Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Catching up to July

     It has been a very busy two months filled with a lot of distractions, including landscaping, home improvements and planning a large party in July.  These put some significant gaps in the build log timeline; nonetheless, some important progress was made on the aircraft and associated items.  At the end of the last entry I was anticipating flipping the fuselage and working on the landing gear, but instead I decided to work on the fuselage.  I had received the missing washers for the landing gear tower screws, and got them installed and torqued.  Then I got to work on the cockpit interior parts, starting with the floors, baggage floor and shelf.  There was a lot of match-drilling, final drilling and nut plate installation in some tricky areas that required the use of the angle drill adapter.  Setting up the nut plates for the blocks that hold the flap actuation weldment, I discovered that Van's factory workers hadn't removed nearly enough material from the rear seat belt brackets; which interfered with the block bolts.  It turned out to be a common problem that many builders had to face, so finding a solution was simple.  I had to remove the brackets and modify them slightly, but that turned out to be easier than expected.
     Because of limited access, some nut plate rivets had to be set with modified vice grips, and that turned out to be a nightmare.  It was really hard to get the rivets to set flush, and they required a lot of struggling and touch up.  The results weren't always pretty but they were adequate for nut plate duty.  It was another one of those jobs that just screamed "there's gotta be a better way".
     Still, getting work done on the cockpit parts was mostly fun because it felt like real progress.  I prepped and test-fit a lot of the interior parts got the floor stiffeners prepped, fabricated the throttle quadrant cable anchor from angle stock and primed the stiffeners and anchor with rattle can paint.  At that point I had a lot of interior parts that needed to be prepped, primed and painted.  It was time to put the rattle can down and do some real painting.
     This was a big deal; it would be a big diversion into unknown work skills that was somewhat intimidating to face.  I stalled around at first, toying with the idea of working on the gear first and fiddling with little details like putting bolts into the engine mount guide holes so that the fuselage would be easier to rotate, and modifying the fuselage stand to make it easier to use.  But I knew that if I wanted to make real progress on this build soon, it meant that I had to learn how to use my spray gun.  I had to master the routine of mixing and spraying all my Sherwin-Williams wash primer, primer, base coats, clear coats and military flat coatings.  I also had to master the techniques of using a wide range of solvents to clean, prep, blend, and also clean my equipment after each use.  I reviewed all my resources and training notes; made sure I had everything I needed; bought a pneumatic paint shaker mounted it on the bottom of one of the woodshop workbenches; cleaned out the woodshop paint booth and set up the mixing station, fans and lighting.  Then it was time.  I couldn't put it off any longer... so I suited up and got to work on some test pieces.
     I started out by cutting and prepping some scrap aluminum panels, then carefully mixed and sprayed the wash primer and primer coats, carefully following the directions for each and learning the timing of shaking, mixing, allowing the primer to sit after mixing, spraying, drying, and spraying top coats.  Intimidating at first, but if I was careful it looked like it would be a manageable process.  However, my initial results were not good, to say the least.  The wash primer and primer seemed to go well.  But the first top coat I tested was the flat green military coating I wanted to use for the interior, and my first samples were just terrible.  In addition to being loaded with contaminants, the resulting dry coat was thin, translucent and very glossy; not at all what I expected, and certainly not what I wanted to see.  I was very crestfallen.  Since that interior green was a custom blend for me, I thought I should check the flat black military coating, so I shot half of one of the test panels with the black... and got the same result.  Just terrible.
     In a panic, I sent an email out to Steve Voisin at Sherwin-Williams and Ryan Wilcox at Blend Supply.  This was on a Sunday, so I didn't expect to hear from anyone anytime soon.  Much to my surprise, Steve called me on my cell phone about an hour later... even though he was on vacation with his family at the time!  He had reviewed the photos and we discussed the problem in depth.  He agreed that the finishes shouldn't have looked that way at all.  He suggested some possible solutions and would do some more research and get back to me.  So while I was waiting to hear back from him, I'd try shooting the large panel I had designed for testing all my Skyscapes GA colors and clear coat.  This was the mock fuselage panel that would feature the olive drab and neutral gray, and I would learn how to layout, mask and shoot an authentic stars and bars logo with the red, white and blue insignia colors.  I had assembled the panel many months before and had practiced drawing the stars and bars to scale in different sizes on card stock, in photoshop and on butcher paper until I figured out what size I wanted for the aircraft.  I even photoshopped the colors into one picture of the butcher paper drawing, just to see what it would look like... and it looked pretty cool.  I did end up reducing the scale of the stars and bars slightly for the actual test, because when I was finally able to hold the drawing up against the real wings and fuselage I realized it needed to be a bit smaller.
     This time during the mixing, cleaning and timing of spray coats I was much more fastidious, and was fairly pleased with the results of shooting the olive drab and neutral gray base coats.  Then I had to go ruin it because of some faulty equipment.  During my Sherwin-Williams training I had seen them using special spray bottles for their solvents that were pressurized with a hand-pump built into the handle, so I got three identical units from my local auto paint supply store.  Apparently they weren't quite as identical as I thought.  I had carefully filled each with the cleaning, wiping and blending solvents I needed.  The wiping solvent sprayed fine, but the cleaning solvent and blending solvent apparently affected the nozzle gaskets, and would not spray with the trigger.  I had to actuate the valve with a screwdriver.  This wasn't a problem with the cleaning solvent, since I only used that on bare parts and the spray gun when I was cleaning it.  But when I tried to use the screwdriver trick with the gummed up blending solvent bottle to blend the overspray of the neutral gray over the olive drab, the blending solvent spat out in big blotches, messing up a previously flawless top coat.  Mad?  Yeah.  You bet.  But oh well... I wasn't going to reshoot the whole thing.  So after it dried and I had to sand it anyway to prep it for the stars and bars, I turned the blotches into sanded-in "patina" and moved on.  Laying out and masking the stars and bars took a lot of time and effort, and during the process I learned which techniques worked, and which ones didn't work.  I managed to get all three colors shot fairly well, and left the panel in the booth to dry for a couple days.  When I went to shoot the clear coat, I learned that despite asking Ryan Wilcox to carefully review my order to make sure I hadn't missed anything, I had somehow neglected to order the hardener for the clearcoat.  After more emails and calls, it was confirmed that couldn't substitute any of my other hardeners.  I had to use the specific hardener designed for that clearcoat, so I placed the order on the phone with Ryan.  We also discussed the military coatings issue.  Apparently he and Steve had indeed conferred on the subject and he suggested that I should make extra sure the color component was mixed very thoroughly, and to reduce the amount of curative component slightly from the recommended ratio.  Steve Voisin called me the next day to make the same recommendation, and I said I would do that after finishing the large panel, and I'd get back to him with all the results.  While waiting for the clearcoat hardener to arrive, I got caught up on other office work, including downloading and sorting photos of my progress from the camera.  During this this process, I came across another mistake I had made.  This one had me slapping my head like Homer Simpson and yelling "D'OH!!"  I'm sure you'll figure out what it is.
     That's right... I had done a very nice job of masking... then painted the damn star blue instead of keeping it white and painting the circle blue!  Oh well, what's another mistake... that's what practice pieces are for... and at least I discovered the error before shooting the clearcoat.  More sanding, masking and shooting and I got it right, although I did have to do some touch up of the red border by hand, and learned better ways of masking the inner circle so that the white wouldn't show up in tiny slivers along the line between the red and blue.  When the clearcoat hardener arrived, I gave the piece two clear coats, let it dry and called it done.  I now have my first piece of hangar art.  I was happy with the forgiving nature of the Skyscapes GA basecoats and clearcoat; the finish gives the impression of being tough as nails, and I think I might just get away with not finish sanding, buffing or polishing.  More on that later.
     After this was complete, I revisited the military coating.  I was even more meticulous about prepping, mixing and spraying... and was thrilled when I produced a very nice lusterless finish.  Success!  In fact, the finish was so flat my camera's autofocus wouldn't focus on it.  The only way I could photograph the test panel was to pan out far enough to include the background of the C-frame table it was on.  Those military guys don't mess around when it comes to stealthy coatings!
     One important thing I learned from painting all the test samples is that my woodshop paint booth ventilation was pretty overwhelmed when it came to using a paint gun.  The space fogged up pretty quickly and the fumes permeated that entire half of the building for a long time afterward.  In order to paint all those cockpit parts, I'd have to face another daunting set of tasks: assembling, covering and using the large paint booth I had designed for the main shop.  Even though I had prefabricated the wall frame sections to bolt together and tested them, actually building and enclosing the entire booth took two days and required a lot of additional pieces to be cut and fit.  I also had to rearrange the shop yet again to accommodate it properly.  Because this particular Michigan summer weather has been very fickle, I had to take extra precautions to waterproof the fan unit, garage door plug and exterior duct work to make sure it would hold up in the rain.  Once this booth was set up, it had to stay set up until I was done painting.  But in the end it was worth all the effort.  The booth worked beautifully; far better than anticipated.  I was very happy about that.
     I started out by painting the cockpit pieces that had already been primed by the Van's factory.  Then I wash primed and primed the rest of the parts.  I had to assemble some of the seat and floor parts before adding the top coat, and in most cases I only topcoated the sides that would show; the hidden sides remained in primer.  Assembling the rear seat back was more difficult than expected, requiring a longer rivet set from Cleaveland Tool and special jigging that was initially problematic, but I got it figured out and completed it without too many flaws.
     With the date of my big house party looming closer, I scrambled to get all the painting done in time to take down the paint booth, relocate the fuselage and empennage back into the main shop and get all the painted cockpit parts temporarily assembled in the fuselage to display for my family and friends.  I was lucky to get the final coats done on the night of July 4th.  It was rather eerie being suited up in a hazmat suit and respirator, ensconced in a paint booth and painting my own personal fighter plane parts in military colors while bombs went off all around me for several hours.  Pretty eerie... and pretty cool.
     During the fitting of the parts in the fuselage, I discovered that I had sprayed the topcoat on the wrong side of the mid-cabin covers.  I had to hastily rig up the woodshop paint booth, mix some top coat, enclose the open end of the booth with overlapped butcher paper with an opening for a floor fan and spray the parts.  I was happy to learn that the butcher paper trick worked very well in keeping fumes out of the garage and the fans kept the air moving well in the room.  In the near future I may just install a door with a fan unit mounted in it and end up with a decent small paint booth.  I riveted the foot wells to the front floor and was able to assemble the cockpit pretty well with clecos and screws.  I didn't tighten the screws because the paint was still relatively fresh and I didn't want to take a chance of scarring it.  I also didn't want to open up the slightly pinched ends of the nut plates for a test fit, although some nut plates needed to be chased with a tap to keep from cross-threading the screws.
     When my daughter arrived from California, she got the first tour, and also got to witness and help me document that milestone in every builder's life: the moment when I finally got to sit in the fuselage and make airplane noises!
     I've already ordered my custom upholstered seats from Classic Aero Designs; they'll be made up from a special canvas material supplied by Hooker Harness that will give me the military look I was seeking.  But they won't arrive for a few more months, so I had to make do with folded towels and quilts for this first sitting.  I won't be sitting in it again until long after the seats arrive, when the fuselage is far more complete, and that will definitely be a while from now.
     So the big 60th birthday party went well, and all were suitably impressed with my progress.  But I knew better... it's been slow going with all these distractions, and now I've got the trip to OSH coming up in ten days!  So more distraction with trip prep, but who knows... I might just get the empennage attached before then.  And after that, no more distractions (I hope), just steady work and progress.  We'll see... we'll all see.