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The Paint Story

Kevin Lane, Home Wing
[Reprinted from the newsletter of the Home Wing of Vanís Air Force.]

Kevin Laneís beautiful RV-6A in the Alvord Desert of Southeast Oregon.
Kevin Lane photograph

Yes, itís yet another aircraft painting horror story.  Come to think of it, has anyone heard of a good experience?

Jim was getting his RV-4 painted after 15 years of construction.  He started so long ago that he was into his plane all of $12K, flying.  He wasnít about to spend any real money on getting it painted.  Horizon Airlines donated primer and paint, quite generously, 8 gallons.  Turns out Jim was as generous and offered to give me the leftovers, 3 gallons of Desathane, Horizon white.  Since I had decided to color my plane with vinyl graphics this sounded like a great opportunity.

Brian and I had been back and forth about painting our planes ourselves versus paying to have it done.  It really isnít legal to paint in a Port of Portland owned hangar, but then working on your plane isnít technically legal either.  We threw out ideas, such as a plastic paint booth and exhaust fans that fit between the slightly open hangar doors, and painting at night or early morning.  I had painted my work truck in my garage and knew how difficult it is to get a decent finish.  We discussed taking the planes apart and painting them in an auto body shop.  We remembered the 12 hours we spent just installing wing spar bolts (Vanís last laugh, the -6A gear leg sockets).

Jim told us about Steve Smith in Kelso.  He was simply charging shop time at $35/hr.  When I saw Jimís -4 with new three-color paint job I had to admit it looked real nice and couldnít believe it cost less than $1,000.  Even Jim will admit that his sheet metal work is rugged.  But with Steve doing a bit of bodywork you would never have guessed.  The next problem was scheduling when to take the plane up there.  Steve fits the RVs in between his real jobs, so Jimís plane was up there several months.  I had a wedding anniversary to attend on Labor Day in Ohio, I couldnít miss the Reno time trials, (and new traditions!), a trip to LA (my first SVFR), and then the weather became so uncharacteristically beautiful in September/October.  It seemed stupid to ground the plane.  Brian flew up with me in late October with those bolts with the ever-so-carefully-inserted shim washers.  We pulled the ailerons, flaps, elevators, rudder, wheel pants, intersection fairings, empennage fairing, inspection plates, drilled off the reg plate (found corrosion starting), and, of course, the cowlings, spinner, wing tip lens, rudder tip, antennasóyou get the idea, it takes a day.

To etch and alodine takes but an hour when you use a garden sprayer.  Steveís hangar has special drains and settling tanks that collect all the chemicals.  Heís going to get a recycler system that reclaims his paint thinners.  The next few days involved redoing the V-stab bodywork I wasnít happy with along with my all aluminum empennage fairing.  I had done a lot of work before flying to Kelso.  It is so much more pleasant working in a hangar with plenty of lights, a furnace, and mostly lots of space to walk around.  Steve was teaching me how to do bodywork the right way.  It takes the right air sander, a bunch of chemicals, and lots of sandpaper, which, by the way, costs only 23 cents a disk when you buy 100 (Iíve paid $1.29/ea at Tool Peddler).  I was enjoying working up there and the drive to Kelso didnít seem that long at this point.  Next came the taping off of everything that doesnít get painted.  Thatís when I realized my rudder was missing.  "Well, I remember putting it down in the grass outside so it wouldnít get scratched by the blacktop" Yup, thatís where it was, been there two days.  Good thing not too much goes on at Kelso International!

So next I learned how to use one of those paper stands that puts the tape on the edge as you pull it out.  Beats the heck out of newspaper.  Taping the canopy, which has to be removed, is a 3D puzzle, as well as taping over the hole it left.  Besides easily taped things like the strobes and engine, you discover holes, aileron crank inspection hole, flap linkage hole, empennage fairing hole, that need a little elf to tape off from the inside.  The taping details seem to never end, antenna sockets, tail tie down, fuel diaphragm overflow tube, brake calipers, propeller.  I had decided to do as much of the prep work as I could.  I was learning a lot just being around the shop and I have never been shy about asking questions.  Desathane requires its own primer, which is a dark green.  Steve shot a primer/sealer on the fiberglass followed by the Desathane primer.  When he shot the white finish coat everything looked fine.  An hour later all the rivets were showing little rings of green, as well as most of the sheet metal edges.  Steve shot some more paint; sometimes thatís all it takes.  Brian flew me up on a Saturday to help reassemble my plane and possibly fly it home.  We both looked at it without saying anything.  The green circles were back.  "You know, if you had shot that in Imron and used a white primer, none of that would show," Steve said.  "Must be some silicon on the metal or something.  I shot it twice and it still didnít go away.  Shot 2 * gallons" Make me cry, Steve.  Looks like hell and now weighs a ton besides.  Funny thing, if I can use that phrase, was that the under sides of the wings and the belly looked beautiful, just like glass.  So did all the fiberglass parts.  Free paint, right, Iím such a sucker.

So my options were to strip it and start over, or sand off the finish coat, cover the rivets with a sander/primer, and re shoot the finish coat.  I had used all the free paint up at this point.  Steve buys Desathane from Boeing Surplus for $25/gallon that is a year old.  Boeing sells it after one year despite a shelf life of three.  He said it was the exact same paint.  Desathane becomes incredibly hard after five days of curing.  Brian and I started sanding.  We spent four hours Saturday.  I spent eight hours on Sunday and Monday, and a half a day Tuesday.  I could tell it was getting harder.  I was using a 180-grit sanding disk every five minutes.  In a couple spots the paint was so thick you couldnít see the rivets.  I sprayed sander/primer on all the rivets and edges and hit that with 180 grit, then the whole plane, except the belly and undersides of the wings, with 320.

When you repaint you have to paint until you hit a seam.  You canít blend in a new coat or spot.  That means the leading edge gets sanded back to the wing spar underneath.  Not fun sanding over your face.  Steve told me that with Imron you can paint a second coat without sanding the prior coat.  This makes a huge difference in multi-color stripes and numbers.

Steve shot another coat of Desathane.  It worked, no circles.  A fair amount of dirt however.  Steve has huge fans and filters.  He air blasts the plane first, tack cloths and paint cleaner with special "virgin" rags, hoses down the floor, runs the fans for twenty minutes before painting.  A problem with Desathane is that it can take up to two hours to reach the tack-free stage.  He said that while my plane was drying the wind direction changed at Kelso, which can add a lot of dirt to the air.  Some of this dirt can be buffed out.  One of the side fuse panels had some noticeable sags.  So I prepped it and Steve re-shot that.  It was old hat now.

Time to call it done.  I felt like an employee at this point.  Iíd eaten lunch at Steveís house, met his father, his father-in-law, all his children, taken his Labrador for a car ride, and yes, been offered a job, seriously, $35K/yr.  (I only work this hard on MY plane)

While I was sanding, Steve and an employee were stripping a six-passenger Bonanza, the one that had its wing explode on take-off at PDX recently.  I realize now that I could have stripped my plane in º the time it took to sand.  It just seemed like such a gross thing to do.  With the new chemicals however it is simply spray on, set overnight, wash the paint off.  Most of the paint is on the floor in the morning.  You donít have to wear a respirator, it doesnít burn your skin, and itís the color of Bazooka bubble gum.

So, for some good news, which I needed by now.  I owed Steve $450.  I must have used half that in masking tape, the good 3M stuff.  Another half in sandpaper, and another half in lacquer thinner and rags.  Jim has a good theory as to what went wrong.  Turns out Imron and Desathane are like oil and water.  After my plane was alodined it sat in the corner of the big hangar.  Steve shot Imron on another plane and some over-spray got on mine or was already in the tarps we covered it with.  Went he tack ragged it the over-spray collected in the rivet dimples and sheet edges.  That would explain why just the top and sides were affected and none of the fiberglass.  Steveís father used to paint out at Troutdale for decades and owned Western Propeller at one time.  Steve has painted a lot of planes, even a Citation V.  He paints Galvin Flying Serviceís 172s every year to match the new Cessna paint schemes!  When something goes wrong he doesnít start making excuses.  There are so many variables that are so hard or impossible to control.  With hindsight I can see now that the Desathane was not a good choice.  Steve gets Imron I believe he said less than $60/gal.  The Desathane is incredibly hard.  Iím sure there are good reasons the airlines use it.  That special Desathane primer alone is worth several hundred dollars.

So how much paint got applied?  I never got a chance to weigh my plane right before painting.  It weighed 1,027 lbs. on its maiden flight two years ago.  Since then there has been strobes, nav lights, heat muffs, an ELT, an interior, closed plenum baffling, 4-cylinder CHT/EGT probes and gauge, auto-pilot, Rose ignition, and a light-weight starter added.  Now N3773 weighs in at 1082 lbs.  So how much?  Thirty-five pounds?  Forty?  Hope this trend is at its end.  Wait until you see my next plane.  Then Iíll get it all right!  Meanwhile I think I might go whale watching in Baja in February.  "Sorry dear, we can only carry 44 lbs. of luggage now."

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