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Too many would-be builders shy away from fabric-covered aircraft projects because they think the covering and finishing processes are beyond their capabilities.  They are depriving themselves of one of the most satisfying experiences in the aircraft homebuilding and restoring world, and for no good reason.   Fabric covering is not difficult. 

Today's methods and materials are big improvements over what they were back in the '30s.  All it takes today is careful work and patience.   Even a complete novice can follow the easy step-by-step instructions through the entire process of covering a newly-constructed homebuilt or recovering a restored classic.

The steps are the same.  In either case, we will assume that you are familiar with the construction of the aircraft you're covering.   If you don't really know your way around your aircraft, we strongly suggest you get some experienced help before you begin.

In covering with fabric, we offer your choice of the Ceconite or the Stits Poly-Fiber System.  Both are complete systems from surface preparation and fabric covering through applying the finish.   Both are designed to recover certified aircraft as well as amateur-built aircraft.

The Poly-Fiber Fabric Covering System is the only all vinyl system on the market today and is flexible, like the dashboard of your car.  As it dries, it bonds extremely well to today's polyester fabrics.  It remains flexible over its entire service life and does not support combustion.  It is one of the lightest systems available.  Only eight coats are used, and there are special very-light-weight options for use on weight-sensitive aircraft.

With these processes the basic steps are:  prepare the surface, glue on fabric, tighten, seal the fabric, secure fabric to the wings, apply finishing tapes, install inspection rings and gromets, final fabric smoothing, and apply the finish.

Both systems offer your choice of fabric weights to accommodate the style of aircraft you are covering.

How long does fabric covering last? I heard you have to recover every few years.
I'm confused about the different systems. Please summarize them.
Can I cover my own airplane? I'm not an A&P.
What if it's an experimental airplane?
How do I learn?
How much does fabric covering weigh? What is the lightest system?
How long will it take a first-timer to cover an airplane?
Can I mix products from the different systems?
Do I have to rib lace? My kit manufacturer says it's not necessary.
I want a really shiny finish. Can I use Imron or my favorite auto paint?

How long does fabric covering last? I heard you have to recover every few years.
This business about recovering every few years comes from the old days of covering with cotton and linen. That's ancient history. Today, all covering is done with heat-shrunk polyester fabric. With proper application, today's fabric systems last 20 to 30 years, even outdoors.

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I'm confused about the different systems. Please summarize them.
There are really only three basic systems, and they all start with heat-shrunk fabric: 

CECONITE FABRIC

(Ceconite is a fabric brand), applied with nitrate and butyrate dopes. Randolph dopes are widely used on Ceconite. Dope is easy to repair and has been around since aviation began.

POLYURETHANE.

These are two-part polyurethane systems using automotive coatings with flex agents added to reduce cracking of the dried paint. Major brands are Superflite II and Air Tech. Their finishes are high gloss, but are hard to repair and must be sprayed with the precaution: urethane spray mist is very toxic.

POLY-FIBER.

The "Stits" system, using Poly-Fiber fabric and all-vinyl coatings. Our vinyl coatings do not support combustion.

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Can I cover my own airplane? I'm not an A&P.
Most of the airplanes covered today are done by owner/builders. Fabric covering is easy to do; it's just time consuming. A knowledgeable A&P with an AI will usually supervise your work for a reasonable fee, then sign the paperwork and logbooks if you do a good job that meets with his approval. Ask around at your airport, or in your EAA chapter.

What if it's an experimental airplane?
No A&P supervision is required here. You can legally do the whole thing yourself.

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How do I learn?
Get a copy of the Poly-Fiber manual. There are 135 pages of easy-to-follow instructions on basic fabric covering. Over the past 30 years, thousands of aircraft have been covered by following this manual. Better still, come to a Poly-Fiber or SportAir workshop. If you can spare a weekend, you will come away with all the knowledge and skills you need. Get a copy of the Poly-Fiber video. This EAA video contains two hours of visual instructions.

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How much does fabric covering weigh? What is the lightest system?
When Cubs rolled off the line, they had 75 pounds of Grade A cotton and dope on them.

A Ceconite and dope finish on that same Cub will probably weigh about 50 to 60 pounds.

A Cub done in Poly-Fiber has 40 to 45 pounds of finish weight.

A Cub done in urethane can get pretty heavy if you lay on the thick coats. Urethane is not known for its light weight.

Ultralights can be done in as little as 12 to 15 pounds.

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How long will it take a first-timer to cover an airplane?
If you have the luxury of working on it eight hours a day, you can finish in a month or so. Of course, this all depends on your work habits, speed, and expectations. Most people do it during a winter season of weekends and evenings.

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Can I mix products from the different systems?
We don't recommend it. Pick a system and stay with it, even on experimental airplanes. Mixing and experimenting can result in disasters of all sorts. Unless you have a degree in organic chemistry, a full lab, and the time to test your experiments, we recommend you stay conservative. Remember, you're going to ride in this airplane.

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Do I have to rib lace? My kit manufacturer says it's not necessary.
Lift acts like a giant vacuum cleaner, exerting a peeling force on the top of your wing. You have to do something to hold your fabric on other than just gluing it. Pop rivets, screws, clips, and rib lacing are designed to secure fabric for long service lives. Rib lacing is kindest to the rib structures, and it's really pretty easy to learn. It takes only about five hours to lace a wing. This is great insurance and it costs very little. Yes Virginia, you have to rib lace. But it is really a piece of cake to do. Glue alone does not hack it.

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I want a really shiny finish. Can I use Imron or my favorite auto paint?
We don't recommend it. Imron and other urethane paints designed for automotive or other hard substrates just don't last long on fabric. They are fine paints for stiff, non-flexing surfaces, but were never designed to last for years on vibrating, flexing fabric. Be smart and use something designed from the start for fabric. Nothing is more disappointing that cracking paint over perfectly good fabric. And there is no easy remedy. You can't strip it. You have to recover.

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