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Tips and Tricks for Installing Cut Vinyl Vehicle Graphics

With the recent focus of the graphics industry being primarily on digital, we have been conditioned to think of vehicle graphics as full wraps. What we tend to forget is that cut vinyl graphics are a cost-effective alternative to full wraps and remain a very popular and effective method for decorating your vehicle or mobile advertisement.

By Molly Waters, Technical Account Executive, Avery Dennison Graphics Division North America

This article will focus on the steps required to successfully install cut vinyl graphics onto a vehicle. It will also offer tips and tricks for installing graphics that not only look good, but are long lasting as well.

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  • Selecting the Right Materials
    The first step to successfully creating quality cut vinyl graphics is to make sure the proper film is being used for the job. As an installer you may not always have input, but it is good for anyone who is creating and/or installing graphics to understand the differences between two categories of film: cast and calendered.

    The term "cast" refers to the manufacturing process of this type of vinyl. Cast films start out as a liquid that is "cast" onto a moving web, known as the casting sheet. This process allows the film to be very thin (most cast films are 2 mil), which helps with the conformability of the product. Cast vinyl is considered to be a premium product with excellent durability and conformability characteristics. Material manufacturers recommend the use of cast films on substrates such as vehicles where the customer wants a "paintlike" finish that will last a long time (usually five to eight years).

    Calendered film, too, gets its name from the manufacturing process. Calendered films start out as a molten mass of vinyl that goes through a series of calendering rolls that pull and stretch the film until the desired thickness is reached (usually 3.2 to 3.4 mils). The quality of calendered films can range from economy to intermediate with durability of one to five years. These films generally are not recommended for vehicle applications because they are thicker, less conformable and less durable than cast films.

    Proper Cleaning - an Important First Step
    A clean substrate is essential for a quality vinyl application. Consider the substrate your foundation: If it is not prepared properly, you cannot be sure that anything that is placed on top of it will be secure. If you are applying film to a dirty vehicle, the adhesive from the graphic will adhere to the dirt and not the vehicle itself, which will result in failure down the road.

    Most material manufacturers have technical bulletins that provide instructions on how to prepare substrates for graphics applications. These bulletins generally can be obtained from the manufacturer's Web site or by contacting its technical support department. While the instructions below will serve as a good guide on how to clean your vehicle before applying graphics, it is always a good idea to check with the material manufacturer to make sure you are following its recommendations.

    Begin cleaning by removing all dirt and grime with a commercial detergent solution and water. (Note: If you take the vehicle to the car wash for this portion of the cleaning, it is important to make sure the vehicle is completely dry before applying the graphics; this may mean allowing the vehicle to sit indoors overnight.) If grease, oil, wax or other contaminates are present, wipe the substrate with a solvent like Prep-Sol or Xylol. I then like to do a final cleaning with isopropyl alcohol (IPA) to make sure that no oily residue from the other solvents is being left behind. A word of caution though: Before using any solvent on a vehicle, test it in an inconspicuous area to ensure the solvent won't harm the vehicle's paint.

    As you clean the vehicle with IPA, I recommend using two lint-free towels. One towel should be soaked with the IPA and used to clean off the contaminates (dust, dirt, wax, etc). The second towel should be dry and used to wipe away the excess IPA before it has a chance to evaporate. Also, be sure to thoroughly clean in all the cracks and crevices of the vehicle. I recommend wrapping an IPA- soaked towel around a squeegee to get down into the crevices, as shown here.

    Measure Twice, Apply Once
    Once the vehicle is clean, it is time to start positioning your graphics. It is always a good idea to take a few extra minutes to position the graphics on the vehicle before you actually begin to install. Remember that once you take the liner off the graphic, you have one shot to get it right. So the time spent on positioning the graphic will be well spent. This step also allows you to make sure you have received everything you need and make any necessary adjustments to the placement of the graphics. An example would be moving the position of a decal to prevent text from being cut off or applied into a contour, which could make a word difficult to read. It is also possible that the templates used by the sign shop were not 100 percent accurate, so you may have to reposition a graphic to make it work. Begin by taping the graphic in the general area you plan on installing it. Then, using a tape measure, make sure the graphic is straight and centered. In the examples below I used two different types of decals. In each of these I used the body molding as my reference point for measuring.

    With the graphics taped into position, step back and take a look at the layout. Taking the contours of the vehicle into consideration, it is important to develop a plan on how you want to apply the vinyl. Since vehicles are not perfectly flat like a wall, this step is important. When doing vehicle graphics, just starting at the top of the graphic and working down isn't necessarily the best approach. It is important to spend a few minutes finding the best place to start. Once you have your plan, it is time to begin applying the graphics.

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    Tools and Techniques for a Seamless (and Bubbleless) Application
    Vinyl manufacturers typically recommend application in temperatures of 50 to 90 F, with 70 to 80F being the optimum range. Whenever possible, apply graphics indoors in a controlled environment, which will help control temperatures as well as reduce the amount of wind and dust you have to deal with. The room and substrate temperature can greatly impact your application. A high temperature will make the film softer and more pliable. The higher temperatures will also make the adhesive more aggressive, which can lead to pre-tack and increased stretching if you try to reposition the film. Lower temperatures will make the film more rigid and reduce the tack of the adhesive. Applying in either of these extremes can make your application more difficult.

    There are a few basic tools you will need to apply graphics. They are:

    • a tape measure - for positioning
    • an air release tool - for removing air bubbles
    • masking tape - for positioning
    • a squeegee - for applying the graphic
    • a razor-knife (preferably one with break-off blades) - for trimming away excess vinyl
    • a heat gun or propane torch - for heating the vinyl on complicated applications

    At this point you should have decided on your approach to applying the vinyl. If possible, remove the liner (backing paper) a little at a time to prevent the adhesive from prematurely adhering to the substrate. In this first example, I used a top hinge and pulled the liner down a little at a time. First, I removed approximately six inches of the liner. I also kept tension in the film by holding the bottom edge of the graphic. This tension on the film will help prevent the graphic from touching the vehicle before you squeegee it into place. As I squeegeed the graphic down, I positioned the squeegee so that the air pushed down and out, and I also made sure that I overlapped the squeegee strokes. Both of these steps helped to avoid air bubbles.

    The second graphic was a bit more challenging, since it stretched almost the entire length of the vehicle. One of my primary concerns with this graphic was to keep it parallel to the body molding I used as my guide. Instead of using the top hinge method, I chose to use an end hinge by sliding back the liner a little at a time underneath the positioned graphic. By using this method I did not lose my placement of the graphic.

    The method for squeegeeing the graphic is similar to above; we want to be sure the air is being pushed away from the portion of the graphic that has already been applied, and we want to overlap the squeegee strokes. Since this second graphic runs the length of the vehicle, the graphic must be applied over the gap between the front and rear doors. As you squeegee the graphic into place, ignore the seam for now. After the entire graphic is applied, you can go back and trim the graphic. In this situation I prefer to cut the film flush with the edges of the front and back door, which requires two cuts.

    After the graphics are applied, the next step is to remove the application tape by pulling it back on itself at a 180 angle. Using this method to remove the application tape will reduce the chances of pulling the graphic back up and possibly causing air bubbles or edge lifting. Once you have removed the premask, it is imperative to go back and resqueegee the graphic. This extra step will help to ensure that all of the edges of the graphic are in contact with the vehicle.

    Making the Cut
    The steps discussed here are for the dry application method, which is recommended by most material manufacturers. While the dry application method does require more skill and experience, you will find that once you learn how to apply using this method you will reduce your application time. When applying dry there is no need to allow the adhesion of the graphic to build for several minutes, or in some cases hours, before removing the application tape, and you eliminate the mess of using wet application. It is also important to note that the new channeled adhesive technologies from Avery Dennison and 3M are very helpful in reducing or eliminating air bubbles in the application process.

    Using these tools and techniques, your cut vinyl vehicle graphic installations should be fast, easy and trouble-free.

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