Finding the Finest Film

Knowing film characteristics can help you choose the right film for the job.

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How do you define a wrap? When I started in the wide-format digital business nearly 18 years ago, a wrap was very specific to vehicles. Most wraps were done on semitrailers using a smooth adhesive (non-air egress) film. There were other vehicles being wrapped also-mostly buses, box trucks and vans. Most, if not all, of these wraps were for commercial advertisements and not for personal customization of a vehicle. Graphics were mostly screen printed in those days and the digital printing revolution was just getting started. Early on, in the late 1990s, digital printers were priced in the range of $250,000 – $500,000, so the market was still relatively small and focused on fleets.

Enter Air Egress

It seems that the “wrap” market really started booming after digital printing gained popularity with the advent of low-production outdoor-durable wide-format digital printers that were offered in the $30,000 range. That allowed smaller print shops into the game. Later, air egress adhesive film technology-which incorporates air channels built into the film’s adhesive layer to minimize bubbles during installation-helped to really revolutionize the wrap market. These new “wrap films” made professional installers faster, and made novice installers much better. The next thing we knew, commercial vehicle wraps were much more common on the road. We also started to see some custom wraps on personal cars.

Recently I asked eight of my co-workers to define a wrap. All eight were clear in that a wrap is no longer just for vehicles. They all consistently defined a wrap as an object, stationary or mobile, that can be covered in vinyl. A wrap is more than just a decal or sticker, and it covers a major portion of whatever object you are wrapping. This is where the terms “full wrap” and “partial wrap” come into play. A full wrap covers the entire object and a partial covers only portions of the object.

What Can Be Wrapped?

So what can you wrap? Every time I turn around it seems like people are coming up with new things to wrap. Basically, if the film will stick and conform to the surface then you can probably wrap it. I tried to compile a list of items that I’ve seen wrapped, and I’m up to more than 80 individual items. I’m sure we could keep adding to the list.

Some of the more fun wraps that I’ve personally been involved with include a 15′ guitar for a contest run by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. I was also part of a team that wrapped an entire fire truck as a community project for the Geauga, Ohio, fire department. I also wrapped a little Radio Flyer car. Both the fire truck and the Radio Flyer were done with color-change films.

I’ve also been asked if it was possible to wrap some pretty crazy items, like a bridge. I’ve also been asked about wrapping cement statues and even wrapping funeral urns.

Wrap Film Considerations

When you decide to do a wrap that is not a vehicle, there are several considerations to take into account before moving forward. First, what conformability is needed? Is the object flat or does it have complex curves? If it is relatively flat, then you may be able to get by with using calendered film, which will save money. However, if the object has complex or compound curves you will want to choose a cast film.

You also need to consider the level of durability that is needed. If the surface is flat, but the wrap will have a longer life span you may still want to go with a cast film for the higher durability. However, if you are doing something relatively short term and your customer is OK with a calendered film lifting at contours, you could also get by with using a calendered film when a cast film should technically be used. Bus wraps and transit ads are good examples of this. A bus is not all that flat, actually, but the graphics on a bus are generally only left on for one year or less. Since they are changed out so often, it is generally accepted that the film will lift up in some areas. In these cases, the bigger concern is that the graphic will come off relatively quick and easy.


Another question to ask when choosing a film is whether or not removability is needed. In my experience, when the customer requests a “wrap,” they will generally want to go back to the original finish/surface of the object being covered. For the most part, this can be accomplished; however, there may be some exceptions.

For example, there are surfaces such as low surface energy plastics that may require a higher-tack adhesive in order for the film to stick properly. When the special high-tack adhesives are used, they generally do not come off easily when the graphic life is complete, so you should be prepared to possibly have lots of adhesive residue left behind to clean up.

Low-VOC Paint

Wall wraps on today’s low-VOC paints are posing a new challenge. In the past we could use a removable adhesive on painted wallboard; however, the introduction of new low-VOC paints has created some new adhesion challenges. These paints have components in them that make it more difficult for standard films to adhere to (the cured surface sometimes has a powdery residue).

It may be possible to improve adhesion by wiping the wall down with isopropyl alcohol; however, this does not always work. The next option is to step up to a stronger adhesive. This means you will get something that sticks, but not necessarily something that will remove without causing damage to the wallboard. Portable toilets, ATVs, and garbage cans are all examples of low-surface-energy plastics where the film’s adhesive should be taken into consideration.

Other Complications

Garage doors are another example of a wrap application that seems pretty straightforward at first, but can become complicated for a few different reasons. The first thing that comes to mind is the contours on a garage door itself. I’ve seen some that are fairly simple and would pose no issue to conformability. I’ve also seen garage doors that are corrugated where it would be easy to heat-stretch the film but then it will likely lift later.

Another thing to consider on the garage door is the type of paint that covers it. I’ve learned that garage doors are mostly powder coated at the factory. I also learned that not all powder coat paints are the same and just because one adhesive works on one door today, that doesn’t mean it will work on the one you are asked to wrap tomorrow. Because of this variability, it is important to test the product prior to installation. If the film you want to use does not stick on a small scale, it very likely it is not going to work on a large scale.

Test on a Small Scale

For the most part, the wraps you encounter on a day-to-day basis will be relatively straightforward. However, if you encounter a wrap opportunity that is not covered in a manufacturer’s literature, and you are not sure what film to use, I strongly suggest contacting your media supplier for advice. Check with a couple of different media manufacturers to see what your best options are. Then I highly recommend testing film candidates on a small scale before moving forward on a full-scale job. Taking that extra day to test could save you lots of time and money.

* From the 2015 issue of WRAPS magazine.

Molly Waters Avery Dennison

Molly Waters

Avery Dennison Graphics Solutions

Molly Waters is a technical specialist for Avery Dennison. She's been with the company since March 2008.

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