Please Advise: Painting Your Plane

When it came time to blog about paint, no one wanted to write about it. Sandy and Otto refused, and I didn’t bother asking Mack since, like most, Mack finds writing about paint just as boring as watching it dry on a wall. Don’t we all, Mack…don’t we all.

A major portion of our website involves purchasing paint. In fact that is why we have an entire category dedicated to it. We thought it would be a good idea to provide some pointers when planning a paint job for your plane. So without further delay, here they are:

Step 1: Gather all the right materials
This depends on the extent to which you are painting. Is it a simple touch up job or a full body ordeal? Answering that question will allow you to retrieve the right tools for the task. Quantities will depend on the size of your aircraft. The following is an incomplete list meant to give you a rough checklist of what you may or may not need:

Masking tape
Paint stripper
Pressure washer
Sanding equipment
2-part epoxy filler
Primer
Wooden stirrers (paddles)
Plastic gloves
Scrappers
Face masks
Eye protection
Paint (of course)

Step 2: Remove old paint
In order to paint your aircraft it would be most prudent to get rid of the old. Failing to do so only will lead to another pre-mature paint job (not to mention a less-than-optimal performance from the paint). Inspect the plane for signs of wear. To remove old paint, apply a stripper. This will take care of cracked coatings; spots that are good can simply be sanded. Just be careful not to sand rivet heads as that can compromise the airworthiness of your vehicle. Also, it may take more than one coating of stripper before old paint is completely removed.

Step 3: Protect non-painted surfaces
Make sure to cover with plastic sheets or masking tape areas of the plane that you don’t wish to paint. Fairings can be removed. Plastic parts should be protected against paint remover. This is particularly directed at windows. You certainly don’t want to obstruct visibility and a beautiful view when flying. You also don’t want others to know how careless you are.

Step 4: Assist with paint removal
Once the paint removal has chemically reacted and has naturally stripped old paint use a plastic scrapper to accelerate the process. Then rinse the plane with a hose or a compressed washer so that pesky old paint can be blasted away.

Step 5: Treat corrosion
Once your plane is stripped to the bare metal surface, inspect for areas of corrosion and then treat accordingly. With what? An acid etch and alodine treatment that is best suited to treat aluminum. Apply the acid, let it work itself in, and then rinse thoroughly. Afterwards you are ready to apply the alodine. This will not only provide a coat of corrosion prevention but act as a good adhesion for paint as well.

Step 6: Repair and replace
If fairings, windows, or any other removable parts need to be either repaired or replaced, now is the time to do it. Otherwise, painting your plane and then making repairs may lead to damaging the very thing you are trying to preserve.

Be advised: You may want to paint inspection covers separately, i.e. remove them first and then paint them. This way when inspection rolls around you won’t damage the finish you just applied on your plane.

Step 7: Select the right paint arsenal
Perhaps the most important step. Choosing paint is not as simple as looking at a color and choosing one that looks pretty (although that is part of it). In fact, painting your plane does not involve throwing a bucket of paint and hoping for the best. There is a process and it comes in stages that revolve around applying certain types of coating in a particular sequence.

It is recommended to start with a self-etching primer that is of high-quality. After all, you don’t want to be doing this every couple of years. Proceed to the next phase by introducing your plane to a coat of primer-sealer (usually white). After that, it’s time to apply the actual paint which may require multiple coatings (look for a polyurethane composition). Finally, additional colors may be used if stripes, numbers, or any other sign or symbol is needed.

Be advised: Painting in sections may be the most practical method. Trying to paint an entire plane at once is not advisable for one person to undertake as paint in one area may dry quicker than another. There’s also the issue of overlapping; when this occurs you can expect a rougher finish instead of that coveted smooth coat.

Be advised: Customized templates are available that can provide a paint scheme for you. Once your base coast is dried, these templates can be used to apply preferred styles and designs without worrying of making your own measurements. This will save you time and may prevent any kind of crookedness or miscalculation of the paint scheme. Remember, time is money.

Step 8: Know when to go pro
We all can’t be bothered with painting. And sometimes seeking a professional is the best way to go. The reality is that not everyone is determined to join the Do-It-Yourself crowd. When in doubt you can always go to the nearest aircraft paint shop and get it done.

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*Thanks to Piper Owner Society and Royal Aircraft Services for being primary research sources.