Aircraft paint must be able to handle harsh weather conditions, exposure to various chemicals, and bend and flex, all the while looking good. To withstand these conditions, only two types of paint can be used: epoxy and enamel. These tough materials can be mixed with pigment and dyes to be used as paint, and they also act as a sealant, insulation, and adhesive in this and other applications. To choose the right paint for an aircraft, one needs to understand the different options available and the advantages of each.
Epoxy paint is a polyurethane paint formed by the reaction of a hardener and a resin. It is known for having good adhesion to surfaces and is often used as a heavy duty adhesive in metalwork. It also has high heat and chemical resistance, and maintains great electrical insulation. With so many electrical components on an aircraft, this capability makes epoxy a very strong option. Aside from these qualities, epoxy is useful because it holds very well to surfaces and is more flexible than enamel. Because epoxy does not dry as hard as enamel, there is less chance of it becoming brittle and cracking or chipping over time. Besides its use on aircraft, epoxy can also be applied to coat the floors of heavy-manufacturing facilities and the inside of pools, among other applications where chemical resistance is favored.
Enamel paint is a broad category which refers to any solvent-based paint that dries to a hard, glass-like shell. However, industrial enamel is much different than what you could find on the commercial market. For use on aircraft, enamel paint is extremely hard and resistant to chemicals and harsh conditions. Industrial enamel also maintains its shine after exposure to hard conditions, whereas an epoxy may lose it. Enamel paint is very tough, but it cannot bend like epoxy. Nevertheless, it is much cheaper and does not give off cyanide gas like epoxy does when it is sprayed.
For the best of both worlds, enamel paint is often used in conjunction with epoxy, where a base coat of enamel is put down with a layer of epoxy added for extra strength and shine. Regardless of whether this combination is present, airplane paint is generally applied in two layers, with a primer and top coat. As using a paint brush or roller would take far too long, spray tools are used to apply very thin layers of paint over a wide surface area on aircraft. Sometimes, the area between the paint and the metal of an aircraft erodes, making regular painting a necessity. However, in order to avoid adding weight or drag, the previous paint job should always be removed before a new coat is added. This is done either by sanding the existing layer or using a solvent which will dissolve the paint naturally in 24 hours.
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