Imagine fetching the family airplane from a paint shop, and as you’re flying it on one of its first post-paint trips, part of the tail comes off. That’s precisely what happened to a Cessna Conquest after a once reputable paint shop returned the plane to service without properly reassembling it. The shop—which got decent customer reviews in previous Aviation Consumer paint shop surveys—has since gone bankrupt, but it’s a learning experience that other shops and owners can take to the bank.
While this kind of extreme drama is rare after paint work, there are other potential pitfalls. Fortunately, a high percentage of owners—85 percent—that took our recent paint shop survey report favorable experiences. Others, on the other hand, had problems that support the importance of choosing a shop that understands customer service and can accurately predict downtime and costs.
As we’ve mentioned in previous surveys, the sampling can be skewed because it might attract customers that are disgruntled with a shop for whatever reason. Conversely, it’s also an opportunity for happy campers to rave about exceptional service. These are the things we want to hear about, of course, but we’re more interested in patterns that point to good or bad customer service, downtime and the value for the cost of the work.
We polled the readership of our sister publication AVweb and pored over 200 responses. Roughly 48 percent of those polled had an aircraft painted within the last two years, 40 percent had the work completed less than a year ago and the rest had paint work accomplished five or more years ago. We found that 72 percent of these paint jobs were on single-engine piston airplanes, 15 percent were on multi-engine pistons, 7 percent were multi-engine turbines, 3 percent were single-engine turbines and the rest fell into the ambiguous “other” category, likely helicopters and gliders.
Respondents rated the shop (on a scale of one to 10) for the quality of the paint job, in addition to cost/value relationship. In other words, did the quality live up to the price?
The chart on page 11 is a list of shops that received three or more standout reviews and no negative comments. The chart doesn’t mean there aren’t other shops, particularly smaller ones, that provide top-rate paint work, it’s simply a list of the shops that stood out in the survey for consistently making customers happy.
Face it, popular shops attract and keep more customers for a reason. Incidentally, many of the shops that made the list for this recent survey also scored well in previous surveys. Some, on the other hand, have slipped in quality and have gone out of business.
Think past the paint job. Is the shop one that you can communicate with? In an age where communicating couldn’t be easier, we’re amazed that some shops drop the communication ball. Just because a shop delivers a high-quality paint job at a good price doesn’t always make for a happy customer. “The paint job was supposed to take six to eight weeks. It took nearly five months. Phone calls were frequently unreturned and no progress pictures were supplied. Excuses were later provided that might have justified adding two weeks to the job, but not months,“ said Rick Steck after Central Aviation in Watertown, Wisconsin, painted his piston single. Still, he gave Central a 10 for the high-quality paint job and a nine for cost/value, proving that downtime and shop communication means a lot when choosing a shop. Every other Central customer that participated in the survey had positive comments (and there were at least a half-dozen.) We still included Central as a top shop.
“I was extremely satisfied with the work, the customer service and the follow-through on timing and execution. Don was easy to work with, regularly sent photos and reported on progress, and brought the project in on time and on budget,” said C.L. Lee after Arizona Aeropainting completed a $25,000 paint job on his twin. Arizona Aeropainting was at the top in the survey. The raves just kept coming. “No issues. As advertised, on time and perfect quality. A low-volume, high-quality paint shop with lots of attention to detail. You just cannot find better,” gushed Patrick McGarry about the company’s work on his single. These are the consistent positive trends we were looking for.
But if you live and base in the Northeast, does it pay (literally) to fly across the country for a paint job? We don’t think so. No matter how good the shop is, paint work is more than a strip and spray. In many cases, it requires sizable disassembly and potential airframe tweaking that you might not discover until you fly the airplane a bit. Some owners, like Joe Ludwigson, don’t expect to become a test pilot after retrieving the airplane from a paint shop.
“When my Mooney was delivered back to me, it was dangerously misrigged. After two attempts to re-rig the controls, I had to refer the paint shop to another shop that ultimately flew in a mechanic to rig the airplane correctly,” Ludwigson reported. Other than this snag, it seems the shop (Wipaire in Minnessota) performed a nice paint job, but it was overshadowed by mechanical problems. That’s why you should be cautious during the first few flights with your newly painted bird.
Rob Parish knew something wasn’t right with his airplane on the first takeoff roll. “Stripping the old paint went well. Then a larger plane came in and my stripped plane sat for several weeks. When it was finally done, I found that the plane was slow on the takeoff roll. That turned out to be an incorrectly installed nosewheel,” he reported about his experience with Murmer Aircraft Services.
There’s also paperwork. “One issue that came up repeatedly was the necessity of recalculating a weight and balance. Does a paint job require one? Many shops differ in opinion, but I think the answer is yes,” said John Pritchett. He raved about the service and the $15,000 paint work that Lancaster, Pennsylvania-based Lancaster Aero performed on his Skyhawk. Some shops we spoke with suggested that a weight- and-balance calculation isn’t part of a paint shop project, but control balancing is.
You’ll also want to ask yourself if tacking on other major work while the plane is being painted makes sense. If the shop has the capability and manpower, sometimes it works, but expect delays.“We had our 1979 Piper Aztec painted, plus had new glass and a new interior installed. I was told to expect a 10-12-week turnaround, which turned out to be 18 weeks. But considering all the work that was done to the plane (interior replacement, new glass, de-icing boots removal and an annual inspection) I was not too upset about it,” said one owner. He brought his Aztec to Hawk Aircraft Painting in Tampa, Florida, and noted good shop communication. This wasn’t Hawk’s only good review. We found several in the survey.
“I bought my Navion sight unseen in California, then flew her back to Florida and straight to Hawk’s paint shop. This ugly duckling got a custom and beautiful paint job with lots of input from the shop’s owner. The day the airplane was finished, we flew straight to Sun ‘n Fun in Lakeland, Florida, where it won the best in class. What an accomplishment for a paint shop,” raved Matt Boucher.
Whenever possible, we would avoid scheduling other major projects and upgrades with different shops directly after the paint work unless the other shop is flexible. Chances are the project will take longer than projected. Consider your own schedule, too. “I was also trying to coordinate the new paint with new glass and interior work and the delays from the paint job impacted the schedule at the interior shop, as well as my travel plans and need for the plane,” one owner reported. Rare is the shop that does all of this coordinating for you, but it does exist. Again, Hawk was praised.
“Besides painting, Hawk Aircraft played the role as project manager to coordinate all the other related mechanical, interior and avionics work that was going on at the same time. They were invaluable at keeping the project moving and coordinating all the moving pieces,” said reader Steven Murray. Hawk charged him $11,500 for the paint job, which included painting the amphibious floats.
Like most things, the cost of painting an aircraft is on the rise. It wasn’t long ago that a high-quality paint job for a small single-engine airplane might cost around $8000. Based on our survey, $12,000 seems to be the average, although there were some really low prices—$6000 for one single—that also yielded comments like, “It’s certainly not the best paint job going, but it’s fine by me,” said the owner. A medium to larger twin could cost $25,000 or more. You could have at least some control over the bottom line, which includes taking extra time to plan the project.
We consulted with the respected paint designer Craig Barnett from Scheme Designers (the company received all positive comments in the survey) to get a feel for potential pitfalls in design that can have a negative impact on the work. Barnett noted that aviation paints are expensive, while every additional color that’s added to a paint design significantly adds to the cost of the paint job.
According to Barnett, each new color means extra time in the paint booth, plus extra materials. As a rule of thumb, each additional color that’s added to a design could increase the overall price by $750. Plus, some colors are simply more expensive to source than others.
Metallic colors, though often much prettier than their solid counterparts, add additional expense. That’s because metallic paint is more expensive to purchase and requires extra applications and drying time. If metallic paint is a gotta-have, Barnett advises to go with a gold or silver because they often yield the best results. Metallic paint can typically add $500, per color, to a paint job.
You’ll also need to consider the cost of logistics. “Because I had to fly the plane up to Hagarstown Aircraft Services in Maryland from my base in Florida, the additional cost for round-trip fuel and transportation was several thousand dollars,” said Joseph Weinberg. He paid $20,000 to have his single painted. He also dealt with reccuring corrosion problems. The shop agreed to repaint the problem areas for free, but that meant flying long-distance to do so.
When it comes to helping with logistics, some shops go the extra mile and impress—well after the paint has cured.
“Over the past four years, the paint has worn quite well despite flying through various forms of precipitation and some ice, not to mention being tied down in the New York City metro area. Dick Gunther at Dial Eastern States Aircraft Painting in Cadiz, Ohio, provides good value between the service and quality. That’s what I shopped for. He made logistics easy by driving me to and from the airport for airline flights when I traveled between New York and Ohio,” said T210 owner Scott Dyer.
When qualifying a paint shop, there are some imperative requirements that should be met as part of the job. In our view, a quality paint job should should include the full stripping of the old surface, the removal of all corrosion, plus acid etching and alodining, in addition to undercoating for preventing future corrosion.
As noted earlier, nearly every complete paint job will likely require the removal of major airframe components, including some landing gear and control surface components. Ask the shop what will be removed. That way you can pay close attention to them during your preflight inspection when you prepare to fly the aircraft home.
You’ll also want to understand what kind of paint will be used and whether it will be easy to maintain as it ages.
“Ed’s Aircraft Painting located at Brookhaven Airport on Long Island, New York, painted my Bonanza with epoxy urethane paint, which is easily buffed and polished, unlike some polyurethane paint. Touch-ups are easy. I use an airbrush and simply buff the section out afterward,” said Joseph Fischetti.
When owners report stories of paint falling off the aircraft after a short time, we immediately suspect something went wrong during the strip and preparation stage or during the curing process. This was the sad story of a $35,000 paint job accomplished by Tejas Aero Services in San Marcos, Texas. According the aircraft’s owner, this was the worst experience he could ever imagine. After several flights, the paint is coming off and the aircraft will have to be painted again. While most shops should stand behind the work, you’ll want to ask what kind of warranty is implied or stated. Many shops offer a two-year warranty.
You should be absolutely clear on how much the project is going to cost and—like any major work— that means getting everything in writing. “The plane was in the shop for five months. The initial estimate was for $10,000. After showing the manager the plane (this was a new experimental aircraft that required no stripping and little preparation work) he agreed it could be done for $6,000. When I went to pick it up, the price was unexpectedly $10,000. The paint job was well done, but customer service was wretched,” said reader Ken Summers.
Be direct and ask the shop if they plan to keep you in the loop during the project. Ask them how they communicate and if they can send you photos along the way.
“I could not have been more pleased with the quality, attention to detail and the customer interface. Walt Fedorishen, the owner of Prestige Aircraft in Swanton, Vermont, e-mailed pictures and progress reports to me regularly throughout the process,” said one customer, that also advised to visit several different shops, and evaluate their attention to detail. We agree.
A paint project is a good time to replace old hardware, including Dzus fasteners and cowling screws, for example. But don’t assume this is included in the price of the paint job. You’ll need to ask. While you’re at it, ask the shop if it paints over antennas. It seems silly, but it happens.
And that’s the takeaway from this article. Ask questions and visit the shop before and during the project. We don’t suggest selecting a paint job based on price alone. When it comes to aircraft paint work, there’s far more to it than meets the eye.