How to build a fiberglass rocket, part 12: primer and paint

All the difficult and time-consuming rocket construction steps are basically complete. The drilling and sanding fiberglass is done, the epoxy has cured, and technically, you can fly it “naked” at this point. But a painted rocket just adds that extra touch of class, and we are nothing if not classy.

Before getting started here, a couple of tips and some basic prep. There are a few parts that you might want to cover before spraying anything: things like the aluminum tip on the nose cone, the aluminum motor retainer, and the rail buttons. You can use masking tape to manually cover up these things pretty easily.

rocket disassembled on cardboard and grass, no paint or primer
“naked” rocket

Also, keep in mind that where a coupler slides into another section of the airframe with a snug fit, you don’t want to build up multiple layers of primer and paint, or things won’t fit at all anymore, without sanding the paint off. You may want to cover coupler ends with masking tape as well to save yourself trouble later.

So, to begin: lay out the rocket on cardboard or somewhere that you don’t mind getting turned into a rainbow of colors. Spray a thin layer of primer over everything (I chose a simple white primer) and use a quick back and forth motion. Don’t spray too close, and keep it continually moving while spraying, so that paint doesn’t build up too much in any single area. You can always come back and spray again and again, lightly with a thin coat each time.

rocket disassembled on cardboard and grass, white primer applied
applying primer

Of course, since the parts are lying on the ground, you can’t get underneath and will need to wait for them to dry and then rotate them. Depending on how much you’re able to coat the pieces each time, you may need to rotate them just once, or perhaps twice.

Finally, once everything has a nice layer of primer and it’s dry, you can begin spraying paint. The colors and design are totally up to you, but I would certainly recommend a high gloss finish.

rocket disassembled on cardboard and grass, painted glossy navy blue
roses are red, rockets are blue

In my case, I went with a glossy navy blue for the rocket body. I then used “sunshine yellow,” also glossy, for the fins and the vent ring around the e-bay. Note that it didn’t matter if the layers of navy blue got all over the fins, but once this was finished, I had to use more masking tape to very carefully and thoroughly mark off the fins from the rest of the body. I also used some brown paper grocery bags, tearing them up into approximate sizes to cover the rocket between and around the fins, with masking tape at the edges sealing it off to create sharp and exact lines.

I’m no expert painter; this is only the second rocket I’ve ever painted. But I think once finished, it turned out pretty well.

completed rocket standing vertically, painted navy blue with yellow fins
the rocket stands on end taller than you

Of course, this paint job is bound to get scratched, scuffed, and generally deteriorate over time. The rocket gets disassembled and re-assembled, and parts bump and bang into each other, and of course upon landing after even a single flight it will get dirty and a bit dinged, no doubt. I can always touch up the paint in the future when that happens, and it doesn’t really matter – it’s purely cosmetic. But it is fun and it just completes the look.

How to build a rocket workshop (part 4: painting)

I added a new step to my project that wasn’t in the original plan: painting. Gotta improvise sometimes.

Front and side view of shed, prior to painting

With the old plywood doors removed and the new door and frame installed, the shed was looking much classier. But that part of the project required framing the new door properly, filling in new gaps with plywood, and caulking between the plywood sheets to seal it up. Basically, this left a bit of a mess, as you can see above.

In addition, the new door frame was just bare wood, without any paint or stain to cover and protect it. This would need to be painted not just for cosmetic reasons, but for longer term protection.

Newly painted blue shed, front and side view
after – newly painted

As for the rest of the shed, a new coat of paint will always clean things up. Besides, it had been a few years and was probably due for a new coat anyway. With nearly constant rainfall in the Seattle area all year round, exterior surfaces really take a beating from the weather.

The most difficult part of this phase wasn’t the painting at all – that was simple enough, and fun. It was trying to come as close as possible to matching the exact shade of blue here. To be fair, it didn’t need to match precisely, especially if I were going to re-paint the entire shed anyway. But our house was painted with the same color blue as well, and ideally the shed should continue to match the house.

Front view of shed, prior to painting
pre-paint job

So after half a dozen trips back and forth to Home Depot and a ridiculous number of paint chips, I was finally able to match the color. Much to my surprise, it’s not blue at all, but actually called “Sheffield Gray,” at least according to the paint’s official label.

The white paint for the door frame/ trim was a lot easier, and it didn’t matter quite as much whether it matched. I’m actually still torn about this color even after painting the frame because the house uses more of a gray color for the trim around all of the doors and windows. But hey, white looks nice too.

Newly painted blue shed, front view
post paint job

As mentioned above, the painting work itself is straightforward and actually fairly enjoyable. The exterior of the shed is not a particularly large surface area, and it’s not difficult to reach any area, so I didn’t even need a ladder or any tools other than a simple brush (and a screwdriver to pry open the paint can lid, and a hammer to shut it again).

If only the entire shed-to-workshop transformation project were this easy.

High power rocket construction: part 7 (painting)

Time for the finishing touches.

Rocket fully painted white with red nose cone, disassembled with parachute and shock cord and e-bay
Anatomy of a rocket

After covering the rocket in white primer, I used a can of white spray paint to coat it again – everywhere except the nose cone, which I painted red. I considered making it white, too, for a uniform (if overly simple) finish, but a major issue with painting rockets is that certain colors can be really difficult to see against the sky.

White, silver, or blue blend in too well and it’s easy to totally lose track of the rocket once it gets high enough. For that reason, rockets are often really bold and vivid colors, and also more than one color.

I added the “Improbable Ventures” logo, too. First high power rocket, but definitely not the last.

Finished rocket standing vertically with pine trees in background
Finished rocket

The completed rocket stands about 6 feet high. Inside is a parachute, a shock cord securing it, and a small fire blanket to protect the parachute against the extremely hot gas from the motor when it burns out and fires an ejection charge, separating the rocket in midair. There’s an electronics bay, but right now it’s empty. Prior to launch, of course, I’ll insert the motor as well.

Having built a few smaller (low power) rockets definitely helped me better understand what I was doing when building this high power one. As I’ve mentioned before, most of the basic parts are the same, and it helps to understand why you’re doing what you are doing, and not just blindly following instructions, even if they are idiot-proof. (We will see.)

The rocket is done, so my next step is to wait patiently for an upcoming high power launch hosted by a local rocketry club. But I may be waiting for a while.

While I could theoretically launch this thing by myself at any time, it’s not really practical. First, you need a proper launch pad and rails to keep it vertical during liftoff (I don’t have the equipment, but clubs do). Second, you need to find a very large area of land – many acres – that meets a long list of conditions ensuring it’s safe for launching rockets, and you need to either own it or get permission from the landowner. The launch site needs to be far away from any buildings or major roads (you don’t want a rocket crashing down, or even landing relatively softly with a parachute, in the middle of an expressway). And finally, you need to get an FAA waiver for launching high power rockets. A club will regularly apply for these waivers, which are specific to a particular date and time window.

I’ve mentioned before that our local Seattle area organization (Washington Aerospace Club or WAC) doesn’t currently have a high power launch site, so, until it does, it cannot conduct or host high power launches. There are other clubs in Washington or Oregon if I’m willing to drive 4-6 hours each way (and I am), but almost none of them host any launch events in the winter months. Things usually pick up again in March.

I just might have a slim chance in early Jan or Feb to launch with an organization in southern WA or northern OR, weather permitting (i.e. no snow or whiteout conditions). It’s unlikely, but possible. In the meantime I’m going to dive into two related projects: (1) starting to learn about electronics and building out my e-bay for this rocket (for future launches), and (2) transforming our backyard garden shed into a small workshop for rocket construction.