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Reducing Visual Impact  
Reducing the visual impact of bolt hangers and other fixed gear?

by Reese Martin
So you’ve re-equipped your favorite routes, but now all the shiny new bolts glint in the sun and can be seen for miles. Not everyone, including land managers, thinks bolts are beautiful. With a little advance planning and work you can [disguise] your fixed anchors.

The goal when camouflaging bolts and fixed anchors is to apply a durable coating that blends into the rock background, yet can withstand weather and repeated clipping. Use non-reflective (flat or matte) colors that closely match the rock. Shiny (glossy) coatings reflect too much light and are easy to spot.

One method is to take a few representative rocks with you to the paint store or bring paint chips with you to the crag to get a color match. If that’s too much trouble, I’ve found that in most situations with granite, light colored sandstone or limestone a flat black primer works extremely well. Gear painted flat black looks like a shadow from most angles.

Having camouflaged several hundred bolts and anchors, I’ve worked out a system to getting a durable coating that minimizes chipping. The key to coating stainless steel hangers and other metal anchors is prepping the hangers and allowing enough time for the paint to dry. If you skimp on prep work or push the drying times, the paint will chip. Stainless steel is a pain in the butt --— it is difficult to get paint to stick. A solution is to use a primer coat. Primer will stick to bare metal and the top (color) coat will stick to the primer. If you can get a primer in the right color you can put on a few extra coats of a quality primer and skip the topcoat.

Primers specifically for stainless steel are expensive, toxic and hard to find. I’ve concluded that true stainless steel primers are not worth the expense. Spray cans of automotive primer or other general-purpose metal primers such as Krylon or Rustoleum work fine. Buy the "performance" grade. It only costs about two bucks more a can and your paint job will last years longer. Lately, I’ve skipped the topcoat and just applied four or more coats of high quality flat black metal primer.

If you want to minimize the paint hassle factor, buy rock-colored hangers such as those made by Metolius or Fixe. It you want to go another step, paint them to match your local stone. Lightly sand them before painting to allow your topcoat to adhere. 220 grit sandpaper works fine and be sure to blow the dust off before painting.

If you want to go all the way then have a local firm powder coat your hangars. In this process powdered enamel is electro-statically applied to the hangers, then baked in an oven to fuse the enamel to the metal. The resulting coating is highly durable and chip resistant. Flecks in a second color are easily added. This is how most commercial colored hangers are coated. Unless you have many, many hangers to coat, this can be expensive. Look under "powder coating" in the yellow pages.

Painting hangers:
Remove all grease and oil from the surface. An easy way is to stick them all in a dishwasher and run it. If hangers are clean, there is no need to sand them. Spread your hardware out on some old newspapers or string them up on coat hangers in a dry, well-ventilated location. An open garage or outside under eaves works great. Warming the spray cans in a pan of hot (130 F) tap water for 10 minutes before using will make the spraying go much smoother. Spray the hangers and anchors with two to three coats of primer -- Four if you are not going to topcoat. Chain anchors make take an extra coat to get all the nooks and crannies. Use a respirator — don’t paint your lungs,
Allow hangers to dry at least 24 hours between coats. Drying times go up dramatically below 60 F. Check the label. Apply three layers of topcoat. Allow them to dry at least 24 hours between coats. Again as temperatures go down, drying times go way up. If you are a perfectionist, add flecks of a second color by spraying or putting some paint on an old toothbrush, and flicking the bristles with your thumb to splatter flecks of paint onto the hangers. After the final coat, let the hangers cure for at least three days before using them; a week is better. The longer you let the hangers cure, the less likely the paint will chip off.

Painting bolts and anchors on the rock:
Mask off the immediate rock around the anchor so you don’t paint the rock. Masking tape and a simple 8x10 piece of cardboard with a cutout for the hanger works fine. I’ve added a loop of shoelace to my cutout so it won’t get dropped. Use a spray can of the appropriate color to coat the hanger, bolt and nut. It is easy to apply too much paint and get runs. Practice before you try this on real rock! You don’t want to make the area around the bolt look like some drunken tagger assaulted the bolt. I’ve tried small 3/8" brushes instead of spray paint, but found dealing with a brush and liquid paint while dangling off a cliff face was a bigger mess. Use a couple of light coats, rather than a single heavy coat. When done remove the cutout and tape. Pocket it: don’t litter.

Rock & Ice #91, pages 44- 45, Paul Humphrey recommends that you paint gear at the end of a day or in off-season when other parties aren’t likely to disturb your handiwork until its good and dry.

Reese Martin is long time climber and Access Fund board member who has placed and replaced hundreds of bolts and anchors.