Rural Missouri - July 2019 - 9

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Culver Props takes to the skies with wooden propellers

Above left: A carving lathe roughs out the shape on the propeller blank, getting it within 1/16th of an inch of the finished piece. Above right: Alaina manages to keep the polish on her
fingernails while sanding the finish between coats of varnish on this prop made from hard maple and birch. Culver Props supplies a wide variety of wooden propellers for pilots.
and apprentice Katrina Sallee, and occasionally her
daughters, Abigail and Paige - she has shaped more
than 1,000 propellers and taken at least 800 from
start to finish. She will turn out an average of 120
propellers per year, sending them as far away as Sri
Lanka, South Africa, Australia and Japan.
She's made propellers for many types of machines:
vintage World War I biplanes, windmills and even one
for a brush burner fan. Her smallest fit a model airplane while her largest was a 103-inch prop made for
a Bristol F.2 fighter plane. "Unconventional is probably our specialty," Alaina says. "We are always going
to do something different."
A Culver propeller begins life as a stack of planed
maple, birch or mahogany lumber. Before it takes
shape Alaina will have a lengthy conversation with
the customer. "We will talk about the plane, their
engine, their expectations of what it is going to do
performance-wise," she says. "A propeller is kind of
like picking a gear in your truck. But you only get to
pick one gear."
Based on this information, she makes some calculations to determine the pitch of the finished prop.
Then she chooses from 300 templates for just the
right one. A typical propeller takes six days to complete from start to finish. Some of this is drying time
for the glue and finish, so Alaina always has props in
various stages of completion.
The template is transferred to the 3/4-inch wood,
multiple pieces are cut on a bandsaw and the parts
are laminated into the propeller blank. This goes into
a press where it will dry under pressure for 14 hours.
From here it goes into the carving lathe, which follows
a pattern to shape the prop.
At this stage Alaina works her magic. She cuts the
critical airfoil freehand on the bandsaw, then sands it
with a careful eye that comes from years of practice.

Make a mistake at this point and an air-worthy prop
quickly becomes a wallhanger. She will spend five
hours sanding a typical prop, and another 30 minutes
ensuring it is perfectly balanced.
"Within five minutes I can take the belt sander and
get all of those marks out that the lathe makes," Alaina says. "But it's everything after that, the polishing,

the pretty, making sure the back is absolutely flat.
That's what takes time."
Once shaped to perfection, the prop is varnished
or painted according to the customer's desire. It takes
three days just to apply the finish. No two props are
ever the same, a fact that makes all the hard work
worthwhile for Alaina.
The market for wooden props still exists because
they are lighter and cheaper than their metal counterparts, Larry says. They also are more forgiving if the
pilot hits something.
"A metal prop is heavy and $6,000 to $8,000,"
he says. "Our props are light and $500 to $1,200."
He adds that they also are more authentic for those
restoring vintage airplanes and for manufacturers such as Airdrome Aeroplanes in Holden, which
sources many Culver Props for its World War I reproductions.
While Alaina spends most of her days at the shop,
she relishes the work. For her it is an extension of
the craftwork she used to do as a girl. "I don't ever
hate going to work," she says. "I like being here and
especially after Grandpa died, this is where he is."
She points to the loft where the walls are lined with
propeller templates, some dating back to the original owner and some made by her dad and grandpa.
"There's 300 templates up there, and I want to make
all of them."
You can contact Culver Props at 573-364-6311 or
find them online at www.culverprops.com or on Facebook.
Alaina and her father, Larry Smith, pose with several finished
propellers. While Alaina has taken over the family business
started by her grandfatherr, she still gets advice from her
father when something new comes along.
JULY 2019 | RURALMISSOURI.COOP

9


http://www.culverprops.com http://www.RURALMISSOURI.COOP

Rural Missouri - July 2019

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Rural Missouri - July 2019

Contents
Rural Missouri - July 2019 - Cover1
Rural Missouri - July 2019 - Cover2
Rural Missouri - July 2019 - Contents
Rural Missouri - July 2019 - 4
Rural Missouri - July 2019 - 5
Rural Missouri - July 2019 - 6
Rural Missouri - July 2019 - 7
Rural Missouri - July 2019 - 8
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Rural Missouri - July 2019 - Cover3
Rural Missouri - July 2019 - Cover4
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