Transparent Plastics (Part One)

in Advanced Composite Materials

Plastics cover a broad field of organic synthetic resin and may be divided into two main classifications: thermoplastics and thermosetting plastics.

  1. Thermoplastics—may be softened by heat and can be dissolved in various organic solvents. Acrylic plastic is commonly used as a transparent thermoplastic material for windows, canopies, etc. Acrylic plastics are known by the trade names of Lucite® or Plexiglas® and by the British as Perspex®, and meet the military specifications of MIL-P-5425 for regular acrylic and MIL-P-8184 for craze-resistant acrylic.
  2. Thermosetting plastics—do not soften appreciably under heat but may char and blister at temperatures of 240–260 °C (400–500 °F). Most of the molded products of synthetic resin composition, such as phenolic, urea-formaldehyde, and melamine formaldehyde resins, belong to the thermosetting group. Once the plastic becomes hard, additional heat does not change it back into a liquid as it would with a thermoplastic.

Optical Considerations

Scratches and other types of damage that obstruct the vision of the pilots are not acceptable. Some types of damage might be acceptable at the edges of the windshield.

Storage and Handling

Because transparent thermoplastic sheets soften and deform when they are heated, they must be stored where the temperature never becomes excessive. Store them in a cool, dry location away from heating coils, radiators, or steam pipes, and away from such fumes as are found in paint spray booths or paint storage areas.

Keep paper-masked transparent sheets out of the direct rays of the sun, because sunlight accelerates deterioration of the adhesive, causing it to bond to the plastic, and making it difficult to remove.

Store plastic sheets with the masking paper in place, in bins that are tilted at a 10° angle from the vertical to prevent buckling. If the sheets are stored horizontally, take care to avoid getting dirt and chips between them. Stacks of sheets must never be over 18 inches high, with the smallest sheets stacked on top of the larger ones so there is no unsupported overhang. Leave the masking paper on the sheets as long as possible, and take care not to scratch or gouge the sheets by sliding them against each other or across rough or dirty tables.

Store formed sections with ample support so they do not lose their shape. Vertical nesting should be avoided. Protect formed parts from temperatures higher than 120 °F (49 °C), and leave their protective coating in place until they are installed on the aircraft.

Forming Procedures and Techniques

Transparent acrylic plastics get soft and pliable when they are heated to their forming temperatures and can be formed to almost any shape. When they cool, they retain the shape to which they were formed. Acrylic plastic may be cold-bent into a single curvature if the material is thin and the bending radius is at least 180 times the thickness of the sheet. Cold bending beyond these limits impose so much stress on the surface of the plastic that tiny fissures or cracks, called crazing, form.


Wear cotton gloves when handling the plastic to eliminate finger marks on the soft surface. Before heating any transparent plastic material, remove all of the masking paper and adhesive from the sheet. If the sheet is dusty or dirty, wash it with clean water and rinse it well. Dry the sheet thoroughly by blotting it with soft absorbent paper towels.

For the best results when hot forming acrylics, adhere to the temperatures recommended by the manufacturer. Use a forced-air oven that can operate over a temperature range of 120–374 °F (49–190 °C). If the part gets too hot during the forming process, bubbles may form on the surface and impair the optical qualities of the sheet.

For uniform heating, it is best to hang the sheets vertically by grasping them by their edges with spring clips and suspending the clips in a rack. [Figure 7-90] If the piece is too small to hold with clips, or if there is not enough trim area, lay the sheets on shelves or racks covered with soft felt or flannel. Be sure there is enough open space to allow the air to circulate around the sheet and heat it evenly.

Figure 7-90. Hanging an acrylic sheet.

Figure 7-90. Hanging an acrylic sheet.

Small forming jobs, such as landing light covers, may be heated in a kitchen baking oven. Infrared heat lamps may be used if they are arranged on 7 to 8-inch centers and enough of them are used in a bank to heat the sheet evenly. Place the lamps about 18-inches from the material.

Never use hot water or steam directly on the plastic to heat it because this likely causes the acrylic to become milky or cloudy.


Heated acrylic plastic molds with almost no pressure, so the forms used can be of very simple construction. Forms made of pressed wood, plywood, or plaster are adequate to form simple curves, but reinforced plastic or plaster may be needed to shape complex or compound curves. Since hot plastic conforms to any waviness or unevenness, the form used must be completely smooth. To ensure this, sand the form and cover it with soft cloth, such as outing flannel or billiard felt. The mold should be large enough to extend beyond the trim line of the part, and provisions should be made for holding the hot plastic snug against the mold as it cools.

A mold can be made for a complex part by using the damaged part itself. If the part is broken, tape the pieces together, wax or grease the inside so the plaster does not stick to it, and support the entire part in sand. Fill the part with plaster and allow it to harden, and then remove it from the mold. Smooth out any roughness and cover it with soft cloth. It is now ready to use to form the new part.

Forming Methods
Simple Curve Forming

Heat the plastic material to the recommended temperature, remove it from the heat source, and carefully drape it over the prepared form. Carefully press the hot plastic to the form and either hold or clamp the sheet in place until it cools. This process may take from 10–30 minutes. Do not force cool it.

Compound Curve Forming

Compound curve forming is normally used for canopies or complex wingtip light covers, and it requires a great deal of specialized equipment. There are four commonly used methods, each having its advantages and disadvantages.

Stretch Forming

Preheated acrylic sheets are stretched mechanically over the form in much the same way as is done with the simple curved piece. Take special care to preserve uniform thickness of the material, since some parts must stretch more than others.

Male and Female Die Forming

Male and female die forming requires expensive matching male and female dies. The heated plastic sheet is placed between the dies that are then mated. When the plastic cools, the dies are opened.

Vacuum Forming Without Forms

Many aircraft canopies are formed by this method. In this process, a panel, which has cut into it the outline of the desired shape, is attached to the top of a vacuum box. The heated and softened sheet of plastic is then clamped on top of the panel. When the air in the box is evacuated, the outside air pressure forces the hot plastic through the opening and forms the concave canopy. It is the surface tension of the plastic that shapes the canopy.

Vacuum Forming With a Female Form

If the shape needed is other than that which would be formed by surface tension, a female mold, or form must be used. It is placed below the plastic sheet and the vacuum pump is connected. When air from the form is evacuated, the outside air pressure forces the hot plastic sheet into the mold and fills it.

Sawing and Drilling

Several types of saws can be used with transparent plastics; however, circular saws are the best for straight cuts. The blades should be hollow ground or have some set to prevent binding. After the teeth are set, they should be side dressed to produce a smooth edge on the cut. Band saws are recommended for cutting flat acrylic sheets when the cuts must be curved or where the sheet is cut to a rough dimension to be trimmed later. Close control of size and shape may be obtained by band sawing a piece to within 1⁄16-inch of the desired size, as marked by a scribed line on the plastic, and then sanding it to the correct size with a drum or belt sander.


Unlike soft metal, acrylic plastic is a very poor conductor of heat. Make provisions for removing the heat when drilling. Deep holes need cooling, and water-soluble cutting oil is a satisfactory coolant since it has no tendency to attack the plastic.

Figure 7-91. A twist drill with an included angle of 150° is used to drill acrylic plastics.

Figure 7-91. A twist drill with an included angle of 150° is used to drill acrylic plastics.

The drill used on acrylics must be carefully ground and free from nicks and burrs that would affect the surface finish. [Figure 7-91] Grind the drill with a greater included angle than would be used for soft metal. The rake angle should be zero in order to scrape, and not cut.

Figure 7-92. Unibit® drill for drilling acrylic plastics.

Figure 7-92. Unibit® drill for drilling acrylic plastics.

The patented Unibit® is good for drilling small holes in aircraft windshields and windows. [Figure 7-92] It can cut holes from 1⁄8 to ½-inch in 1⁄32-inch increments and produces good smooth holes with no stress cracks around their edges.