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Why Are They So Darned Expensive?


  • Why Are They So Darned Expensive?

    Invariably, this is the second question that I get, always coming right after, "How much does it cost?"

    Realistically, this is not an unreasonable question, but it definitely is one that should percolate in the inside of one's head prior to issuing forth, unconsidered in the slightest. I must admit that I take great pleasure in spelling out what I consider to be elementary common sense answers to that question, ones that should, in a perfect world, come unbidden if one puts enough time and thought into it.

    We, however, do not live in a perfect world, or if we do, it is shamefully disappointing to me, an imperfect being. With that being the case, I thought it would be beneficial to spell out, in no uncertain terms, just why these wondrous creations of engineering and art cost so much more than the $29.99 pool toys that can be found on eBay and the shelves of your local Walmart.

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    • This is a tiny hobby:

      Without trying to educate you on the basics of economy of scale, let's just start by saying that, in most cases, the more you make of something, the cheaper you can manufacture it.

      The issue is that many people's expectations have been set by the world of R/C boats and R/C cars, the manufacturers of which happily churn out hundreds of thousands of them each year and which we, as consumers, happily snatch up at rock-bottom prices.

      The R/C submarine community is tiny, owing to the exceptionally high level of mechanical aptitude that a successful sub-driver must possess in order to keep their boats operational. Unlike an R/C car, an R/C submarine must be a creation of exceptional balance and delicate tweaking. One cannot simply drop in a motor, some batteries and a few servos and begin tearing through the undersea world. This makes it a challenging hobby for the new generation of hobbyists, whose attention span typically lasts as long as the most recent episode of Breaking Bad on Netflix, (though even that is likely interjected with at least a handful of updates on Instagram and (if you're older) perhaps Facebook, so it doesn't really count). The world of R/C submarines does not appeal to everyone.

      Without hundreds of thousands of people buying the bespoke products needed to get an R/C submarine going, manufacturing costs remain high, typically sourced from small shops or, just as likely, the garage of someone's home.
    • There is a lot that goes into them:

      As I mentioned earlier, people typically compare R/C subs to the world of R/C cars or perhaps R/C airplanes. When you really take a look at those products, however, you'll see that the components list that makes them up is actually quite tiny. Planes are basically styrofoam bodies (mass-produced, of course), a motor, a battery, some servos and a speed controller. Likewise the R/C car.

      There are many components that go into an R/C submarine, and very few of them are cheap. Let's take a quick look at the basics:
      1. Hull: The actual body of your submarine can vary widely in terms of cost, ranging from $100 for a cheaper plastic model conversion to many thousands of dollars for a large scale, fiberglass, high detail reproduction.
      2. Watertight cylinder: Exceptionally important component that typically runs anywhere from $500 to $1500, depending on size and features.
      3. Pitch Controller: While not, technically, required, it is a very good idea for scale-like performance. These units use a sensitive gyroscope to track the model's orientation and correct unwanted pitch of the model during operation. Cost? About $80
      4. Radio System: The new GHz frequency systems are great for surface operation, but they suck at controlling models underwater. With no manufacturer currently making the older 75MHz radios anymore, you'll need to pay good prices for good used radios. Expect to pay between $100 and $300 for a decent unit
      5. Batteries: These, thankfully, can cross over from the other R/C communities. Expect to pay between $50 and $150 for a set of LiPo batteries with a charger
      6. Optional Electronics: While not imperative for operation, there are many units out there that make the operation of a submarine more enjoyable. These can include failsafe units (perhaps considered by many to be a requirement), remote switches, lighting controllers, depth keepers and bow plane units. These could easily add another $150 to the cost
      7. Miscellaneous linkages, hardware, paint and adhesives. While not a big dollar group, you still need to allocate for these. Let's say $50.
      8. Labor: If you can't do it yourself, you need to pay someone else to do it for you. This probably confounds the most people when I quote models for them. They expect a few hours of gluing, some spray paint and voila!... an R/C submarine appears! (They'd do it themselves, of course, but they're just too busy right now).

        I'd say that my average build takes between 100 and 200 hours, depending on the subject. I can do it faster, of course, especially for simple, straightforward builds of modern submarines (basically just tubes with a cap on them!), but they can go way further the other way, too, especially when people start listing out their wish list of features like torpedoes, lights, bow thrusters, sound, smoke, levitation, warp speed, working machine guns and missiles (all, of course, to be fitted into the smallest and cheapest model hull that they could find).

        So, bearing in mind that there is considerable time involved, we now get to the rate. I consider myself to be an above-average craftsman. With that being said, I hope to make more than minimum wage. If we say that my average estimate for buildup for an R/C sub ranges from $1000 to $2000, that would put my hourly fee at somewhere around $10/hr. Nice! I make more than the guy who sweeps floors at McDonald's!

        So... let's average it out at $1500 for labor.
      9. Total estimated cost: Somewhere between $1800 and a bajillion dollars. Do it yourself? Start your budgeting at $800 and go up, up, up from there.
    What about Scratch-building?

    Now, many of you are likely saying, "Well, that's ridiculous! I can build a 10ft long model for seventy five cents using a hammer, some glue, a sheet of plywood and a bit of time!"
    Well, yes... of course you can.

    I did it, too. Well, not a 10ft long model, but a 6ft long model of a damned challenging subject, the Nautilus from the 1954 Disney movie, "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea". Getting the hull built, should I have known enough to make it first from water-friendly material and not wood like I stupidly did, would probably have cost me no more than a dinner out for the family at McDonald's.

    All it took was 3 years of my life.

    Can you save money by building everything yourself? Of course you can. Should you do it? Only if you're a masochist. You're shaking your head angrily right now, I know! Preposterous! Well let's take a look at some numbers again, shall we?

    Costs for Scratchbuilding:
    1. Hull construction materials: $50 (assuming water friendly materials)
    2. Cylinder construction materials: $50
    3. Cylinder electronics (motors, ESC, pumps, servos, seals, etc): $150
    4. Batteries: $80
    5. Radio system: $200
    6. Miscellaneous hardware: $50
    7. Paint and adhesives: $40
    8. Total materials cost: $620

    So what you've really accomplished is re-creating something that is already on the market, eaten up years of your life, likely ended up with an inferior end-result, and saved enough money to take the family to McDonald's for dinner (a few times, granted).

    Now, I agree that scratch-building creates a sense of accomplishment unmatched by nearly anything, and it is possible that the subject you really want is not currently available on the market. In this case, yes, you're stuck with building it yourself. What I am saying is that undertaking such a challenge purely from the standpoint of saving money is, to put it bluntly, stupid.


    R/C submarines are expensive. There are no two ways 'round it. Right now, with the market the size it is, you'll have to pay to play. Whining about the price won't help anything, unfortunately.
    What I can say is that once you're in it, you'll find a new world of adventure and challenge unlike anything that any other hobby can offer. It is not for everyone. Hell, it's not even for most people. For those with the right disposition and skills, however, it is a world unlike any other, and we like it that way!

    Bob Martin
    the Nautilus Drydocks

    • trout
      trout commented
      Editing a comment
      I agree with you whole heartily, however, you are underpricing the "Costs for Scratchbuilding".
      On the hull you list $50. That might be true for the costs in it, but to go out and purchase your supplies to create your first hull and prices begin to soar. Just go out and buy the smallest quantity of fiberglass resin and you are close or already matched the $50. Now add the cloth, foam (or whatever material you are using for the plug), whatever material for the dive planes, tools needed, and the machines used (drill press, sanding, etc.). The price soars.

      In Las Vegas, there are some people hooked on gambling. If you are around them long enough, you will hear, I won $1,200 or I won $500 or I won (insert a dollar amount), but what you very rarely hear is how much it cost to win that amount. If it is not in that seating in the day they won it, it is in the other days they lost and the outcome is, they spent more to win that money than the amount they are sharing. For a tourist, there is travel costs, hotel, and meals that go into that winning. So it is with building your hull.

      I bring this up because people who build hulls for a business had already put money into the whole process, there are thousands spent on equipment and material to begin to produce a hull. Some people that want to do it themselves may have the material and machinery to do it, but most people I have met that want to do it themselves because they do not want to spend $100 - $1,200 for a hull also do not have a reserve of spendable income and try it by nickel and dime to build a hull. However, if they added up all the money that was spent to build the hull (not including time in this whole equation and shipping for the bits and pieces), it might have been cheaper to buy the hull in the first place. Plus you are helping a small business stay in business. The tourist coming to Las Vegas will say, yes I spent more than I made, but I had fun. That is the same attitude those that want to build a hull should have. If you think you are saving money, you are disillusioned like the local gambler that says I make money gambling. You do not build a hull to save money.

      All that being said, a person could go out buy pvc pipe and make a sub happen for cheap. You can see YouTube videos about that.

      It is when a person thinks, I want a Type VII and spends days drawing it, printing the pattern, and creating their first hull that money is now not the issue, but the journey. If they complete the journey and get the sub working. Those are the rare ones. The ones that have the resolve to finish.

      So, some will build a hull of their own because they want a unique hull or so that they can say I did it myself. They possess the skills, knowledge, fortitude and supplies to make it happen. I applaud those people. For most getting into this hobby that think from an armchair I can do this, don't be that gambler, save up and do it right. Get a sub running first so you can enjoy the experience. Then move on from there to building your hull for $50 or buy another hull because you realize that you like the building a sub and not the manufacture of a hull or realize the cost to make that hull cheaper really does not exist.

      Bob, blessings on your new adventure, you are the man to bring this hobby into a new season.


    • greenman407
      greenman407 commented
      Editing a comment
      To make a model submarine ,look and act like the real thing, it takes a Tremendous amount of time, money and most of all Talent. Talent costs money. No one likes to work for free. By there very nature, Submarines are built one at a time. As Bob says, a machine can spit out Thousands of Lexan bodies for an RC car, but the same cannot be said for probably the most technically advanced RC vehicle of them all. To operate in a Marine environment requires a whole different Architecture. If you are satisfied to take a bus downtown like everybody else, its going to cost you about $5. If you want to take a Saturn 5 Rocket to the Moon, its going to cost Much More.

    • He Who Shall Not Be Named
      Editing a comment
      Well said. By all.

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  • Why Are They So Darned Expensive?
    Invariably, this is the second question that I get, always coming right after, "How much does it cost?"

    Realistically, this is not an unreasonable question, but it definitely is one that should percolate in the inside of one's head prior to issuing forth, unconsidered in the slightest. I must admit that I take great pleasure in spelling out what I consider to be elementary common sense answers to that question, ones that should, in a perfect world, come unbidden if one puts...
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