most logical next step.

Electric

Straight off the bat, electric powered RC helicopters are the cheapest option when it comes to building. The kits are less expensive than their gas-powered counterparts, and there are more options for swapping parts across different manufacturers.

Although the parts themselves are cheaper, a major expense when building an electric powered RC helicopter is the battery packs and chargers. Most electric powered RC helicopters run off of LiPo batteries, which have a “C Rating.” This rating is crucial in extending the life of the battery in general. You can opt to use NiMH or NiCad batteries instead in your build, but they will have a lower total voltage. This will mean sacrificing total flight time.

An electric powered RC helicopter doesn’t have as long of a flight time as a gas-powered RC helicopter. Although they are typically lighter, the entire power must come from a single battery source. Along with that, reflight is next to impossible unless you have spare, properly charged, and correct voltage-need batteries ready to go.

Although the batteries may seem a pain, the advantage of building an electric powered RC helicopter is that they are quieter. There isn’t a noisy 2-stroke engine with a loud exhaust system; instead, a small motor quietly hums away.

One note to keep in mind when deciding between building a gas powered RC versus an electric powered RC is the complexity of the needs from each.

Indoor vs. Outdoor

Depending on your preferred location of the flight, there may be different environmental aspects you should keep in mind as you build your own RC helicopter. For beginners, it might be cheaper to focus on building your RC helicopter for an indoor setting.

Indoor

Since ceilings exist, indoor remote-controlled helicopters are typically less powerful than their outdoor equivalent. Their maximum height is limited, and so is their power output. In your own build, consider the power-to-weight ratio in relation to the highest point in your house.

Indoor RC helicopters have the advantage of little to no wind. Because of this, your build can have a higher rate of error and still function normally. Along with this, lighter and more malleable material can be used when building as there isn’t the risk of high winds ripping them to shreds. This might save your furniture and pets some scratches as well!

Although the environment is a smaller setting, most indoor RC helicopters have a limited wireless connection. So, you’ll have to physically be closer to it. This situation can be alleviated by opting away from a pre-built kit and building your RC helicopter from a kit build with ordered parts.

Outdoor

Remote-controlled helicopters built for outdoor use have to be more rugged. You cannot skip out on heavier duty materials as the greatest elemental factor has been added: wind. Even a slight breeze could extend the angle of the propeller too far and cause a crash landing.

With that in mind, an outdoor RC helicopter has to be tough enough to handle a crash landing on a multitude of materials. However, it shouldn’t be so heavy that it could do serious damage if dropped. When building your RC helicopter, it is suggested to use copper-based materials as it is light enough to not become like a falling stone without sacrificing the strength needed to withstand the elements.

Because most of the material will be alkali metals, the unit itself will be heavier. Thus, it will need higher power in order to soar through the skies. If the power needs to be higher, this means the cost of building an outdoor RC helicopter will also be higher.

The final drawback of building an outdoor RC helicopter is the flight regulations and restrictions. Although these regulations exist, it is still worth learning them in order to enjoy the great outdoors with your own RC helicopter!

Options for Your RC Helicopter Build

Because there’s a lot more we could go into in the world of building RC helicopters, here are some links you might find helpful, especially as a beginner!

Build Kits

Build kits for RC helicopters, like this one on Amazon, are not difficult to find, and are where most beginners should start. You have all the pieces you need, and at the end of the build, you are very likely to have something that actually flies.

Thang Engineer Coke Can Helicopter

If you’re looking to make a simple rc helicopter, then you should check out the below video from Thang engineer. This would be a great first build to get the process down before moving on something more complex (and nicer looking!).

Complete DIY RC Helicopter

If you are feeling ambitious enough to build your own completely from scratch, check out Ben Hui’s guide! It offers step by step instructions for how to build each part of the helicopter and photos.

Quickstart Guide to Actually Flying

Whether you build an indoor, outdoor, gas, or electric remote-controlled helicopter, they all have the same take off and landing procedure. Follow this quickstart guide to help get your RC helicopter into the air!

  1. Place on a flat surface in an open area. This can be on a tabletop when inside, or in a parking lot if outside. The less wind there is, the better!
  2. Hover above the landing pad by a few inches.Consider this time for troubleshooting as it’s better to fall a few inches rather than a few feet.
  3. Test to see if:
    1. There is any wind
    2. Which way is it being blown towards
    3. Any issues with controls
  4. Fly around! Make adjustments as you go from the controller. If at any time during flight you’re going to crash land, let go of the throttle! You want the blades to stop spinning so there’s the least amount of damage.
  5. To land, continue to slowly hover while moving down to the landing pad. Hover over it for a few moments, just like when you were taking off.
  6. Once the RC helicopter is back on the landing pad, let go of the throttle completely.

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Common Problems With RC Helicopter Builds: Troubleshooting Guide

As you are taking off and flying with your newly built RC helicopter, you may encounter a few common errors. There are always different possibilities as to the cause of these problems, but below is a list of the most common troubleshooting you should start with.

My RC helicopter won’t take off!”

  • Battery- especially if you built an electric powered RC helicopter, the batteries in the actual engine may have died or been damaged. Check the C Rating of the batteries to ensure you haven’t gone over the allotted voltage.
    • While you’re at it, you may want to check the batteries in the remote control itself.
  • Loose shaft link– if the shaft link is loose, there isn’t enough upward thrust to pull the RC helicopter off the ground. Spin the hollow shaft (highest propeller) slightly, if the shaft below it (and lower propellers) don’t spin at all or spin at a slower speed, the shaft link is loose.
    • Tighten any and all screws around the shaft link.
    • If it is a glue rather than screws, add superglue for more support.
  • Worn parts– take a look over the entire unit for any parts that look worn down. This can be anything from rusty to loose. Focus mainly on the gears, as they can be the first parts to wear down.
    • Slowly spin the propellor blades and feel for any resistance.
      • If there is even slight resistance, the gears may have worn down their interlocking teeth and should be replaced.
  • Weak receiver– although it’s a simple fix, it usually ends up being the last thing people check! The receiver on the RC helicopter itself may have a weak signal. Oppositely, the remote controller itself could be sending out a weak signal.
    • Be sure to use fresh batteries on each flight to eliminate this possibility.

It keeps spinning circles whenever I try to fly!”

  • Gyro Stabilizer– when building your RC helicopter, which type of gyro stabilizer you invest in will make a huge impact on flight controllability.
    • If you are using the disk system or have a flybar, use a level, ruler, and scale to ensure they are perfectly balanced on the RC helicopter.
    • If you are using a MEMS (micro-electromechanical system), check the meter reading for any signs of errors. The manual should have a list of error reports and solutions depending on the reading.
    • Another solution is to reverse the direction of the gyro stabilizer altogether. However, this is not guaranteed to work all the time.
  • Balanced Blades- no matter what type of RC helicopter you build, the blades must be balanced across all three axis. Imagine cutting the RC helicopter in half in a vertical and horizontal direction. On each side, the blades should be the same:
    • Distance- distance from the center of the RC helicopter
      • Note: you can use the main shaft as the measuring position
    • Weight- as a recommendation, measure in the metric system (grams, kilograms, etc.) for a more accurate reading.
    • Material- although the weight and distance is more important, using the same materials will help reduce the risk of changes in these conditions due to outside forces.
      • In other words, if you used silicon for one side of the wing but plastic for the other, they may expand differently in the heat, causing an imbalance
    • Width
      • If any of these are off, even slightly, it could be causing an imbalance and for the RC helicopter to tail out (spin in circles).

My main blade came off!”

  • Broken swashplate- if your main blade (top most propellor) and flybar paddle unit have come off your RC helicopter, it is a breakage in the ball link connectors. This means the swashplate isn’t connecting properly to the main shaft.
    • Resecure the ball links with the ball link pliers.
    • If the ball links are completely damaged, use model glue as a substitute for the ball links.
      • Note: this is a quick repair and not guaranteed long term! A new swashplate may need to be purchased.

Conclusion

It might seem like a daunting task at first, but building your own Remote-Controlled Helicopter can be a really great activity to do along with your entire family. Building anything is never easy but when you finish the build it is always quite rewarding!

The instructions included in kit builds are challenging enough to challenge you without being too technical for the average person. They also give you the freedom of some customization with expansive parts to add on in order to create a unique RC helicopter experience.

For the more knowledgeable builder, a full build can open the expansive doors of complete control over specs and aesthetic of the RC helicopter. Interchanging parts and really customizing the helicopter to fit the needs of the user, DIY RC helicopter building is a great challenge to excite any long-time fan.

There’s also a huge community dedicated to the joys of remote-controlled helicopter flying. Complete with meet-ups, competitions, and even tips on how to better your flight. So, whether if it’s for the kids, elderly, or even yourself, building an RC helicopter is the perfect fit for almost anyone no matter their age. 

Matt Robbs

I love to spend time with my wife and 3 kids. There is no better way to get them off the couch and outside than for us to grab the RC cars or boat and enjoy the sunshine!

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