window film

Let's Talk Shop: How to Install Window Graphics

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 www.vhsigns.com.

The successful installation of window graphics comes down to basic techniques and understanding the media you’re working with. Whether it’s a small spot graphic or large panels of graphics, you’ll often use similar steps to get quality results.

WET INSTALL

Wet applications are typically messier and more time consuming, but it’s recommended for certain media types. The key is to know your material. If you’re working with specialty films like 3M Fasara glass finishes or perhaps a large section of solid vinyl, a wet application may be necessary.

I learned this the hard way on an install by not checking my material out thoroughly before doing the job. It was in a busy real estate title company, on a 9’-tall glass door, in the main thoroughfare of the company. This means I had an audience, lots of foot traffic, a huge piece of etched-look vinyl, and improper technique. After unsuccessfully trying to do a dry installation, I realized my mistake. I had to spend way too long scraping the failed graphics back off the door, with a tiny razor blade because I didn’t plan on having to do a removal. Did I mention I had an audience?

So, be sure you read manufacturer install guidelines on any film you’re not familiar with. When we redid the job, with the proper wet application methods, it went on perfectly.

I’ll break down actual install steps in a minute, but the primary difference will be incorporating either the use of application fluid or a spray bottle of water with one or two drops of dish soap. You will be spraying the surface of the glass, after it’s thoroughly cleaned, with fluid before installation. The back of the vinyl is also saturated. Be sure to put down towels to protect any surfaces below the installation area.

This will create enough wiggle room to float the graphics onto the glass surface, before squeegeeing out the excess fluid. Never use any liquids on vinyl with air egress technology.

If the vinyl you’re installing does not have an application mask over it, then spray the surface of the vinyl with fluid as well to reduce friction while squeegeeing. If it does have mask then wait approximately fifteen minutes for the adhesive to set before peeling the mask. You can saturate the surface of the mask as well to help release it from the vinyl underneath.

DRY INSTALL

Any film with air egress technology and perforated window films should not be applied with any fluids. These films are easy to reposition during dry installations so not only is a wet application not necessary, the fluids can also become trapped and can cause failure.

All glass surfaces need to be thoroughly cleaned before installation. Finish the window cleaning with an Isopropyl alcohol mixture and allow the surface to dry completely.

If the graphics will be covering the entire window surface, then aligning straight-cut graphics to the edge of the window will give you the alignment you need. In this case, you can peel back approximately six inches of the backing paper and either fold it down flat or cut it off with a clean cut, position the graphic on the window, applying light pressure in the top corners, before squeegeeing in place using a side-to-side, overlapping method.

If the graphics need to be aligned to other windows, for example if there is a line of text across multiple windows, or you simply need it positioned in a particular place then you’ll need to tape the graphic in place and measure from the window frame to the letters or image to get proper placement. Once it’s in place you can mark the edges of the graphic and the window trim with tape or a wax pencil, peel back the backing paper, and using the alignment marks to position the vinyl back in place and squeegee down.

Be sure you trim back any graphics that go over rubber seals with a knife to avoid failure. Angle the blade away from the rubber seal so you trim along it, not into it.

SPOT GRAPHICS

If you’re installing a solid, printed section of graphics, for example a logo that is not cut to shape, then you may not need application tape. If it’s hot outside, then I recommend applying application tape to help avoid stretching. Any contour cut graphics will need to have application tape.

If the graphics do not extend to the edge of the window, then there is a little different method for installation. Start by putting small pieces of masking tape on the top two corners of the graphics against a clean surface. Get in the habit of eye-balling placement to get as close to centered left to right and at the height you desire. You’ll still need to measure, but you’ll find that over time you get good at placing by eye first and it cuts down on time spent measuring and moving.

Once the graphic is approximately positioned, we measure left to right first, then from the closest straight line to a line of text or straight section of the graphics vertically. Although we cut straight weed borders on our graphics, we still double check measurements by measuring to the text as well.

HINGE

Depending on the shape and size of the graphic we’ll either use a top hinge, center hinge or side hinge to apply the graphics. A line of masking tape is positioned on the graphics to act as a hinge.

If we’re using a top hinge, we lift the graphic after the hinge is in place and gently pull the backing paper away from the graphics. After a few inches of the backing paper is pulled back, we can start applying the graphics with a squeegee using a left to right method, overlapping our strokes. A side hinge method works similar to the top hinge as you fold back the graphic, grasp the backing paper, peel back a section and then squeegee the graphics in place.

If we’re using a center hinge the graphic will have the tape in the top two corners from when we initially positioned the graphic. We then apply a line of tape down the center of the graphic vertically. If it’s a small graphic, apply the tape top to bottom with overlap that acts as the hinge. If it’s a large graphic, you can use a section of tape at the top and a section at the bottom that still acts as a hinge, without wasting a bunch of tape on the center of the graphic.

On smaller graphics that use the top hinge, you won’t need alignment marks. On side-hinged and center-hinged graphics it’s recommended to add alignment marks with either small pieces of tape or a wax pencil. Before the positioned graphic is moved, add either the tape or pencil mark along the edge of the application tape in a few areas to be sure you’re staying straight with your graphic as you’re applying.

If your material requires a wet application, you’ll use the alignment and hinge tips above. Follow this by saturating both the window and graphic before squeegeeing.

PANELS

If you're applying large sections of graphics to a window in multiple panels, you’ll want to overlap the graphics to avoid any separation and light leaking through. You should always apply the bottom graphic first, then the top graphic, overlapping the bottom section. This keeps any dirt or water from collecting along the edge of the seam.

For perforated window film, the graphics should be butted up, aligning the holes and image, but not overlapped. 3M Edge Seal Tape 8914 can also be applied over the seam. It is an optically clear film, so it will not impact clear visibility through the perforated graphics.

TOOLS

When packing a window graphics kit, I usually run a list through my head to be sure I have everything I'll need—clean it, tape it, measure it, cut it, apply it. This helps me remember to grab window cleaner and Isopropyl alcohol (pre-mixed with water), lint-free towels, masking tape, a tape measure, scissors or Snitty knife, and hard edged and felt edged squeegees.

This gives me the basics. You’ll also need finishing tools like an air-release tool, a snap blade knife, and water or application fluid if you’re doing a wet application. Be sure you also have a wax pencil for marking edges, and edge seal tape for perforated films.