A Coating of Grandeur

A Coating of Grandeur
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SPRAY FOAM MAGAZINE – Suspended 4,000 feet above the Grand Canyon’s floor is the West Skywalk; a horseshoe-shaped observation bridge with a clear glass floor where visitors can marvel at the wonders of the canyon and the surrounding desert landscape. As one of the world’s largest cantilever glass bridges, the Skywalk itself is a feat of modern architecture upstaged only by the astonishing view it overlooks. But the scorching desert environment is harsh enough to corrode even the toughest structures over time. Tnemec, a Kansas City-based coating manufacturer whose apropos name spells “cement” backward, supplied the heavy-duty fluoropolymer coating system to protect and preserve the Skywalk’s steel frame.

The Skywalk sits on tribal land in Peach Springs, Arizona outside of Grand Canyon National Park, and is owned and managed by the Hualapai Tribe. The Skywalk opened in 2007 and quickly became a popular destination. Its continued success remains a priority for the Hualapai Tribe. When it was discovered that the Skywalk needed re-painting, Abseilon, the company that performs routine maintenance and cleaning of the Skywalk, along with the Hualapai Tribe decided to call in a team of industry professionals for backup. They enlisted Fine Point Finishes, a Phoenix-based painting company, and sought out the high-quality products and knowledge from the coatings experts at Tnemec.

Applying a fresh topcoat to the Skywalk was no picnic and involved careful planning from all parties involved. A few complicated factors required consideration. First, the new coating needed to adhere to the existing coating. Second, the coating had to be applied at a dizzying height practically in mid-air due to the Skywalk’s suspended construction. And finally, the Skywalk needed to stay open to visitors throughout the entire process. It was a tall order, but everyone involved embraced the unique challenges and got to work implementing the best solutions.

Tnemec sent representatives to assess the original coating’s condition so that they could determine the best system for the Skywalk’s new overcoat. On behalf of Tnemec, coatings consultant Teri Hand from Southwest Coating Specialists journeyed out to the Skywalk multiple times over the course of the project and remained onsite while crews prepped and painted. 

kywalk visitor's walk on the bridge while painters work on the stage below. Notice the pre-existing rails that allow the stage to roll from one end of the Skywalk to the other.
Painters in full rope gear and PPE work on the Skywalk from Abseilon’s custom platform stage. All their equipment is tethered to the stage. The Grand Canyon’s floor is approximately 4,000 feet below

Austin McKahan, Tnemec’s Digital Marketing and Media Manager was also present on-site to facilitate communication between all involved parties and document the project’s progress.

Ideally, recoating with a new topcoat would involve removing all of the existing coating, but this was not possible at the Skywalk. McKahan explains, “We knew we couldn’t blast or laser the existing coating all the way off, because the Skywalk had to stay open, and we also couldn’t have material falling off into the Canyon. Luckily, the existing coating was in good shape, and we knew our Series 135 Chembuild primer would bond well to the new coating and not add any extra stress to the old coating.”

Tnemec’s Skywalk consultations concluded that two Tnemec products were perfect for the job; the primer, Series 135 Chembuild a modified polyaidoamine epoxy, and the topcoat, Series 1072 Fluoronar, a fluropolymer. 

Together, these two products would protect the Skywalk’s steel frame for years. The Skywalk’s previous coating had experienced corrosion caused by constant UV exposure from the sun, and degradation from the dust and exposure to the elements. Tnemec’s coating solutions have a huge selection of custom colors, readily adhere to the existing coating and feature minimally invasive surface prep, providing an easy application process.

The Series 1072 Fluoronar coating is available in a range of over 500 colors. Tnemec customizes its coating colors without compromising the formula with extra liquid volume. McKahan describes Tnemec’s color customization process: “We use organic and inorganic pigments. Pigment in dry form is ground to a specific particle size from the manufacturing supplier. It visually resembles milled flour used for cooking. Our grind process is not actually further reduction of particle size but rather dispersion of the particles that agglomerate together in North Kansas City, Missouri.”

The Skywalk’s new coating is a red-orange that matches the natural color of the Grand Canyon’s rim, a shade easily matched from a paint-swatch. The pigmented color would keep the Skywalk looking vibrant, an added bonus to the topcoat’s increased durability and corrosion resistance.

While Tnemec worked out the best coating system to apply to the Skywalk, Abseilon’s rope access technicians were hard at work on another crucial step; devising a way to safely apply the coating to every inch of the Skywalk from thousands of feet above the canyon floor. Abseilon created a custom platform stage designed to roll along existing rails on the bottom edge of the Skywalk. The stage could accommodate three painters at a time, two Abseilon rope access technicians, plus their painting equipment, and allowed painters to reach every part of the Skywalk safely, while remaining open to visitors. What’s more, the stage could be re-used for maintenance and cleaning at later dates. Abseilon also trained a crew of painters from Fine Point Finishes to acclimatize them to rope and harness safety. After an intense planning and preparation stage, the overcoating process began in June of 2023.

The crew performed the Skywalk painting project in three distinct steps; surface prep, primer, and topcoat. Each step required only one pass along the Skywalk, with one extra go-round to color-correct the rails that the stage was on. Surface prep involved cleaning the substrate with a chemical wash to remove dirt and debris, as well as lightly sanding down the existing coating to minimize sheen and help the primer bond with the existing coating.

Next, the painters applied Tnemec’s Series 135 Chembuild primer, designed to promote the best possible adhesion with the topcoat. For the final step, painters applied the final topcoat layer, Series 1072 Fluoronar. Both the primer and topcoat dried and hardened quickly, and neither required special application tools – both products were applied in a single coat using simple brushes and rollers. All of the tools had to be securely tethered with ropes to the stage platform to prevent anything from falling off into the Grand Canyon, because it would have been impossible to retrieve fallen tools or materials from the Canyon’s floor. In addition to harnesses and ropes, the painting crew wore PPE such as hard hats, long sleeves, gloves, and respirators to protect themselves from breathing in fumes at close proximity. However, the painting process posed no threat to the visitors atop the Skywalk’s bridge.

After approximately three weeks, the team successfully repainted the Skywalk with a high-quality overcoat, and neither sporadic thunderstorms nor the staggering heights posed much of an obstacle to the dedicated professionals from Tnemec, Fine Point Finishes, and Abseilon. “It was a team effort, and without each player involved in the process, it couldn’t have happened,” said McKahan.

Now freshly painted and fiercely protected, the Grand Canyon West’s Skywalk will continue to sustain the Hualapai Tribe and exhilarate canyon visitors far into the future.  

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