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Wrap in Panels

How to wrap a box truck by yourself.

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There are many different approaches to wrapping a vehicle. One approach is to remove the entire backing off a printed panel and, using several people, the panel is lined up on the vehicle and squeegeed on.

We have a small shop with four employees in production. As we were building up the company, as well as in recession years, we’ve had as few as two people in production. For us it became essential that a wrap could be done by one person. We found that wrapping in panels was the easiest and most controlled way to apply graphics by yourself.

We do anywhere from one to three wraps per week-a steady stream of work that keeps us very busy. This is in addition to the production of other signage. With a fleet of box trucks and vans coming in we’ve put one guy on each side of the vehicle to speed up production.

In this step-by-step article I’ll outline the approach we take on a standard box truck wrap with rivets. By installing in manageable four-foot wide panels each person is able to install an entire side by themselves. This same paneled approach works on other vehicles as well. On seamless wraps we still do panels but they may vary in width to cover sections utilizing breaks on the vehicle to avoid overlapping seams.

The Setup

A box truck wrap is one of the easiest vehicle types to wrap so it’s a simple way to demonstrate wrapping in panels. Since it’s essentially a large rectangle we plan our sizing ahead of time so we don’t have to tape up all the panels before starting to install.

Using a vector-based program, or Photoshop, we layout all of our graphics to the size of the box, making sure to keep important information within this space and allowing the background to extend out past the box. Personally, I add 3″ to the total height and 3″ to the total width when cropping my artwork for output.

For example if the box is 88″ x 204″ I would keep my important artwork and text well within this space. The final print size would be 91″ x 207″.

The Tape-Up

We use masking tape (high-powered magnets could also be used) to position the first panel. We start at the back of the truck so that the seams will overlap facing the back of the vehicle and away from the wind, which could cause lifting.

Since we already know that we have a 1.5″ overlap top and bottom and left to right we don’t have to tape up all the panels. Simply tape up the first panel with your overlap and align the panel. If there is text on the panel you can pick a consistent area along the top or bottom of the truck to measure to. I also tend to measure the first panel to the vertical bar at the back of the truck to make sure my first panel is going on perfectly straight, as each subsequent panel will be aligned to this one.

Once you’re sure the panel is straight, add a few additional pieces of tape all the way down the panel to hold it in place. We also put a few pieces of tape along the side of the panel-not on it but just off it-for aligning. On the driver side this is to the left of the panel you’re installing, on the passenger side this is to the right of the panel you’re installing.

The fleet of trucks we’re currently wrapping have a lot of solid green in the background with minimal text and objects to ensure aligning as we go. In this case we also add a few tape marks on the overlapping side as well to help ensure that our panel remains even on both sides. If you don’t want to use tape you could also use a wax pencil to mark the edge and then go back and clean the marks off after installation.

The Top Hinge

You could create a top hinge at the very top of the panel and then apply down, but we’ve found that applying a small section, about 6″ to 8″ first ensures better alignment. The tops of the trucks tend to have a narrow strip of metal that is fairly slick and often has a strip of rivets. With our overlap this isn’t an ideal piece to tape directly to. On vans and cars there is often a rain channel or other obstacle that makes it difficult to tape right at the top.

We move down the 6″ or so, and put a long piece of tape on each side. The top section is then flipped down and we peel the backing paper away from the graphics and cut it off.

Gripping each side of this small section, we pull it up and lightly tack it in each corner while creating a smooth surface with even tension. This top section is then squeegeed in place, creating a large top hinge that holds the panel in place.

The Application

With this top section squeegeed in place you have a couple options as you move onto applying the bottom section. You can reach behind the graphic on both sides and pull it straight down, exposing another two feet or so of vinyl, and start squeegeeing the graphics with the excess hanging down.

You can also roll up the hanging graphics, peeling back a large section, and then drop the excess graphics down. Sometimes this method provides a little more control as you’re peeling back the backing paper.

With either method we make sure that as we progress down the panel that the graphics stay lined up with our tape marks along the side. When applying over standard sized rivets it’s important to apply right over them like they’re not there. Obsessing over each rivet as you go will just cause wrinkles. Once you’re over it then you can go back and gently squeegee the graphics up around the rivets. This will leave small pockets of air around each rivet that you can later go back and form.

The Next Panel

Moving onto the next panel, we tape it in place just like the first panel, checking that any text or objects align to the first panel while maintaining an even overlap all the way down. Tape marks are again added to at least one side to double check we’re applying evenly. We also measure any text to be sure we’re staying even across. We do this on each panel as we go.

We always start each panel at the same spot at the top of the truck even though you will often find that text or objects, especially on the bottom half of the panel, will appear slightly higher than the panel you’re aligning to. The reason for this is that as you’re applying the first panel, and each subsequent panel, you slightly pull the panel to maintain tension. It may be a very slight pressure but it can easily cause the graphics to stretch and be 1/8″ to 1/4″ lower.

If you start your panel at the same point at the top and put the same amount of tension on the panel you will make up that slight difference by the time you apply the graphics. So you start at the same point, make sure your overlap left to right falls in the right place and leave the graphics, on the bottom half or so of the panel, slightly higher knowing that they will line up once you apply down to that point.

Finishing

The tape-and-align method continues all the way down the vehicle. Once we reach the other end of the truck we should have approximately the same overlap left to right that we had when we started.

We like to squeegee up to the rivets and along the edges as we go. Once the panels are all in place we poke a few small holes around each rivet and, using heat and a rivet forming tool, we press the graphics around the rivets.

Once the rivets are all in place we then carefully cut any vertical seams that run next to the rivets. If you trimmed these seams before forming the rivets the graphics can pull back from the edge, as the graphics are pressed over the rivet, exposing the truck underneath.

A good post heat is done as we go but especially along the bottom, top and sides of the truck. Once it’s been thoroughly heated we trim out the graphics around the perimeter. Often there will be a bead of silicon all the way around. The graphics won’t stick long term to the silicone so we trim up to it in a straight line.

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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