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Choosing The Right Premask

Premask is more important to successful vinyl applications than you may think. Find out how tape choice can make your job easier.

By Jennifer LeClaire

If you think application tape is just some paper with a little adhesive, think again. Application tape, A.K.A. premask, can make or break a job. It can be your best friend in sticky vinyl applications.

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  • Indeed, for beginners and experts alike premask, the pressure-sensitive tape used to transfer a cut graphic from its release liner to the substrate or to protect a given surface, plays a key role in vinyl applications today.

    Why is premask so critical? For two reasons: First, application tape protects the vinyl from scratches during installation. Second, the application tape allows installers to work faster because they don’t have to worry about the graphic moving or getting scratched.

    Since using the proper premask is paramount in the success of vinyl applications, you shouldn’t take the selection for granted. There’s a wide variety of grades and adhesion levels out there to choose from. The best fit for you will depend on your specific use.

    Choosing on price alone is a big mistake because lighter weight tapes are generally less expensive to begin with. If you need a heavy-duty tape, then you can expect to pay more from the get-go.

    In a nutshell, you need to select a premask with enough tack to lift the film from the liner but without so much adhesion that you lift the vinyl back off the application surface. Tack is the ability of pressure-sensitive film or premask to stick to a substrate instantly with nominal pressure or contact time.

    Some reputable premask manufacturers include 3M, MACTac, American Bilrite, Main Tape, Webermade, and R-Tape. Regardless of your brand preference, understanding the different levels of adhesion of application tape will help you ensure the proper selection.

    Testing the tac
    “Remember this general rule of thumb,” suggests Julio Burgos, a product specialist for Oracal, a vinyl manufacturer in Jacksonville, Fla. “When you are applying a large graphic (3ft x 4ft or larger) low tac works well because of the large bonding surface for the tape. Graphics of average size (8 inch x 24 inch) use mid tac. Anything smaller (fine details, letters less than one inch etc.) does better with high tac. Also, try to avoid using high tac on glass applications, especially with intermediate films.”

    High-tac tapes are suitable for wet applications and large-format fleet or building graphics. Experts say heavier tapes are easier to laminate to a graphic and add body to the vinyl, making it easier to handle large sheets of film. High-tac tape also holds up better when you apply it to rough and irregular surfaces, like rivets and corrugations, and resists shredding and tearing when it is removed.

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    Once you’ve got the right tac, there are plenty of other pre-mask considerations. Although application tape lamination and removal are regarded as minor steps in sign production, Jim Hingst, a spokesperson for R-Tape, offers the following nine tips to improve your installation technique:

    1. Avoid bubbles
    Whether you laminate application tape by hand or with a laminator, avoid trapping air bubbles between the pressure-sensitive vinyl and the tape. If bubbles appear in the tape, they will inevitably appear in the applied graphic, regardless of the skill and effort of the installer. Poking them with a pin and forcing the air trapped underneath the vinyl out with the pressure of your thumb can remove some bubbles and wrinkles. Large decal companies usually invest in a heat vacuum applicator (HVAC) that sucks the air out between the vinyl and the tape.

    2. Avoid stretching
    In the lamination process, avoid stretching the application tape. Stretched tape usually shrinks back in the direction of its original, pre-stretched state, causing the vinyl graphic to curl.

    3. Avoid overlapping
    Use a single sheet (rather than overlapping pieces) of tape to cover a graphic. Otherwise, a fine line of tiny air bubbles will appear where the pieces of tape overlap. These tiny bubbles should be of no concern to either you or your customers. Over time, the air will generally breathe out of the film, causing the bubbles to disappear.

    4. Avoid uncured inks
    For screen printed decals, thoroughly cure inks and clear coats before applying the transfer tape. Solvents in uncured inks and clear coats often cause the decal and tape to adhere to each other, making it difficult to remove the tape once the graphic is applied. Solvents can even cause ink to delaminate from vinyl during tape removal.

    5. Avoid premature removal
    Cold weather and wet applications frequently require more time for graphics adhesive to bond to substrates. Consequently, allow more time before removing tape. Premature removal can create bubbles.

    6. Avoid stickiness
    Stubborn application tape can be more easily removed with application fluid. Lightly spray the tape with application fluid, wait about 30 seconds, and then remove it. The fluid penetrates the paper and softens the tape’s adhesive, causing the adhesive to release from the graphic. Spraying also prevents tiny bubbles from forming as a result of the tape removal process.

    7. Avoid lifting edges
    To prevent the edges from lifting, re-squeegee vinyl graphics after removing the transfer tape. This is an important installation step that is frequently ignored.

    8. Avoid dark tapes
    For complex graphics that require critical registration, use clear application tape. Clear tapes allow you to see exactly what you are doing during precise alignment of graphics. After a vinyl graphic has been taped it should be applied relatively quickly.

    9. Avoid prolonged storage
    Prolonged storage increases the adhesion between the tape and the vinyl, even with low tac tapes. This condition usually worsens if the graphic is stored at high temperatures. Prompt vinyl usage and cool storage environment prevent adhesion problems. Application tapes perform best when stored in a controlled environment. Extreme changes in humidity can cause problems with either applied or unapplied tapes. For example, a significant change in moisture content of the tape can cause graphics to curl or delaminate from vinyls.

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