Combustion Flame Spraying

Processing variables of flame spraying that directly affect the serviceability of a coating are principally surface preparation, gun operation, spraying distance, temperature of the workpiece, and type of coating.

The serviceability of the coating depends on the surface preparation. If a surface is not absolutely clean or is not roughened sufficiently, bond strength may be reduced 50% or more.

Optimum adherence of the spray particles to each other (cohesion) depends on the fineness of the spray, uniformity of the spray pattern, correct adjustment of gas ratios and pressures, and proper material feed rate. These can be accomplished only by proper adjustment of the spray system.

The temperature and size of the spray particles must be closely controlled. If a rod gun periodically produces large spray particles, they are not sufficiently heated and are consequently less plastic, resulting in poor bonding to adjacent particles or to the substrate and creating a weak point or area in the coating.

Spray guns should be maintained at the prescribed distance from the substrate for the type of coating desired. If the gun is too close, the coating becomes crazed and has low thermal shock resistance. An excessive gun-to-work distance can result in soft, spongy deposits with low physical properties and decreased deposit efficiency.

Surface Preparation. Because flame-sprayed particles adhere to the substrate surface primarily by mechanical bonding, suitable methods of surface roughening are essential. These consist of undercutting, grooving, threading, knurling, abrasive blasting, and applying sprayed metal undercoats. Abrasive blasting and metal undercoats provide optimum surface conditions for ceramic coatings. When blasting is used, abrasives must be clean and sharp. Roughening should be uniform and should produce as many re-entrant angles and sharp peaks as possible.

Steel grit is one of the most satisfactory blasting abrasives. It disintegrates slowly and offers maximum life. The grit should be screened periodically to remove dirt and fines. Angular steel grit is available in many sizes. A G25 grit propelled by 275 kPa (40 psi) air pressure is used in many applications.

Fused-alumina grit may be used when surface contamination by a steel abrasive is objectionable. Optimum surface preparation is obtained with a No. 24 grit propelled at a pressure of 275 to 345 kPa (40 to 50 psi). This abrasive cuts faster than steel, but some breakdown of the grit occurs, and the fines should be removed before reuse. For light-gage materials, finer grit (No. 46) and lower blasting pressures are recommended to prevent distortion of the work. Silicon carbide also produces a satisfactory surface for ceramic coatings.

Sprayed metal coatings provide an anchoring base for flame-sprayed ceramics equal to that obtained by abrasive blasting. Sprayed molybdenum undercoatings are used as a bonding coat for subsequent application of ceramic coating to metal substrates that are too hard or too thin to receive adequate surface roughening through abrasive blasting.

Nickel-chromium or nickel-chromium-aluminum alloy sprayed undercoatings are used as an adherent base for flame-sprayed ceramic coatings that are repeatedly subjected to high temperatures. An undercoat in thicknesses of 50 to 330 /'m (2 to 13 mils) develops an optimum bond for the ceramic coating. When the metal alloy is used, the substrate surface is first roughened by abrasive blasting. Areas that do not require coating can be protected with masking tape, rubber, or sheet metal, depending on the severity of the surface roughening operation.

Processing. After surface preparation, the spray gun is loaded with ceramic coating material of proper size, and the gun is ignited according to the procedure recommended by the manufacturer. Techniques used in flame spraying of ceramics are similar to those used in spraying paint. Successful application depends primarily on the skill of the operator.

Spraying distance and rate of gun traverse across the work should be held as nearly constant as possible. The distance and rate of traverse depend on the spraying equipment, composition of the coating material, substrate metal, and desired physical characteristics of the coating. Powder guns have a relatively long, bushy flame to heat the ceramic powder during its passage through the extensive heat zone. Consequently, powder guns may need to be placed 150 to 200 mm (6 to 8 in.) from the workpiece and traversed quite rapidly to minimize overheating. Rod guns using the same type of heating operate with a very short flame and heat zone, because heating of the ceramic always takes place at a fixed location at the end of the rod. For rod guns, the optimum spraying distance is about 75 mm (3 in.).

The gun should be moved continuously across a surface in such a manner that each pass slightly overlaps the preceding one. When the surface is completely coated, succeeding passes to increase thickness should be at right angles to those used for initial coverage.

When possible, the spraying angle should be 90° to the workpiece surface to produce the smoothest coating at the fastest rate. Spraying angles up to 45° from the preferred gun position can be tolerated if the slight reduction in physical characteristics of the coating is acceptable.

To obtain optimum coating properties, the workpiece temperature should be controlled. Adherence of the coating is greatly reduced if the substrate is heated over 260 °C (500 °F). Substrate temperatures can be measured on the reverse sides of panel specimens by applying temperature-sensitive paint or crayon that melts when a specific temperature is exceeded.

When a rod gun is used for coating flat surfaces, use the following practices to avoid overheating the substrate:

• Move the gun across the face of the work in a smooth motion and at a rate of about 0.3 m (1 ft) every 5

• Maintain the proper distance between gun and work (about 75 mm or 3 in.) during spraying passes.

• If a workpiece is small, pause to the side of the work after a coating pass to permit the workpiece to cool slightly.

Overheating of substrates was overcome in one plant by fixturing the work and spraying for a limited time. The conditions of this operation are illustrated in Fig. 2. Combustion flame spray coating of the inside surface of the rocket combustion chamber shown in Fig. 2 caused melting or burning of the magnesium-alloy substrate when the zirconia coating was applied in a continuous operation. Destruction occurred before the required coating thickness of 890 to 1020 pm (35 to 40 mils) could be applied.

Fig. 2 Zirconia-coated magnesium-alloy rocket combustion chamber

This problem was solved by using a fixture comprised of three friction-loaded thin steel fingers that extended from a standard rotatable chuck. The fingers gripped the exterior of each combustion chamber with just enough force to hold the workpiece during rotation and to permit rapid interchange of the workpieces.

The coating operation consisted of rotating the workpiece at about 30 to 50 rev/min, spraying for not longer than 25 s, then removing the workpiece to permit cooling to room temperature, during which time uncoated or partly coated workpieces would be processed in the same manner. Each combustion chamber required eight or more cycles for producing a coating of the specified thickness.

Figure 3 illustrates a metal nozzle to which a coating of alumina and zirconia was applied 635 pm (25 mils) thick. The operating conditions were as follows: The total area coated on each nozzle was 7100 mm2 (11 in.2). The time required for preparation, sand blasting, coating, and handling is broken down as follows:


Coating material



Size of ceramic rod

( — by 24 in.) 16

(— by 18 in.) 16

Rods per nozzle coated


11 2

Average feed rate

180 mm/min (7 in./min)

100 mm/min (4 in./min)

When large areas require coating, it may be more economical to use more than one spray gun. With the proper mechanical setup, one operator can operate four spray guns efficiently.


Cycle time, min









Sand blasting






Unpacking, repacking, transportation, paper work



Inspection, individual packaging



Fig. 3 Metal nozzle coated with alumina and zirconia

Equipment. Most parts require fixturing. For simple shapes that are hand coated, only a simple clamping device is needed for rigidly supporting the part within an exhaust hood during coating. Sheet metal is used for masking areas that do not require coating. A lathe is a suitable fixture for coating parts such as cylinders and nozzles. The chuck rotates the part, and the tool post carriage mechanically moves the spray gun. This setup requires a movable exhaust system for removal of the combustion products and excess spray material.

Gravity-feed or pressure-feed spray guns for powder, or electric-feed or air-motor-feed rod guns, are used in combustion flame spraying.

A typical gravity-feed powder spray installation consists of a fuel gas-control unit, including regulators, to provide a supply of oxygen and acetylene or hydrogen fuel gas; a meter for accurate measurement of aspirating gas flow; and a spray gun with a nozzle and a canister for containing powder. The principle of operation for this gun is illustrated in Fig. 4. Powder falls through a metering valve in the bottom of the canister into a stream of aspirating gas, which propels it to a stream of fuel gas that has been diverted through a valving system in the gun. The flow rate of the powder is controlled by the size of the metering valve and the amount of aspirating gas metered through the nozzle. This gun usually has a vibrator to maintain uniform powder flow.

Fig. 4 Operational principle of a gravity-feed powder spray gun

In the pressure-feed system, the powder container is separated from the gun and connected by means of a hose through which powder and carrier gas flow. The carrier gas may be compressed air, fuel gas, or inert gas. Hydrogen is commonly used as both carrier and fuel gas.

Control of particle size is important in both gravity-feed and pressure-feed systems. However, the pressure-feed system requires less control of distribution of particle size because of the higher velocity of the carrier gas. Compared to rod spraying, powder spraying has lower initial equipment costs and greater flexibility of coating properties, as well as being adaptable to a wider variety of coating materials.

A typical rod spray installation is illustrated in Fig. 5. In addition to the auxiliary equipment required for the powder spray process, rod spraying requires a supply of compressed air, an air-control unit that includes a filter and a regulator, and an air flowmeter. A good grade of acetylene should be used, and at least two tanks should be manifolded so that withdrawal rates can be kept below a maximum of one-seventh of the volume of the tank capacity per hour to prevent acetone withdrawal. This is recommended because of the cooling effect that acetone vapor has on flame temperature.

Fig. 5 Rod spray installation

The operation of a ceramic rod spray gun is shown in Fig. 6. The ceramic rod is fed through the center of the nozzle and atomized by the surrounding oxyacetylene flame and compressed air. Compressed air is used to cool the nozzle, increase the velocity of the sprayed material, and control the spray pattern. Control of the diameter and straightness of the rod is required to eliminate problems such as rod sticking and blowback. Control of rod speed is important for control of the density and surface characteristics of the coating. The rod and powder guns can be equipped with extensions and 45° angle air caps for coating inside diameters. The velocities of the sprayed particles from a rod gun and those from a powder gun are compared in Fig. 7.

Fig. 6 Operational principle of rod gun

Distance from nozzle, in, t0 15 2Q Z5

Distance from nozzle, in, t0 15 2Q Z5











Si P(

iwder gun

0 ISO 300 450 600 750

Distance from jiojzle, mm

0 ISO 300 450 600 750

Distance from jiojzle, mm

Fig. 7 Comparison of spray particle velocity from rod and powder guns. O: Velocimeter; •: streak camera, fast particle; A: high-speed motion pictures

Rod spraying causes less heating of a workpiece than powder spraying, and it produces a coating with higher density and better bond between the coating and substrate.

Control of coating thickness is related directly to the method used for handling the workpiece and the spray gun. Hand-applied coatings can easily be held within a tolerance of ±50 pm (±2 mils). Mechanical systems for handling both workpiece and gun decrease this tolerance by 50% or more. The variation in coating thickness obtained by hand spraying alumina and zirconia on one side of steel test coupons (25 by 25 by 3.2 mm, or 1 by 1 by - in.) with a rod gun is shown in

Fig. 8 Variation in thickness of hand-sprayed alumina and zirconia coatings on steel test coupons. Coatings flame sprayed from rod. (a) Alumina on steel, 20 tests. (b) Zirconia on steel, 30 tests

Flame-sprayed coatings are applied relatively slowly; therefore, after a uniform surface coverage system has been set up, control of the coating thickness depends on timing the duration of coating application with sufficient accuracy to achieve the desired tolerances. If closer tolerances or finer surface finishes are required, most flame-sprayed ceramic coatings can be ground by conventional grinding techniques.

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