Making the Most of Application Fluids
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Making the Most of Application Fluids

Using application fluids isn’t rocket science, but it’s not child’s play, either. Discover what you need to know to make the most of application fluids.

By Jennifer LeClaire

There’s been an ongoing debate in the vinyl industry over the use of application fluids. Some swear by them for most types of vinyl installations. Others swear against them for any kind of application.

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  • The general consensus is most vinyl installations – with the exception of vehicle wrapping – go a lot more smoothly with the proper use of vinyl application fluid. So the question, then, becomes how to use it the right way to get the right results. While it’s a fairly simple process, experts say there are some important footnotes that demand your attention.

    “There’s an old oriental expression that says ‘Beauty and wisdom are seldom fond together.’ The idea is the older we get, the smarter we get,” says Dennis Lasik, owner of West End Products, a manufacturer and distributor of CrystalTek Products headquartered in Suwanne, Ga. “We’ve grown wise and we use application fluids every chance we get. But you have to use it the right way.”

    The Pro and Cons of Wet Applications
    Before we venture into the ‘how to’ of wet applications (applications that rely on vinyl application fluids), we need to rekindle the wet versus dry debate for at least a moment. It’s only fair that you understand both sides of the application fluids story before you decide your stance. According to Jacob Coplan, president of the Speed Press Sign Supplies, a sign supply company based in Carlsbad, Calif., there are clear pros and cons to wet application and dry applications.

    The debate starts with an understanding of what vinyl application fluid is. Vinyl application fluid puts a barrier between the substrate and the acrylic adhesive on the back of the vinyl. Since the acrylics are solvent-based, the water in the vinyl application fluid prevents quick adherence to the substrate and gives installers more time and flexibility to position the graphic. Of course, if you use vinyl application fluid, you would have to wait until the fluid dries to peel the backing off the vinyl. And if you are in a hurry you may consider that a drawback.

    “Dry applications are better because it takes less time. You put the vinyl on and you are done. If its repositionable vinyl, like what we use for vehicles, then it’s very similar to a wet application anyway – without the application fluid,” Coplan says. “But there are downsides to dry applications. You can’t stretch or reposition the vinyl much. If you make a mistake you are stuck.”

    When it comes to high-energy surfaces, such as glass, plexiglass and acrylic, wet applications are always recommended. That’s because high-energy surfaces are attracted to pressure-sensitive adhesives. Tiny letters on banners may also be more easily installed using vinyl application fluid because of the repositionability. Unlike dry applications, if you make a mistake you can still move the vinyl around – at least until the application fluid begins to dry. Wet applications are also good for beginners because they breed fewer bubbles.

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    Vinyl Application Fluid 101
    Roger Bailey, president of Merlin, Ore.-based Rapid Tac, makers of adhesive remover, surface pre-cleaners and application fluids for cut vinyl graphics and films, says the proper use of fluids begins before the application itself. It all starts with cleaning the surface, he says, and that’s where most guys miss it.

    “Our solution is designed to be a cleaner that removes the non-compatible residues from the substrate, as well as a vinyl application fluid,” Bailey says. “Other cleaning agents, like Windex and Prep-sol, leave contaminates on the substrate. Paper towels can also leave residue. People often use shop rags or commercial grade paper towels to dry the surface. That’s a mistake. The best way to wipe off the substrate is with cheap kitchen grade paper towels because they don’t leave lint behind.”

    Once you’ve cleaned the substrate, it’s time to spray the surface with application fluid. If you use too little, they vinyl won’t stick to the substrate. If you use too much, you are going to have application fluid running down the substrate onto the floor when you squeegee the graphic. What’s more, the fluid will take longer to dry.

    Here’s Lasik’s approach. First, spray the application fluid on the substrate and then wipe it off with paper towers. This will remove the residues Bailey discussed earlier. Even with a brand new substrate, Lasik warns, there could be oxidation on the surface. “You don’t know if the substrate sat in a warehouse for a day or a year before you got it,” he says. “So I spray the substrate, wipe it down, and then re-spray it and wipe it again.”

    Lasik’s secret: When he gets ready to apply the vinyl, he doesn’t spray the application fluid on the substrate again – he sprays it on the vinyl. Then he lays down the adhesive, positions it right where he wants it, and runs his squeegee over it to remove the fluid. Specifically, he uses heavy pressure and works from the center out to the edges in all directions. Heavy pressure is necessary because pressure sensitive vinyl film consists of a layer of microscopic beads that have to burst. They burst when you apply pressure.

    “The liquid acts hydraulically to push out the remaining trapped air and it simulate a bond after you remove the fluid,” Bailey says. “Within 90 seconds of squeegeeing it has created a bond. Within 30 minutes, you have a full bond. You can run it through a car wash if you want to. After you have a bond, you can spray some application fluid on the surface of the transfer tape, if you used any, so it can be pulled off of the film without pulling off any vinyl.”

    Avoiding Fluid Mistakes
    Other than putting on too much or too little application fluid, there’s not much to the process. But you can make the mistake of using detergent, alcohol and water as a substitute for a manufacturer’s brand of fluid, experts say. Some years ago, before application fluids were readily available on the market, installers relied on spa and water to offer repositionability during installations.

    Some installers are still relying on this old method today. But there are plenty of downsides to this technique. The old soap and water solutions can take a long, long time to bond – and sometimes it won’t bond at all. There’s also the risk of inconsistency and contamination. “If you use soap and water, you have to be fast,” Lasik says. “On a hot day, you might burn out because the water evaporation is so fast that it is gone before you get your squeegee down on it.”

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