Sticky Installations

Protruding rivets, plastic bumpers, rubber seals and deep crevices are only a few of the many obstacles that are faced in vehicle graphic installations. And while there are application challenges in all types of signs, these challenges are magnified when applying vinyl to a vehicle. But fear not. With a few tips and tricks that next Hummer H1 wrap will be a piece of cake — hopefully.


One of the most important steps in all types of signs is choosing the right material for the job. This is especially true with graphics that are applied over rivets, crevices and compound curves.

There is a new 3M product on the market, 3M Controltac Graphic Film IJ380, that when paired with 3M Scotchcal Gloss Overlaminate 8580 boasts an improved film technology that is highly conformable and has virtually no memory once applied. The film still incorporates the removable adhesive technologies of 3M Controltac to provide easier installation and removal. From my suppliers, the new product runs about 26 cents more per square foot over 3M Controltac 180C, but the amount of labor saved during the installation should cover the additional cost.

Our company is planning to try this new film on an upcoming Sprinter wrap. Currently, we primarily use 3M Controltac 180C with a 3M Scotchcal 8518 Gloss overlaminate. We have found this combination of materials gives us the most flexibility in our applications.

With the large number of cast and calendared vinyl products on the market, it is crucial to do your homework and choose the right material for the individual job and then price accordingly.


As I write this article a Hummer H1 just left our shop, and I am laying out the design for a Sprinter. With the abundance of obstacles these types of vehicles present, a bit of preplanning goes a long way to ensure an easier installation.

Vehicles with any obstacles, especially ones with large rivets, hinges and deep crevices require extra preplanning to ensure a smooth wrap. Careful placement of text, logos and photos will make the installation portion of the job go a lot smoother. A simple background that can be wrapped from the sides to the back will help provide a seamless look.

Whether the job is a partial wrap or a full wrap, it is still a good idea to design the graphics on either a photo of the vehicle or on a quality scaled template of the vehicle from a company like Digital Auto Library who produces Pro Vehicle Outlines. I prefer to lay the graphics out on an actual photo of the vehicle to take in account any aftermarket parts or existing graphics. The key to making this work is taking accurate reference measurements to scale the photo and make sure to that all images are taken straight-on and from of all sides of the vehicle.


Every job is unique and should be looked at as a new challenge. While box vans and cargo vans are easier to install, Hummers, Sprinters, PT Cruisers and other vehicles with large rivets, deep crevices and compound curves are still worth tackling but may require a little more finesse.

Recently, a customer came in with a Dodge Viper. He wanted large white graphics to follow the contours of the vehicle. Because these vehicles are extremely curvy, we couldn’t get accurate photos, and because these are expensive vehicles that don’t roll in everyday, we didn’t have a properly scaled template of a convertible Viper. We also did not want to do any trim work directly on the vehicle.

We chose to use laminated 3M Controltac 180C with no print for the solid white graphics. We were able to photograph and match the curve of the sides of the Viper, but the areas along the top, rear of the vehicle proved to be a challenge. We applied transfer tape to the vehicle, smoothing it over the compound curves, flattening wrinkles that appeared. Then we sketched the curve the graphics needed to take onto the transfer tape. Once we had something to follow, the transfer tape was applied to the 3M Controltac, and the graphics were carefully cut out by hand on the production table.

We also laid out blue line tape along larger areas to help map out the shape we wanted for the final graphics. The transfer tape was applied over the blue line tape, and a rubbing was taken to transfer the pattern to the premask.

Avery Dennison offers a line of opaque films that incorporate the Easy Apply technology. This is another good source for solid colored films that need to conform to curves.


Now that the right material for the job has been selected, the graphics have been properly designed in the computer, and the vehicle has been assessed for its unique challenge, it’s time to install the graphics. Here’s a list of tips and tricks to try on the next installation.

Confidence — As one of our employees said, “It’s only vinyl. You can’t be afraid of it.” Over-thinking the installation of a job is a sure fire way to screw it up. If the right material is being used, there should be no reason to fear the installation. Materials such as the 3M Controltac 180C and Avery MPI 1005EZ are designed to make installations easier.

Clean It — Start with a thoroughly clean vehicle for optimal results. Be sure to wipe in crevices, around rubber seals, rivets, and gas caps, under fenders and around any other areas the graphics may touch.

Hinge It — As with all graphic installations to substrates, windows or vehicles, a simple hinge technique can make a huge difference. Create a center, side, top or bottom hinge that works with the contours of the vehicle. For a vehicle with deep channels, a center hinge running parallel to the channel will allow the graphics to be applied up into the contour and back out. This works with the indentations, not against it.

Get Help — If you prefer to install wraps or large graphics without a hinge, ask for a second set of hands when removing the backing and positioning larger graphics.

Rivets — First, apply over them like they don’t exist. This goes for the standard, smooth rivets common on box trucks and trailers. Apply directly over them and smooth the graphics down later using some heat and a good foam rivet brush.

View Thru Vinyl — Most windows are fairly flat and easy to apply to. Make sure to use a cast view-thru vinyl such as Clear Focus’ SuperVue One Way Film and a cast, optically clear overlaminate, such as Clear Focus’ CurvaLam, for the most flexibility. Avoid premasking laminated vinyl and view thru. Premask adds additional thickness and takes away from the flexibility of the graphics. Be sure to use a felt squeegee to avoid scratching the laminate. 3M’s Edge Sealer 3950 can be used to help seal exposed edges of the film.

Heat It — A propane torch can quickly become an installer’s best friend. Adding a little heat to an overstretched or wrinkled graphic can quickly shrink the graphic back to its original shape. Allow the graphic to cool slightly and then apply the flexible graphic into the contour. Finish the applied graphic with some additional heat to set it.

Prime It — Tape Primer 34 from 3M is a great product that helps graphics stay put in deep channels and along obstacles on the vehicle. Follow the directions on the can and brush a little bit along crevices, windows and other obstacles. Wait five minutes and apply the graphics.

Take your time — It pays to over-estimate the time you will need a to do a vehicle so you don’t feel rushed. If the vehicle, takes the full time, then the customer expected it. If it is completed early, then the customer will be appreciative.

Tools — Along with the propane torch, a sharp X-Acto blade or air-release tool, a felt squeegee, a 3M Channel Applicator Roller and foam rivet brush are all handy tools to speed up an installation.

Finish It — Always post-heat your graphics to set them in place. Heating the graphics after they have been applied reduces the tension in the vinyl and sets the adhesive in place.

Practice — Shop vehicles, scrap substrates and objects around the shop like computer towers, file cabinets and counters are all great objects to practice on. The more you install graphics, the better you will get. Ask suppliers for sample rolls of media that you would like to try and practice with these materials.


Vehicle graphics and their inherent obstacles were addressed with these tips and tricks, but the same information can be applied to the installation of graphics on substrates, windows, boats and many other applications. With the right tools, materials, practice and bit of confidence the next vehicle wrap or tricky graphics installation may be worth tackling.

(Application Photos)

Apply over rivets as if they don’t exist and then smooth down with heat and a foam rivet brush for optimum results.

Assess large brackets and indentions ahead of time but proceed with confidence and patience as the graphics are installed.

Applying the panels of a wrap using the hinge technique may make some installations easier. A propane torch or heat gun is a necessity in properly laying down the graphics.