The Installation Phase


Wrapping a vehicle involves a lot more than just applying the graphics. Artwork placement, surface preparation and choosing the right media are all important first steps to making the installation go smoothly.

Laying the graphics out in the computer on a picture of the actual vehicle makes it easier to move the images and text around windows, door handles and other obstacles.

Before we even get to the installation, we layout the artwork on an actual photo of the vehicle. We take straight-on, level photographs of all sides being wrapped and work our artwork around obstacles such as door handles and windows. Making sure the artwork is going to work in the computer ensures that it is also going to line up on the actual vehicle.

Using a checklist and vehicle template, we do a walk through of the vehicle with the customer, clarifying coverage and what to expect. We also mark on the template areas that have existing rust, damage or other flaws.

Existing vehicle flaws should be recorded on the vehicle template and photographed. Let the customer know that the graphics are not guaranteed and may eventually fail in these areas.

Using a checklist we’ve created, we do a walk-through with the customer, clarifying vehicle coverage and pointing out where the graphics will and won’t adhere. We also print out a picture or template of the vehicle and mark any existing flaws such as rust and peeling paint. By doing this we have a record of any flawed areas on the vehicle should our graphics start to fail in the future. We also discuss what vehicle emblems, body molding and existing decals will be taken off the vehicle prior to wrapping. It’s only after all of this has been done that we can consider entering into the installation phase.

We ask our customers to bring in their vehicle washed and clean. We then start by removing body moldings, vehicle emblems or existing decals that the customer has decided to leave on. We also remove any mirrors, rear windshield wipers and lights that may be in the way. Removing all these items first ensures that we clean thoroughly behind them.

We do an initial wipe down with Windex, paying close attention to rivets, rubber moldings, body trim, door handles, inside of doors and gas tank cover doors. We finish off with a 50/50 mixture of isopropyl alcohol and water, and a lint-free cloth.

It’s important to use the right materials to meet the customer’s needs. There are temporary adhesive materials available that work great for advertisements that are going to be on the vehicle for short term.

For long-life applications we’ve used product combinations from a couple big manufacturers. 3M Controltac vinyl with 3M Scotchcal overlaminate as well as Avery MPI 1005 EZ film with an Avery DOL1000 overlaminate are great choices.

On windows that the customer needs to see out of, we use optically clear laminate over a 50/50 perforated window film. Again, for our machines these materials work best for us. There are many great products on the market. Maximize your profits by choosing the right material for the job.

On our machines we print in 4' wide panels with a 1/2" overlap on the panels. We print an extra 4" on top and bottom and on the front and end panels. The printed and laminated panels are laid out on our production table to be sure there is no color dropout or misalignment from panel to panel. In most cases we will tape together all the panels for an entire side of a vehicle. On larger box vans where the install is easier and there are fewer obstacles to work around, we just apply one panel at a time.

The joined panels are taped to the vehicle in one giant panel. We determine the placement of the graphics left to right and top to bottom by working the panel around the vehicle’s obstacles. We check our placement against the approved final proof. Once we are comfortable that everything is lining up correctly, we tape the last panel toward the rear of the vehicle into place, double checking that everything is level.

We install from the back of the vehicle forward so that the panels overlap with the seam to the back. This helps to prevent a build-up of dirt and road grime along the seam.

The graphics are applied in vertical panels using a center hinge. This helps the graphics go on straighter and with less material to work with at a time. It also helps, especially on large box vans with longer panels, to avoid stretching the material as you apply. If you applied from the top all the way down, just by holding tension on the bottom of the graphic, you can end up with an inconsistent 1/8" to 1/2" stretch to the graphic.

3M has a product called Tape Primer 94 which can be used to promote adhesion of 3M tapes to many surfaces. It works great in those pesky dips in the sides of vehicles and around rivets, areas against rubber moldings and around door handles. The primer is brushed on and needs to dry for about five minutes before you stick the graphics down. Be sure the area is dust-free prior to applying the tape. Graphics will adhere aggressively to the primer so be sure your placement is correct.

We use hard, felt squeegees when applying the graphics to avoid scratching the laminate. We also use trigger on/off propane torches to heat our vinyl. The trigger-start feature makes it easy to turn the flame on and off, avoiding an open flame when not in use.

When applying graphics over indentations in vehicles we set up our tape hinge for applying, flip the graphic out of the way and apply the Tape Primer 94. Once the primer has dried, we apply our graphics straight over the indentation. The graphics are then warmed with a torch and smoothed into the indentation where they will adhere to the primer.

The graphics are applied in large sections before we start smoothing them out. To pop bubbles we recommend an air release tool with a pin-shaped tip. Graphics are smoothed over rivets by applying a little heat and pressing the graphics over the rivet with a soft foam rivet applicator.

When dealing with difficult areas, we have a couple tricks we use to help save our sanity. When repositioning graphics they tend to stretch. Applying a little heat to the graphic and allowing it to cool a few seconds will help shrink the material back to its original shape. Another helpful trick is to allow plenty of excess material when working the graphics into tricky spots. This allows you to pull on and stretch the excess material without damaging the vinyl you’re applying. The stretched out extra material can then be cut away.

When applying graphics over windows we go right over the rubber moldings around the windows then go back and smooth the graphics up to the molding. Smoothing the graphics down before trimming helps to avoid cuts that would fall short of covering the window or vehicle. We then trim around the window carefully to avoid cutting into the rubber seal. Graphics won’t adhere permanently to most rubber seals so we normally remove them.

Since most vehicles have areas between the windows that will be covered with solid vinyl, we usually apply right over the windows and then replace the window areas with perforated material (window perf) when requested. We use our computer placement of the graphics to determine what areas we need to print on the window perf. We crop our artwork and leave a few extra inches all around to help with placement. 3M recommends trimming its window perf in from the edge of the glass by about a 1/4" and then applying strips of clear laminate so that they overlap the graphics and window by about 1/4".

When trimming around doors, gas tank lids and hoods we hold the X-Acto flat against the object that will open. Poking through the material we slide the X-Acto along the door. This gives you a smooth, straight edge. This will also give you a little extra material on the other side that will have a straight cut line and can be smoothed into the gap. Wrapping the material around the edges of doors that are constantly opened can cause the material to start to peel up around the edges. Be very careful to use a light hand and a sharp X-Acto blade to avoid cutting into the paint job.

We then reattach any mirrors, lights and wipers that need to stay on the vehicle. We always finish with a final wipe down with Windex to remove any finger prints. Be sure to take a lot of pictures for your portfolio as well.

Wrap seminars are helpful for gaining hands-on experience. If you’re just starting out in the market you may want to start by wrapping your shop vehicle first. As your skills improve, be sure to go back and re-wrap your vehicle since potential customers will be looking to this as an example of your work.

Having an enclosed shop or installation area is helpful for pulling the vehicle out of the elements cutting down on wind, dust and temperature issues. Depending on the size of the vehicle we use either ladders or scissor lifts for installation. Scaffolding and moving platforms also work great. Lowered computer chairs, wheeled gardening carts and mechanics’ chairs and creepers are all great for working down low on a vehicle. We save large sheets of backing paper to sit on or lay on when wrapping graphics under the vehicle. Saving excess vinyl as we apply is helpful for patching in tricky areas.

Vehicle wrapping is a booming market that is continually growing. With a little practice, patience and perseverance it can also be a lucrative market for your business.

Preparation Review:
• Note obstacles in design
• Check for flawed areas on vehicle
• Remove emblems, mirrors, etc.
• Clean the vehicle
• Use primer on problem areas
• Align printed graphic panels(tape in place)