Instrument Panel Labels and Paint

Last updated - 10/01/06.

I know it is a long time before I need to do the instrument panel, but it never hurts to be prepared. A few months ago, I was thinking about different ways to do the labels for my instrument panel, so I started testing different methods. Actually, I started looking at different paints and finishes as well as labels. Obviously, the labels have to work with the color and texture of the paint that I choose for the panel, and the label technology may dictate just what kind of paint I can use. They both have to work together.

The following links describe in more detail each type of label technology that I have tested:

As I mentioned earlier, I wanted to make sure that I was applying the labels to a surface that would be the same as the final instrument panel. Therefore, part of this process was to evaluate different paint colors and textures. I cut several small 3x4 inch pieces of .032 aluminum to use as test panels. Actually, I am so cheap that I did my initial tests by cutting up my original rivet test fixture to use for testing. I really hated to do this, because I was saving it as a reminder of my original pathetic attempts at setting rivets. However, I needed a piece of metal to paint, and I did not want to dip into my stash of spare aluminum sheets, so the rivet test fixture had to be sacrificed.

The rivet test fixture was two 6" x 8", pieces of .032 aluminum riveted together with a few dozen countersunk rivets. The surface was ok to use for testing paints, but because it was so mangled, it was not the best choice for trying out different labeling techniques. Eventually, I gave in, and cut the test panels from spare sheets of .032 aluminum. Everytime I place an order with Van, I usually buy a few pieces of .032 or .020 aluminum sheet. The aluminum sheets are only about $3.50 per square foot, so you can get about 12 test pieces out of a square foot. This tells you how cheap I am.

All of the label tests were conducted using these painted test pieces, so that the surfaces that were labeled represent what will actually be used on the instrument panel. The different paints that I tested were:

Most of the tests were done with the Hammered paints, which I like the best for this application. I did apply labels to all of the Metalic paints and the stainless steel, because I figured these would be the easiest to label, due to their smooth surface. However, the Metallics really did not work any better than the Hammered paints.

I did a single test panel using SW 988 with a clear lacquer topcoat. A lot of guys seem to like the military gray primer finish. The SW 988 looked ok, but was not my first choice--it seemed a little boring to me.

I think I like the hammered brown the best, but the hammered gray would probably be a better choice. The dark colors require white lettering, while the lighter colors would work well with black or other colors of lettering.

The Textured dark gray paint might be the best choice, since it looks like it would be the best non-reflective surface. However, the Textured paint was the hardest surface to work with. Surprisingly, the water-slide labels worked really well on the Textured paint, but it was still apparant that there was a label applied to the surface.

The Metalics all look really good, but I suspect that they might be a little too reflective for an instrument panel. The stainless steel is interesting, also.

The reason that I tried the Rustoleum was because I saw it on Jeff Bordelon's website. I thought it looked pretty good, so I started experimenting with different colors and textures. You can get Rustoleum in lots of colors and textures at the aviation paint section of Home Depot and Lowe's. Being readily available is a big plus.

And that's the account of how I tried to find the perfect labeling system for my instrument panel. Maybe I'll add a list of what I spent on everything. I can guarantee that it would be a lot cheaper to just have a professional printer or silkscreen shop do this for me, but where would the fun be in that?

Next year when I have to do this for real, hopefully I will be able to duplicate my latest efforts with the DecalPro process.

Oh, before I forget, there was one other technology that I looked into--Laser engraving. I talked to a guy at a Country Peddler Show, who was selling picture frames with different words cut into the border. I asked him if he was buying the frames from China, because they were only $10, and it looked like a lot of work to carve, so I assumed he was using slave labor in China. He said he made them himself with a laser cutting machine. He was a retired teacher, and said what other business could you start for $30,000, and more like $20,000 now.

So, I did a search on laser cutting and engraving machines, and discovered that you can get an entry level machine, for $7,000-$10,000. Not bad to start a home business.

I ordered a sample from Epilog Laser and was amazed at what these things can do. You cannot directly engrave aluminum with the CO2 lasers, but you can engrave painted aluminum, anodized aluminum, or aluminum with a special coating. I really wanted to buy a machine, but decided $7000 was too much money to spend on my panel, and I knew I would never start a business. I'm still thinking about it though.