Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Exterior Referb - Part 3

Now that we have the paint scheme designed, it is time to turn our attention to finding someone that can transfer the 2D computer rendering onto a 3D airplane. I quickly discovered that finding a qualified paint shop is not as easy as I expected. Every paint shop out there wants the business and often says all of the right things; however, when pressed they rarely put their claims in writing.

When searching around I found a surprising number shops that will paint an airplane, but when I started probing about their warranty, turnaround time, issue resolution, quality, references, etc., many started backpedaling quickly or charging extra for the "custom" services. I felt like I was buying a used car when calling some of these shops. These guys are experts in trying to talk you into something they can do quickly in order to maximize their return.

I also found many shops that specialize in the 'cheap' and quick paint job, but the old adage that you get what you pay for couldn't be more accurate in this case. The discount shops will get over spray on windows, wont clean up their lines properly, have poor quality control, use automobile paint, etc. Stay away form them. They can often cause more problems, add unnecessary weight, and materially decrease the value of the plane.

Where to start
Aviation consumer had a good article about painting an airplane in their December 2006 magazine. It is a good read if you subscribe to them. What I like about Aviation Consumer is that they throughly do their research and then provide unbiased results. To prep for the December Article, they surveyed their subscribers and compiled a list of the top-20 shops as well as others that were rated highly. The shops that didn't make the top-20 were not necessarily bad. They may be new or didn't have as many votes as the well established businesses. No one made these lists that had any material complaint reported against them.

You do not need to narrow your search to top-20 list. The other shops are also reputable. I would, however, be cautious of a shop that didn't make one of these two lists. The Aviation Consumer subscribers are savvy. If a shop didn't make the list then chances are a number of complaints were filed against them. I would not contract with anyone not on these lists unless they have impeccable references from people you personally know and trust.

Aviation Consumer also ended 2007 by ranking the Best of the Best of the year. They rated two paint shops as the best of the best: Dial Eastern States and KD Aviation/Reese. No question these shops will do a top-notch paint job. I've personally seen work from both shops and their work is impeccable. However, these guys also have a long waiting list and tend to be much more expensive than others that may do equally, and sometimes even a better, job. The key is to do your research and give your business to someone that produces the quality you want.

Where to go with 36G?
When I started thinking about 36G's exterior referb project, I was fully expecting to go to Dial Eastern in Cadiz, Ohio. Like I said above, I have personally seen their work and many people I respect, including AOPA and Scheme Designers, are impressed with their quality. However, when I approached them with my project they were slow to respond and seemed a bit reluctant to take it on. They like the easy quick-turn projects. Ones that maximize their returns and minimize shop time. The scheme I ended up with for 36G is far from a quick-turn project. When complete, 36G will have 5 different colors and the entire plane is metallic. It will take multiple paint sessions and likely tie up a paint booth for a week or more.

Dial Eastern also balked about clear-coating the entire plane even though Imron Metallic paint requires it (the chemical composition of modern metallic paint will not gloss properly unless it is clear coated). They were also dismissive when pressed about the fine details of our project like using ChromaiLusion accents, replacing the CAMLOC fasteners, painting removable pieces (e.g. gear doors, cowling, belly panel, etc.) off of the plane and other fine details I wanted. They eventually quoted the project, but they did not quote everything requested. Here's a portion of their response to me:
  • First we use only DuPont Imron paint.
  • Second, we won't clear coat an airplane (except for over Chromailusion). You will find shops that do and shops that won't. We are in the "won't" category... Clearcoating also takes an enormous amount of sanding and coating to be done right on an airplane so the cost of painting your plane will go up quite a bit.
  • Third, Chromalusion is a very expensive and adds to the cost of the scheme. There is a base value color that goes down first, then the product then the clear coat. Its just a time intense process.
I sincerely believe these guys do a solid job for standard paint schemes, but I got the since that their plan is to nickel and dime you after you are there. What concerned me the most was their repeated comments about the time it takes to do something. They stated this several times throughout the quote and phone conversations. There is no question in my mind that anything out of the ordinary will generate significant up charges that could add thousands of dollars to the quote. Suffice of to say, my experience with Dial Eastern was not what I expected.

My unexpected experience with Dial Eastern set me off on a quest that took several months of research to complete. I spoke with everyone I know that has painted their plane, I called many of the Aviation Consumer shops listed above and explored the field at Oshkosh looking for owners of planes that had spectacular paint jobs.

My research kept bringing me to a small shop just outside of Austin Texas called Tejas Aero Services. Their owner, Mike Van Sicklen, retired from a lucrative career in the North and he acquired this shop a few years back. He seems to love aviation and got into the aircraft painting business for more than simply making a few bucks. I met Mike and his shop foreman, Donnie McKee, at the Mooney MAPA convention in San Antonio Texas earlier this year. It was instantly clear to me that these guys know the airplane painting business inside and out. I was very impressed their knowledge, their attention to detail and their facilities. Here's a quote off of their website that says it better than I can:
"We only know one way to paint your aircraft. We aim for perfection, and strive to give you a flawless airplane under the paint. We do not offer cheap or even “basic” paint jobs, and would never allow a project reflecting less than our best efforts to leave our shop. You may find cheaper or more expensive paint jobs, but we feel safe in saying that you will not find a better paint job."
Of course anyone can say they do good work, but do they stand behind it? The only way to find out if what a shop claims is true is to check references and the reputation of the people referencing them. Here are a few that speak highly of Tejas Aero:
  • Mooney Airplane Company – Kerrville, TX
    Tom Canavera 830-792-2906
    Tejas Aero Services completes at least three production Mooney's per month.
  • Integrity Aero – San Antonio, TX
    David Welch, President 210-375-2500
    Tejas performs the paint and interior refurbishment for the “Integrity Edition” Cessna 414A aircraft.
  • Ram Aircraft – Waco, TX
    David Seesing, Sales Manager 254-752-8381
    Ram Aircraft is the leading engine replacement company in the US. Tejas is Ram’s recommended shop.
  • Premier Aviation - Sanford, FL
    Frank Norman, Owner 407-585-3548
    Tejas AeroServices has been selected to refurbish their Cessna 414As.
Yes, that's right...Mooney Aircraft sends three production Mooney's to them every month! They would send all of them if Tejas had the time to do the work. In fact, Tejas paints all of Mooney's show planes. Here are some examples of their Mooney workmanship. To view more planes they've painted click here:

Another thing that I like about Tejas is they were honest with their quotes. They submit a fixed bid for their services. You can have one color or 10 and it is the same base price. ChromaiLusion paint was the only thing that was outside of the ordinary and added $1K to the price. They also include 8 hours of prep work and will only exceed these prices if significant metal damage is found when they strip the plane. All parts that are removable are painted off of the airplane, all hardware is replaced and they fully guarantee their work.

Key considerations
Painting a plane is a complex project to undertake. It takes a lot of time and skill to do it right. There are many components that go into a top quality paint job, but here are a few key considerations to keep in mind.

First, an aircraft should be completely stripped down to bare metal. It is very important to get down to the surface and inspect it for corrosion and undocumented damage. Paint can hide things that could kill you or destroy your perfectly good airplane! Do not skip this step!

It is also important that the metal is properly etched and Alodined within 24 hours after the striping to protect it properly. Discount shops often skip this step because it is costly. Don't even think about it. If you don't Alodine an airplane quickly, the metal will start corroding. Paint will cover up damage that will continue to deteriorate the metal from the inside out. Also be cautious of buying a plane that has been painted that doesn't specifically indicate they Alodined and Etched the metal prior to painting in the logbook entry.

Second, the prep work needs to be done right. It is illegal to put body filler on control surfaces or to cover up significant metal damage. Body filler should only be used sparingly to take out small imperfections. Any areas requiring heavy body filler should be repaired by a skilled airframe craftsman.

Third, the shop needs to have someone that is experienced laying out complex design schemes. Proper layout work is critical to a successful project:

Fourth, a good shop will spend several days cleaning up the fine details that include using new stainless steel airframe hardware, removing tape marks and cleaning up the lines:

Finally, the end result should be worthy of a press release:

I've completed the design process, I've picked the paint shop, now it's time to ferry 36G to Austin for her Extreme Makeover and name change to N252Q!


Anonymous said...

read with interest your comments concerning mooney airplane co. and it's relationship with tejas. first of all, mooney has an excellent paint shop. secondly, mooney would not EVER send all of their paint work to tejas. the only reason they sent two(not three)planes per month is because of customer deadlines. and last, but not least, N654AD aircraft shown in the photo required paint touch-ups twice that i know of by mooney's paint shop.
thanks for listening

Mooney N252Q said...

The Tejas management told me directly that they refuse work form Mooney and they do four aircraft a month for them. That was back then and your comments are coming in now. Mooney has cut production, so it is certainly possible that they don't paint as many planes now as they were.

I have personally seen numerous brand new Mooney airplanes in the Tejas shop while visiting including the BMW planes before they were ever introduced to the public. I can also confirm that many of the famous planes that have made the covers of magazines have been painted by Tejas.

I'm sure Mooney has a fine paint shop, but it appears that in addition to outsourcing production delays they also send their difficult to do projects that need the best quality to Tejas as well.