Identification of Aircraft Paints


When fabric-covered aircraft ruled the sky, dope was the standard finish used to protect and color the fabric. The dope imparted additional qualities of increased tensile strength, airtightness, weather-proofing, ultraviolet (UV) protection, and tautness to the fabric cover. Aircraft dope is essentially a colloidal solution of cellulose acetate or nitrate combined with plasticizers to produce a smooth, flexible, homogeneous film.

Dope is still used on fabric covered aircraft as part of a covering process. However, the type of fabric being used to cover the aircraft has changed. Grade A cotton or linen was the standard covering used for years, and it still may be used if it meets the requirements of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Technical Standard Order (TSO) C-15d/AMS 3806c.

Polyester fabric coverings now dominate in the aviation industry. These new fabrics have been specifically developed for aircraft and are far superior to cotton and linen. The protective coating and topcoat finishes used with the Ceconite® polyester fabric covering materials are part of a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) and must be used as specified when covering any aircraft with a Standard Airworthiness Certificate. The Ceconite® covering procedures use specific brand name, nontautening nitrate and butyrate dope as part of the STC.

The Poly-Fiber® system also uses a special polyester fabric covering as part of its STC, but it does not use dope. All the liquid products in the Poly-Fiber® system are made from vinyl, not from cellulose dope. The vinyl coatings have several real advantages over dope: they remain flexible, they do not shrink, they do not support combustion, and they are easily removed from the fabric with MEK, which simplifies most repairs.

Synthetic Enamel

Synthetic enamel is an oil-based, single-stage paint (no clear coat) that provides durability and protection. It can be mixed with a hardener to increase the durability and shine while decreasing the drying time. It is one of the more economical types of finish.


The origin of lacquer dates back thousands of years to a resin obtained from trees indigenous to China. In the early 1920s, nitrocellulose lacquer was developed from a process using cotton and wood pulp.

Nitrocellulose lacquers produce a hard, semiflexible finish that can be polished to a high sheen. The clear variety yellows as it ages, and it can shrink over time to a point that the surface crazes. It is easy to spot repair because each new coat of lacquer softens and blends into the previous coat. This was one of the first coatings used by the automotive industry in mass production, because it reduced finishing times from almost two weeks to two days.

Acrylic lacquers were developed to eliminate the yellowing problems and crazing of the nitrocellulose lacquers. General Motors started using acrylic lacquer in the mid-1950s, and they used it into the 1960s on some of their premium model cars. Acrylics have the same working properties but dry to a less brittle and more flexible film than nitrocellulose lacquer.

Lacquer is one of the easiest paints to spray, because it dries quickly and can be applied in thin coats. However, lacquer is not very durable; bird droppings, acid rain, and gasoline spills actually eat down into the paint. It still has limited use on collector and show automobiles because they are usually kept in a garage, protected from the environment.

The current use of lacquer for an exterior coating on an aircraft is almost nonexistent because of durability and environmental concerns. Upwards of 85 percent of the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the spray gun ends up in the atmosphere, and some states have banned its use.

There are some newly developed lacquers that use a catalyst, but they are used mostly in the woodworking and furniture industry. They have the ease of application of nitrocellulose lacquer with much better water, chemical, and abrasion resistance. Additionally, catalyzed lacquers cure chemically, not solely through the evaporation of solvents, so there is a reduction of VOCs released into the atmosphere. It is activated when the catalyst is added to the base mixture.


Polyurethane is at the top of the list when compared to other coatings for abrasion-, stain-, and chemical-resistant properties. Polyurethane was the coating that introduced the wet look. It has a high degree of natural resistance to the damaging effects of UV rays from the sun. Polyurethane is usually the first choice for coating and finishing the corporate and commercial aircraft in today’s aviation environment.

Urethane Coating

The term urethane applies to certain types of binders used for paints and clear coatings. (A binder is the component that holds the pigment together in a tough, continuous film and provides film integrity and adhesion.) Typically, urethane is a two-part coating that consists of a base and catalyst that, when mixed, produces a durable, high-gloss finish that is abrasion- and chemical-resistant.

Acrylic Urethanes

Acrylic simply means plastic. It dries to a harder surface but is not as resistant to harsh chemicals as polyurethane. Most acrylic urethanes need additional UV inhibitors added when subject to the UV rays of the sun.

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