Vinyl Hints: Don’t Damage the Vinyl During the Installation!
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Vinyl Hints: Don’t Damage the Vinyl During the Installation!

Preventing damage to vinyl film and substrates during installation is a matter of planning, technique and tools.

By Jennifer LeClaire

You sold your customer on the promise of a high-quality, long-lasting product and you are doing your best to fulfill that promise.

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  • You’ve invested in top-notch vinyl. You’ve spent hours designing and printing your graphics. You’ve gathered your tools and prepared the substrate.

    Now your customer is anxiously awaiting delivery. There’s no time for mistakes. You can’t risk damaging the vinyl or the substrate and you want to make sure the client doesn’t do damage over the long-term. But despite your best efforts, you cut a slit in the film that is sure to cause vinyl failure. It’s every busy installer’s nightmare.

    If you’ve ever damaged your vinyl or the substrate, then you know how devastating that can be ­ especially when you are working for a big client on a tight deadline. But taking certain precautions ­ and taking your time ­ can ensure that you don’t do damage to your materials or your client relationships.

    Start with a plan
    The first step to victorious vinyl applications is to determine the best way to approach the job. A haphazard approach to vinyl installation typically produces less than excellent results. If you are working on a large job, then be sure to gather a team of assistants before you begin.

    “Put together a plan before you lay down the first piece of vinyl,” says Jeff Stadelman, technical marketing manager for the graphics product group at MACtac, a manufacturer of pressure sensitive adhesive. “You need to know in advance where the first piece of vinyl will go, where the second piece will go, and so on. I cannot underestimate the value of having a plan.”

    So if you are installing fleet graphics, for instance, then you will logically choose to start on the back of the truck and work forward, overlapping an eighth to a quarter of an inch. In this example, a little forethought prevents potential damage caused by wind.

    Without a plan, the strong winds that the truck encounters while traveling down the highway at 65 miles per hour would likely have gotten underneath the edge of the vinyl and pulled it away from the substrate.

    Talking technique
    Besides a plan, one of the best safeguards against doing damage to the vinyl or to the substrate is experience. Perfecting your technique will help you avoid those careless slipups that cost you time and money. (If you want to learn some tips and vinyl installation techniques, visit our “Vinyl” section for targeted articles that will demonstrate various dos and don’ts.)

    “Many times vinyl damage occurs when the installer is cutting and handling the film,” says Stadelman. “There is a lot of technique involved in vinyl application. Installers need to learn how and when to use horizontal and vertical hinges.”

    Nathan Franzblau, founder of the Professional Decal Application Association, an association of independent certified installation companies, is matter of fact about preventing vinyl damage. “Vinyl damage is a result of installers who are not properly trained,” he says. “They mess up a decal because they don’t know what they are supposed to do with it in the first place, because they didn’t prepare correctly, or because they had the wrong decal.”

    Temperature considerations
    Experts say attempting to apply vinyl in less than ideal weather conditions is just asking for trouble. Molly Waters, spokesperson for Avery’s technical marketing department, notes the dangers of applying film that has been subjected to high temperatures.

    “If the film gets too hot, then it will stretch more,” she says. “So if you have to reposition the vinyl or if you are applying to a substrate that’s too hot, then it’s not going to line up and that can cause damage.”

    RENOLIT Calendered Vinyl - Top performance for various applications

    Using the wrong tools
    Using the wrong tools can also cause damage to the vinyl and to the substrate, say experts. If you use a plain rubber squeegee without pre-mask then you will probably end up with scratched vinyl. Using a knife instead of an air release, or pin tool is also a dangerous operation.

    “You can prevent vinyl damage by wrapping a squeegee sleeve or soft clean rag around the squeegee,” says Waters. “If you are going around a rivet, then use an air release tool because if you use a knife then it will actually put a slit in the film. Over time the film may shrink a little bit and you’ll see all of these little slits. A prick with a pin tool makes a circular hole that is somewhat self-healing so it doesn’t shrink back later.”

    Lindsay Howard, product specialist with vinyl manufacturer Oracal in Jacksonville, Fla., suggests a felt squeegee as an alternative, especially when applying around rivets after the application tape is removed.

    “Application tape is usually enough to prevent scratching the face of the vinyl,” she says. “But if the installer needs to go back and squeegee over the rivet again, then putting some material in between the squeegee and the vinyl can also prevent scratching.”

    Saving the substrate
    So far we’ve focused mainly on preventing damage to the graphics before and during the installation. But at least damaged graphics can be quickly, if no cheaply, replaced. Damaging the client’s substrate, on the other hand, could spell disaster. Experts say when substrates are damaged they are typically damaged during the cutting process.

    “If you cut too deep when you are trimming the vinyl on a vehicle installation, for example, then you could actually damage the clear coat on the car,” says Waters. “That cut creates a point of failure. So when you go to remove the graphic down the road, it can actually pull the clear coat up with it.”

    The same goes for a wall installation, she says. If you are installing a wall mural that needs trimming and you cut through the film into the wall paint, then that could also cause a point of failure. Additionally, attempting to perform a wet application on dry wall or gypsum wall could cause damage to the wall. (For more information on wet and dry vinyl application techniques, visit our “Vinyl” section.)

    Franzblau cuts to the chase. “Substrate damage is a world of its own,” he says. “It happens because people don’t know how to properly cut, because surfaces are not properly painted or prepared. Substrate damage usually boils down to bad observation or bad technique.”

    Maintaining the vinyl
    Once you’ve successfully installed the vinyl, take a few minutes to educate your customer about how to maintain its integrity. They’ll thank you for it.

    For clients in colder climates, for example, you should always explain that decals applied to windows could be easily damaged by scraping frost or ice off the windows.

    There are many cleaning considerations that can also make a world of difference. Only mild window cleaning solutions should be used on windows to prevent decal damage, for example, and vehicles require special care.

    If the client waxes their vehicle, that wax could build up around the edges of the vinyl. Vehicle wax must be carefully removed using a soft cloth because using a brush to force the wax from beneath the edges of the vinyl could cause those edges to peal up. Typically, vinyl will maintain its integrity when washed with auto cleaners and water, but automatic car washes tend to reduce the life of the vinyl.

    Remember that preventing vinyl damage begins with the preliminary handling of the film and ends with customer education. Vinyl will not last forever, but your reputation in the industry for high-quality products depends on the care you take with your materials and your clients.

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