While paint may not be a common topic of conversation when it comes to famous landmarks, that’s definitely not the case with the Golden Gate Bridge. In the case of this iconic bridge, everyone has a tidbit to share regarding the herculean task of maintaining its signature color on such a massive scale:
“The Golden Gate Bridge is painted end to end each year!” Not true. In fact, the current Maintenance Supervisor says that painting the bridge from end to end would take his team of 11 most of their career to accomplish.
“The Golden Gate Bridge was originally to be painted gold, but the planners ordered the wrong color.” Not true either. The Army wanted the bridge painted with black and yellow stripes so it could be seen through the dense fog by ships. The Air Force wanted the bridge painted red and white like a candy cane so it could be more easily seen by airplanes passing over it. Ultimately, the color was decided by the original designer, who thought the magnificence of the structure deserved a unique color.
“The Golden Gate Bridge’s paint color and formula are closely guarded secrets!” Also not true. The paint color is actually based on the anti-corrosion primer that came on the original steel and is known as “International Orange.” The specific formula is available on the bridge’s website and through Sherwin Williams, the manufacturer of the paint itself.
There are many misconceptions and falsehoods surrounding the maintenance and painting of the Golden Gate Bridge. As is often the case, the truth is far more interesting than the myths. For example, the Golden Gate Bridge is encompassed in fog almost 70% of the time. This creates a slew of problems in terms of maintenance. As the fog has a high salt content (owing to its proximity to the Pacific Ocean), the bridge is constantly under attack by corrosion. The primary purpose of painting the bridge at all is not for appearance, but rather to protect the substrate from corrosion and damage caused by the fog.
However, not only does the fog work to damage the steel of the bridge, but it also prevents painters from being able to work much of the time. Some estimates show that 60% of available work hours are unusable due to the heavy fog. So not only does the Golden Gate Bridge paint and maintenance crew have an ongoing challenge to address in the fog, but they are fighting the battle with one hand tied behind their backs.
So exactly how much paint would be required to paint the Golden Gate Bridge? How enormous is the task itself? Even the most experienced professional painter would be in awe of the size and scope of this iconic American structure. Consider that in 1965 it was decided that the original red-paste lead-based paint covering the entire bridge would need to be stripped and scraped off and replaced with an inorganic silica primer and zinc topcoat. The process of removing the old, toxic paint and replacing it with paint that was safer for the environment only took thirty years.
In 2012, the Golden Gate Bridge paint maintenance crew used approximately $6,000 worth of brushes, sprayers, and tools, and $16,000 worth of paint. While the bridge isn’t painted from end to end each year as offered above, it is touched up constantly in the never-ending battle against the fog and the corrosion is causes. Most professional painters would wonder why brushes would be used at all considering the enormity of the bridge; paint sprayers would be the more logical tool to use. While this is true, the high humidity as a result of the fog and winds that reach 60mph make the use of paint sprayers difficult, if not impossible.
Despite all of this, the challenges associated with painting the Golden Gate Bridge are met with enthusiasm by the painters who work on the bridge’s maintenance team. Where else would they have the opportunity to care for and preserve one of the nation’s enduring landmarks using paint chemistry to ward off salt water, dangerous weather, and complicated work conditions? As Golden Gate Bridge Superintendent Rocky Dellarocca said in 2011, “People took care of this place before I got here, since 1937, I’m going to take care of it, and when I retire, someone’s going to come right behind me and keep taking care of this bridge.” If you want to learn more about how paint chemistry fights corrosion on exterior structures, click here!