Soaking up the Skin-Tight Images of Hydrodipping

The process requires special equipment and there's a learning curve, but the ROI can be significant.

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If you’ve done a fair share of vinyl wrap jobs, you understand the amazing, contour-hugging results you can get. And you’re also well aware of the frustrations faced as you try to add a flat, two-dimensional image or pattern to a complex three-dimensional surface.

But for those who’d really like to be able to completely wrap their designs around the most challenging of objects, the emerging world of hydrographics is beginning to allow sign shops to absolutely customize a broad array of customer products.

First seen in the U.S. as a way of providing faux wood relief trim on automotive parts – dashes, door inlays, or even air conditioning vents – the hydrographics process has now expanded to allow skilled practitioners to wrap snazzy-looking, permanent images around objects from motorcycle helmets to gun stocks, water bottles to video game controllers. Wheel rims and vehicle parts tend to command the most attention.

Hydrographics, also known as hydro-dipping, water transfer printing, cubic printing, immersion printing or even camo printing, is a somewhat technical process which uses a water-filled immersion tank to wet-transfer ink on a special polyvinyl alcohol (PVA) film to prepared objects.

That film, floated on the surface of the tank, is sprayed with an activator solution and can then be gracefully applied to virtually any non-water-porous object, creating a seamless and absolutely wrap-around image. A spray of clearcoat permanently seals in the work.

Depending on the size of the immersion tank to use in the process, some experts have been able to add amazing animal skin prints and flashy designs to things as large as ATV bodies, motorcycle gas tanks or even commercial vending equipment like soft-serve ice cream dispensers.

Larry McDonald, who runs Fort Worth HydroGraphics as part of wife Teresa O’Neil McDonald’s T.M. Signs business – located at the Texas Motor Speedway, a major NASCAR and racing facility – has been specializing in the “dipping” business for the past three years. 

“We can do everything from rifle stocks to golf cart bodies, running boards, rims … really, anything that can be dipped in our tank,” he says. “It’s kind of a specialty item for us to do, as you’ve got to have the right equipment. You can buy a cheap little kit off eBay and do it yourself if you want, but for larger stuff, it’s sort of a limited class of people who are able to do it.”

McDonald uses an 8-foot by 38-inch tank to provide the necessary clearance for prepped surfaces as large as ATV chassis or full motorcycle tanks and fairings, working out of a 4,000 square-foot space that conveniently backs onto the speedway facility.

The four-step process, McDonald explains, involves stripping and cleaning the desired item back to its original substrate, and then applying a coat of quick-dry, water-based AquaLac lacquer primer to provide ideal adhesion for the ink and the PVA backing film.

“Because it’s water-based, you can spray it and finish it a year later, as well – it doesn’t have to be done immediately, like automotive paints,” he adds.

The third and most important step is to careful float the onionskin-styled PVA film on the surface of the tank, then spray on the activator, which liquefies the image and makes it ready for transfer.

If you’ve seen videos of the process, the ink from the image will then magically adhere to the surface of the desired object – experts like McDonald carefully dip the outer edge of the part and then roll the rest of the wheel, helmet or auto part into the water until the image covers the entire surface. Once finished, clearcoat completes the work.

It does, as McDonald admits, take a certain skill to learn how to do it right each time.

“You have to be able to do it so you don’t trap air bubbles as you go – it’s called ‘reading the water’ – and that’s probably the biggest learning curve involved,” he says. “It’s all a very intimidating system when you first deal with it, but then you can start making some good money at it once you figure it out. An auto shop might charge a customer $2,000 for a full wood grain-look interior for all of the parts in their car; that costs me about $600 in supplies.”

But the process is actually no more expensive to direct customers than many other painting jobs, McDonald adds: He recently completed two custom hydrographics wraps covering virtually every surface of a motorcycle, and charged $3,000 apiece.

And on the less expensive end of things, Fort Worth HydroGraphics is doing a brisk business in customizing Yeti cups, that uniquely Texan, stainless-steel insulated drink cup.

“People will pay $40 for the cup and $50 for the wrap job, so they can be the coolest guy at the coffee shop,” he says.

One of the only limitations with the hydrographic process goes back to its somewhat mysterious roots in Asia. Hydrographics jobs were first seen in Japan as many as 40 years ago; when a product patent expired in the early ’80s, the technology finally began to spread to the U.S.

At present, commercial-grade American installers are only able to access pre-made hydrographic films from suppliers overseas. There are plenty of varieties, certainly, from carbon fiber and metal-look surfaces to colorful flames and more, but the ability to create custom or branded imagery is still in its infancy in the U.S.

Victor Rojas, marketing manager with Princeton, Florida-based TWN Industries, a major supplier of hydrographic services and equipment, says his company is able to offer clients more customized options for images and textures, but any very specialized images still have to be done overseas.

“Customers are able to create a design and we can send it to our printer in Taiwan,” Rojas says. “As a result, you tend to see project-based turnaround times for anything custom.”

On a much smaller scale, some vendors are starting to be able to product custom film images, but they may not be suitable for larger commercial jobs.

Mount Hope, West Virginia-based Pro Street Graphix offers a print film virtually any user can customize on a home-scale, pigment-based inkjet printer. The results, however, are individual 8 ½ by 11 sheets that will be entirely suitable for some smaller objects – or for creating a customized logo or image as part of a larger hydrographics project – but any very large item still requires the use of an offshore-sourced film to get things right. Fort Worth HydroGraphics’ McDonald says he’s working on sourcing his own special printer to allow custom film output, and hopes to have that capability by summer of 2016.

In the meantime, Rojas says his company is still doing a particularly good business training signmakers and printers across the country on how to become experts in the burgeoning hydrographics field.

Would-be hydro-dippers can take part in a two-day, hands-on course offered at TWN Industries’ facility, located south of Miami, where they can learn how to handle the equipment, set up the film and activator, as well as prepping and painting various objects before the dipping process.

Those who are interested in taking hydrographics to the next level can also learn about automated systems available with robotic dipping arms, washing systems and conveyor belts to run parts on an assembly line-styled production basis.

Andy Stonehouse

Andy Stonehouse

Andy Stonehouse is a Denver-based freelance writer who has been covering the automotive industry for more than ten years.

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