A Good Paint Job: How to Judge the Results

Any shop can produce a hundred footer, but its the fine-point details that separate an exceptional paint job from an also ran. Heres what to look for.

Any owner whos recently suffered the experience can tell you that sending an airplane to the paint shop is a six-week, $12,000 crap shoot. Thats if youre lucky and the shop is on its game. don’t be surprised if the airplane is down for three months and you get it back only after paying an invoice 25 percent higher than you agreed to.

The world thus fairly wonders if you can buy a decent paint job for under $20,000 and expect an on- time delivery. In our view, there are enough shops out there capable of delivering first-rate paint jobs, but this much should also be obvious: If you expect speck-free dripless perfection for $8000, the people who call you

Quality Aircraft Paint Job

Keith A. Millard

delusional are right. Even the very best paint jobs will have flaws. The secret to satisfaction is to understand whats acceptable quality and whats not. Youll also need to have sufficient negotiating skills to arrive at a mutual understanding with the shop about what constitutes a complete and correct paint job.

This summer, we placed our 1981 Mooney 231 in the care of National Flight Services in Lakeland, Florida, for a full strip and repaint, the airplanes first (we think) since emerging from the factory 26 years ago. Our intent was to use this experience as the basis for a fine-tooth evaluation of a new paint job, in conjunction with our frequent contributor Craig Barnett, who operates www.schemedesigners.com, the leading light aircraft paint design service. Herewith are the results of this exercise.

Shop Selection

Why National Flight Services? Proximity, mainly. We have always advised that in buying major upgrades such as engines, avionics and paint, its better have the work done as close to home as practical. Its true that these services are priced and provided on a national market basis, but theyre dispersed we’ll enough that finding one within easy driving range-200 miles or less-is practical.

National came with good recommendations from Barnett, but neither he nor anyone else we know had many references about the shop. One reason is that National has a tilt toward turbine aircraft and the shops Florida location means it plies the South American trade. During our frequent visits, we saw airplanes from Venezuela, Belize and Brazil undergoing upgrades. Nationals Lakeland shop manager, Chad Mountcastle, told us hes trying to expand the companys small aircraft paint market.

We agreed on a mid-May 2007 start for the project for which Mountcastle quoted a flat $10,000 price, plus taxes. Delivery was promised in six weeks, by the end of June. This quote included a base and second color, plus three trim colors and assumed removal and reinstallation of all of the control surfaces. The airplane would be stripped to bare metal, etched and alodined before repainting. Because of

Quality Aircraft Paint Job

schedule conflicts, we couldnt deliver the airplane until May 31. National accommodated this schedule shift gracefully, although in the end, the job took two months. We sought an additional bid from another Florida shop and examined one of Nationals paint jobs for another customer.

What Color?

For a sole owner, picking a paint color and scheme is difficult enough, but for a three-owner partnership like ours, it can devolve into a mud wrestling match. Thats where Barnett comes in. For a multi-tiered fee structure as low as $600 for a single-engine design adapted from an existing scheme to as much as $1200 for involved custom work on a piston twin, Scheme Designers offers a turnkey service. It will propose base and trim colors developed from an owners preferences and produce a series of computer-based drawings that depict the paint scheme in two views.

Barnetts business is heavily Web based. He has his clients open up a “hangar” on the Web site, into which evolving paint designs can be lodged. Barnett has a voluminous library of his past work and from this, we picked a couple of Mooney 231s to serve as a starting place. We had no designs in mind, other than a dark green lower coat and a light tan or white upper coat. We flirted with red, but finally settled on the green because it hides the greasy belly we don’t feel like cleaning more than twice a year.

Barnett encounters all kinds of customers, ranging from those interested in molecular detail to those whose involvement is a hand wave and a check. The latter describes our partnership. All three of us are harried, so thinking about paint colors doesnt rise to the top of the daily to-do list. This represents a different kind of a challenge for Barnett, for his talent is teasing the true color and design wants and desires out of owners, something that requires active feedback. We were happy having someone else think this through for us and that, in the end, is why you hire professional services.

Despite this short shrift on our part, Barnett arrived at colors and schemes we all liked-see page 23 and the lead photo opposite page -and these were conveyed to paint shop manager James Wyatt at National. Barnett tells us that the typical customer-one more involved than we had time to be-will work through several iterations of designs, for which Scheme Designers will e-mail color drawings. The

Quality Aircraft Paint Job

service includes unlimited design iterations. When the final design is agreed to, Barnett provides the shop with specific color chip references and dimensioned drawings rendering trim detail-stripes, swoops and so on.

Getting Started

There’s a pecking order in paint quality and, no surprise, its governed by price. Although our recent paint shop survey (see December 2006 Aviation Consumer) revealed the average price of paint for singles to be $8777, you can find plenty of shops willing to spray a $6000 300-footer. At $10,000, Nationals estimate made it mid-priced. (This was marked down from $13,750 as a spring special.) What can you reasonably expect for that amount or, more to the point, what do you really need? In our view, the minimum acceptable paint job should include full stripping, removal of corrosion, acid etching and alodining and a base undercoat for corrosion prevention.

On top of that, the shop should apply primer and at least two color coats of whatever paint is specified. Better shops remove all of the control surfaces and paint them separately, reinstalling and rebalancing as necessary. Clear coating may be required for some non-metallic paints and this should be worked out with the shop ahead of time. (Some estimates may specify this, some don’t. Ask for specifics.)

The above accurately describes what National provided for our paint job and we visited the shop three times during the course of the two-month job to see how things were progressing. As do many shops, National stripped the Mooney with an environmentally friendly hydrogen peroxide-based material rather than methylene chloride, the old standby of days gone by. Wyatt treated areas of corrosion by spot sanding with mild abrasives, followed by etching, alodining and priming.

For top coats, National paints with Sherwin Williams JetGlo, spraying three top coats over two coats of primer. We selected a non-metallic lower color which also required two clear coats to achieve the desired gloss. There are other paint systems, of course, including Duponts popular Imron, the Dutch-made Sikkens and PPG. We havent heard any significant complaints about any of these products and wouldnt pick a shop based on what paint system it uses. A good shop should be able to deliver excellent results with any of them.

Good Paint Defined

Quality Aircraft Paint Job

For a quick primer on how to evaluate a paint job, spend some face time with your maintenance shop. Every mechanic has nightmare stories about sins committed by a paint shop that might otherwise produce cosmetically acceptable work.

What to look for thats wrong? Heres a short list: Indications that the control surfaces werent removed for stripping and painting; globs of stripper left in hard-to-reach places and sometimes even painted over; stripper not rinsed from the skin laps; inspection panels cemented in place with paint; wheel bearings shot through with stripper crud because the wheels werent masked; paint overspray on the windows-especially in a pressurized aircraft; poor masking of stripes and trim; quick turns in curved stripes that indicate sloppy taping and masking; paint sags and missed spots; control surface bearings painted over; overspray in the door jambs, engine spaces and other places that arent supposed to have paint. Last, the paperwork. Did the paint shop record what was done, including the paint manufacturers specifications so the work can be touched up later?

Howd They Do?

Delivery was two weeks later than promised, but we had no beef, given Nationals flexibility with our own tardiness. The week of delivery, Mountcastle called with a big upcharge: $1100 for replacement of all of the control surface bearings, an 11 percent increase. Again, no complaints from us, since the bearings appeared to be the originals and were corroded badly. Moreover, this eventuality was clearly spelled out as a potential upcharge in the invoice. Some shops prepare a briefing package for customers-Dial Eastern States does this, for instance-so customers will have a good idea of what to expect, minimizing surprises.

For delivery, the airplane was placed in an open, airy hangar and with Mountcastle and two mechanics standing by, we inspected it carefully, noting some minor flaws here and there, including a sag on the turbocharger inspection door, a paint holiday on the tail and a missing fastener. We asked the mechanics to remove the battery door to break loose any paint film. Impressed as we were with the job, for the white glove inspection, we called in a professional: Craig Barnett flew down from his New Jersey HQ for a closer look.

It didnt take him long to spot something we missed-and it was a biggie. Shadowed N-numbers are supposed to have the shadowing on the trailing edge of each number. On the right side of our fuselage, the shadowing was on the leading edge. Its quite obvious when pointed out, less so to the unschooled eye.

On the wings, Barnett noticed a number of rivet heads with what appeared to be excess paint that had pooled and formed tiny blisters. On the elevator, he found some drips we had missed, the consequence of an overzealous spray man new to the job.

On the other hand, the fuselage and wings had pristine, evenly flowed paint without a hint of orange peel anywhere. The trim swoops were smooth and fair and where they were supposed to come to crisp, smudge-free points, they did. Barnett was pleased with Wyatts layout of the scheme. There was no evidence of overspray anywhere and the wheel wells had been cleaned up and painted, along with the gear legs. To our eye, the overall job was better than much of what comes out the factories these days.

We agreed with Barnetts final rating of Nationals work: a solid nine out of 10 for quality. Barnett told us his nits-even the N-number error-wouldnt be significant enough to even mention in a customer referral, unless the customer asked.

So, National wasnt perfect, but it was close. But it excelled at one thing:customer service. When we dropped the airplane off in May, Mountcastle made a point to be there, as he was for the delivery. He and Wyatt both returned phone calls in a timely fashion. The shop agreed to fix any and all of our complaints if we would set a date to bring the airplane back to Lakeland. In the end, we cant ask for more than that, so National rates our unqualified recommendation. They made the paint process as painless as possible.

Paul Bertorelli is Aviation Consumer’s Editor at Large. In addition to his valued contributions to Aviation Consumer, his in-depth video productions on sister publication AVweb cover a wide variety of topics that greatly contribute to safety, operation and aircraft ownership. When Paul isn’t writing or filming, he’s out flying his J3 Cub.