Preparing for Aircraft Painting


The most important part of any painting project is the preparation of the substrate surface. It takes the most work and time, but with the surface properly prepared, the results are a long-lasting, corrosion-free finish. Repainting an older aircraft requires more preparation time than a new paint job because of the additional steps required to strip the old paint, and then clean the surface and crevices of paint remover. Paint stripping is discussed in Paint System Compatibility post.

It is recommended that all the following procedures be performed using protective clothing, rubber gloves, and goggles, in a well-ventilated area, at temperatures between 68 °F and 100 °F.

Aluminum surfaces are the most common on a typical aircraft. The surface should be scrubbed with Scotch-Brite® pads using an alkaline aviation cleaner. The work area should be kept wet and rinsed with clean water until the surface is water break free. This means that there are no beads or breaks in the water surface as it flows over the aluminum surface.

The next step is to apply an acid etch solution to the surface. Following manufacturers’ suggestions, this is applied like a wash using a new sponge and covering a small area while keeping it wet and allowing it to contact the surface for between 1 and 2 minutes. It is then rinsed with clean water without allowing the solution to dry on the surface. Continue this process until all the aluminum surfaces are washed and rinsed. Extra care must be taken to thoroughly rinse this solution from all the hidden areas that it may penetrate. It provides a source for corrosion to form if not completely removed.

When the surfaces are completely dry from the previous process, the next step is to apply Alodine® or another type of an aluminum conversion coating. This coating is also applied like a wash, allowing the coating to contact the surface and keeping it wet for 2 to 5 minutes without letting it dry. It then must be thoroughly rinsed with clean water to remove all chemical salts from the surface. Depending on the brand, the conversion coating may color the aluminum a light gold or green, but some brands are colorless. When the surface is thoroughly dry, the primer should be applied as soon as possible as recommended by the manufacturer.

The primer should be one that is compatible with the topcoat finish. Two-part epoxy primers provide excellent corrosion resistance and adhesion for most epoxy and urethane surfaces and polyurethane topcoats. Zinc chromate should not be used under polyurethane paints.

Composite surfaces that need to be primed may include the entire aircraft if it is constructed from those materials, or they may only be components of the aircraft, such as fairings, radomes, antennas, and the tips of the control surfaces.

Preparing for Aircraft Painting

Epoxy sanding primers have been developed that provide an excellent base over composites and can be finish sanded with 320 grit using a dual action orbital sander. They are compatible with two-part epoxy primers and polyurethane topcoats.

Topcoats must be applied over primers within the recommended time window, or the primer may have to be scuff sanded before the finish coat is applied. Always follow the recommendations of the coating manufacturer.

Primer and Paint

Purchase aircraft paint for the aviation painting project. Paint manufacturers use different formulas for aircraft and automobiles because of the environments they operate in. The aviation coatings are formulated to have more flexibility and chemical resistance than the automotive paint.

It is also highly recommended that compatible paints of the same brand are used for the entire project. The complete system (of a particular brand) from etching to primers and reducers to the finish topcoat are formulated to work together. Mixing brands is a risk that may ruin the entire project.

When purchasing the coatings for a project, always request a manufacturer’s technical or material data and safety data sheets, for each component used. Before starting to spray, read the sheets. If the manufacturer’s recommendations are not followed, a less than satisfactory finish or a hazard to personal safety or the environment may result. It cannot be emphasized enough to follow the manufacturer’s recommendations. The finished result is well worth the effort.

Before primer or paint is used for any type application, it must be thoroughly mixed. This is done so that any pigment that may have settled to the bottom of the container is brought into suspension and distributed evenly throughout the paint. Coatings now have shelf lives listed in their specification sheets. If a previously opened container is found to have a skin or film formed over the primer or paint, the film must be completely removed before mixing. The material should not be used if it has exceeded its shelf life and/or has become thick or jelled.

Mechanical shaking is recommended for all coatings within 5 days of use. After opening, a test with a hand stirrer should be made to ensure that all the pigment has been brought into suspension. Mechanical stirring is recommended for all two-part coatings. When mixing any two-part paint, the catalyst/ activator should always be added to the base or pigmented component. The technical or material data sheet of the coating manufacturer should be followed for recommended times of induction (the time necessary for the catalyst to react with the base prior to application). Some coatings do not require any induction time after mixing, and others need 30 minutes of reaction time before being applied.

Thinning of the coating material should follow the recommendations of the manufacturer. The degree of thinning depends on the method of application. For spray application, the type of equipment, air pressure, and atmospheric conditions guide the selection and mixing ratios for the thinners. Because of the importance of accurate thinning to the finished product, use a viscosity measuring (flow) cup. Material thinned using this method is the correct viscosity for the best application results.

Thin all coating materials and mix in containers separate from the paint cup or pot. Then, filter the material through a paint strainer recommended for the type coating you are spraying as you pour it into the cup or supply pot.

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