2008 Get Your Glass Sweepstakes Project Update: Perfect paint

July 2, 2008

Sweeps Update

Project Update: February 14, 2008

Perfect paint

By Ian J. Twombly

The time has finally arrived. Starting earlier this week and continuing into next week, the “Get Your Glass Sweepstakes” Archer is getting repainted. Although the process leading up to the application of the paint coats is time consuming and very important to the final outcome, this short period when the paint is applied is crucial.

How it’s done

The broad steps involved in painting an airplane are quite simple—disassemble, strip, clean, repaint. Maybe the draw of easy work and saving a buck is why some owners opt to paint their own airplanes. But make no mistake—this is a job best left to professionals. An expertly rendered paint job takes much more than the basic steps listed above. Besides time and proper materials, it takes skilled technicians, and sometimes artists, to do a paint job right.

After the airplane is stripped and cleaned, an oxidation-proofing chemical is applied. Because oxidation can happen within a few hours after the paint is stripped and keep the paint from adhering well to the surface of the aluminum, this step is necessary to ensure a long-lasting paint job and to minimize corrosion. The Archer went through this step a few weeks ago. But early this week it officially experienced the beginning of the painting process with the application of the primer. According to Oxford Aviation founder and president Jim Horowitz, new environmentally friendly primers are a harder, more durable material. Although the new primers make for a great finish, an extra sanding step is necessary.

After the primer is applied, the airplane and the paint booth are each cleaned thoroughly to ensure a smooth base coat application. Horowitz said that Oxford ionizes the air to decrease static, thereby lessening airborne particles, and hopefully resulting in a better finished product.

Now the fun begins. The basecoat is the soul of the paint job. It may not be the flashiest part, but it must be done well if the rest of the work is going to look good. For the Archer, Oxford suggested we go with a pearl white basecoat. After seeing a few test panels we agreed. The pearl is a warmer white that has a number of advantages, not the least of which is depth. You only have to look at a string of pearls to understand. Saying the pearls are white just doesn’t do them justice. The same goes for the pearl white basecoat. Sure it’s white. But it’s so much more than that. We think it’s going to be a great base for a beautiful paint job.

Oxford uses Sherwin-Williams Aerospace Coatings exclusively, and the company’s specifications call for three separate applications for a proper basecoat. Interestingly, there is a very specific pattern that’s followed when the paint is applied. Instead of simply going over a spot over and over again, the painters go left and right with the first application, then up and down, and finally diagonally. But before that happens, Horowitz said one of his favorite things in the business takes place—the walkaround. After the painters lay out the ladders, spray guns, and all the other necessary tools, they walk very intently around the airplane to get a feel for how the paint should best be applied. This is important because, as Horowitz said, there shouldn’t be any dry spots while the paint is being applied. In fact, he said, runs are almost a good thing in this context. They are easy to remove, but the lack of runs may indicate a section that has dried, and there’s no remedy for that problem.

After the basecoat is applied, the airplane is masked with a special tape to prepare for the striping. According to Horowitz, this is one of the most highly skilled positions in the shop. It’s not as simple as saying a stripe is two inches wide and laying out tape two inches wide. Because airplanes are three-dimensional and have curves, the stripe must reflect that. Take the Archer for example. Because the fuselage turns horizontal at the top, a stripe that crosses from the side to the top of the fuselage, and then to the dorsal fin or tail isn’t actually straight. If it were, it would appear crooked. Oxford takes this into account, as it does many other factors. Actually applying the stripes is the easy part, although the process is time-consuming because paper and striping tape have to be moved after each color.

Finally, the airplane has been stripped, cleaned, and painted. But the job isn’t done yet. The final step is a clear coat, if the customer so desires. A debate rages on in the industry on how good clear coat really is. Some love its ability to extend the life of the paint job, while others think it’s ugly and doesn’t add to the work. Horowitz, who said the majority of customers are opting for clear coat, said he is the first to admit that clear coat can be terrible. On the other hand, he feels it’s a beautiful finish when done right. Before the clear coats can be applied, however, the shop has to ruin a perfectly good paint job. That is to say the airplane must be wet sanded if the clear coat is going to look good. Of course, after the wet sanding, everything is thoroughly cleaned, and even paper on the windows is changed.

What you’re left with a surface that’s smooth to the touch and 35-percent harder than a standard paint job. Finally, the job is done. In “Get Your Glass Sweepstakes” time, that is expected to be in the middle of next week.

Next week: Getting ready for the interior

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Ian J. Twombly

Ian J. Twombly | "Flight Training" Editor

AOPA Pilot and Flight Training Editor Ian J. Twombly joined AOPA in 2003 and is an instrument flight instructor.