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Can I Apply Vinyl to This?

Vinyl is a profitable trend, but attempting to apply film to certain substrates is a money-losing proposition.

By Jennifer LeClaire

Vinyl application is a booming business. More and more, customers are beginning to appreciate the value of displaying striking graphics on everything from store windows to automobiles.

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  • While becoming an expert installer means cash money in today’s sign market, there are some substrates that the most elite vinyl pros even stay away from — and for good reason. Despite the temptation of extra income, attempting to apply to substrates that are not clean, smooth or non-porous is an ultimate waste of time and money. surveyed leading vinyl manufacturers to discover what surface qualities are adequate for film adhesion — and which are not.

    What substrates are completely unsuitable for vinyl application?

    There are a few substrates to which you should never attempt to apply. Cement and bricks, for example, are too porous and rough to accept adhesion. Leather, on the other hand, tends to absorb the adhesive deep into itself, leaving nothing on the surface to hold the film. You should also stay away from oxidized, faded or peeling paint, and raw metals because you cannot get a good bond on these surfaces.

    What substrates are most vinyl-friendly?

    Experts say glass is very vinyl-friendly, but you may find bubbles cropping up underneath the surface due to outgassing, or the vaporization of a solid or liquid. Outgassing can occur in glass, some plastics, and insufficiently dried paints, resulting in adhesive failure of films applied over them. (For more information on applying window graphics read “Applying Vinyl to Glass.”) Vinyl banners, canopies and flags are also good candidates for vinyl application. Metals and fiberglass are suitable substrates so long as they are painted with glossy enamel.

    Can I apply vinyl to plastics?

    Plastics are challenging, according to experts. Some are friendly and some are not. Outgassing is a possibility much of the time. So when you encounter a plastic substrate, you need to know its chemical composition.

    Polycarbonates, for example, which are frequently used for equipment housings, exterior automotive components, outdoor lighting fixtures, and non-automotive vehicle windows, contain just enough water to yield bubbles in the film.

    Poly (methyl methacrylate), commonly called PMMA, is a clear plastic typically used as shatterproof replacement for glass. Most standard adhesives will adhere readily to PMMA, but, again, you may wind up with bubbles if you try to apply vinyl using the dry installation method. Pros admit plastics are a suitable substrate for wet application. (For more information on wet applications, read “When to Apply Your Vinyl Wet”)

    Polyethylene is the most popular plastic in the world. Plastic bags, shampoo bottles and tarps are made of this material. But applying vinyl to this substrate is not a popular option. Installing vinyl on this type of plastic requires special adhesives, high temperatures and a dry application method to ensure a solid bond.

    Polystyrene is a hard plastic. The housing of computers is typically made from this material. Styrofoam is also made from this material. This is a tricky substrate because it can change adhesive properties and result in the film actually shrinking away from the surface.

    Polyvinylchloride (PVC) is adhesion friendly — maybe a little too much so. Applying to rigid PVC could result in vinyl that is difficult if not impossible to remove. Softer PVCs have an almost opposite problem of vinyl shrinking away from the substrate unless special adhesives are used.

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    Can I apply to wood?

    Most experts agree that you can apply to wood, with an added “if.” You can apply to wood if it has been painted with high quality paint or glossy enamel that attracts the adhesion. Failure to paint or gloss the wood — or not paint it thoroughly — will result in low adhesion values or short-term adhesion.

    Can I apply vinyl to rubber?

    MACTac doesn’t recommend it. Look no further than vehicle wrapping for your answer. Most installers do not apply vinyl to vehicle bumpers that are made of rubber or plastic. Rubber is a very low energy surface that makes long-term adhesion unlikely. However, new paints are coming to market for vehicle bumpers that could make bumper application more realistic.

    Can I apply to lacquered surfaces?

    Oracal doesn’t recommend it. It is important to understand the compatibility between the adhesive and the lacquer. To be on the safe side, contact the lacquer manufacturer to make sure the lacquer won’t attack the adhesive and cause it to peel up before attempting to apply to this substrate.

    Can I use reflective films on stainless steel substrates?

    Avery doesn’t recommend it. The vinyl manufacturer reasons that reflective films on stainless steel will gradually exhibit dull spots in the film. The phenomenon that causes dull spots in reflective film can be explained by the interaction of the metallized layer of the reflective film with the stainless steel substrate. The inherent differences between the two metals, specifically in the property termed “electronegativity,” cause the establishment of a galvanic corrosion cell. The difference in electronegativity between these two metals creates a voltage or potential difference, which is the driving force for an electric current to flow between these two metals. As a result of this reaction, the metallizing in the reflective film will begin to oxidize and degrade with time.

    Can I apply pressure sensitive films over latex painted surfaces?

    Oracal doesn’t recommend it. Latex paints contain surfactants (soap-like chemicals) that leach onto the surface throughout its life causing adhesive failure. Latex paints also contain plasticizers that can migrate to the adhesives in many pressure sensitive films, also causing failure.

    What about other painted surfaces?

    There are many different varieties of paint, so, like plastic, it is important to understand the properties of the paint that you are dealing with. Experts say most factory paint jobs on vehicles are ideal for vinyl application according to film manufacturer guidelines. The paint should be allowed to dry for three weeks before applying vinyl. Regardless of the paint type, the surface must be clean and all of the cleaning agent residue must be wiped away.

    While this is not an exhaustive list of every possible surface, these are among the most common substrates you will encounter. If you run into something not on this list, then don’t panic. Just keep a few basic vinyl truths at hand and you can make proper decisions no matter what a customer throws at you. And don’t be afraid to contact the vinyl manufacturer.

    As a general rule of thumb, you should never apply to rough, dull, porous or dirty surfaces. The object is always to apply to smooth, clean substrates for long-term adhesion and fewer bubbles. Even if you are relatively sure of the outcome, conventional wisdom says to test the substrate with a small piece of vinyl in an inconspicuous place before attempting a lengthy, expensive installation. Your customers and your bank accounts will thank you for it.

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