Finding The Right Substrate On The New England Coast

The stormy, wet weather on the New England coast makes for a harsh environment for exterior building materials. When east-coast firm TMS Architects contacted custom millworkers King & Company to build exterior architectural elements for a home in a coastal community, finding a substrate that could withstand the weather was a chief concern.

Of course, many materials available stand up extremely well in harsh environments, but that wasn’t the only variable. According to King & Company owner Bob King, “Tim at TMS contacted us to build some exterior architectural keystones for a house, and he was concerned about the house’s proximity to the sea and potential damage over time if we were to use something like wood.

Although I’ve used Azek in the past for similar projects, I found out about HDU through a friend of mine who is a sign maker and so I started using that a few years ago as a replacement. What really sealed the deal for this project was after I tested a sample of Coastal’s PBLT-20 HDU and saw how much finishing time it would save me. On top of that, Azek is only 1.25″ max. thickness – which meant a lot more labor for us to laminate it to the necessary thickness, whereas I could order the Precision Board 3.25″ thick no problem,” says Bob.

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After the keystones were CNC routed by King & Company, they were sent to master home builders DePiero Properties in Newburyport, MA, who primed and installed them at the custom home they are building in Newbury, MA. The keystones match perfectly with the historic ambience of Newbury, which is one of the oldest cities in the USA, and was actually settled in 1635 by about 100 pioneers from Wiltshire, England!


As you can see, the house is not completely finished yet, but we decided to share this story early as it is such an innovative application. A follow-up article with completed pictures will be published in winter of this year.

King & Company has been in business since 1986 and specializes in high-quality, custom staircases and millwork in the New England area and worldwide. Additional information about the hand-crafted masterpieces made by King & Company can be seen at:


TMS Architects have been designing high-end commercial and residential buildings throughout New England since 1984. Please visit their website for additional examples of their design skills:


DePiero Properties build custom luxury homes in Greater Boston, southern Maine and southern New Hampshire. Having completed over 200 homes throughout the course of their existence, DePiero are experts of the trade. Additional information can be seen at:

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Races in The Sky: The Jon Sharp Story

Part 2 of 2

Known as the “winningest pilot in the history of air racing,” Jon Sharp is a legend known for building fast planes and pushing them to the limit. Last week we wrote about Jon and his career working at Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works, this time we’re jumping in the cockpit with him to examine his career in air racing.


It’s hard to believe, but Jon fell into air racing almost entirely by accident. When he purchased his first airplane in 1978, a Cassutt Special named “Bilbo” from Dave Bice, his main interest was flying it around.

cassutt_tomCassutt Special designer Captain Tom Cassutt with the “Cassutt #1” in 1954.

Not long after buying the plane came a call that would change both Jon and air racing forever. Bob Downey, an old-time air-racing pilot known as the “Ole Tiger” and an air racing legend in his own right, called his friend Dave Bice to ask him to participate in an upcoming air race in Mexicali, Mexico. When Dave mentioned he had sold the plane to Jon, Bob called him next – and it’s a pretty easy guess how that call ended.


Preparation for that first race in Mexicali was no easy task and took about a month. Jon and his fledgling team worked long hours building a trailer and readying the aircraft. In addition to the solid support of his wife Patricia (which would continue throughout his racing career), Jon also benefitted with help from friend and former work colleague (from George Applebay’s sailplane shop) Steve Hill, who would function as his crew chief in Mexicali.

Race day came up pretty quick, and I asked Jon how he felt, sitting in the cockpit of Bilbo in his final moments before takeoff:

“Sitting on that runway with the race about to start, and six other planes with far-more experienced pilots right next to me, I was absolutely petrified. My nerves were completely shot and stayed that way until the engine started. I ended up placing dead last on that first race, mainly due to the typical rookie mistake of ballooning up in the turns. That was the first air race I ever saw, and it was from the cockpit.”

“I finished the race and talked with Bob (Downey), who had been watching the race from below and he gave me some pointers on how to stop that. Bob also let me use his personal metal prop so I could switch out the wooden one I was using. That wooden prop would spin at maybe 2,900 or 3,000 RPM’s max., but the metal prop spun around 3,700 or 3,800 RPM, which was a huge improvement. With help from Bob, there were two more races that weekend where I did much better.” 

16 Bob DowneyBob Downey

From the time he competed in that first race, Jon was hooked.

“As soon as I participated in that first race I was hooked and wanted to get better. I got home from the races and hadn’t been there two hours before I ordered my own metal prop. And I watched for that UPS truck for a solid month before it got there,” remembers Jon.

Jon was mentored by Bob for that race, and many more to come.

“Bob Downey acted as a sort of pilot instructor towards me. We would go over the race route, and many times Bob was already familiar with the track, so he would provide suggestions about the race from start to finish, different turns etc.,” says Sharp.

Jon originally raced in the Formula 1 race class, which changed to International Formula 1 (or IF1) in 1981 after a merger with the International Formula Midget class. As his racing skills increased, Jon started gaining sponsors, one of the first being Aeromag. In recognition of this, he changed the named of his plane from “Bilbo” to “Aero Magic.”

Aero Magic flew from 1981 until 1989, performing well, with competition wins in 1982 and 1986. He also won the Fastest Qualifier Trophy at Reno twice. Jon married his wife Patricia in 1989 and decided to move to California, putting air racing on the back burner for 8-10 months. Early in the year, he discovered that the wing on Aero Magic, while top-of-the-line when originally purchased, was far from the best available in 1990. After contemplating several ideas such as building a composite wing for Aero Magic, he ended up deciding to start with a clean sheet of paper and build a new airplane.

The new plane was to be christened “Nemesis”, and would take over a year to build. Nemesis weighed in at 520 lbs. and was powered by a blueprinted Continental 0-200, eventually producing well over 100hp and RPM’s over 4,000 (manufacturers redline was 2,750).

Jon describes the tooling process: “the parts for Nemesis were made from with a combination of HDU and polystyrene molds that were all hand carved with a wet bucket and brush hand-layup technique and cured in what we called the “Mojave-clave”, which is a 120 degree hanger in mid-summer Mojave, CA.”

Lockheed Martin Skunk Works teams up with Nemesis Air RacingNemesis next to the SR-71 Blackbird at Lockheed Martin Skunk Works

The combination of Jon’s skill on the track coupled with the well-designed Nemesis resulted in an absolutely unstoppable duo. Nemesis made its debut in 1991 at the Reno Air Races. Upon seeing the plane, another 1F1 pilot, Bruce Bohannon said to Jon: “this plane is either going to be our nemesis or yours.” After watching a qualifying run, he told Jon, “I figured it out.”

Nemesis went on to win 47 of 50 races entered from 1991 – 1999. Two of the losses were the very first and second races, the first due to Jon hearing a noise he’d never heard before, and the second the result of prop testing. Throughout its 9-year career, Jon, Nemesis, and the Nemesis Air Racing Team would live their motto “Chase the Dream…Not the Competition”, while amassing 9 Gold Reno Championships, receiving the Fastest Qualifier Trophy 6 times and winning four Pulitzer Aviation Trophies.

Air racing is of course an inherently dangerous sport. I asked Jon what one of the most shocking things he saw was and he stated: “I saw a gentleman parachute out of his Corsair once in 1995 at a race in Phoenix. His plane caught fire, and he hit the fire bottles and it went out. Well, the fire came back and he was forced to step onto the wing and parachute out of the plane.”

“Throughout its entire racing career, Nemesis had but a single problem in its life. On my very last landing at Mojave, I got a flat tire as I was landing and almost skidded off the runway. After that, I made it safely to Oshkosh, WI, for the official Nemesis retirement at the EAA Oshkosh AirVenture before it went to the Smithsonian. After retirement, I found myself in the world of gambling.” says Jon.

In 2000 Patricia, while at the hangar working, received a phone call asking if they would be ok with housing Nemesis in the Smithsonian, next to the Enola Gay, SR-71 Blackbird and the Space Shuttle Enterprise to be exact. Jon and Patricia of course agreed and donated Nemesis to the museum where it resides today. Nemesis has been described by the National Air and Space Museum as: “The most successful aircraft in air racing history.

800px-NASM_-_NemesisNemesis inside the National Air & Space Museum

After twenty years of racing, Jon sure as heck wasn’t done, and in 2000 started drawing and sketching designs for a completely new aircraft. After several iterations, the proposed designs were only offering gains of 2, 3 or 4 mph. 

“We weren’t interested in spending the money to build a plane that we weren’t even sure would be faster than what we already had. After careful thought, we decided to move up into the Sport racing class, which would allow us to use a larger engine and realize a larger speed gain. This plane would be called the NemesisNXT,” says Sharp.


Unfortunately, not long after Jon announced he was leaving IF1 and moving into the Sport-class, the rules were adjusted, requiring all Sport-class planes be kit airplanes, with a minimum of 5 kits sold. Forced to join the kit business or not compete, (Jon likens it to having the goalposts moved in a football game), he managed to get 5 deposits in five weeks on the NemesisNXT – despite the fact it wasn’t finished and had never been flown.

Jon’s friendship with Chuck Miller, President of Coastal Enterprises (manufacturers of Precision Board Plus polyurethane in Orange, CA), meant he was able to secure a donation of Precision Board for the tooling required to build NemesisNXT. The importance of this will be especially clear to anyone familiar with the costs associated with bringing an aircraft from concept to reality.

According to Jon, “We used Precision Board Plus PBLT-20 to make molds for the leading edge closeouts, the horizontal tail, production parts for the leading edges, interior components, the vertical tail, and as a mold for the 90 gallon gas tank. All of the molds were CNC machined, which resulted in our most accurate airframe ever produced. Precision Board, with its tight cell structure and ease of machinability enabled us to bring our first computer-designed  aircraft to life.”


Because all of the molds were machined so accurately, Jon’s Chief Aerodynamicist Daren Kimura was able to accurately predict performance and stability information. Jon’s team also produced a flight simulator for the NXT using open-source code and Jon was able to simulate races before even flying the plane.

The NemesisNXT debuted in May 2002 at the SAMPE convention in Long Beach, CA, weighing in at 1,200 lbs. empty, 2,200 lbs. loaded. It was powered by a Lycoming Thunderbolt TSIO-540-NXT engine, custom designed by Lycoming engineers working in conjunction with the Nemesis Air engineering team.

6991 Nemesis taxiPhoto Credit: Tim Adams Photography

Jon raced the NemesisNXT for the first time at the 2004 Reno Air Races, resulting in the most terrifying moment of his air racing career. “As I was landing the plane after a qualifying run, the landing gear collapsed, and the plane went down on its belly. I ended up skidding off the runway and into the dirt, but luckily nothing happened and I ended up ok,” says Jon.

The first two years racing NemesisNXT were rough, with technical difficulties hindering both the 2004 and 2005 Reno Air Races. The following year brought the Nemesis team their first of four consecutive Reno Sport / Super Sport Class championships. 2008 saw the NemesisNXT surpass the 400 MPH barrier reaching 409 MPH during a qualifying lap at Reno – an astounding achievement for a plane in the Sport class.

1361 Nemesis on rampPhoto credit: Tim Adams Photography

The next year, 2009, was Jon’s last year racing, and his most successful. The Reno Air Races that year saw him round up his career with an astounding “Record a Day, and 2 on Sunday” performance. On September 15th at the Reno Air Races, NemesisNXT set a new qualifying record of 412 MPH. This record was faster than the planes in the Unlimited class, over 32 planes including eight P-51 Mustangs and two P-40 Warhawk’s.

September 16th saw the NemesisNXT beat it’s own heat race from 2008 to a new record of 393 MPH.

September 17th saw the team beat the previous day’s heat race record, with a new race speed of 399 MPH.

September 18th, the team beat the previous day’s heat race record again with a top speed of 406 MPH!

September 19th, Jon’s final race, saw him absolutely dominate the class with a championship race record of 406 MPH, at the same time also winning a record 15th Reno National Championship to complete his career.

I asked Jon what his most memorable moments were in his air racing career and he said: “In the thirty years I competed in the air racing circuit, my most memorable moments are my very first race victory in 1982, the first victory with Nemesis in 1991, and the bookend with NemesisNXT in 2009.”

“What is my favorite part of air racing? The checkered flag! It’s a great feeling as you cross that line.”

-Jon Sharp

783726e687d9a4fdce440d77a6f4325cPhoto credit: Air Racer: Chasing the Dream

Please see additional information about Jon Sharp at

Jon Sharp and NemesisNXT have also been featured in Air Racer: Chasing the Dream, a documentary shot and directed by Christopher Webb.

This is a preview of Air Racer: Chasing the Dream



Topographical Modelmaking In A Nutshell!

With millions of data points and tolerances tighter than some high-powered engines, topographical modelmaking, or digital elevation modeling, is a learned art requiring a keen eye for details.

Topographical models are frequently used by a variety of industries including geologists, architects, construction firms and land developers. They are often seen in museums and visitor centers, and are a great way for people to get a “Bird’s eye view” of a large area to analyze anything from geological changes to potential construction sites.


We recently had a chance to speak with topographical model maker Donn Arrell, owner of Clinton Systems, about some of the beautiful models he has made over the years. Donn’s first step before building a model is securing an accurate data source. This can be in the form of a CAD drawing provided by the customer, or a drawing acquired from a source like the National Elevation Dataset (NED).

After selecting the resolution and scaling the drawing (which is a lot more work than it sounds), Donn will run a simulation which will indicate how long it will take to CNC machine. It’s then a matter of selecting the material (Donn uses Precision Board Plus), and starting the CNC on its course.

Most of the models Donn produces can be finished in a day or two, but occasionally large projects require a week or more of running the router day and night! (Which didn’t surprise us after seeing some of the models!) Many of these models will then go onto another professional Modelmaking shop who may paint it and add LED’s or even moving parts.

Mars HiRise images of sites in Gale Crater at 600 data points per inch. Models represent areas of about 3 miles x 8 miles (8″ x 22″).


Donn prefers using Precision Board Plus HDU for his topographical models because:

“Precision Board offers a broad density range. Hard to damage touchable models can be made with the higher density foams. Cost sensitive projects gain cost benefits with lower density foams. Having a single source provider for these materials is a great advantage.”

Clinton Systems has been in business for over 20 years and specializes in high quality, high-resolution topographical models. Be sure to take a look at their website for more info:

All of these models are made out of Precision Board Plus HDU.

Model of a recent NASA Mars Rover landing site in the Gale Crater. Carved into Precision Board Plus PBLT-20 at 600 data points per inch resolution. Using high resolution data from a Mars HiRISE image.



The “Couteau”, a region of North and South Dakota, Iowa, and Minnesota. Made using Precision Board Plus PBLT-20.



A site study model for new construction in in Guam from survey data. Made using Precision Board Plus PBLT-10.HDUTopographicalModel


A 15′ rendering of Sinnemahoning State Park based on the USGS 3 meter high resolution Lidar data. Made in 3 height matched sections from Precision Board Plus PBLT-20.PrecisionBoardElevationModel

Small architectural base model for easy transport. Note the recess for inserting a 3D building model in the lower right hand corner. Steps clearly show drainage and grading. The data source is an architectural CAD rendering. Precision Board Plus PBLT-20.

Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Ski resort with some vertical exaggeration to emphasize the ski slopes. Data from the USGS National Elevation Database. Precision Board Plus PBLT-20.


Base for a site development presentation model, 8′ x 12′ made from Precision Board Plus PBLT-6 in 3 height matched sections.
Precision Board Plus HDU

The Cold Weather Warrior In Signage

Joel Lunsford, owner of Lunsford Signs, knows how to make an impressive sign out of HDU. Lunsford Signs is a full service sign shop and specializes in all types of signage. When speaking with Joel last week to congratulate him on winning the “Best Engineered” category of our Facebook contest, he mentioned that he hasn’t used wood for a sign in over 20 years!

Being located in Hot Sulphur Springs, CO, means exterior signs face some tough weather and a lot of moisture. When Joel first started in the industry, wood signs began requiring too much maintenance to keep afloat and were at risk of water intrusion. Joel turned to Precision Board Plus HDU – the cold weather warrior – after finding out it wouldn’t allow any moisture in from snow, rain or ice. Noticing that HDU held detail, painted and routed better than wood made the crossover permanent.

The contest winning sign was made for the “Your Art’s Desire” Art Studio using a 1.5″ x 4′ x 8′ sheet of PBLT-20, cut on Joel’s CNC router. Texture was added to the yellow section by hand, while the purple section was finished using purple smaltz, which was poured onto a mixture of Smith’s Cream and One Shot Paint (see the history of smaltz here). The entire sign is painted in Matthews Paints.


Joel Lunsford has been in the signmaking industry as owner of Lunsford Signs since 1996. For those who are curious, he chose a gallon of our PB Fast Set as his winning prize! Be sure to take a look at his website,, for more info.

Precision Board Plus fact: Did you know that Precision Board Plus has been tested from -423˚F to +300˚F with no degradation or breakdown?

Garden Railroad Magic – Rainbow Ridge Kits with Precision Board Plus!

Quickly becoming legends in the model railroad industry, Ross and Sue Piper of Rainbow Ridge Kits in Lakeside, CA have been in business for six and a half years now.

Rainbow Ridge specializes in making highly detailed, high end railroad buildings and structures.

By John and Lorrie Rockey – Glen Ellyn, Illinois

Using their ShopBot CNC router, Ross and Sue purchase Precision Board Plus HDU in 4′ x 8′ sheets, 3/4″ thick, typically densities of PBLT-15, PBLT-18 and PBLT-20, and cut them into small pieces. They then CNC patterns into them, such as wood plank, wood shingle, stone, siding and logs. They also offer custom patterns by request. The high level of detail they achieve using their ShopBot CNC Router is well known, and they recently were spotlighted by ShopBot’s website in a review you can see here.

By Dick Dale – El Cajon, CA

In addition to offering pre-cut  “Scratch Build” Precision Board Plus sheets, they also build complete structures, ready for priming and painting, and even offer completely finished (primed, painted and assembled) buildings.

By Gary Martin – Tucson, AZ

Before Ross and Sue got involved in the industry, many garden railroaders had trouble with available materials not being able to stand extreme temperatures, especially in states such as Nevada and Arizona. Previously, many garden railroad buildings were constructed out of plastic, wood or resin and were apt to become waterlogged or damaged by the sun. Precision Board Plus has proven to be the material of choice for a long-lasting model railroad structure because it will not absorb water and is unaffected by extreme temperatures (it has been tested from -425˚F to +300˚F with no degradation or breakdown).

By Andreas Walchner – Beavercreek, OH

Check out many more pictures at:

Here is one of the latest offerings available through Rainbow Ridge Kits:

These pictures are from Ross and Sue’s personal garden railroad (more pictures on their website):