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VINYL! The Customer is always right?

A primer (or reminder) about the basics of vinyl applications

By Bill Stanford

There is an old saying we have all heard a million times. That's why it is an old saying. This well traveled bit of wisdom is, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." I suppose all of us old school sign painters have had to utter this old saying along with a few expletives, especially over the past decade or so. More and more, vinyl applications have replaced meticulously detailed handcrafted sign painting techniques that were laboriously applied stroke by stroke over several hours of painstaking hand lettering. That sign can now be lettered in minutes with vinyl.

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  • But consider that the average customer today will call or stop by your shop and explain a sign is needed for their new business that is going to open up later that afternoon. Everyone is in such a hurry these days. The customer used to be told his sign would be ready in two weeks. Now the customer says he wants it ready in two hours! Your first reaction is to grin because they've got to be kidding, right? NO! After months and months of careful and methodical planning to get their business started just right, a sign was not high on their list of priorities. Or even on their list, for that matter. Isn't it always the way? A good sign is always the key ingredient to a successful business, but always the last thing to be thought about.

    "And by the way," says the new best customer, "I have used up my entire grand opening budget so it has to be cheap, too." To that I snap back, "Been making signs for eighty years now and I don't do cheap! But I can make it inexpensive." Then giving him the price he replies, "Well, if you make AND install the sign for that cost, you've got a deal! Oh and here is a design I came up with. It looks busy and expensive but you can do it by this afternoon for the price you quoted, right?”

    The businessman has departed and what is said next is unprintable...

    A Brief History

    The 1960's were a tumultuous time full of rebellion and change. Some of the rebellion and change happened right here in the sign industry. You see vinyl came into existence around that time. The idea came about by some Flower Child from Woodstock, I believe. It was a far out concept at the time, making signs out of vinyl. We Sign painters who had been creating signs much the same way for hundreds of years figured these kids entering the business using this new vinyl stuff was just a new fad. "Those youngsters would come around and want painting lessons when vinyl doesn’t work out," we thought.

    Like everything else, progress and technology improved the vinyl material through the years. Now the vinyl was good enough to cause us to reconsider buying a roll or two of the stuff. Not that the veterans were giving in, but if the customers are in such a hurry, don't waste paint on them, give 'em vinyl!

    The ABC’s of Vinyl Application

    Is applying vinyl as easy as it looks? Yes, in most cases. But there is always the exception to the rule. If you are trying to put a stripe down the side of the Mayor's vintage Mercedes Benz outdoors during a 60mph sustained wind - while he is standing there watching - vinyl application can get a bit touchy. Don't ask me how I know, but we will stick close to an ideal situation here and not dig up old memories.

    A. Cleaning

    The key to vinyl success is cleaning. The best cleaner for vinyl application is one that will not leave a residue. Some cleaners that are widely used but should be avoided are window cleaner, paint reducer and soapy water. These can all be a problem because they will leave a film on the substrate leading to adhesion problems. Special vinyl application fluids are widely available from your supplier and also ideal to use for cleaning. If you have water-based cleaning solvent, it can also be used. The key is the solvent's basic content. A water-based solvent is OK. Oil or other chemical-based solvents are NOT OK. "Water good. Oil and chemical bad." If you need to remove residues or even wax, use some clear alcohol first. Not the stuff in the liquor cabinet, the stuff in the medicine cabinet. For cleaning as well as drying, use regular paper towels. I usually lift a roll or two from my wife's kitchen. She often say's she can't believe how fast she is going through those paper towels! Clothe towels or industrial paper towels can also leave a chemical residue.

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    B. Applying

    Now that your application surface is clean, you are ready to apply the vinyl. This is assuming you have already weeded and applied transfer tape to the vinyl. If not, DO IT NOW! The customer is going to call and check on you any minute! (Phone rings) "Um, yes, I stopped by and ordered a sign from you twenty minutes ago....I was just wondering how you were coming along on that." I always like to answer; "Well I am currently building one hundred and eighty-seven signs from orders I just received this morning. Could you tell me which one is yours?" Then the customer goes into great detail about how his sign is supposed to look. I usually drink a coffee while their explaining all this. When they start getting really excited thinking I haven't dropped everything to work on THEIR sign yet, I say "O-o-o-h-h-h-h yeah. I remember it now." Gets them going every time.

    To make positioning the vinyl easier, draw centerlines on the transfer tape both horizontally and vertically. Then measure the centers of the substrate and draw lines. Using a stabilo pencil will make the lines easy to wash away later. You should now have a cross hair on your vinyl and a cross hair on your substrate. This will make positioning the vinyl straight and level a breeze. Just line up the lines!

    Wet down your substrate with application fluid. If fluid is not readily available, pure water will also work. Untreated fresh water is best. If your shop is supplied with chemically treated water, you should find some that is not treated to use. If you are applying a large area, it is ok to spray the adhesive side of the vinyl as well. Both surfaces wet will make the vinyl easier to position correctly. If you are working on a table that is a little less than waist high and you are using lots of water, be careful not to lean up against the table. The table will be sort of wet along the edge, and this will leave a damp spot on the front of your trousers. Well let's just say that if someone walks up behind you and you turn around quickly, it looks rather embarrassing. Just a little helpful advice to remember.

    Line up the lines (I've heard that somewhere before) and squeegee out the fluid. Start the squeegee in the center of the cross hairs and pull down or toward yourself. Work from the centerline to the right, then from the center to the left. Put the squeegee in the center of the cross hairs again, and push up or away from yourself. Again, work to the right then to the left. While you are working be careful not to do the same area twice, it may cause an air bubble. By dividing the area in half, squeegeeing the bottom half then the top half and always working out, you will get out all the fluid and trapped air, and not stretch the vinyl.

    Start squegee at centerline and work towards you

    Doing the bottom half first, work to your right

    Then to your left

    Again, start at the centerline and work the squeegee upward

    Now doing the top half, work to your right

    Then to your left

    C. Wrapping it up

    Let the vinyl set for at least 90 seconds for initial bonding to take place. Remove the application tape at a 45-degree angle starting from the top left, pulling toward the bottom right. If it removes rather hard, soak it with application fluid or water, let it soak a few minutes, and remove. Now clean the applied vinyl and substrate to remove any tape adhesive and pencil lines. Dry and you're done!

    Famous Last Words

    These are the basics of vinyl application intended to increase your productivity and quality of your vinyl graphics work. With time and experience, you could become as much of an expert in the vinyl field.

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