Wrapping a car is as much a science as it is an art form. It takes knowledge, creativity, skill and a steady hand. And that being said, even the most highly skilled wrap installer will be somewhat limited if he doesn't have a useable, quality set of tools. Now, that’s not to say that it can’t be done "The MacGyver Way." I bet there are veteran wrappers out there from the old days who remember wrapping an entire car using nothing more than a sponge, a couple of paper clips and a hair dryer. And kudos to the masters of improvisation!
But when it comes to running a business while holding yourself to a high standard, the goal is to produce a high-quality end product with as little time spent as possible. Efficiency is paramount. Fortunately for wraps installers there are some pretty brilliant tools available that can help a wrapper through the process from the first step to the last.
Gone are the days of having to “borrow” and adapt tools from other industries in order to meet our needs. Like any industry that sees growth on a scale that vehicle wrapping has seen, the wrap industry has seen an entire legion of tools emerge that are specially designed for the job.
And since installers employ a wide range of styles and techniques, there are a slew of variations available to each type of tool. So, one wrapper’s toolbox may vary significantly from another’s—at least to a point. There are quite a few tools that are considered to be more or less “standard issue,” with only minor variations from one brand to another.
Let's review the steps involved in the wrapping process and take a look at some of the tools that are available along the way.
Prepping / Cleaning
Before you can apply any vinyl, you'll want to remove all of the badging, trim lines, reflectors and whatever other goodies are in your way; then you'll need to clean the vehicle very thoroughly.
Saw Cord: A saw cord is a great tool to remove badging plates from a vehicle. Some have fashioned their own using fishing line, dental floss, guitar strings and who knows what else. Today there are much better saw cord solutions that are made for this very task. Two handles attached by a filament line made of a forgiving material that won’t scratch the paint under that badging. No more prying badges off with a screwdriver.
Scraper: Every installer should also have a good scraper handy. You never know when you’ll need to remove some ancient decal that has been baking in the sun for years. Again, it has to be something that won’t harm the underlying surface, yet is still sturdy enough to scrape effectively. There are scrapers available to us that are made of a special hardened plastic and offer a great balance between gentle and sturdy.
Degreaser: If everything is out of the way, it's time to get this thing really clean. Degreasers are often used, along with alcohol, special wipes and whatever you need to remove all of the road grit. It's best to use products that don't leave any sort of residue behind. You try use nano-coating removers, surface tension pens, whatever it takes to make that surface pristine so the vinyl will stick for a long time.
Now that we have a clean “canvas”, it’s application time. There area number of tools that installers have told us they can’t live without. These include rubber-coated magnets, perfect squeegees, fine-line tapes, measuring tapes, professional knives and high-end coated blades, bubble poppers, kneepads, heat guns and infrared thermometers, rubber lifters, some stencils, seamless gloves or finger strips, specially made tool pouches or wristbands. Let's take a look at some.
Magnets: One of the first things to come out of the wrapper's tool bag is a good set of magnets. Sure, magnets themselves are nothing new. But they have been improved upon. We all know that you want a fairly strong magnet, so that it can handle the weight of all that vinyl hanging off of it—especially when wrapping a large area like the side of a motorhome.
But not all wrap magnets are alike. Consider the rubber or plastic material that encases wrap magnets. Well it turns out that outgassing from inferior wrap magnet plastic can actually interfere with the polymers in certain automotive paints, leaving a sort of "chemical burn" under the first layer of paint, especially after prolonged exposure. Fortunately some wrap magnet makers are now using materials specifically selected to prevent this kind of problem.
Heat Gun: The concept of the heat gun is relatively unchanged since the early days of vehicle wrapping. It simply blows hot air. But a wrapper's heat gun has features that control heat and airflow as precisely as possible. Some units have digital displays, various heat and fan settings, directional nozzles for a more concentrated flow and even infrared sensors. The infrared temperature sensor is an important recent improvement because it enables the user to monitor the temperature of the actual surface that he's heating.
Butane Torch: In addition to a heat gun, the classic butane torch is still a key part of the wrap installer’s arsenal. Look for models that feature an adjustable torch trigger for a great quick burst of heat when and where needed.
Gloves: And, not to be overlooked is the wrap glove. Many installers consider good wrap gloves to be essential. Using them protects the vinyl from the oils in our hands, prevents finger nail nicks, and also makes it easier to work the heated vinyl material. Today's gloves are designed with vehicle wrapping in mind and offer much more dexterity than trying to use your old motocross glove on.
Squeegees: Squeegees are indeed essential to wrap installation. Fortunately, when it comes to variety and personal preferences, the squeegee world probably has the most to offer. But what is the perfect squeegee? Well this question is absolutely impossible to answer. It always goes back to personal preference. Some installers prefer Teflon-refined, hard, plastic squeegees and some like the ones between 70° to 75° shore.
It's a good idea to buy from a supplier that makes their own squeegees, or from someone who is in direct contact with the manufacturer. That´s the best way to to find your perfect squeegee. The shapes can vary a lot. The trapezoid shaped 4" squeegee is the most common, but the new 30° shuffle-shape is getting more and more popular, since this one mimics the shape of a hot iron, which knows how to handle wrinkles perfectly.
The edges and squeegee blade surfaces should be either super smooth or coated with felt or, even better, microfiber wings. The better all edges are covered, the safer it is to work with them. Also here, you should find a supplier who really is into any issue of these questions. If their support struggles with any of these details, look for someone else.
Trimming / Cutting
Okay, so our vinyl is now in place and smooth, or at least mostly. But we need to cut out the vinyl that’s covering things like the door handles, keyholes, etc. This is another area where things can go very wrong.
Knifeless Tape: Relatively new on the wrapping scene, this system is basically a self-adhesive fine-line tape with a built in fishing line that allows you to cut vinyl after it has been applied to the surface. It takes some practice to learn the technique, but is an interesting and safe way to cut vinyl without the fear of cutting into paint.
Cutting Blades: Serious wrappers need to be able to use a blade to cut on a car without marring the surface of the paint. Luckily, blade technology has improved as well, giving us a range of choices in blade angles and sharper, more precise blades than ever before. This means that very little pressure is needed on the blade when cutting—perfect for intricate trimming on the vehicle’s surface without damaging the underlying paint. Through the years we’ve seen plain steel blades, Teflon coated blades and the high-performance aluminum-nitride coated blades. The best bet is a coated steel blade where the coating is realized by hardening the steel. Blades should be as thin as possible.
Snap-Off Blades: Another nifty blade option is the “snap-off” type knife blades, sometimes called the Olfa knife. Instead of constantly changing out your blades you can just snap off the dull part and have a perfect new blade ready to go in about a second. Many wrapper prefer this type of knife system.
* From the 2013 issue of WRAPS magazine