With the average age of light aircraft drifting well past three decades, there arent many that still sport original factory paint. And those that do are often conspicuous not for the chips, blisters and scratches but the color schemes that remind us-painfully-of leisure suits and bell-bottom pants. (Not that theres anything wrong with a well-preserved classic.)
Nonetheless, most aircraft owners will have to paint the old bird from time to time, even those of us lucky enough to have a hangar. Judging from our reader mail, finding and selecting a paint shop is an agita-inducing process, even more so than finding a decent engine overhaul shop.
It shouldnt be. According to our periodic paint shop surveys-the most recent of which well report on here-there are plenty of good aircraft paint shops out there and probably more good ones than bad ones. Finding one suitable for your needs might not be as easy as thumbing the Yellow Pages but it shouldnt require a flight half way across the continent, either.
A Moving Target
As in previous years, we asked owners to tell us about their experiences-good and bad-with paint shops around the country. What kind of paint was used? Was the airframe stripped or painted over? How good was the detail work? And finally-the only question that really matters-could the shop be recommended without reservation?
A word of caution here: Weve been reporting on aircraft consumer issues long enough to see one trend that hasnt changed: Whether they peddle engines, paint, upholstery or radios, not all good shops remain good forever and what some owners define as first-rate work, others consider unspeakably poor.
Case in point: In our last paint survey-published in 1995, we listed an Alabama shop called Beautiful Aircraft as one of the good guys. Yet this years survey yielded an owner report complaining of poor durability and lack of warranty support on a paint job that took five months to complete. (The shop has since gone out of business.)
That said, with a few exceptions, the shop recommendations published here are sometimes moving targets, meaning that just because the shop did an exceptional job two years ago, doesnt guarantee itll do the same next month. As best we can tell, ownership and staff changes, plus the harsh economics of making a buck in GA are the reasons some shops go downhill.
Allan Bower of Sunriver, Oregon, wrote favorably of Downtown Airpark in Oklahoma City, which painted his Navajo. He liked the job but wasnt satisfied with work done on the nose baggage area.
Both the general manager and paint shop manager when the airplane was painted in 1999 are gone. Ive sent three other owners to the shop and all were satisfied. Now? I dont know, he says.
As in previous years, our advice continues to be to use the recommendations given here as a starting place for gathering quotes and information on a paint job. If you have any doubts about the shop, ask for some referrals and phone or visit those owners for an eyes-on examination of the work the shop turned out. After all, one mans idea of perfection is anothers chamber of horrors.
Devil in the Details
As in previous surveys, weve found that most owner complaints about paint shops dont involve the price of the job but missed delivery schedules, options promised but not delivered and overlooking of the fine-print details, such as painting the gear wells and door jambs and cleaning up overspray.
I was surprised at the number of small runs in the paint, most discovered long after painting was completed, wrote Ray Yillik, of Ontario, California. He had his Cessna 340A painted by Century Aircraft Painting in Chino, California. Yillik rated the paint job good and said maybe when asked if hed return to the shop.
And return business is surely the name of the game for any shop that hopes to remain profitable or even in business. In this years survey, horror stories werent as numerous as last time we asked. But theres bad work being done out there.
Stripper got into the engine compartment and corroded the engine accessories, stripper in the empennage; wings corroded and flight control bellcranks ruined. Had to sue to recover for aircraft loss, wrote one owner, whose Bonanza was destroyed by the paint shop in question. He declined to identify the shop but said it was a nationally known midwest shop no longer in business. That, at least, is good news.
Otherwise, our survey, which netted about 90 replies via mail, fax and e-mail from all over the country, plus some phone calls, revealed more good than bad in the world of aircraft paint shops. Overwhelmingly, readers reported that they would return to the shops they used. Only a couple said they wouldnt; a handful said maybe.
Paint Systems, Stripper
We asked readers to comment on the type of paint stripper used and also the paint system, such as Duponts Imron or JetGlo, two popular products. First the stripper: The vast majority of shops use chemical strippers of some kind to remove the old paint. They then repair/fill any cosmetic damage, prime and apply finish coats.
As in our last survey, there were instances in which stripping chemicals seemed to cause minor or serious damage. Last time, we were told about two such incidents but this time, only one surfaced, the Bonanza owner mentioned above.
Significantly, all of these apparent stripper-related damage claims involved Beech products, either Bonanzas or Barons, both of which use magnesium in tail control surfaces. Although it can be stripped and painted just as aluminum can, magnesium appears to be less tolerant of mishandling or exposure to the wrong chemicals.
Well examine this in depth in a subsequent article but in the meantime, we think that any reputable shop that has painted Beech products ought to be able to handle a Bonanza or a Baron, including the finicky balancing required for the Bos ruddervators. (Ask the shop about this; if they cant explain the balancing method in detail, be suspicious.)
One alternative to stripping is to paint over the existing paint. Some shops will do this, some discourage it. We think if youre going to spend the money for new paint, might as well get rid of the old and save a few pounds of empty weight.
As for the paint system, our survey reveals no clear preference for Imron over JetGlo or any other system. Owners seem to follow the shops recommendations and we dont see any reason not to do this. We wouldnt, however, ask a shop to use a paint system its not familiar with. A $10,000 paint job is no place for experimentation.
In committing to a paint job, time and time again owners warn against unrealistic downtime expectations. In reality, shops over promise and owners over expect. If the shop says theyll need the airplane for two weeks, double that and dont be surprised if youre without the airplane for five weeks.
Ive seen this shop do some excellent work. I knew what I wanted when I contracted them, wrote one owner, who had his Tiger painted by Sunshine Aviation, in Portland, Tennessee. They almost gave it to me but it took several extra weeks and three trips to deliver the airplane because of paint runs. (He conceded that he subjected the aircraft to a picky inspection.)
To minimize down time, schedule the job as far ahead on the calendar as you can and during the time youre least likely to need the airplane. If thats during the winter, other owners may have the same idea so expect a busy shop.
If you truly dont care about ever getting the airplane back, schedule other work at the same time, such as avionics or upholstery upgrades. With few exceptions, owners who do this regret it. Major improvements scheduled together have a way of reaching critical mass such that one job inevitably stalls the other. Its better to do the paint one year, upholstery the next and so on, spreading out the budget hit.
Other good ideas from our reader survey: Unless the shop is owned by your brother in law-in fact, even then-get a written, firm price on the paint job, not just a handshake. Moreover, ask the shop to specify whats included in the paint job and whats not. This is a chronic irritant for owners ranging from minor invoice squabbles to full cry lawsuits. What does the bottom line cost really cover? Will the shadowed N-numbers be an upcharge? How about the fourth color for the stripping?
One common gotcha is door jambs and gear wells. Some shops dont do the jambs and when the owner opens the door to fly away, the beat-up old paint looks awful and induces annoyance if the shop asks for more money to fix it.
Other extras such as clear coats, replacement of corroded fasteners, paint-matched hub caps and so on may involve extra charges. Or not. Ask and try to get it in writing.
Whats the warranty? This varies but in general, weve found that a year on material and labor is a good starting place. If you expect additional warranty coverage, it too should be in writing.
Interestingly, the most highly regarded shops, as with engine shops, either dont have a stated warranty or tend to cover their work far beyond the promised limits, building customer loyalty by fixing the odd ding or chip at no charge long after the promised warranty has expired.
Mindful of the caveat that some shops are good one year, not so good the next, some seem to turn out flawless work year after year, yielding unconditionally satisfied customers. Some of these shops earn repeat kudos in our surveys and we think these are worth a mention.
But first, a note about our surveys. These are open-ended queries published in the magazine not targeted surveys sent to specific owners, thus its possible for enterprising shops to encourage customers to stuff the ballot box. And thats why we received no fewer than 27 glowing reports about one shop, Dial Eastern States in Cadiz, Ohio. (Were not tossing a brickbat the shops way; after all, those customers had to be pleased to fill out and send in the form.)
Dial Eastern States has been in the business for years and weve never heard a single complaint about them. Readers rave about the quality and service, with adjectives such as true craftsmen and absolutely, positively the best. Were comfortable recommending them without reservation.
Other well-regarded shops specifically mentioned by readers include Hawk Aircraft Painting in Vandenburg, Florida, Mod Works in Punta Gorda, Florida, Keyson Aviation in Nashua, New Hampshire, Lancaster Aero in Smoketown, Pennsylvania and Sky Harbour Aircraft Refinishing in Goderich, Ontario.
These shops are generally smaller operations which have been in business for quite some time. Some, such as Mod Works, provide paint as an adjunct to other services, such as speed mods or general maintenance.
Other well-regarded shops worth mentioning that didnt specifically appear in this years survey include, Eds Aircraft Refinshing in Medford, New York and Reese Aircraft in Robinsville, New Jersey and in Newburgh, New York. (Addresses for these shops and others are given in the sidebar at the end of the story.) We cant absolutely vouch for every one of these shops other than to say each generated at least one positive report in our survey. Once again, we recommend visiting the shop and seeking a referral or two before committing to paint work.