If you’re anything like me, you’re probably shocked by the price of an aircraft paint job these days. Just 10 years ago, I remember getting paint quotes from a reputable shop on a mid-size jet for around $60,000 to $70,000. Those days are long gone, unfortunately. This got me wondering, “Why is painting an aircraft so expensive?”
Like the car industry, the chemicals in aircraft paint used to be much better in terms of preventing corrosion, chipping, fading and generally holding up to the elements. Nowadays, however, those chemicals have been deemed too dangerous for us to use, harmful to both our health and our planet’s environment. Not to worry, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is here to save us! I’ll skip the political debate on this, but the use of newer-age, “safer” chemicals is only part of the reason for the increased costs. The other half of the equation is far more interesting to talk about and vastly improves the finished product.
The Painting Process
Some of the most reputable shops in the industry are now led by professionals who seem just short of having a PhD in aircraft paint and detailing. These pros geek out on aircraft paint and it shows. In fact, did you know there is an annual conference where around 30 aviation companies made up of “paint doctors” and paint manufacturers show up to discuss best practices in aircraft painting, talk about new application techniques, and help develop new products? Neither did I until I researched this article.
Reputable shops like West Star Aviation, Duncan Aviation, Elliott Aviation, Jet Aviation, as well as the aircraft manufacturers, are now hiring experienced aircraft paint professionals who went to school for this specific trade. They then put them through an additional extensive training program specific to their systems and processes. It’s no wonder too; the process is mind-blowing, from start to finish.
The estimated time to complete this first step is about a week. To begin, a shop will start by preparing the metal surface to be painted. Some would say this prep work is likely the most critical step in the whole process to ensure the longest-lasting paint job – and an additional check that allows you to catch skin corrosion issues early before they become bigger problems. This is also where, as they say, “you get what you pay for.”
Some shops will start with a scuff process, where they don’t actually strip the old paint off, but rather scuff or sand the old paint so the new paint will adhere to it better. There are a couple of issues with this technique: 1) The process doesn’t allow you to catch any skin or fastener corrosion as easily; 2) The process usually ends up making the aircraft heavier than if it were completely stripped and then painted.
The best form of metal preparation for a paint job includes removing of the control surfaces to better gain access to all areas of the airplane and then using a chemical stripping process (using Peroxide or similar chemical). This is where the EPA comes in. Safe handling of the wastewater associated with this process requires the shop to capture, contain and properly dispose of these chemicals. This alone can cost several thousands of dollars per aircraft. But this sure beats having to deal with a skin repair later. That’s because a good shop will end this stripping
process with a thorough inspection of the entire aircraft. This is an important step because this is when issues can be found early and how a more expensive repair is avoided down the road.
Pro Tip: Whichever shop you choose to have your paint done, make sure they are equipped and approved to handle repairs for your airframe. That way, if corrosion or other issues are found that require maintenance, you can have it addressed on site and with minimal delay.
Next is preparing the surface for the base color application, which also takes about a week. Again, this step can likely be a difference of years in the life of your paint job, so don’t skimp here either. This is where the PhDs of aircraft painting come in. It used to be the process of painting cars and painting aircraft were very similar. Today, however, the process is very specialized, especially considering all the concave and convex surfaces, extreme temperature and speed variations, and the fact there are vertical, horizontal, topside and underside surfaces to consider.
Some of the best paint shops use a prepping process that includes both Alodine (to form a protective barrier on the metal) along with a two-part epoxy primer. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Alodine is another extremely effective, yet nasty chemical that requires special handling and disposal, equating to more dollars in cost. After this, the epoxy primer must be applied precisely in a climate-controlled, dust-controlled and well-ventilated paint shop. This is where the rubber meets the road –
or paint meets the metal – and where you’ll be blown away by the painting process. And guess what? More dollars adding to the overall cost!
Paint booths are amazingly sophisticated these days. Some of the most advanced shops are using a high-tech electrostatic process that allows for the charging of the paint molecules providing a 60 to 75 percent efficiency (meaning 60 to 75 percent of the paint makes its way onto the surface of the aircraft) and minimizes paint waste. The sophistication doesn’t end there. The paint booths are also equipped with special lighting and multi-stage filtration systems in the floor, ceiling and walls. That’s after they spray water on the floor and walls up to four feet high prior to painting just to keep dust and other particles from flying around. Again, only stuff the “Paint PhDs” would know.
Step 3: Base Paint Rework, Application of Stripes or Other Detail Painting, and Painting of Control Surfaces.
The timing of this step varies largely based on the size of the aircraft and the complexity of paint design, but expect one to two weeks on average. “Roughly 10 percent of each paint application will not pass our standards,” says George Euler, paint shop manager at West Star Aviation’s Grand Junction facility.
It is a testament to the high standards they have for aircraft paint. Imperfections such as dust particles, “fish-eye” spots (small bubbles in paint), or “orange peel” (uneven or rippled surface caused by humidity) are areas that a good shop will re-work and address before going to the final stage of the process. It’s also during this stage in the painting process when the control surfaces are painted and balanced with the same painstaking attention to detail.
Step 4: Paint ReWork, Cut-and-Buff, Clear Coat, Installation of Control Surfaces and Balancing, and Final Inspections.
During the final phase of the painting process, estimated to take one to two weeks, areas will be repainted as a result of periodic inspections done to assess each paint application. Additionally, some of the top shops will use a process called a “cut-and-buff” to blend the height of the striping with the height of the base color. A trick I like to use when assessing a paint job is to take my finger and drag it across the seam of the stripes. If it’s smooth, I can assume it was likely a thorough paint job. If it has an evident edge to the stripe, then I know no blending was done and it was likely a cheaper paint job. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad paint job; it simply means they skipped a finer detail that I like to look for. And, finally, there’s the clear coat. Though not required and adds weight, it’s a must for any metallic paints.
At the end of the process, the control surfaces are reinstalled and balanced to ensure smooth operation. No unnecessary input is required by the pilots or the trim to compensate for any minor changes in the control surface’s weight as a result of the paint.
Finding a Good Value
It’s easy to see why costs have escalated in the last 10 years. Between state-of-the-art equipment, systems, facilities, training and disposal costs, it’s no wonder a good paint job from a reputable shop on a Citation Excel/XLS/XLS+ can now cost between $85,000 to $95,000 for a two-stripe paint job.
There are some good shops out there that can do it for less, and that doesn’t necessarily mean you are sacrificing on quality. But you do need to understand what processes they use, ask lots of questions and ask to see some of their work. As they say, the devil is in the details, and with paint, it’s all about the details.
Be on the Lookout for Subpar Work
On the other hand, there are bad paint shops out there and shops that just don’t offer the level of detail I like to see. When in doubt, here are some things to be on the lookout for:
High-Build Primer or Improper Use of Bondo – Yes, Bondo body filler can be used on airplanes. But it can also be misused, as can high-build primers. Things I look for are the outlines of the rivet heads in the wings. If you can’t see them, why? Is the paint too thick? Did they use a high-build primer or body filler? Filler does not flex like paint either, so you’ll likely see cracking of the body filler in these areas.
The “30-foot Paint Job” – This is what I call a paint job that looks good at 30 feet away, but once you get close to the airplane, you can see orange peel on the underside of the wings, or you can tell that the control surfaces were never removed for paint. You can usually see a fresh coat of paint on top of peeling paint in the area between the control surfaces and the trailing edge of the wings/horizontal stabilizer.
Overspray – I’ve seen this one all too many times and I’m not sure why. I believe it occurs when a shop is doing touch up or maybe even they are spraying paint on an adjacent airplane in the same shop. You’ll see specs of paint on the side windows.
Bubbling or Blistering Paint – Imagine Steve Martin yelling at John Candy in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, “Those aren’t pillows!” The same is true with bubbling or blistering paint. That is likely corrosion under there. Have a maintenance professional check it out.
Buying Like a Pro
I often tell my acquisition clients that I’d rather find an airplane that needs new paint and interior but has good bones. That’s because everything else is generally cosmetic and you can usually find a better deal that way. If you find an airplane with a good history (logbooks and pedigree) and good bones (discovered using a thorough pre-buy inspection), you can feel good about investing in a high-quality paint job and a custom interior that you will enjoy for a while. More importantly, you’ll likely realize a greater return on the aircraft down the road.