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Root Causes to Why Vehicle Installations Fail

A guide to root causes, prevention & successful graphic installation

By Rob Ivers, President, Rob Ivers, Inc.

Vinyl graphics can be used to enhance or produce all types of advertisements, signs, billboards, banners and vehicles.

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  • When everything goes well, these graphics can be durable, effective and attractive. However, there is a lot of room for error between start and finish - most jobs aren't perfect.

    For example, if a finished graphic has excessive bubbles or wrinkles, the job is headed for failure. If vinyl begins lifting, peeling or falling off the surface, failure has officially arrived. For the purpose of this article, I define "vinyl failure" as the customer rejecting the graphic because of legitimate quality concerns or any time the vinyl does not adhere as it should. If you understand the root causes of vinyl failures, you can prevent them and do successful graphic installations. This article will identify issues, examine causes and recommend solutions.

    Installation Problems

    The most common installation problems are: Bubbles, wrinkles, poor trims, improper placement and vinyl not adhering. The first four are always related to installation and seldom occur when the graphic installer is qualified to do the job. Unfortunately, just having a squeegee and knowing which side of the vinyl is sticky is not good enough. Depending on your situation, I suggest hiring a professional, learning to do it yourself or seeking training for yourself or staff. You can find PDAA Master Certified Installers across the US by using the PDAA Find an Installer Search, available at I taught myself, which is why I'm qualified to write this article about problems: I've had them all. PDAA selected me as its Authorized Training Provider, though there are other trainers and classes of varying quality available.

    Poor vinyl adhesion is seen often in indentations, around protruding objects and on surface or graphic edges. Improper cleaning virtually guarantees poor adhesion and vinyl failure. Good cleaning techniques include using the right solutions for the surface, two towels (a wet one to scrub with and a dry one to remove the solution before it evaporates) and being thorough and methodical. Pay extra attention to surface edges. Failure to squeegee with adequate pressure, re-squeegee after removing the premask (if present) or simply missing an area or edge entirely is another recipe for disaster.

    If vinyl is stretched, especially overstretched, the vinyl's memory may cause it to lift. The best practice is never to stretch vinyl on flat or simple curved surfaces. For simple vehicle indentations when the shape only changes in one direction, apply the vinyl in a relaxed manner. Accomplish this by installing the vinyl up to the indentation, work it into the first recessed area completely and never let it bridge across and leave an area that would have to be pushed (stretched) into the indentation. Then apply the vinyl to the next area in the same manner.

    Most vehicles have complex curves that change shape in more than one direction simultaneously. It is impossible to conform a flat graphic to a complex curve without stretching it. Even the best vinyl films that are designed for tougher shapes found on Sprinter vans and HHRs are incapable of wrapping a bowling ball in one piece with no seams, cuts or wrinkles. Vinyl has limits, and graphic professionals should only sell and produce for shapes that have a high probability of success. This also gives the installer a chance at success. The golden rule for complex curves is to stretch the vinyl the absolute minimum required for the shape. If the shape is "doable" and the right film is chosen, produced properly, cleaned well, stretched minimally and post-heated, success will follow.

    Post-heating occurs after the graphic has been properly applied and is completely free of defects and any loose areas or bubbles. The vinyl is heated with a heat gun on the highest temperature setting, moving slowly in conjunction with an IR Surface Temperature Thermometer to indicate when the proper temperature has been reached. Check with the vinyl manufacturer for the specific temperature they recommend for each film, though with such a new technique, they may not be able to give you this information. My testing shows that properly-applied vinyl (no air left behind) will start to burn between 275-300 degrees Fahrenheit. I generally post heat to 225-250 degrees Fahrenheit, regardless of the brand (hopefully, this information will become standard in product and instruction bulletins for films designed for complex curves). PDAA recommends post-heating all complex curve installations thoroughly and methodically (just like every part of the application process).

    Many failures are installer-related, though numerous things can go wrong. Regardless of how good an installer is, many things are out of his control and beyond his ability to "make it work."

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    Film and Surface Problems
    As graphic professionals, our job is to make sure the right films are used for each job. Don't make statements like: "Brand X's vinyl is junk," or "Brand Y's vinyl is the best." While Brand X may have the best product for one purpose, Brand Y may have the best for another. Each manufacturer produces many different vinyl products.

    Why do they have such a variety of different films? The reason is that there isn't one vinyl that works for every situation. Keep an open mind and stay informed regarding new products or changes to existing ones. No one expects you to know it all, but take advantage of the excellent resources available to help you find and choose the correct film for your job (e.g., sales reps, distributors, online resources, help lines and product selection guides).

    For example, ABC Company sold a project that utilized digital prints to a large company. The graphics were to be applied to a large ceiling in a high traffic area. They bought a large quantity of Brand X vinyl, designed, printed and installed it only to have it fall off, literally, in a matter of days. ABC Company never contacted Brand X to ask them which product would work. They just ordered a bunch of film from a local distributor and did the job. The customer was more than a little upset. The first thing ABC Company did was contact Brand X and find out they had used the wrong product; it was neither recommended nor warranted for that purpose. Brand X was forced to help make things right to protect their image.

    The right film and a qualified installer do not guarantee success. The composition, condition and preparation of the substrate are equally critical. This next example illustrates my point. A company on the west coast contacted me to install some barricade graphics at an outdoor mall. Since I was unavailable, I referred them to an associate who is Master Certified. The job seemed straightforward: Install large vinyl murals on a painted wood barricade.

    When the job was delayed, I became available and my associate asked if I wanted to help. We showed up at 6:00 am on location with the graphics in hand. The walls were semi-gloss or gloss-painted wood, which is recommended over flat. The wood, however, was rough and textured, not smooth at all. We tried to tape the first panel into place, but the tape would not stick. We knew we were in deep trouble. Because of the time difference, we had to wait until we could reach the customer, so we packed up and left. I still don't know if the problem was the rough surface or the anti-graffiti ingredients in the paint - possibly both. When these problems arise, it is usually more than one issue.

    Lessons learned
    These examples are just two of the hundreds I have been involved in. Always contact the film manufacturer about any type of job or surface you are unfamiliar with or unsure of. Find out what they recommend. Sometimes, they have the perfect solution on the shelf, or if the job is big enough, may be able to do a special run with a suitable adhesive. Or, they may suggest walking away: They don't have a product that will adhere to glaciers in the South Pole.

    I have learned that cast vinyl (generally) works better outdoors. It is not made for installation without either a vinyl laminate or premask. Liquid laminates are more difficult to install, remove and are less durable than a vinyl laminate. Liquid laminated graphics must have premask and are not recommended by PDAA for use on vehicle wraps with complex curves. Vinyl does not stick to rubber, caulk and windows treated with Rain-X.

    Solvent Inkjet Printing Problems
    Many printed graphics are solvent inkjet prints. Solvent retention in the vinyl and adhesive is the most significant, easily avoidable cause of vinyl failures. Solvents act as carriers that deliver ink to the vinyl surface. On contact, the solvents soften the vinyl and migrate into the adhesive. Solvents are supposed to escape through diffusion prior to lamination.

    Diffusion is the process whereby liquid and gas particles intermingle and move from an area of higher concentration to an area of lower concentration. In our industry, the process is commonly referred to as curing. If allowed to cure completely, all solvents diffuse and yield a quality printed graphic that is ready for lamination and installation. Incomplete curing retains solvents within the adhesive and vinyl.

    This problem is more common than you might think. Solvent retention is extremely detrimental to both the vinyl and adhesive. Solvents constitute 80-90 percent of a solvent ink's composition. When you compound that by the number of inks used to create a digital print - a minimum of four (CMYK) and possibly six or eight - you have a beautiful print produced with a little ink and lots of solvent.

    The Cure
    Completely curing solvents prior to a print's lamination eliminates the problem. Digital printing with a solvent inkjet printer and laminating immediately is like playing Russian roulette with six bullets in the chamber - you are going to get hurt. Currently, there are no devices available in the US to make this easy. On a recent trip to Europe, I discovered two companies that have developed curing devices. By the time this article goes to print, I will have tested and evaluated them (contact me for details if you are interested).

    For now, try this technique: Lay a window fan (or similar) on small blocks on the floor blowing straight up. Find a milk crate or wire basket (something with holes in it to allow air to pass through) that will hold the roll of vinyl and prevent it from tipping over. Place this over the fan. Stand the roll of vinyl vertically, and loosen the vinyl on the roll so no two layers touch. Set it in your crate and turn on the fan. Make sure there are gaps between all layers and that air is flowing through them. Once you give the solvents a place to go, diffusion takes over.

    The solvent particles migrate from the higher concentration (in the vinyl and adhesive) to the lower concentrated air in the gaps. The blowing fan keeps the air in the gap at a constantly lower concentration, and the solvents diffuse until they are gone. It takes about 12-24 hours to cure the graphics sufficiently which allows you to be profitable and meet reasonable client deadlines.

    Final Notes
    Here are a few things installers would like graphic producers to know. For storage and shipping, graphics should be rolled with the graphic side out. Include graphic placement dimensions, layouts and schematics with all graphic shipments. To avoid damage, package graphics well for shipment. Printed graphics should have the white edges trimmed at your shop on your big table with your big rulers; it is tough to do this in a gravel parking lot or on a filthy garage floor.

    Here are a few things graphic producers would like installers to know:

    • Don't take on an installation job unless you are qualified.
    • Show up on time.
    • Dress, look and act professionally in front of our customers.
    • If you have a problem, be discreet and talk to us, not our client.

    And finally, here are a few things everyone should know. We owe some gratitude to SGIA staff and PDAA for all they do for our industry. They are a positive influence and provide opportunities for education, networking and innovation. May all your graphics turn out perfectly!

    Rob Ivers is the owner of Rob Ivers, Inc ( Since 1978, he has been a leader in vinyl graphics training, innovation and technique. His instruction takes on many different forms including seminars, hands-on training and articles. In addition to training others how to install vinyl, he continues to install vehicle graphics for his own clients.

    This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, 4th Quarter 2010 Issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2010 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association ( All Rights Reserved.

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