Cost: $20 – $200
Time: 2 – 10 hrs
Tools Required: Airbrush & compressor (optional), safety goggles
Supplies Needed: Primer, paint, paint thinner, masking tape, dish soap, 400 grit sand paper, clear coat, rags, automotive spot putty (fiberglass canopies). Optional – detail tape, decals, stickers, steel wool
Difficulty Level: Easy – Difficult
(stuff you need)
So you want to paint your RC helicopter canopy instead of paying a professional? No problem – for the cost of a professionally painted canopy, you can buy a basic airbrush system and the supplies to paint your own and still come out ahead.
In this “How To” article, I painted the plastic canopy for my Logo 24 – most of the same steps can be used for painting fiberglass canopies – I’ll mention any differences as we go.
I also just wanted to mention that this is the first time I’ve ever painted a canopy using an airbrush, so the results aren’t perfect, but I’m happy with how it turned out.
Along the way, I’ve developed a new found respect for airbrush artists… RC helicopter canopy painting can be decisively simple or a complex art depending on the angle of attack you choose.
Even though I’m using an airbrush and compressor, this can all be done with spray can paint though it’s harder to get as nice of finish.
Part 1 – Preparation
This will make or break your paint job. If you don’t prepare your canopy properly for paint, it won’t stick properly and can result in a lot of wasted time, money and frustration.
First things first, whether you’re painting a plastic or fiberglass canopy, you need sand the entire canopy using 400 grit wet / dry sandpaper to remove any gloss or gel coating. Paint won’t stick properly to glossy spots, so be sure you get them all.
You can sand canopies dry, but by sanding them under running water will wash off all the dust from sanding and prevent it from getting in any pin holes or cracks and messing up your paint job.
Wash the canopy using a good degreasing dishwashing detergent to remove all traces of oils and grease from handling and the manufacturing process.
For plastic or lexan canopies, you can use mineral oil to clean the surface, then wash that off with dishwashing detergent.
After washing is completed, you shouldn’t handle the canopy where you’ll be applying paint as the oils from your hands will get on it and can possible mess up your paint job.
(cleaned canpoy ready for primer)
Step 3 – Fiberglass Canopies
If there are any seams or holes in the canopy, use automotive spot putty to fill them. When dry, sand them smooth and repeat steps 1 and 2. Small pinholes will be filled when applying primer.
Part 2 – Primer
Prime the canopy preferably using a white, silver or off white colored primer.
If you’re painting a lexan or plastic canopy, I’ve found that Krylon Fusion plastic primer works well.
For fiberglass canopies, use an automotive lacquer-based primer thinned with lacquer thinner so it works in your airbrush. You can also use a good epoxy primer if you want out of a spray can.
After the primer is dry, sand it dry using 400 grit sandpaper. For fiberglass canopies, pay careful attention to any pinholes that may appear. By adding multiple coats (2-3) of primer, you should be able to get all the pinholes filled in and have a smooth surface to apply paint to.
Part 3 – Painting
Apply the first coat of paint. The kind of paint you use isn’t that important as we’ll be covering it with a fuel proof clear coat when all’s said and done. Start with the lightest color first or go with a good coat of white to give the other colors a good base.
(canopy painted blue with black fade)
(canopy painted blue with black fade 2)
Mask off any areas that need masking.
You can’t beat 3M automotive making tape – it sticks well and produces razor sharp lines with no bleed.
I’ve found 1/8th inch tape works best for masking curves and then a larger width tape for filling in bigger areas.
(canopy windshield masked off)
Paint in the masked areas and repeat as necessary for all your colors. Ideally, you want to apply each subsequent layer of paint to a partially wet and sticky previous layer so they adhere well.
(canopy windshield painted black)
(canopy windshield painted black 2)
After you’ve got all your paint layers on and they’re dry, you can apply any decals or trim tape. Start at one side and work to the other smoothing out any air bubbles as you go. Using your fingernail, make sure it’s rubbed down and adhered firmly.
(decals applied to canopy)
Some people will lightly scuff the canopy with a thin (#0000) steel wool to give stickers, decals or trim tape a better surface to adhere to. I didn’t and the trim tape and vinyl decals I used stuck well, though stickers would probably stick better if you roughed up the surface a little.
I bought the decals off eBay from an automotive supplier and the trim tape could be found at almost any local hobby store.
Using an automotive or hobby clear coat, spray on a thin layer of lacquer and let it partially dry so it’s still a little sticky to give the next coat a good surface to adhere to.
You may want to add another coat or two of clear coat or add a glossy coat at this point. I used Testors Lacquer Spray Wet Look Clear Coat which turned out quite nicely.
(completed canopy with clear coat)
I learned a lot along the way and there are endless tips and techniques to giving your canopy a professional looking paint job so I’ll be adding some to this article in the future – check back soon.
RC Helicopter Canopy Painting Tips:
Here’s a few canopy painting tips I picked up:
- If you plan on using a spray can, soak it in warm water first to build up pressure and get a finer mist.
- The thinner the width of the tape you use, the tighter the turns you can make.
- Once you open your tape, store it in a Ziploc plastic bag – otherwise fuzz will get on the edges and mess up your masking next time.
- To help shake up your paint, you can add a few BB’s to the mix to help stir it quicker.
- Once you open your tape, store it in a plastic bag. This will keep dust and fuzz off the edges which will cause bleeds and less than perfect lines.
- If you’re using an airbrush and your paint is thick, you can thin water based paint with water, acrylic paints with acrylic thinner and lacquer based paints with lacquer thinner.
- Back metallic colors with silver to give it some extra punch. You can also back whites with silver to make it brighter.
- Back any bright color (hot pink, yellow, orange etc.) with white.
- If you want some cheap and readily available decals for your canopy, consider using temporary tattoos.
- Paint in a well ventilated areas – paint fumes are toxic.
- Hold the airbrush or paint can 6-12 inches from your canopy. If you hold it too close, your paint may run and if it’s too far away, the surface won’t cover well.
- I tried cutting my own stickers for the side and just couldn’t get clean lines like the factory cut ones I bought… With all the time I wasted, I could have painted another canopy
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