Choosing a Paint Scheme

of Cresskill, New Jersey, a company that provides custom design services to ... study all the examples on our website and a photo album of our customers'.
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Choosing a Paint Scheme An aircraft’s paint scheme is often the first thing onlookers notice BY KENT MISEGADES

JUST AS CLOTHING CAN improve, or diminish, our physical appearance, a well-chosen and -executed paint scheme can turn an otherwise average airplane into an award-winner. With the cost to prepare and paint a light aircraft sometimes exceeding $10,000, this may be the most expensive enhancement we make to our airplanes. The choice of a paint scheme depends on many factors including cost, weight limitations (paint is heavy, adding 5 to 20 pounds on an average light plane), aircraft age, aircraft type, construction materials, and how it will be used. Most importantly, what is your goal? Will the new scheme: • Restore an airplane to an original scheme? • Mimic an older airplane or warbird? • Increase your plane’s visibility? • Advertise your company, a product, or a cause? • Be whimsical?

Once you have a basic idea, the real work begins—converting thoughts you’ve sketched on paper to paint on a large, curved surface full of openings and protrusions. As in any new effort, it makes sense to learn from others. Use the Internet to view paint schemes chosen by others for your model airplane. Most aircraft type clubs or builder forums have picture galleries, and these are good sources for ideas. Lastly, flip through your stack of back issues of EAA Sport Aviation, especially in “What Our Members are Building & Restoring.” (Don’t forget you can now view the complete archive of Sport Aviation from 1953 through, so you’ll have lots of planes to look at.) Having done all the above, you’re ready to take the next step, asking for advice from the pros and from fellow EAA members. But designing and painting is not as simple as it sounds, so we selected an expert scheme designer and two recent builder/restorers to comment on their experiences with aircraft painting and decaling. MEET THE EXPERTS

Craig Barnett, EAA 552129, is the founder and CEO of Scheme Designers of Cresskill, New Jersey, a company that provides custom design services to aircraft manufacturers, owners, operators, and airlines. He also holds two forums each year at EAA AirVenture to educate people on choosing a paint scheme and having an aircraft painted. 14 Sport Aviation January 2010


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You can’t talk paint schemes without mentioning Mirco Pecorari, who specializes in the comprehensive design of paint schemes, apparel, corporate images, and aircraft conceptual design. Visit his work

H 81-5 3223

Chip Davis, EAA 263766, of Apex, North Carolina, is the owner of a 1960 Cessna 172A, voted Contemporary Aircraft Outstanding in Type at Sun ‘n Fun 2008. Michael Crowder, EAA 643415, of Cary, North Carolina, recently completed construction of a Sonex homebuilt. CRAIG BARNETT

Designing a paint scheme requires two phases: artistic and engineering. First we work with our clients to understand what they want: their tastes, style, aircraft usage, likes, and dislikes. We give them a homework assignment to study all the examples on our website and a photo album of our customers’ aircraft on We then work through various schemes and colors by phone, e-mail, the Internet, and interactively through live, online design sessions. This process may take a few hours, days, weeks, or even months. Often our customers will print out color copies of our designs and tape them on their airplanes or somewhere


where they will see them often, ensuring that they can live with their selected design direction. Here are a few pointers for designing different elements of your paint scheme: Straight lines: If straight lines are your style, keep them thin and elegant to accentuate the aircraft and make it look sleeker and longer. Too wide, and the aircraft will look short. Too thin, and they will merge together visually as you move away from the aircraft. Curves: The most common mistake in designing curved stripes is that they tend to be too skinny. Do not be afraid to go a little bolder. Also, avoid kinks (sudden changes in radius) and flat spots in your curved lines, as they are what will catch the eye. Split bases: It is common to see aircraft painted in two separate base colors, most typically a dark or strong color and white. When the dark color is on the bottom, it offers the advantage of hiding the oil and stains on the underside of the aircraft, allowing you to fly longer between washes. Tail, wingtips, and wheelpants: Think of a paint scheme like a suit. The tail, wingtips, and wheelpants are like the shirt, tie, and shoes. Everything should match and tie into the fuselage design. Once the customer has settled on the design he or she wants, the engineering phase of the work begins. This entails conversion of a three-view of the airplane into detailed instructions that will be used by the customer’s paint shop. It’s one thing to draw a scheme onto a flat piece of paper, and quite another to create the paint masks or decals that will be applied to curved surfaces that are full of holes, latches, antennas, bumps and other irregularities. We create our own computer models of all the aircraft we deal with, and include important details such as rivet and bolt heads, lap joints, various openings and fairings. We try to adjust the scheme to avoid the most difficult of these features, for instance, by not having the edge of stripes or letters along lap joints of the surface aluminum. The result of the engineering phase of our work is a packet of color prints with all the details the paint shop will need. If the shop requests it, we can provide all the paint masks, too. When it comes to the choice of paint, Scheme recommends that our clients “marry” a paint shop, not a particular paint manufacturer. A good shop will have built up experience with a particular paint and is unlikely to change to something else. Based on our experiences, we recommend a number of shops around the country that have given our clients good service; a list is found on our website. Prices vary tremendously. With a typical scheme, I would assume an RV to cost between $9K and $12k. Similarly, a C172/Cherokee 180 type should be between $10.5K and $13K. You can certainly find cheaper, but often quality is compromised. Except for a new homebuilt, these costs include stripping and metal prep. Our last advice—obtain a color chart for the paints used by your paint shop to assist you in determining the exact colors for your aircraft. Err on the dark side when choosing colors, as paint will lighten up over a large


surface. Look at the chips in natural sunlight to see the subtleties between colors, and make sure you have sufficient contrast between colors for proper effect. TIPS FROM AIRCRAFT OWNERS

As the driver of the AirVenture vintage tour tram for the past 23 years, Chip Davis has gained an appreciation for the difference a well-designed paint scheme can make. His own plane, a white 1960 Cessna 172A with faded orange and brown stripes, was the butt of jokes at the grass strip where it was tied down before he had it painted.


When I acquired N7502T in 1997, it was in excellent condition, was fully instrument flight rules—equipped, was regularly flown, and had what appeared to be a new interior and a paint job only a few years old. When it came time for a new paint job, I decided to stick with an original scheme. I knew that Cessna employed some talented designers back in 1959. How could you go wrong with the original factory colors and layout? Gene Soucy’s ShowCat is a good example of how an exciting paints scheme can turn a utilitarian aircraft—the Grumman AgCat crop duster—into a head-turner. Soucy’s wing walker, Teresa Stokes, an award-wining aviation artist, designed the scheme.


EXPERT PANEL What the Pros KnoW

The aircraft dataplate has the interior and exterior color codes. Sometimes the original paint manufacturer’s colors are still available. If not, the trick is to determine which currently available tint is closest to the one named by the code. Old advertising brochures and other collectibles can often provide a clue. A quick phone call to Cessna Customer Service in Wichita, and a D-size copy of the original blueprint was on its way. It shows the original paint scheme from every angle, with dimensions, and cost me only the $35 copying fee. My paint shop was delighted to have it. Another advantage to restoring my 1960s-vintage aircraft to its original appearance is that I have always felt that those 12-inch registration numbers ruin any paint scheme. Fortunately, FAR Part 45.22 allows a small aircraft that was manufactured at least 30 years ago to display 2-inch numbers. The only drawback is that the aircraft cannot be operated in an air defense identification zone (not the one around Washington, D.C.), and cannot be used under Parts 121, 133, 135, or 137. Getting those big numbers off the side of your airplane makes it look better right off the bat. I paid $7,400 for the work done by Harrington Industries of Aiken, South Carolina, which included stripping, and the turnaround was three weeks. The first time I flew N7502T to Sun ’n Fun it won the Outstanding in Type award in the Contemporary Class, and it won again the following year. I’m convinced it’s the authenticity they were awarding. It’s not a showplane, it’s just a working family Skyhawk. Michael crowder

Sonex builder Michael Crowder is an admirer of the P-40 Warhawk. For these reasons, he created his own mock-warbird design, with the airplane painted a single color and accented with

Decal Plans:

Michael Crowder’s painted Sonex before addition of decals, which can be an easier alternative to detailed painting process.

vinyl decals, honoring the famous Flying Tigers and his alma mater, Auburn University. Michael explained his scheme and how he developed it … I’ve always been fascinated by the P-40 and its aggressive artwork. I knew I wanted something with a little more “kick” than standard olive drab, and found Tropic Green Metallic PPG Aerospace paint. Two software programs helped me while designing my paint scheme. I started with; it’s easy to use and got me close to the final scheme. I then switched to a software package from Abacus Publishing called FS Repaint V2 ( For the 2-inch identification numbers on the upper tail, I chose an authentic stencil font used on Army Air Corps aircraft during World War II called Amarillo. I added Air Corps roundels on the upper left and lower right wing surfaces. Borrowing from pictures of Flying Tigers P-40s, I had the spinner painted red and vinyl blue/white striping added on the rudder. As an Auburn Tiger fan, I thought it might be fun to add a symbol from my alma mater and was pleasantly surprised when the head of the Auburn mascot “Aubie” fit well on top of the body of the AVG’s flying tiger. I started with images of the P-40 and Aubie I found online. After a lot of digital manipulation and color correction in Photoshop, I came out with something close to what you see. I found the roundels online and chose the tail stripes based on other aircraft I had seen and liked. Knowing the beating the vinyl decals take on race cars, I knew that they could withstand the speeds and weather I expect to be flying in, so painting the insignia might not be necessary. Decals also gave me the option of removal later, although I know the paint underneath will look slightly different than the surrounding surfaces exposed to the elements. I spent a lot of time talking about the durability of decals with my supplier [and fellow Sonex builder] Barry Sherrill of the Aim Group Two, and his short answer was, “Yes, they will hold up.” He is providing me with the same type of decals that are used in NASCAR, on cars and jets. The decals are coated with a UV protective layer to reduce fading. of Salisbury, North Carolina, painted my Sonex. They first gave all metal surfaces a light going over with a fine Scotch-Brite pad and then thoroughly washed the metal. This was followed by a chemical etching and alodining to protect the metal from corrosion and prepare the surfaces for painting. Alumigrip primer was then applied, followed by three coats of PPG Tropic Green Metallic paint. To protect the paint and give the airplane a permanent polished look, they sprayed on two clear coats to finish the job. The entire paint added 13-14 pounds to my airplane. I was quoted $5,500, and that is what I paid. I received placards and had the spinner painted a bright red at no additional cost. The turnaround time was quoted as two to three weeks, and I actually had the airplane back in two weeks. The vinyl graphics have added $265 so far. Have a subject you’d like an Expert Panel to address? Send your suggestions to [email protected]

16 Sport Aviation January 2010