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Vehicle Vinyl Expert Reveals Tricks of Trade

Don't make costly mistakes with your vinyl applications and removals. Let vinyl expert Rob Ivers give you some practical dos and don'ts.

By Jennifer LeClaire

Rob Ivers has taught employees from major corporations how to apply vinyl. Read on for a sneak peak of what they learned.

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  • Signmakers are finding growing opportunities in vinyl application as technologies, materials and techniques advance. Vinyl is moving beyond simple birthday banners and vehicle graphics to building-sized banners and entire vehicle wraps.

    Do you have the skills to tackle advanced and more lucrative vinyl applications? If you are not, you are missing out on significant revenue opportunities that could take your business to new heights.

    Rob Ivers has been doing vinyl application for 20 years. He started out doing pin striping on cars and today specializes in vehicle graphics. magazine talked with Ivers about the latest trends and techniques in vinyl application.

    How have vinyl applications changed over the years? What have been some of the key advances?
    One of the most significant changes in the vinyl application industry in the last 25 years was when 3M invented the Scotch Print machine. Now there are numerous companies manufacturing digital printing machines. That changed the whole focus of the vinyl world because it made it possible for advertisers, that would not normally think about using cut vinyl for certain things, print photographs of their products on vinyl just as they would a billboard or magazine, and do it for small quantities cost effectively.

    Photo courtesy of Rob Ivers
    Four trucks, full wraps, each side different, featuring some pretty famous Milk Moustache Celebrities.
    Wrapping started in the early 1990s and that changed everything. When all we did was cut vinyl, we would try to avoid vehicle handles and hinges by designing around it. Now, customers want everything wrapped so there is no designing around anything. You have to wrap it all. That really changed application a lot.

    What role does technology play in vinyl application?
    In the last couple of years we have started to see some new products introduced that are revolutionary in concept. With the introduction of 3M's Comply and Avery EZ, you now have some products that have a completely different structure. They have grooves, or micro-channels, in the adhesive which allow the air to flow out easier to reduce bubbles. If you do get bubbles, they go out real easy because they flow through these channels so you don't have to poke holes in the vinyl to release the air.

    We are however going backwards in some ways. Many new digital printing devices like the Vutek, the Salsa, the Fresca, and the Arizona utilize solvent inks. In many cases the solvent inks make the adhesive more aggressive than with electrostatic toners, which tend to sit on the face of the vinyl and have little affect on adhesive properties.

    It's kind of making it tough for installers because we get vinyl products that make it easier to install and they print on them with solvent inks making them more difficult to install.

    Which vinyls are the best?
    I work primarily with outdoor, long-term vehicle graphics. I look for vinyls that are going to last a long time outside and are easy to install. I use only cast vinyls.

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    What are the key challenges in vinyl applications?
    For many people, just trying to apply the vinyl without bubbles and getting it in the right position, especially with two or three color vinyl overlay jobs.

    On the fleet side of things, rivets and/or corrugations can be challenging for inexperienced signmakers. For me it's applying vinyl to compound curves on vehicle wrap jobs.

    A lot of sign shops are still putting vinyl on wet. Professional fleet vinyl installers never use application fluids. If you use the wet method of application, you are going to have problems no matter what.

    What are the common mistakes newcomers make?
    Because there are so many new people in the industry and because they are struggling to compete and survive as they learn, a lot of people make the mistake of using cheaper vinyls and cheaper products trying to use price to get business rather than their own quality and service.

    They try to work with products that are, in some cases, not suited to the application, like using calendared vinyl on vehicles. That's a no-no. They don't give themselves a fair shake if they are using the cheapest products and then they wonder why they are having trouble. If you work with better products you'll find that they cut easier and install easier.

    How about some practical tips for vinyl application? How can signmakers overcome the challenges?
    They need to learn about the products and how to apply them dry. That will make everything go faster for them, maybe not the first time they try but once they get the hang of it. It will save them the time of having to purchase the fluids, apply the fluid, wipe up and clean up the mess from the fluid. With wet application, you have to squeegee four to five times to try and drive out the fluid. You only have to squeegee once when you apply the vinyl dry.

    Vinyl application is a skill or craft. You can't take an important part of the business and reduce it to something insignificant ("Oh, you just squirt some fluid on it.") The time it takes to master these skills pays off in the long run because you'll make fewer mistakes and be able to do every job quicker and easier.

    Photo courtesy of Rob Ivers
    This van is owned by Gregory in Buhler, KS. They take it to all of the major sign industry trade shows. Rob has been wrapping and unwrapping this van since 1993. You may have seen it at trade shows or in sign magazines as the Fruit Van, Ice Cream Van, Pizza & Sub Van, Palette Van, but now it's the Coast to Coast van. It is totally wrapped in 3M ScotchPrint graphics, designed and manufactured by Gregory.
    What is the best way to remove the vinyl?
    Every single job is different. It's not only important what kind of vinyl was used but when it was installed, how it was installed, and what was the condition of the pre-installed surface. Was it a beat up old truck or a brand new truck? Was it two years ago or 10 years ago? There are so many variables.

    There are some companies beginning to specialize in removal and they use mostly chemicals and high pressure washes and rinses. They are trying to reduce the manual labor.

    The key ingredients for most removals are heating it up and pulling it off. If it leaves any adhesive then you have to remove the adhesive. The biggest mistake most people make is using a heat source that is too small for the job. For example, they might try using a hair dryer instead of a heat gun, or a heat gun instead of a propane torch. If I have to take off a 4' X 8' decal I don't want to go after it with a heat gun. I need a much bigger flame so I can heat it up quickly and evenly one time.

    The vinyl you use can make a huge difference. If you use high-quality products they will go on how they are supposed to go on, stay on for five years, and then you can take them off with heat with no adhesive residue. Removing the adhesive is what normally takes the most time. With high-quality products the removal could take as little as 15 minutes. The same job with low-grade vinyl could take up to four hours.

    What are the latest trends in vinyl application, beside vehicle wrapping, which we discussed?
    With the advent of some of these new printers on the market, like the Vutek, there are awesome sales opportunities when it comes to banners. You can actually print a full color photograph right on the banner, it lasts a long time and they are gorgeous. And it's not expensive. With the advent of digital you can do almost anything. People are even doing building wraps.

    What does the future hold for vinyl application?
    The industry is heading toward either some type of solvent system or some type of water-based ink system that will have the durability that we need, without changing the adhesive. Companies are in the process right now of trying to develop inks that are more durable and can be printed without solvents. The future lies in big ink jet printers, like the Vutek, that can print 16-foot tall on banners. There's quite a bit of business out there for that type of product.

    How can signmakers gain more skills in vehicle graphics?
    I do custom hands-on training for companies and individuals for vinyl application. I also have a set of videos on how to do vinyl application, which covers a lot of the basics, for $99.

    Visit Rob Ivers' web site at

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