Let’s Talk Shop: How to Wrap A Utility Truck

Tips and tricks for tackling this complex application

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If we were doing a full wrap on a utility truck like this we might set this up a bit different with vertical panels.  Because we’re doing a partial wrap that needs to extend down the length of the vehicle, and we’re able to fit the entire height on our printer in one panel, we like to do it in a couple large panels.

As with all wraps there are a few tips and tricks that will make each step a bit easier.  These photos will take you through the process, with tips described along the way.

Step-by-step How To:

1) Many of the new trucks have a decent curve on the doors. When we extend graphics down the doors and then across a utility bed, with all of its obstacles, it can be tricky to ensure that the graphic remains properly aligned down the entire length of the vehicle.


2) Using tape or magnets put all the panels you’re using up on the sides of the vehicle. Make sure to stand back at different angles to see if the graphics look like they are transitioning correctly from the cab to the bed. 

For graphics like this we will be adding some spot lettering at the end. By keeping the lettering off the background image we have a little more flexibility with placement and there is less worry about distorting the lettering over obstacles.

Once one side is taped up in place we note measurements on our proof. For example, we’ll take a measurement of the overlap at each end to make sure the graphics on the other side of the vehicle start at the same point left to right. Then we’ll note the space between the door handles, straight down to the graphic and from multiple points along the bed. This ensures that both sides look the same and will also meet at the back in the same spot if you have graphics transitioning to the rear of the vehicle.


3) We place small pieces of tape along the top of where our graphic needs to end up. This is really a big help in placement as we’re installing the graphics. Because we’re working with a flexible material it doesn’t take much to get the graphic moving up or down; these small pieces of tape keep us on track and make the install move faster.

For our busy shop we find it’s easiest for our installers to be able to work independently. Usually we’ll have a person on each side of the vehicle, but we tackle our sides by ourselves. The way we do this is breaking the panels into manageable parts. We put a vertical piece of masking tape at the spot we want to create a hinge. Usually this is not centered, but rather about a two-foot section at the front. We flip the front piece of graphic back, peel back the backing paper and cut it just before the hinge.

Using our tape marks as guidance we flip our graphic back toward the vehicle. Without pulling (stretching) the graphic we visually align it to our tape marks and lightly tack the end of the graphic in place. This frees up our hands. 

Because this vehicle curves out it’s best to squeegee with these curves. So we’ll squeegee down the length along the top of the curve and then we squeegee the graphics up toward the window, working them vertically with the curve of the door. At this point we leave the bottom third hanging loose because it curves under the vehicle; squeegeeing it now can cause wrinkles as we continue down the doors.


4) Once the front piece is squeegeed in place we don’t need the tape hinge. The back half still has the backing paper on it so we flip that back and start peeling the backing paper. The best way to maintain control of the panel is to roll your extra vinyl up and hold it tight in one hand while you peel the backing paper with the other. We cut the peeled backing paper off completely as we go to keep it out of the way. Little trick we learned when holding onto a roll of vinyl is to place a chip clip or large paper clip at the bottom to keep the roll from sliding out on itself.


5) This image shows a repeat of the process as we flip this side back and align it to our tape lines. As the graphics go over breaks in the doors or door handles just apply right over them without shifting the angle of the graphic.


6) This photo shows the curves in the body of the cab. We apply this side the same way we did the front by tacking the graphics along the tape lines and then squeegeeing first down the center along the top of the curve and then up toward the windows. Again, the bottom half is left hanging loose.

Since we have this whole section of graphics in place we can now address the bottom section. I like to sit at about the center of the graphic and, reaching out to either side, I pull the graphics tight and down under the vehicle. Basically we pull the graphic against the vehicle, taking out any wrinkles and placing it where we want it to go.

The graphics are then squeegeed vertically, down toward the bottom of the vehicle. Don’t get ahead of yourself by squeegeeing a small section all the way under the vehicle; rather move back and forth horizontally, squeegeeing the graphics down vertically a little further with each pass. If you squeegee one section all the way down and then move on you’re more likely to get wrinkles and then you’ll have to pull large sections of graphics back up to fix it.


7) As a rule of thumb we always split the graphics that go across doors along the door. To do this make sure the graphics are first smoothed into place all the way down the door. Then place your sharp blade along the edge of the door, angling it slightly so you don’t cut into the door itself, and slide it down the door, creating a straight smooth cut.  

The graphic along the door should be in place but we’ll run our fingers down it to be sure it’s stuck down all the way. Then open the door and smooth the other side of the graphic into the gap. Where the vehicle curved out you may notice a slight pucker to the graphic as it curves into the gap. Depending on how much the vehicle curved you can first apply a little heat to this pucker and you may be able to smooth it into the gap. If it’s too much of a pucker you can make a clean cut horizontally then smooth the bottom half in place and then the top overlapping it.

Finish work on wraps is where you can stand out. I’ve seen plenty of wraps that other shops have done where these little details, like wrapping into gaps, are full of tiny little wrinkles. That’s just sloppy. Not only does it look bad, but the graphics can also lift sooner along these wrinkles.


8) We finish trimming out the cab, repeating the door trim if there is a second door, and trimming along the bottom of the doors as well. The space between the cab and the bed is pretty tight so we don’t try to stretch the graphics too far behind the cab. The curve of the cab makes the graphics start to wrinkle so we heat them and lightly pull them around the corner. The key is to get the graphics smoothed around the corner with minimal stretching. The graphics are then trimmed to create a nice straight line.


9a,9b) Now we move on to the bed. The graphics should still align from the bed to the cab since we’ve left everything taped up and we’ve used our tape lines so the graphics go on straight.

We repeat our tape hinge process; again applying a short section of graphics that will hold our panel in place when we apply the back half. Our tape marks are followed as we apply this first section on the door of the utility bed.

The graphics are again left loose at the bottom of the panel until we’ve applied the whole panel. We also leave the graphics loose at the front. I’ve found that it’s easiest to get the bulk of the panel in place and then come back to do detail work. If you start over-tucking or trimming as you go you can create tension on the graphics-pulling them under the vehicle for example-that will cause wrinkles or other issues.


10) The whole panel has been squeegeed along the top ensuring it’s in place and aligned with the cab. We’ve also applied right over obstacles. The bottom section is left loose and we’ll tuck and trim that area as we start to conform the vinyl.

We use 3M Tape Primer on our utility beds. There are a lot of small dips and tucked in areas that are susceptible to bubbling or lifting. The tape primer promotes adhesion and helps keep the graphics in place.


11) The graphics that go above the wheel section need a little heat to help conform them in place. First we trim out the excess graphics over the wheel to relieve any tension across that space. This also gives us better access to pulling the graphics up a little as we squeegee the graphics smooth. 

Where the graphics meet the fender trim we again lift up just a small section so we can tuck the graphics down smooth against the edge prior to trimming. Be sure to leave a few inches of overlap when you initially trim out the excess vinyl over the wheels for this lifting and tucking.


12a,12b) Since we’ve moved right across the gaps between the utility doors we now go back and smooth these areas down. It’s important to get your graphics squeegeed smooth between the doors and around the hinges before you start to do any trimming.

Apply a little heat to the graphic that spans the space between the doors. Once the graphics have slightly cooled, press the graphics at the center of the gap against the vehicle and then squeegee out in either direction. You probably won’t be able to squeegee all the way smooth to the door; there should be a small pocket of air where the graphics meet the doors.

Repeat the technique you used on trimming the cab doors and run your blade along the edge of the utility door, running it all the way around the door if you have the graphics squeegeed up along the bottom too. Go slow and make a nice smooth cut. Squeegee the loose graphics to the vehicle.


13a,3b) The graphics are not left on the small hinges so we trim the graphics out of these areas to relieve tension. Apply a little heat to help return the vinyl, that was stretched across this obstacle, back to its original shape. Continue to heat, tuck and trim out the graphics around the hinges and between the utility doors.


14) Utility beds typically have a lot of handles like these. We trim the graphics out of the center of the hinge, creating a little pocket. We then lift the graphics all the way around the handle just an inch or so and then tuck the graphics up tight against the handle. Using a sharp blade, lightly trim the graphics out using the handle itself as a guide.


15) It’s always good to open up all the doors on the utility bed to make sure everything is down smooth and there are no jagged cuts. Finish up by giving the whole truck a good post heat and then apply any spot graphics.


Charity Jackson

Charity Jackson is owner of Visual Horizons Custom signs, a full-service commercial sign company based in Modesto, Calif.  She has been in business since 1995 and specializes in vehicle wraps, design and project management and workflow. You can visit her Web site at www.vhsigns.com.

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