When I first started installing vinyl in 1978, we had one simple rule: If you think the vinyl is going to fail for any reason, do not install it. This is really good advice. My dad used to say, “If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing right.” I told my son the same thing. Much has changed since then. What about the vehicle wrap industry? What does “doing it right” look like today?
Do we need standards? Yes, yes we do. We need them for installers who care about quality installations, for vinyl manufacturers so their products perform their best and for customers so their graphics look good and also last. And we need them for people who are new to the industry, so they can learn, do a great job and help us grow our industry.
Having well defined standards that set a benchmark will lend respectability to our craft. In this article, I pick some of the most important wrap fundamentals and offer my thoughts on them.
It is my hope to get you thinking about application standards, what they might look like and how they could benefit our industry.
The fundamentals I’ve chosen to focus on are: vehicle inspection, vehicle preparation, graphic positioning and alignment, application, as well as trimming and finishing. Okay, let’s break them down and get specific.
The first thing I suggest is to inspect the vehicle. Should we wrap any vehicle regardless of the paint condition? Or lack of paint? I vote no. The paint and body should be determined to be “wrap worthy” before anything else. Vinyl doesn’t adhere well to rust or primer. I prefer OEM paint. I look for any signs of vehicle damage or paint work. That’s not to say you can’t wrap a vehicle that has been partially or totally repainted; but, I’ve had lots of problems with repainted vehicles.
Properly preparing a vehicle for wrapping definitely includes removing some parts and cleaning. Before I clean, I remove things that make the application more difficult or would cause me to stretch the vinyl more than necessary.
Mirrors, door handles and rear windshield wipers are prime examples. However, some parts break easily or can be so difficult or time consuming to remove, so I end up working around them. Many car wrappers today hire outside help to disassemble and re-assemble vehicles for them. Body shop technicians in your area are a good resource. This practice is most common for high-end vehicles getting color change wraps.
I think we all agree cleaning is critical. The surface needs to be super clean, completely dry and free of oil and dust. Where we may disagree is what to clean with and how to clean.
Most installers clean with a spray bottle and one rag. This common technique is more apt to spread the contaminants evenly across the surface than it is to remove them. Another common error is using only one cleaning solution. Properly cleaning a vehicle surface is not a “one size fits all” situation.
My policy is to use only cleaners and procedures recommended by vinyl manufacturers. These have become the “standards” recommended by the PDAA and UASG. Not only do they work well, they keep the warranty in force.
There are two standards I recommend for cleaning:
- First, use cleaners that will dissolve the contaminants that are present. Proper cleaning may involve the use of more than one cleaning solution. For example, one for dirt and mud (detergent and water), one for tar and grease (a petroleum-based cleaner such as V&M Naptha or a phosphate-based degreaser like Zep’s Orange Gel Degreaser); and always use 70 percent isopropyl rubbing alcohol as a final rinse.
- Second, dry each solution off before it evaporates. This is best accomplished by putting the solution in a bucket and using two towels (one wet and one dry). Dip one rag in the solution and wring out the excess. Wet the surface. Scrub or rub (or wait) until the contaminants are dissolved in the solution – and quickly dry with a clean (and yes lint free, if you can find one) towel BEFORE it evaporates.?
Positioning and Graphic Alignment
Few will argue the importance of having a graphic in the proper position. Difficult as it may be sometimes, every effort should be made to properly align and match up the artistic components when overlapping panels. The purpose of most printed vehicle wraps is to help our client’s message get noticed, not for the wrap to get noticed because the message is crooked or poorly aligned.
I’ve made mistakes (and so have my employees) that have cost me over the years. If you make a mistake and apply a graphic that is not properly positioned or aligned, then you should buy or make a new one and replace it. Just do the honorable thing and make it right. People will respect you for it and you’ll sleep better.
As professionals our job is to apply the vinyl so it’s smooth, with no bubbles or wrinkles. Learn to recognize, before you start the application, whether or not you can achieve that look. Plan ahead. If the shape is too difficult for you (or for the vinyl), consider using two or more pieces instead of overstretching or wrinkling the graphic. Install the pieces so the edges face away from the viewer and hide any seams on body lines so they are less noticeable.
Squeegees with covers can be used wet to avoid scratching the graphics during installation. I make a solution using a drop or two of Johnson’s Baby Shampoo to a quart of water in a spray bottle. Try a wet wrap glove for extremely curved shapes. Don’t let the fluid touch the adhesive side of the vinyl.
Be sure to squeegee firmly enough, make sure all of the air is out. If you squeegee too hard you can wrinkle or stretch the vinyl. But once the vinyl has been applied smoothly, you can re-squeegee it very firmly to make sure no air remains. A great way to check your work is to wave a torch or heat gun over the entire area. If you see any movement on the face of the vinyl, stop heating and squeegee again.
Quality trimming takes practice, but it pays off. Nothing can ruin a good wrap job quicker than poor trims. Never cut the paint. Learn to cut. Practice. Use Knifeless Tape. Never cut the paint.
Proper finishing should include re-squeegeeing and checking all edges and making absolutely sure they are adhered well. Post-heat all vinyl applied to complex curve shapes to 200-225 degrees Fahrenheit with a heat gun and an I.R. thermometer. Wipe off all fingerprints, smudges and marks to make the wrap look its best. Fine scratches can be removed with a careful flame from a propane torch. Use caution not to overheat.
Make one final inspection for any loose edges. This is best done outdoors in daylight. If you find any, they only take a second to rub down tight. If the wrap drives away with loose edges, they will get wet and dirty. Repairing them means costly removal and replacement.
Importance of Standards
How important do you think application standards are? If you think they’re important, you’re not alone. Many of us have pondered these questions for years. That’s why PDAA and UASG have the training and certification programs they have today. They were created to establish standards, provide education to help people learn how to install vinyl properly and for those that have mastered the skills to gain the respect they deserve through certification testing.
Maybe you think certification is important, maybe not. Either way, would you agree that quality is important? I’m sure you do. When you first started, did you want to know how to do it right? Did you get confused by conflicting ideas or methods? Most would answer yes to all these questions.
If you were running the wraps universe, what would you do differently? How can we raise the level of quality across the largest number of installers? Some would argue they don’t want any more installers, there’s enough already, or that they don’t want more people trained who would then compete with them. These same people are always asking me where they can hire an experienced installer.
Here’s my answer to most of these questions: Get certified. Join the PDAA or the UASG or both. They’re not perfect, but they have great programs. If you take car wrapping seriously, I know you will pursue perfection, police yourself and stand behind your work. But if you join, participate and contribute your great ideas, you can impact our industry in a strong and positive way that helps shape the future of our industry. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel-just jump on the bandwagon!
Here is a quick summary of the standards that I use when installing wraps.
- Inspect the vehicle thoroughly
- Remove hardware and emblems when appropriate
- Clean with recommended solutions and techniques
- Measure VERY carefully … and then check it again
- Apply the graphic with firm pressure, as smooth as possible, with the absolute minimum stretching, use well thought out seams (only when necessary) and avoid scratching the vinyl
- Trim well, never cut the paint
- Leave no loose edges
- Post-heat all complex curves
- Wipe the wrap off, make it look perfect
- Make one final inspection
* From the 2016 issue of WRAPS magazine.