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Tips and Tricks for Installing Full Wrap Vehicle Graphics

Vehicle wraps are now used in place of expensive custom paint jobs. In addition to being a lower cost option to paint, the vinyl can be removed when the advertising campaign is over or you are ready to turn in your leased vehicle. This article will take you step-by-step through the process of installing a full vehicle wrap. It will offer tips and tricks on how to provide your customer with a high quality wrap.

By Molly Waters, OEM & Strategic Alliance Specialist, Avery Dennison Graphics Division North America

In the past, full wraps were reserved for large corporations that wanted to mark their fleet. These graphics were generally created with the screen print process in very large quantities. The Digital evolution has changed all that! As the quality of digital printing improved and the equipment price went down, digital has become a staple within the graphics industry. As digital became more popular these large fleet companies and screen printers began to see the benefit of creating shorter run graphics that can be customized by region. This eventually evolved to wrapping smaller trucks and now vehicles.

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  • Vehicle wraps are now used in place of expensive custom paint jobs. In addition to being a lower cost option to paint, the vinyl can be removed when the advertising campaign is over or you are ready to turn in your leased vehicle.

    This article will take you step-by-step through the process of installing a full vehicle wrap. It will offer tips and tricks on how to provide your customer with a high quality wrap.

    Selecting Material
    As with any product, the finished product is only as good as what you put into it. This begins with choosing the right vinyl for the job. Since full wraps are expected to look and perform similar to paint we want to choose a material with these characteristics. Due to its manufacturing process, cast film is very thin (approximately 2 mil) and has excellent durability and conformability characteristics. The thin gauge of the film gives the product the "paint like" finish that many customers are looking for. When properly applied these films generally last 5 years. This makes cast film the ideal film for full vehicle wraps.

    If your customer is more concerned about price and doesn't need the 5 year durability of a cast film there are economy vehicle wrap options available from various vinyl manufacturers. Keep in mind that these economy vehicle wrap films are generally calendered films and will not have the same performance characteristics as cast films. For example, you can expect some degree of tenting (material lifting) in areas of the vehicle such as deep crevasses. These economy films are developed to provide a good looking graphics that will last up to one year at an economical price.

    Before You Apply
    The first step to applying any graphic is to clean your substrate. To ensure that the graphics adhere properly, without the risk of failure, we must thoroughly clean the vehicle. Proper cleaning of the surfaces of a vehicle for graphics application is a critical step in the application process. Please note that most material manufacturers have technical bulletins available on their web site or through their technical support department that provide detailed information on how to prepare a variety of substrates for graphics application. While these instructions will serve as a good guide on how to clean your vehicle before applying graphics, it is always a good idea to check with the material manufacturer to make sure you are following their recommendations.

    The first step to cleaning is to remove all of the dirt and grime with a commercial detergent and water. As you can see in this "before" photo, my vehicle was covered with dirt and salt because of the winter weather here in Cleveland. To ensure that I got the vehicle clean, I took it to the car wash to get as much of the dirt, salt and road grime off of the car. Note: If you take the vehicle to the car wash, it is important to make sure the vehicle is completely dry before applying the graphics. This may mean allowing the vehicle to dry indoors overnight before applying.

    If grease, oil, wax or other contaminants are present, wipe the substrate with a solvent such as Prep-Sol or Xylol. I then like to do a final cleaning with isopropyl alcohol (IPA) to make sure that no oily residue from the other solvents is left behind. CAUTION: Before using any solvent on a vehicle, be sure to test in an inconspicuous area to ensure the solvent won't damage the vehicle's paint.

    When cleaning the vehicle with IPA, I recommend using two lint free towels. One towel should be soaked with IPA which is used to loosen and clean off the contaminants (dust, dirt, wax, etc.). The second towel should be dry and used to wipe away the excess IPA before it has a chance to evaporate. It is also important to pay special attention to cleaning the cracks and crevices of the vehicle where contaminants generally build up. For these areas, I recommend wrapping an IPA soaked towel around a squeegee to get down into the crevasses as shown here.

    Preparation, Preparation, Preparation…
    After cleaning, preparation is the next most important step in applying vehicle wraps. It is always a good idea to plan your install before starting. Which piece goes where and which one you are going to start with. Remember you really have only one chance to get it right after you take off the backing paper (liner). Today's material does give you some degree of repositionability, however this is generally intended so the installer can "snap up" a small area for repositioning not remove an entire panel to start over.

    Before I apply my first piece I like to lay out the graphics and position them on the vehicle with tape. This enables me to check that I have all the graphics and allows me to check the positioning of the graphic and make necessary adjustments (or plan on adjustments) before actually applying the vinyl.

    Once the graphics are positioned and you have your plan on where to start it is time to begin applying the graphics.

    Tools of the Trade
    Temperature plays an important roll in how well a vinyl sticks to a substrate. Vinyl manufacturers generally recommend the temps be in the range of 50-90F with 70-80F being the optimum range. Whenever possible, try to apply graphics indoors in a controlled environment. Not only will this help you control the temperature, it will also reduce the amount of wind, dust and other contaminants you have to deal with. It is important to monitor both the ambient and surface temperature as both can have an affect on your application. Higher temperatures will make the film soft and more pliable (which can be nice if you are an experienced installer). However, the high temperature also makes the adhesive more aggressive which can lead to pre-tack (this is where the film adheres to the substrate prematurely) and increased stretching if you try to reposition the film. Lower temperatures, on the other hand, will make the film more rigid and reduce the tack of the adhesive.

    There are a few basic tools you will need to apply graphics. They are:

    • a tape measure - for positioning
    • an air release tool - for removing air bubbles
    • masking tape - for positioning
    • a squeegee - for applying the graphic
    • a razor-knife (preferably one with break-off blades) - for trimming away excess vinyl
    • a heat gun or propane torch - for heating the vinyl on complicated applications

    It is now time to apply the graphic. This is where applying a full wrap greatly differs from applying cut vinyl graphics. As you can see in the following picture, no application tape (premask) is used. These graphics are printed on Avery MPI 1005EZ cast film and laminated with DOL 1000 gloss cast overlaminate. Unless you are in a climate in the upper end of the recommended temperature range this construction has enough integrity to apply without stretching. If a premask is used you will find yourself frequently removing strips of premask as you need to conform around the vehicle contours.

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    It is possible to apply these large graphics alone (it is done all the time by experienced pros), however it is much easier if you have a second set of hands to help with positioning the film during the application process.

    Our first piece for this wrap will be the hood. We started out by positioning the graphic and taping it into place. Since the hood isn't perfectly flat we can't follow the standard process of starting at the top and working our way down. In this case it will be easiest for us to start near the center and work our way up then go back and work down. I have also found that keeping the squeegee at a lower angle and taking my time helps me avoid wrinkles.

    As I apply into curved areas we may begin to see some small wrinkles that look like "crows feet". Keeping the squeegee at a sharp angle will help here. Don't chop at the material this will only make the wrinkles worse. If the wrinkles get too bad, use heat to relax the film and get rid of the wrinkles. Be sure to let the film cool down before starting to squeegee again (this will prevent excess stretching). Keep working applying in small strips at a time until it is finished.

    Once the hood graphic is applied the film must be trimmed before going on to the next piece. When trimming out graphics you must take care not to cut the paint. For this piece we trim the material flush with the edge of the hood. It is not recommended to leave excess film and wrap it around the edge of the hood as this will be a potential point of failure in the future.

    The next piece we will apply is the side panel. Here we opted to do one long horizontal panel, which helps us eliminate seams in our graphic. This is possible on this particular vehicle because the 60" material is taller than the vehicle itself. This is also possible since we are applying indoors in a controlled environment. You may not want to use this method on hot day because we are removing all of the liner and will need to continually reposition the material during the application process. If the temperature is too high we are at risk of pre-tack and stretching the film.

    Again, it is possible to apply a graphic of this size with just one person, but it is definitely easier with two. Once we position we will remove the liner and lightly tack the film to the car. We will then position the film to distribute it evenly on the surface. Next we will place our first squeegee stoke along the length of the car. We first apply the lower half of the panel then work on the upper portion of the panel.

    When I reach the wheel well area, I like to trim out the excess material this helps to relieve excess tension on the material and it makes the graphic easier to handle. I follow a similar step as I am working on the upper panel in the hood and trunk areas where there is excess film.

    As we near the front and rear bumpers it is necessary to take additional time and work the film to avoid wrinkles. In this second picture you can see that I have some wrinkles beginning to appear. It will be necessary to use heat to relax the film and continue to work the film into the contour of the vehicle. Remember the trick here is to take your time and not overheat or over-stretch the film.

    The final step in the vehicle application process is to go back and trim the material around the moldings and door panels. Even though the film looks good in these areas at the time of installation, it is possible that some excessive stretching may have occurred and trimming the vinyl in these areas will prevent any tenting. It is also a good idea to go back and look for any air bubbles you may have missed while squeegeeing the material into place. Since this material has the easy-apply feature an air release tool is not necessary. Simply use your thumb or squeegee to remove the air bubble.

    Applying full vehicle wraps may not be for everyone. This is a skill that requires a lot of patience and is a skill that is developed through time and practice. The new adhesive technologies like Avery's Easy Apply Adhesive or 3M's Comply make applying graphics much easier. Since vehicle graphics continues to be a growing market this is definitely a skill worth developing.

    For more information on applying vehicle graphics you can visit the material manufacturer's web site or attend Rob Iver's application training program at Avery's Graphics University (call 440-358-3670 for more information).

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