The importance of primers in finishing and protection is generally misunderstood and underestimated because it is invisible after the topcoat finish is applied. A primer is the foundation of the finish. Its role is to bond to the surface, inhibit corrosion of metal, and provide an anchor point for the finish coats. It is important that the primer pigments be either anodic to the metal surface or passivate the surface should moisture be present. The binder must be compatible with the finish coats. Primers on nonmetallic surfaces do not require sacrificial or passivating pigments. Some of the various primer types are discussed below.

Wash Primers

Wash primers are water-thin coatings of phosphoric acid in solutions of vinyl butyral resin, alcohol, and other ingredients. They are very low in solids with almost no filling qualities. Their functions are to passivate the surface, temporarily provide corrosion resistance, and provide an adhesive base for the next coating, such as a urethane or epoxy primer. Wash primers do not require sanding and have high corrosion protection qualities. Some have a very small recoat time frame that must be considered when painting larger aircraft. The manufacturers’ instructions must be followed for satisfactory results.

Red Iron Oxide

Red oxide primer is an alkyd resin-based coating that was developed for use over iron and steel located in mild environmental conditions. It can be applied over rust that is free of loose particles, oil, and grease. It has limited use in the aviation industry.

Gray Enamel Undercoat

This is a single component, nonsanding primer compatible with a wide variety of topcoats. It fills minor imperfections, dries fast without shrinkage, and has high corrosion resistance. It is a good primer for composite substrates.


This is a term that is misused or interchanged by painters and manufacturers alike. It is typically a two-part product that uses a chemical activator to cure by linking molecules together to form a whole new compound. Polyurethane is commonly used when referring to urethane, but not when the product being referred to is acrylic urethane.

Urethane primer, like the urethane paint, is also a two-part product that uses a chemical activator to cure. It is easy to sand and fills well. The proper film thickness must be observed, because it can shrink when applied too heavily. It is typically applied over a wash primer for best results. Special precautions must be taken by persons spraying because the activators contain isocyanates.


Epoxy is a synthetic, thermosetting resin that produces tough, hard, chemical-resistant coatings and adhesives. It uses a catalyst to chemically activate the product, but it is not classified as hazardous because it contains no isocyanates. Epoxy can be used as a nonsanding primer/sealer over bare metal and it is softer than urethane, so it has good chip resistance. It is recommended for use on steel tube frame aircraft prior to installing fabric covering.

Zinc Chromate

Zinc chromate is a corrosion-resistant pigment that can be added to primers made of different resin types, such as epoxy, polyurethane, and alkyd. Older type zinc chromate is distinguishable by its bright yellow color when compared to the light green color of some of the current brand primers. Moisture in the air causes the zinc chromate to react with the metal surface, and it forms a passive layer that prevents corrosion. Zinc chromate primer was, at one time, the standard primer for aircraft painting. Environmental concerns and new formula primers have all but replaced it.