Choosing Plumage for Your Homebuilt

A well-designed paint scheme is the perfect finishing touch for your plane.

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One of the signs of a close bond between an airplane and its owner is the post-flight pause to look back after parking the aircraft. Most of us will be taking one more look at an aircraft of which we are justly proud. That feeling of pride in the plane’s appearance makes up for all the trials of ownership, when we say to ourselves, “That’s a nice looking airplane.” A good part of that satisfaction originates with the paint design. A great paint job adds immeasurably to the worth of your airplane.

At some point, as your assembled experimental aircraft begins to take shape, you will begin to consider a paint design, perhaps when it’s sitting on its wheels and is capable of being occupied by its builder making engine noises. Unless you’re one of those rare individuals that prefers all shiny aluminum or stark white composite, you’ll want to decorate the exterior of your product with paint or vinyl, using a design that’ll draw attention and create appreciative comments.

If you’re not an expert with the techniques of masking and layout, you’ll probably hire professionals to apply the coating that will embellish your plane. They’ll want to know how you want it to look, but if you just give them a rough idea of where the stripes should go and what colors to use, there’s a great risk of being disappointed with the results. You may think you made it quite clear; however, as many disenchanted owners have found out, there’s a lot of difference between a six-inch doodle on a pad of paper and a 16-foot fuselage seen from across the ramp.

Great Design Is an Art

Graphic design expertise is a gift bestowed upon relatively few individuals. One can learn the elements of the craft in post-secondary education, but a good eye has to be inherent. At least that’s the way I’ve found it to be in my experience with journalistic layouts. When it comes to designing a paint scheme for an aircraft, spending a relatively small sum to create the exterior design will pay big dividends in both personal gratification and resale value, unless your tastes are too outlandish.

Many of the larger paint shops offer custom design work by having their in-house designers work with customers to create a mutually agreeable layout. Smaller shops may have a portfolio of schemes they’ve used earlier. However, more and more kit aircraft builders want their own knockout paint job, not something modified from a factory-built airplane or identical to the kit manufacturer’s prototype. For these builders, there are custom paint scheme designers offering to create a unique layout that will be a real statement.

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A paint job from an entirely different type of airplane won’t adapt directly to your homebuilt. Even using a design from a tricycle version of your tailwheel airplane won’t give the ramp appeal you’re looking for; the lines just aren’t flowing in the same manner. Custom paint designers know what works best and will take your starting doodle into a one-of-a-kind layout you’ll be proud of. Most importantly, the paint shop will be able to execute it flawlessly by using the precise drawings supplied by the designer.

Craig Barnett (standing) and Kevin Burns review the details of the paint scheme for Neils Agather’s F-1 Rocket.

Scheme Designers, Inc.

By far the largest and most experienced provider of custom paint designs is Scheme Designers, Inc., headquartered in Cresskill, New Jersey. Craig Barnett, CEO, traces the beginnings of his company back to 1996, when the Cessna Cardinal RG he then owned needed a paint job. As an engineer, he spent what he describes as “an inordinate amount of time” drawing up plans for the paint shop to follow, which were accurate to one-eighth of an inch. When finished, the shop owners asked, “Could you do that for other airplanes?” because they appreciated having such exact drawings to work with. Craig agreed, and one year later a client with a Cessna 210 showed up requesting his services. That first client was followed by an increasing number of others. The “hobby business” eventually got out of hand, and Scheme Designers is now a full-time enterprise with an eight-person staff engaged in continuous activity.

A look at Neils Agather’s F-1 Rocket from above. (F-1 Rocket photos by Jay Miller.)

How busy is Scheme Designers? According to Barnett, they have produced schemes for over 13,000 airplanes and have clients in 149 countries. He says about half of all aircraft manufacturers use them for their layouts, although the majority of their business comes from designing great schemes for experimental aircraft. “A full 10% of the airplanes in the RV fleet have our paint schemes, about 1000 airplanes,” Barnett said. “We had 11 Lindy award winners at AirVenture 2018 alone.”

Because Scheme Designers has been at it for so long, with designs for so many airplanes in its history, it’s rare, Barnett says, that someone can come up with an airplane type they’ve never heard of. Having the starting dimensions and shapes on hand helps get the process started, but of course every design job is customized to accommodate the client’s wishes. “We are not done,” he says, “until the client is happy, no matter how long it takes.” The Scheme Designers record is a Bonanza that recently went to the paint shop after 17 years of back-and-forth tweaking, although Barnett said they have had lots of designing projects that went on for 6, 7, or 8 years, involving hundreds of modifications.

Neils Agather’s F-1 Rocket. Paint scheme by Scheme Designers.

“The builder may take great pains to have every rivet in the engine compartment perfect, but it’s the paint scheme that will get people to come over and look,” said Barnett, “not the building details. A great custom paint job is our passion; it’s what drives us.”

As Barnett puts it, the process involves engineering as much as art, by producing the accurate drawings a shop needs to apply the coating. “We use 3D photo-realistic software that lets the client see not just profiles but also three-quarter views or anywhere in between.”

Vinyl wraps are an option to paint, but the great majority of the design projects they work with go to paint, because of the durability it offers. “We’ve had a great relationship with Moody Aero-Graphics for 20 years,” said Barnett. Moody produces exact logo reproductions and custom N-numbers, plus interior decals that dress up the inside of an aircraft.

Ken Balch’s RV-8. Paint scheme by Scheme Designers.

We felt compelled to ask if Scheme Designers has ever had its work ripped off by someone trying to duplicate a custom paint scheme it has done. “Being inspired to create something of your own is OK,” said Craig Barnett, “but copying is not.” He explained that every design Scheme Designers produces is copyrighted, and that copyright is shared with the client who is paying for the design, if they want. In every case where one of their clients has sued for copyright infringement, none have ever lost in court. Therefore, potential scheme thieves need to be warned; you can and will be taken to court, and at the very least, you’ll have to have your airplane repainted. Barnett points out that Scheme Designers itself takes great pains to verify that a suggested scheme shown in a photo given to them by a client is OK to use, by contacting the owner of the plane in the picture and getting permission in writing to use it as a basis, before ever starting to draw up a set of plans for the client.

How much does a custom paint scheme cost? Starting with single-engine piston airplanes, the base price is $1,550, going up to $1,850 for multi-engine planes and $2,350 for light jets. As one could expect, larger aircraft go on from there, and there are options that can add to the final total. On the other hand, using a base layout or adapting a existing scheme can lower the cost to as little as $1,000, so it doesn’t hurt to ask if Scheme Designers has something on hand that can work for your homebuilt. Their website is schemedesigners.com.

Plane Schemers, LLC

Among the few independent professional aircraft paint scheme designers, Jonathan McCormick of Plane Schemer LLC is gaining a reputation for good work at an affordable price. Located near Gadsden in northeast Alabama, McCormick has completed designs for aircraft as small as a BD-5 and as large as a Boeing 777. As is typical of many paint designers, he loves working with homebuilders because of their enthusiasm for the fruits of their labors. He tries to match their passion with a layout reflecting their personal taste.

Like most designers, Jonathan McCormick of Plane Schemers offers his clients a variety of choices. Here are three designs he created for Javier Palejko’s Waiex.

McCormick moved into designing paint schemes “sort of by accident,” as he puts it. He was working in an aircraft paint shop, scrubbing around rivets, and saw the need for design work. McCormick started his own company in 2008, and his business is currently in a strong growth spurt; he’s done about 300 airplanes thus far but is on track to add 200 more in 2018 alone.

How long does it take to create a unique design? That’s a broad question, McCormick says. It might take just a few days, or up to a year of back-and-forth tweaking. He suggests homebuilders get their paint design established early in the building process, because having a picture hanging on the shop wall, showing what their finished airplane will look like, is a great motivator.

The cost for Plane Schemers’ services is variable, but starts as low as $1,000 for a single-engine kit airplane, escalating up through $1,200 to $1,400 for turbine aircraft, and more for larger planes. Options that drive up cost might include templates and full-scale cutouts to guide the paint shop.

“Are vinyl wraps a good idea?” we asked. McCormick says the durability of vinyl may not be as good as paint, particularly around removable panels and inspection covers. If going with vinyl, he says it’s important to apply a good overall base coat of paint, with the vinyl placed on top of that uniform foundation. Having the underlying paint completely clean is also vital. Even laying a hand on the surface can leave contamination that will compromise longevity.

After designing a great-looking paint job, is there a problem with it being duplicated without authorization on another airplane? The Plane Schemers agreement calls for the design to be used on only one aircraft, so using it again is not legal—but McCormick occasionally sees it happen. He says design theft has occurred in only a few situations, and he has to acknowledge that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” In truth, if you see a great design flying around, it’s not that difficult to modify it significantly so that it’s similar but different enough to make it yours, not a direct rip-off of someone else’s work. For more information, visit planeschemer.com.

John Stahr, Airbrush Artist

Perhaps the epitome of unique paint execution has to be the work of John Stahr, renowned for such unique standouts as his American Angel RV-8 and John Holt’s Millennium Phenom, an Embraer Phenom 100 light jet. Stahr’s work has to be experienced in person to be truly appreciated, but you can get a feel of what he accomplishes at his website, stahrdesign.com.

John Stahr began actively painting in the 1970s, and as the son of an aeronautical engineer, he was always a self-described “airplane nerd.” He learned to fly in 1990, and after a successful career painting motorcoaches, he moved into doing what he loves, executing works of art on aircraft.

John Stahr is a master with an airbrush.

“I love working with experimentals,” he said. “The builder has poured years of work into his project, and he’s looking for something to make it stand out from all the others. I like to create a ‘ramp magnet’ that draws a crowd wherever it goes.”

Close-up of the American Angel RV-8.

Because of the cost of a first-rate custom paint job, Stahr hopes the owner hasn’t just spent $50,000 on avionics, leaving little for the finishing touches. Sometimes, he has to bring expectations into line with a budget. High-end paints are pricey in themselves. He has charged as little as $7,000 or $8,000 for his creations, but he estimates his average job is in the $12,000 range. And he’s worth every penny.

Surprisingly, he completes a project in 1.5 to 3 weeks, working long hours with a strong work ethic. Before pressing the first spray trigger, a lot of planning and design iterations have to be done. As many as 15 to 20 revisions can be required to bring a concept into final form, which Stahr actually says is “the fun part,” getting an owner’s desires exactly right.

“There are thousands of white airplanes out there,” Stahr said, “waiting for a one-of-a-kind paint job. I can’t paint them all, but I will do one at a time.” He estimates he’s painted about 150 airplanes, some with a complete job, others with just tail, nose or winglet designs.

Stahr’s studio is located near Eugene, Oregon, but he travels all over to perform his magic. The smallest airplane he’s done is an award-winning BD-5 Microjet, and the largest are some Global or Falcon business jets. When we talked, he was on his way out the door to Arlington, Washington, to complete a Glasair painting project.

John Stahr’s patriotic artwork on Rodney Jarrell’s Liberty. The award-winning RV-10 is a flying tribute to America’s Armed Forces.

John painted Bill Job’s Chronicles of Narnia RV-8 (left), and Ken and Tammy Talovich’s RV-8. Notice the details in the faux exhaust stacks.

Maverick Aircraft Design LLC

We also spoke with E. Conrad Kothmann, owner of Maverick Aircraft Design in Bandera, Texas. He primarily works with aircraft paint shops, like Midwest Aircraft Refinishing in Hibbing, Minnesota, but he also works directly with owners and builders.

RV-8A paint scheme by Conrad Kothmann of Maverick Aircraft Design.

Kothmann will spend 15 to 20 hours drawing a highly detailed rendering of an aircraft, not just applying a design to a generic outline of a plane without antennas or gear doors. If interested in a truly one-of-a-kind paint design, he can be contacted via the Maverick Aircraft Design website, maverickaircraftdesign.com.

RV-7 paint scheme by Conrad Kothmann. Both aircraft were painted by Midwest Aircraft Refinishing.

After spending years or decades building a personal treasure that represents untold sweat and toil, spending a little more to have it painted with planning and precision is obviously worthwhile. A unique paint scheme is just the final touch that makes your completed homebuilt entirely yours.

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