Building a paper Spitfire: Part 1

Building a paper Spitfire: Part 1

Paper artist Suhail Shaikh is currently designing and making a scale model of a Spitfire Vb AB273 sculpture that will be on display as part of the Courage & Devotion exhibition at The Atkinson which opens 26 June 2021.

The Atkinson Spitfire project is a joy for me; keeps me focussed and productive and at the end of each day I have something to look at with great satisfaction. The excitement procured is essential for my sanity.

I just wanted to share with you a few images of progress made in the past month. The initial stage is always on the slow side. Getting drawings and details together from books and off the net, planning out the scale, verifying proportions, choosing a construction method for efficiency and durability and making sure I have the material at hand, especially in this period when my usual suppliers are shutting shop.

So, these initial gymnastics aside, I have been working with a calendar that gives me 4 months of build and finishing time, and the rest for testing, packing, transport and installation. I have my fingers crossed permanently (even if its hard to build a Spitfire that way) that by the month of May, things should be a little smoother regarding cross-channel logistics.

I began with the main wingspan. This is where the plane will be split up for assembly and be suspended from, so it has to be stiff and light. You can see the structural detail of 2 play corrugated cardboard sandwiched between two layers of card that in itself is cross-ply glued down. Very, very strong.

The trailing spar followed and the detail of the outer wings telescoping with zero play was built. Zero tolerances so that the final wing assembly is tight with clean lines. Around this I built the central core of the plane, which will take the cantilevered loads of the nose, the tail and of course the wings. Once this core was shaped I began building the nose profiles to check their strength to weight ratio at this large scale. These bits of cardboard act as formers and prevent the outer paper layer from collapsing into the fuselage when the plane is handled.

The same for the wings. I built a box-like structure to give it it’s basic shape, make it strong to avoid any twisting and bending. I will be adding ribs to it as formers later on. the present ribs are just a basic guide to the aerofoil shape.

All the frames and ribs already have the Spitfires shape built into it, defining the outer envelope’s shape, so each one had to be planned out keeping the shape and proportions in mind. At the moment it looks like a lot of cardboard, but the shape shalt come forth the moment I put the surface skin on.

I had to build the nose section twice, since the first one was too heavy. Wing to body mating confirmed, I start on the cockpit.

One could argue that the cockpit will not really be visible and it is mostly true, but one never knows what angle it will be viewed from or photographed from and it would be terrible to have a gap visible. Plus, there are always purists lurking, too happy to point out something that’s ‘off’, so we won’t give them the pleasure. And, I just love the detailing, it gives me my kicks.

The air cylinders and oxygen cylinders were moulded in paper off ping pong balls and finished with paint. The pneumatic piping goes in the floor up to the firewall and then covered with the rudder assembly and the control column assembly which you can see as just paper and after painting and installation.

You can imagine what a pain a dropped spanner or screwdriver in those confines meant…resulting in either a very irritated mechanic, or an even more irritated pilot after a loop and a roll!

I’m working on the right hand side now, have cut all the pieces and painted them, will assemble tomorrow.

Share your stories

Courage & Devotion looks at the lives of the Polish airmen based at RAF Woodvale and the surrounding area during World War 2. We are looking for any stories or objects you think may be relevant to the exhibition, please get in touch. Email

Posted on 5 February 2021 under Exhibition, General news

Share your comments