Trailer wrap

Let's Talk Shop: Cleaning Before You Wrap

Charity Jackson is owner of Visual Horizons Custom signs, a full-service commercial sign company based in Modesto, Calif.  She has been in business since 1995 and specializes in vehicle wraps, design and project management and workflow. You can visit her Web site at

The durability of a vehicle wrap is only as good as the surface you're applying material to. Just like a poor paint job can cause failure, so can an improperly cleaned vehicle. We get our fair share of dirty vehicles rolling in on the day of application. To be honest though, we've been a bit lax in instructing our customers on what they need to do to their vehicle before bringing their it in to be wrapped.

After seeing how much time we were spending cleaning and prepping vehicles before application we realized it was time to change our policy. We've since put together a simple hand-out, an instruction sheet for our customers so they know what we expect from them.


Often we'll get a vehicle in that we're doing a partial or full wrap on and it's filthy. A quick trip through the car wash or a hose down and a soapy scrub brush could knock down the dirt pretty quickly, but this solution also causes its own share of problems.

When the vehicle is over-saturated with water, right before installation, it may come in and appear to just need a simple wipe down to dry off the excess water. What we've found—unfortunately through hard experience—is that once we start heating the graphics around door handles or trim, water starts to come out from behind those obstacles and gets trapped behind the vinyl. Not good.

Once the adhesive side of the graphic gets wet it refuses to stick. We've tried peeling them back, wiping out the water. We tried to just let it dry so we can get it to re-stick—all without much luck.

The easiest solution is to instruct your customer to wash the vehicle about 24 hours prior to drop-off so that the vehicle has time to completely dry out behind obstacles prior to installation. In colder climates you may need to extend that time out; in warmer climates it may dry a bit quicker.


While Teflon-based waxes are fine after the wrap is applied, you don't want anything between the wrap and the surface of the vehicle during installation. Some customers think they're doing you a favor by deep cleaning and waxing the vehicle before it comes in, when in reality you'll need to clean off all that wax before you can install the graphics.

If you run your hand over the vehicle and it feels overly slick or it feels like there is a residue on your hand then there is probably some kind of wax on the vehicle. When it's properly cleaned off and you run your hand over the vehicle your fingers should grip the vehicle. They shouldn't just slide, but rather there should be a little resistance. If you tape up your graphics and the masking tape isn't sticking well, then you need to clean the area a little more with alcohol.

Emblem Removal

On our Vehicle Washing Instructions sheet we've included a few things that the customer should be aware of. One of those things is the removal of any vehicle emblems that may be in the way of our wrap.

Prior to a final wipe down we remove the emblems and clean off any residue. This may mean using a little Rapid Remover or other adhesive remover to get off the tape residue.

In order to get a proper installation we may also need to remove lights, mirrors or wipers. It's important to review this with the customer so they're aware of what you plan to include (as far as removal goes) in the installation price you quoted.

If the customer wants you to remove trim or any other parts on the vehicle that you wouldn't normally remove, then you need to review the extra labor and extra charges with them. If there is any concern or risk of damage to the vehicle, because of these extra removals, make sure you create a disclaimer waiving your liability. Be sure to get their signature.

We wrap a lot of commercial vehicles that often have instructional stickers describing how to operate an attached piece of machinery. We also see cautionary/safety decals that are specific to the operation of the vehicle or it's attached equipment. Commercial vehicles also often have DMV or environmental decals that must be on the vehicle, and may be difficult to replace.

Either during the initial review of the vehicle or when the vehicle is dropped off we'll walk the vehicle with the customer and note what stays on and what comes off the vehicle. If you'll have someone coming behind you to do the removals an easy tip is to place masking tape across the decals that need to stay on the vehicle as an extra heads-up for installers not peel those off.

More Vehicle Prep

So the vehicle should come in clean, and not like it just went off-roading, but that doesn't mean you're off the hook yet. Instead it means that you're not cutting into your profits by giving away free labor on the cleaning. When you initially quote installation though you do need to include a little time to cover general cleaning and emblem removal.

If the vehicle is clean and wax-free then we can get straight to the alcohol wipe down and start application. When doing a quick pre-cleaning inspection we'll see that the vehicle often needs additional cleaning underneath or around the wheels.

For these areas we'll wipe down with a glass cleaner or citrus-based cleaner to remove any dirt or road grime. We'll also check inside doors, along trim, handles, gas tank covers and any other areas that might trap dirt. Once we're satisfied the dirt is off we wipe the entire vehicle down with denatured alcohol or isopropyl alcohol.


We once wrapped a fleet of trailers that were over 50' long. These trailers—along with quite a few box trucks over the years—have come in with a chalky white finish. We would try to our normal wipe down and it never seemed to really cut through that chalky stuff—which is caused by the oxidation of aluminum. Not getting all of it off is not an option but we can't spend hours and hours on it either; especially when the trailers and trucks are so large.

We found that an efficient solution is to fill a medium sized bucket with hot water and some concentrated citrus-based cleaner. Taking a window squeegee we dip it in the bucket and scrub a large portion of the truck starting at the top and working down.

Then, using the squeegee side, we slide off as much of the liquid on the truck that we can and wipe up the left behind residue with a microfiber shop cloth. We start on one end and work up and down vertically and then move down the truck/trailer until it's all sloughed off.

You'll probably see a watery white residue all over the ground. If you're working inside your shop I would suggest putting down newspaper or extra backing paper to catch some of the residue.

After we've removed this chalky oxidation we're now ready to move forward with any additional cleaning. If it's a cold day or we're concerned that there may be any water trapped along panels we'll wait to start wrapping until the next day. If we're planning to wait then we won't do our alcohol wipe down until we're ready to start wrapping.