Getting Good Paint

  • E-Mail this Article
  • View Printable Article
  • Text size:

    • A
    • A
    • A

Two top rated shops tell us what separates the average paint job from the exception. As Paul Bertorelli reported in Aviation Consumer, here's what you should expect.

Painting anything well—especially an airplane—is as much art as science. It takes experience and skill to get it right and, in the end, the customer might not appreciate the work because many owners have never seen a good paint job. Yet it doesn’t take a trained eye to separate good paint from bad,  a well-detailed master work from what one shop owner we visited recently calls a “50-footer;” glossy at a distance, a mess up close. Over the years we’ve been doing our periodic aircraft paint-shop surveys, a handful of shops consistently draw rave reviews with not so much as the slightest complaint about quality, scheduling, warranty or customer service, the things most owners consider important. Armed with the question: what goes into a good paint job?, we recently decided to visit two of those shops—Dial Eastern States Aircraft Painting in Cadiz, Ohio and Reese Aircraft at Trenton-Robbinsville, New Jersey, just southwest of the New York City area.

Dial Eastern

Eastern's Gunther and HollisFirst, that odd name; not exactly something you’d draw out of a hat. Dial Eastern’s Dick Guenther told us that the shop was first established in the late 1980s by another owner under the name Eastern States Aircraft. When Guenther bought it about 12 years ago, he was operating his own aircraft repair facility called Dial Aircraft and merely combined the two into Dial Eastern States. The shop is located at Harrison County Airport, just across the Ohio line from Wheeling, West Virginia. Given the length of the runway and the size of the two-bay hangar—it’s small—Dial Eastern handles only singles and twins up to about the size of a Cessna 421. (Even that’s a tight fit.) 

Over the years, Aviation Consumer readers have heaped praise on Dial Eastern almost to an embarrassing degree. Words like “superb” and “true craftsmen” come frequently to mind. What exactly is Dick Guenther doing out there to merit that sort of adulation? In short, the shop pays attention to detail, lavishes time and effort on prep work, stays on schedule—something owners consider important—and charges a fair price. And that’s not to say cheap. For singles, Dial Eastern wants between $7000 and $11,000, putting them on higher side of average. The shop paints twins for between $13,000 and $20,000, quite a bit higher than average, according to our surveys.

Base CoatWe asked Dick Guenther and his shop liaison, Chris Hollis, to walk us through the typical Dial Eastern paint job, from start to finish. (That's Dick on the left and Chris on the right in the above photo.) We were a little surprised to learn the job starts with a detailed inspection and, sometimes, digital photos. We figured the pictures would come later. “Half the time,” says Guenther, “the owner is in New York or D.C. or somewhere and he can’t come out here to look at what we find.” Photos of hidden damage or proposed items to be fixed are e-mailed and the shop consults with the owner. Not every shop does this but a savvy owner might do it for himself, just for reference. 

Next comes what Guenther and Hollis say is a must for any paint job, whether premium-priced or not: All control surfaces should be removed, something that’s often not done. Indeed, after our shop tour, Hollis inspected the company Mooney and within seconds noted a telltale wedge of overspray behind an aileron, sure proof that the controls hadn’t been removed during our last paint job. 

Guenther and better shops insist—rightly—that controls be removed, stripped, inspected and, most important, rebalanced after painting. On some controls—Bonanza ruddervators and Mooney ailerons—this is a critical task and shouldn’t be skipped. But it should still be standard on all aircraft. Guenther goes so far as to record the balance data in the aircraft logbook, along with the signoff for the paint itself.

Stripping: Chemicals vs. Blasting

Stripping

Painting an airplane-that is, the actual laying on of the color-is the quickest part of the process; a couple of good spray techs can base coat an airplane in under an hour.

But their work will only be as good as what's under the paint and that's where prep work comes in, specifically stripping, arguably the most tedious and time-consuming aspect of the job. Considering that aircraft paint has to withstand exposure to sunlight, extremes in temperature and the abrasive effects of rain in flight, it's tough stuff and equally tough to remove from aluminum. 

Various schemes-mostly chemical-have been tried but these days, most shops rely on either chemical stripping or bead blasting, a mild abrasive method using plastic media blasted onto the surface with compressed air. 

When it first emerged nearly two decades ago, we published a couple of horror stories about bead blasting gone bad. Although the process "cuts" the paint off with tiny plastic beads that are softer than both the paint and the underlying metal, the process inevitably creates friction and heat. Since aluminum has a high coefficient of expansion, heating aircraft skin causes it to pucker and once distorted, it doesn't return to its original tautness. Before blasting was refined, a few aircraft were seriously damaged by the process. 

A second significant problem with bead blasting is that those little beads-like dust-go everywhere and if the aircraft isn't sufficiently protected, they'll turn up inside the cabin, wing compartments, instruments and everywhere else they don't belong. 

Reese Aircraft is unique in that it does both chemical and bead blasting. Reese has two shops, one in Robbinsville and a second at Stewart Airport in Newburgh, New York. The latter paints mostly turboprops and jets and strips via blasting. The Robinsville shop strips chemically. 

Ken Reese told us that in the early days, there were problems with bead blasting, mostly related to operator error and a tendency to use too much air pressure. "You heard the horror stories about blasting, no question," Reese says, but it was never as bad some claimed. "There were stories about blasting holes through the skins and that just never happened." 

Blasting is a skill akin to painting itself and Reese says it's critical to keep the blast nozzle moving over the painted surface being stripped. Reese actually treats the surface with a chemical stripper first, then clears the paint away with bead blasting, which goes quicker thanks to the paint being loosened first. 

At least some blasting media does find its way into the airplane. "Do we keep every little grain of media out of the airplane? No, we can't" says Reese. "We do keep it out of critical areas," he adds. That means the airplane's openings are sealed, the engine is wrapped and the glass and fiberglass are masked before blasting begins. 

Not that blasting media is especially damaging if it does get into moving parts. Reese once commissioned a lab test in which increasingly large amounts of blasting beads were injected into greased bearings, which were then spun and measured for wear. Reese says the plastic blasting media caused no wear until so much of the stuff was injected that it displaced the grease, causing the bearing to dry fail. 

With proper precautions, Reese says he doesn't stay up nights worrying about blasting media contamination and given the utter lack of complaints we hear about the process, neither, we think, should anyone contemplating having an aircraft bead blasted by a knowledgeable shop.

Stripping

As noted in the sidebar, there are two methods of stripping, chemical and bead blasting. And within chemical stripping, several products are used, some benign and some not so benign. Dial Eastern uses plain industrial methylene chloride mixed with a soap or wax carrier. Although methylene chloride is considered hazmat and requires special disposal methods, it’s not corrosive. Guenther tells us he’s re-painted his own work on a number of aircraft in which stripper found its way either between lapped skins or inside a structure but wasn’t entirely flushed out. In that case, he says, you find a slippery, waxy coating but no corrosion. 

That’s certain not to be the case if the aircraft was stripped with acid stripper, which some shops still use because it’s faster than any other method, including blasting. However, no stripper can be entirely flushed—especially from laps—and if it’s not removed, acid stripper will cause corrosion, sometimes enough to cause expensive damage that won’t be obvious for years to come. 

Guenther says he has no beef with bead blasting and believes it will produce as good a job as chemical stripping in the hands of the right shop. On the other hand, like most shops, he can tell war stories about blowing blasting media out of the airplane years after it was stripped and painted by another shop. 

Which led us naturally to this question: How about forgetting stripping and just scuffing up the paint and spraying on a fresh coat? Will Dial Eastern do that as an alternative to an expensive strip and paint? “No,” he says, “the controls need to be removed and balanced, that’s one thing. The other thing is that when you paint over someone else’s work, you’re counting on a mechanical bond not a chemical bond between the two paints.” 

Sand-and-sprays might last but many don’t and later, Hollis showed us a Bonanza that had been flown in for an estimate. It had a sand-and-spray and where the paint had worked around the rivets, the top coat was peeling away from the older paint. It was, in short, a mess. It’s a warranty issue, too, according to Hollis and Guenther. “Stripping the paint down to bare metal is the only chance we’re going to get to see what’s under the old paint. If anything needs to be fixed, we’ll want to do it before we put color on.”

Spotless

Guenther believes that when a paint job has problems, it’s often due to what’s done—or not done—at the next stage. Following stripping, the airplane has to be exhaustively pressure flushed and cleaned of even the tiniest contaminants, for any foreign material will complicate the laying on of color and may ultimately cause adhesion problems later on. Careful attention is paid to skin laps, so any weeping of stripper or anti-corrosion compound is removed. 

Speaking of the latter, this is a sore point with most paint shops, including Dial Eastern. Anti-corrosion compounds such as ACF-50 and Corrosion-X are generally seen as a good thing, unless you run a paint shop. The stuff weeps out of rivet holes and between laps and no matter how careful the shop is, if there’s enough of it on the surface, the paint will form little non-adhering craters called fish-eyes. 

“If you even think you’re going to get your airplane painted, don’t have it treated with anti-corrosion compound for at least six months before,” says Guenther. A year would be better. And while you’re at it, have any engine oil leaks taken care of. A “leaker” can fill the skin laps with oil, causing the same problems. True, it’ll be confined mostly to the belly, but the better the paint adheres everywhere, the better the airplane will be protected.

Etching, Priming

Following stripping and flushing, the next operation is etching, treating the surface with a mild solution of phosphoric acid to thoroughly clean the metal deep into its surface structure. At Dial Eastern, Guenther uses stainless brushes and mild, non-corrosive abrasives to do the etching, followed by more flushing. 

Contrary to popular belief, airplanes get their share of “body work,” even new ones. (Some say especially new ones.) Body work is similar to what goes on in the auto industry, dent and blemish filling and fine sanding. And yes, they use Bondo, albeit a specialized polyester type mixed with an aluminum paste. When it’s applied correctly, primed and painted, you’ll never know it’s there. 

After body work, the aircraft is alodined, a so-called chromate conversion process that serves as both a base corrosion protector and an adhesion improver for subsequent coats. We’re told that alodining is a routine process by most shops but we’ve also heard that some shops skip this step. We think it’s worth asking about and that it should be done. 

Following a short curing period, the shop can move on to the next step, which is priming and painting. As we reported on our paint shop survey article in the November issue of Aviation Consumer, shops tend to pick a paint system they’re comfortable with and stick with it. Having heard from hundreds of readers and dozens of shops, we don’t see much difference between the quality of the major paint systems. 

At Dial Eastern, Guenther uses DuPont products, specifically Imron over Variprime primer and, in demanding applications where oil or corrosion compound seepage might cause adhesion problems, a tough epoxy primer called Corlar. 

Three hundred miles to the east at Reese Aircraft in Trenton-Robbinsville, Ken Reese uses JetGlo, late of PPG but recently bought by Sherwin Williams. Each speaks highly of the other product line, leading us to conclude that which one a shop uses revolves more around customer service and convenience than quality issues.  

When we bounced that observation by Ken Reese, he agreed, but added this: “If a customer asks and the airplane is going to be outside, I’ll recommend AcryGlo over JetGlo.” AcryGlo, also in the Sherwin Williams line, is an acrylic urethane with better UV protection than JetGlo. JetGlo, on the other hand, is more resistant to hydraulic fluid and jet fuel and the wide temperature swings jets see in normal operations. To Reese’s eye, JetGlo, however, “holds out” better, meaning that it retains the total wet look high gloss of a fresh paint job.

Eyeballs On

Which leads us to ask Reese how he judges a good paint job. “If you really want to examine a paint job, don’t do it outside. Bright sunlight will hide every flaw and it’ll look great,” says Reese. “Get it into a hangar lit with sodium vapor or fluorescent and grab a towel and wipe it down.” 

Huh? That’s right, says Reese, if you really want to see the details of another guy’s paint work, eyeball the entire surface of the aircraft as you wipe it down. What are we looking for, exactly? Viewed obliquely, the surface should be evenly glossy and wet looking, with no dull spots. If you see the latter, says Guenther, the shop may have been working with a single spray man who couldn’t keep up with the paint, thus the fresh paint wasn’t worked into the wet stuff on the surface. Look for crispness around stripping, with no paint built up along the edges or roughness where the rules were masked. If the airplane has curved stripes, they should be fair and smooth, with no quick turns. It goes without saying that you shouldn’t see any runs, sags, fish-eyes or orange peel in an otherwise pristine surface. (Nonetheless, we still do.) 

As Chris Hollis noted, lift the control surfaces and look around the counterweights, horns and control rod ends. If the control surfaces weren’t removed during painting, you’ll see it and it’s the kiss of death against a quality paint job. Check details such as window glass, moldings and other contrasting surfaces. If there’s stripper burn around the window edges, the shop wasn’t very good at masking. And every contrasting surface should be free of overspray. 

Some paint jobs look good on top or at a distance—what Dick Guenther calls “a 50-footer”—but a quality job should look just as good on the belly, meaning the gear wells should be shipshape-and-bristol and there should be no sign of painted over grease blobs or corrosion, an indication that the shop thought no one would ever look underneath. 

The Extras

Most reputable shops—and both Dial Eastern and Reese qualify—will firmly insist on certain details and will recommend others as nice-to-haves. At Dial Eastern, for example, some external fasteners are included in the price of the job but many customers—especially those driving high-zoot singles and twins—opt to replace everything with new stainless steel. On a twin, that can cost a couple of thousand bucks. But if you’re spending 10 times that on paint, why put the old, corroded fasteners back on? Guenther also recommends replacing any worn control parts, such as rod ends or the nylon locking nuts. “You’ve got the controls off, it doesn’t make sense to go through all that again just to put in new nuts later,” he says. 

Both Reese and Guenther advise asking the shop about what exactly the price includes. At Dial Eastern, you get a base color and two stripes; anything beyond that is an extra and extras can add up. Also ask if door jambs, baggage doors and other quasi-interior elements are included in the paintwork. Generally they aren’t, but you may want them done so get a price. 

Having visited both these shops, we can recommend either without reservation. But whether you go with Dial Eastern, Reese or any other shop, we also recommend a visit for a walkthrough of the shop’s process. If nothing else, you’ll educate yourself in what goes into a good aircraft paint job. 

Contact Dial Eastern States at 740-942-2316 or www.desapi.com.

Reese Aircraft is at 609-586-9283 and www.kdaviation.com.