Go West, Young Man

by Stephan Wilkinson

This article appeared in the December 1986 Falco Builders Letter

Let us now praise the Gougeon Brothers. They sell epoxy-"West System Epoxy." What's nice about buying epoxy from them is that not only is it the most respected epoxy on the market for our purposes, and the most professionally merchandised, but they are a one-source supplier for everything you need epoxy-wise. And everything is matched, tested, compatible. I don't know if that matters, but a compulsive like me is made more confident by the look of same-labeled cans and bottles on the shelves when dealing with something as mysterious as epoxy.

The Gougeon Brothers are big in the boat field, and their West System has been used to make a tremendous variety of competition and pleasure yachts of considerable size, strength and success. Not fiberglass boats, God help us, but wooden boats: God's own "composite"-tree stuff encapsulated, bonded and strengthened and smoothed with epoxy. The Gougeon Brothers believe in strength through wood, bonding and moisture protection through epoxy, and West System Epoxy is formulated with wood in mind.

The stuff is wonderful and makes one wish that its high-temperature performance were as assured as is that of Aerolite or resorcinol. (Boats don't live in the heat-absorbing situations that can be commonplace for airplanes.) Alfred Scott tells me that Falco-builder Steve Wieczorek, who works at Sikorsky, probably the leading user of composites in the aircraft industry, will soon be testing several leading epoxies with the help of Sikorsky's sophisticated facilities. Perhaps we'll have some positive evidence of the strength of West System epoxy-or another brand-in dark-colored airplanes sitting out on the ramp at Phoenix Sky Harbor for a midsummer week.

I'd love it, because I'd give anything to not have to add yet another refrigerator-white flying mailbox to the skies. Fuschia, cobalt blue straight out of the Patagonia catalogue, Hertz yellow, that orgasmic red you see in Porsche ads... anything but alabaster. Epoxy is so wonderfully easy to use (assuming you wear gloves and a mask), and I'd be happy to be free of the fears of making dry, catalyst-free joints when gluing large skins using Aerolite. For small, maneuverable components of limited gluing area, Aerolite seems unapproachable for ease of use, safety, working time, pot life, clamping demands and everything else. But I'm sure that when I start swabbing the formic-acid catalyst on 50-inch-square sheets of skinning plywood, I'll be wondering if too much of the stuff has evaporated to be useful by the time I get the last staples and clamps snugged down.

"System" is the meaningful word in Gougeon's trademark. You get resin and hardener, pumps to dispense the precisely right amounts for mixing, gray or white pigment-pastes to add to the final coat to highlight surface faults for further filling, microballoons, microspheres, microfibers and other thickening agents. Stirring sticks, mixing cups, squeegees, brushes, proctologist's gloves, cleaner/solvent, the precisely right epoxy roller-applicators, a special roller handle that takes both full-length and half-length rollers (for applying epoxy to nooks and crannies). Even protective skin cream and hand-cleaner paste. One-stop shopping from a company that'll have the stuff on your doorstep in three or four days, UPS, packed complete with a picture of the boss and a note asking you to give him a jingle if you have any questions or problems. (The resin and hardener are also available through Aircraft Spruce, as of this year, but that's a waste of time: Aircraft Spruce's prices are from 15 to 30 percent higher, they offer none of the other "System" components, and though their mail-order service is improving, it's nowhere near as good as Gougeon's.)

The first thing to buy from the Brothers Gougeon is their West System Technical Manual ($2). It's a combined marketing brochure, how-to manual and description of the components of the West System, and you'll get the product catalogue and ordering information with it. The hardener comes in "slow" (30/40-minute pot life) and "fast" (10/15 minutes) flavors, but you've got to be in a lot bigger hurry than I am to opt for the fast hardener, which Gougeon considers to be the "standard" hardener. (They deal largely with professionals, I think.)

The resin-and-hardener kits come in four sizes: roughly a quart (too small to bother with, a gallon (perfect for starting out), five gallons (the ideal size for the committed builder) and a 60-gallon drum (exactly how many Falcos are you planning to build?). I'd recommend getting the gallon kit (about $50) and an assortment of West System application tools to try it out and get familiar with it, then go for the five-gallon pop (about 30 percent cheaper per gallon) when you're ready to do some serious skinning, fiberglassing and encapsulating.

West System epoxy is, in its primary form, a coating-and-finishing sealant, encapsulator and moisture barrier, not an adhesive. You turn it into glue by mixing in fillers such as microspheres or microfibers, and you convert it to aircraft-quality Bondo by stirring in microballoons (it's infinitely easier to use for that purpose than Stits Microputty, I find.) But to finish the exterior of the aircraft-or to lay up fiberglass fairings and subassemblies such as gear doors and hatches-you use it straight out of the can, as dispensed by the special West System pumps. I've been covering my control surfaces with lightweight fiberglass "deck cloth" squeegeed down into a bed of West System epoxy (after applying one base coat of epoxy), and it works beautifully, simply, neatly, easily... and I've never even seen fiberglass before. I wasted a lot of time filling staple holes and minute cracks and faults in these structures before discovering the miracle of plastic, but this stuff and a layer of 'glass, plus a third coat of epoxy wet-sanded to absolute smoothness, give you a finish that brings to mind metaphors that would be quite out of place in a family magazine such as this.

If you're going to use epoxy anywhere on your Falco, the little squeeze bottles of Chem-Tech's T-88 are nice to have if you need to glue one tiny piece in a place where you inadvertently put varnish or need a dollop of epoxy for any reason; you can eyeball the proper measures of resin and hardener for the smallest mixture you need. But for serious layups, coatings, gluing and finishing, West System is the way to go. Gougeon Brothers Inc. is at 706 Martin Street, Bay City, Michigan 48706. Once you have the Technical Manual and Product Catalogue, you can order by phone against a credit card. They also distribute regular builders' letters to their customers, as well as a list of on-going customer projects and contact numbers for each, in case you want to jaw with somebody else using West System. At last count, there were already two Falcos listed. But one of them's mine, and you already know everything I know about epoxy....