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Should You Paint or Polish Your Airplane?

One of the decisions every aircraft owner will eventually have to make is whether to paint over the metal surfaces of the airplane, or to leave it unpainted and solely polish it. Which should you choose? Take these factors into consideration before you make a decision:

Personal Preference

First, you should decide what you like best, a painted or polished plane. Some aircraft owners love the versatility and creativity of a painted plane, since it allows them to express themselves and decorate their plane in any way they please. Other owners prefer the sleek and timeless look of a polished plane.
If you choose paint, you will need to decide whether you want to use decorative or protective paint, or a combination of both. Decorative paints come in a variety of colors and can be used to create symbols, markings, letters or numbers on your aircraft. Protective paints, however, are used for function over design. These paints work to prevent erosion and moisture, and are typically only available in a light gray color. Most painted aircrafts use both decorative and protective, and in fact, most polished aircrafts have some areas with protective paint as well. The choice is yours when it comes to picking paint or polish based on the looks alone.
Although you may think choosing paint or polish is solely a matter of what look you prefer, there are other factors you should take into consideration before making this decision.

Level of Maintenance

Both painted and polished surfaces require some level of maintenance. How often you choose to repaint your plane will determine how high maintenance a painted plane will be. To get an idea of how often you will need to repaint your aircraft, look at the commercial airline industry. These airplane operators typically repaint their airlines every four years. Sometimes they completely strip the paint off and apply fresh layers, while other times they sand the existing paint down and only apply a new topcoat. Of course, these airplanes probably suffer much more wear and tear than yours will, so keep this in mind when you are determining how often you will need to repaint yours.
But, aircraft owners should keep in mind that no aircraft should ever have more than two layers of paint on its surface. When an aircraft has three or more layers, its efficiency begins to drop and discovering issues can become more difficult since it is harder to see the surface of the plane underneath the paint.
When you choose to only polish your plane, you need to commit to doing so at least three times a year. The polish will need to be applied with a buffer or by hand, so it requires a bit more labor than painting does. While the plane is being buffed and polished, you can easily inspect the surface for any issues that need to be addressed. So, even though you have to put more effort into keeping up with your polished plane, choosing this over paint helps you identify other serious problems that could be hidden when you choose paint.

Protection Against Corrosion

Regardless of whether you choose paint or polish, you will need to regularly wash your plane to prevent corrosion and other damage. Both surfaces can become corroded if the aircraft owner does not properly maintain them. Polished surfaces will need to be buffed in order to remove spots of corrosion and scratches, while paint chips and cracks need to be repaired as soon as possible, otherwise dirt and moisture will accumulate to cause damage.

Impact on the Environment

The majority of airplane paints and primers contain known carcinogens such as chromium and cadmium. Most paints and primers also release volatile organic compounds upon application as well. The United States has laws in place to prevent these toxic chemicals from being released into the atmosphere, so if you do decide to paint your aircraft, it must be at a facility that can entrap and prevent this emission.
Polish, on the other hand, usually does not contain chromium or cadmium, so you won’t have to worry about whether or not you are emitting toxic chemicals. If this issue matters to you, it’s wise to choose the polishing route as opposed to paint.

If You Choose Polish

If you do decide to skip the paint and stick to polish, make sure you get into the habit of doing this on a regular basis to remove corrosion and scratches on the surface. You will need to choose a high quality airplane polish along with a buffer and buffing pads. Look for a polish that can provide a mirror-like finish to your plane and is designed specifically for aircrafts.  There are very few polishes that are actually aviation approved, meaning it has been thoroughly tested on both commercial and private aircrafts. When you use one of these on your plane, you know you are only using the best.
Most technicians prefer orbital buffers with dual heads and a low balance, since these models provide more control while you move across the surface of the plane. Usually, these buffers allow you to change speeds as you go to help you control the process and crank up the intensity on areas that need a bit more buffing.
Now, choose the pads to use with your buffer. There are wool, synthetic and natural cotton pads, and each serves a different purpose when it comes to polishing your aircraft. The more oxidation, corrosion, cloudiness and water damage you see on the surface of the plane, the rougher the pad you need. Wool pads will provide you with the best results when you have a plane that hasn’t been maintained in a while. But, if it’s a newer aircraft and there isn’t much damage, choose a softer pad—preferably the natural cotton fibers.
Each owner will weigh the pros and cons of polished and painted aircrafts differently, so think it over carefully before you make the decision that is best for you.

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