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 doesnt 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 weve 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.
First, that odd name; not exactly something youd draw out of a hat. Dial Easterns 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-its small-Dial Eastern handles only singles and twins up to about the size of a Cessna 421. (Even thats 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 thats 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.
We asked Dick Guenther and his shop liaison, Chris Hollis, to walk us through the typical Dial Eastern paint job, from start to finish. 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 cant 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 thats 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 hadnt 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 shouldnt 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.
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, its not corrosive.
Guenther tells us hes 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 wasnt entirely flushed out. In that case, he says, you find a slippery, waxy coating but no corrosion.
Thats certain not to be the case if the aircraft was stripped with acid stripper, which some shops still use because its faster than any other method, including blasting. However, no stripper can be entirely flushed-especially from laps-and if its not removed, acid stripper will cause corrosion, sometimes enough to cause expensive damage that wont 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, thats one thing. The other thing is that when you paint over someone elses work, youre counting on a mechanical bond not a chemical bond between the two paints.
Sand-and-sprays might last but many dont 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.
Its a warranty issue, too, according to Hollis and Guenther. Stripping the paint down to bare metal is the only chance were going to get to see whats under the old paint. If anything needs to be fixed, well want to do it before we put color on.
Guenther believes that when a paint job has problems, its often due to whats 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 theres enough of it on the surface, the paint will form little non-adhering craters called fish-eyes.
If you even think youre going to get your airplane painted, dont have it treated with anti-corrosion compound for at least six months before, says Guenther. A year would be better.
And while youre at it, have any engine oil leaks taken care of. A leaker can fill the skin laps with oil, causing the same problems. True, itll be confined mostly to the belly, but the better the paint adheres everywhere, the better the airplane will be protected.
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 its applied correctly, primed and painted, youll never know its 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. Were told that alodining is a routine process by most shops but weve also heard that some shops skip this step. We think its 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 theyre comfortable with and stick with it. Having heard from hundreds of readers and dozens of shops, we dont 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, Ill 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 Reeses eye, JetGlo, however, holds out better, meaning that it retains the total wet look high gloss of a fresh paint job.
Which leads us to ask Reese how he judges a good paint job. If you really want to examine a paint job, dont do it outside. Bright sunlight will hide every flaw and itll look great, says Reese. Get it into a hangar lit with sodium vapor or fluorescent and grab a towel and wipe it down.
Huh? Thats right, says Reese, if you really want to see the details of another guys 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 couldnt keep up with the paint, thus the fresh paint wasnt 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 shouldnt 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 werent removed during painting, youll see it and its the kiss of death against a quality paint job.
Check details such as window glass, moldings and other contrasting surfaces. If theres stripper burn around the window edges, the shop wasnt 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.
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 youre 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. Youve got the controls off, it doesnt 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 arent, 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 shops process. If nothing else, youll educate yourself in what goes into a good aircraft paint job.
Also With This Article
Click here to view “Stripping: Chemicals vs. Blasting.”
Click here to view a photo grouping.
-by Paul Bertorelli