Let's Talk Shop: Techniques to Extend Your Wrap's Lifespan

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

 Partial to full vehicle wraps have become a huge part of our business. After 20 years in business we've built our success on repeat business and word-of-mouth referrals. To maintain our growth in the years to come, it's essential that we produce high-quality work that will last long term for the customer.

It's really a two-part process to creating wraps that last. The first part is the responsibility of the sign shop and depends on good materials, thorough vehicle prep and quality installation by experienced installers.

The second part of making the wrap last is up to the customer. Once the wrap leaves your shop the customer has to take proper care of it. We've created our own Wrap Maintenance sheet to help the customer remember what they should and shouldn't do when cleaning their wrapped vehicle.

Material Selection

Choosing the right material for the application is essential, from both an economical standpoint and in regard to durability. When we do a one-year campaign on our city bus fleet, including full side wraps, we use a transit media called MetroMark from General Formulations. It's great for our short-term application while also keeping our costs competitive on this fleet account.

For most of our wraps we use a premium cast vinyl to ensure long-term quality. Our material of choice is 3M IJ180Cv3-10. We like the conformability and the non-visible air release channels for bubble free installs.

A couple years ago we switched our cast laminate to 3M Envision 8548 gloss laminate after we saw brown spots and graphics failing when they were installed on a horizontal surface. Before replacing the hood graphics on two different fleets of trucks we talked with 3M and realized we had a problem with acid dew. By using the right material for our area we've avoided further issues.

Vehicle Prep

I tease our production manager, Cameron, about how obsessive he is when it comes to cleaning and prepping our vehicles prior to wrapping, but this attention to detail is essential. Your wrap is only as good as the surface it's applied to, so taking extra care in cleaning the surface is extremely important.

Before we even start cleaning we first start with the removal of anything that will affect our wrap. Emblems, existing graphics, mirrors, lights, license plates and anything else that is easy to take off and put back on is removed and put in a plastic container with the vehicle.

Using a mild soap and water mix we thoroughly wipe down the vehicle making sure that all crevices are cleaned. This includes areas inside gas lids, inside all doors, around lights, handles, wheel wells and especially underneath the vehicle. We avoid saturating the vehicle with water, rather we wipe it down with damp towels.

If you have the customer bring the car to you washed, ask them to take it through the car wash or hand wash it the day before drop off. We've found that if the car is washed right before drop off, water often collects behind handles and body molding. The surface may appear dry, but after you've applied the graphics and then start heating to form around these obstacles the water begins leaking out and collects behind the graphics. From experience, this is a pain to deal with. It's very difficult to dry out the area enough to get the graphics to stick and the extra time cuts into your labor costs.

After the surfaces have all been cleaned, we do an alcohol wipe to remove any remaining residue. This is followed up with an application of 3M Tape Primer in areas like wheel wells, underneath the car and in any areas with deep concaves or other obstacles that may require extra adhesion.


On-going education and hands-on experience is so important in setting your shop apart in this industry. Even with good prep work and quality materials, if your installers are not experienced, then your wrap and how it looks long-term, will suffer.

Whenever possible set up your panels so that your wrap is seamless. This means using existing seams, doors and other breaks on the vehicle to avoid breaks in the vinyl. This is of course not always possible, especially on larger vehicles, but looks great when you can do it.

If you do use seams, be sure that you overlap the seams by about an inch and always install from the back of the vehicle, toward the front, so your seams overlap facing the back of the vehicle. Minimal relief cuts, minimal stretching and avoiding patching graphics will also make the wrap look better and last longer.

Take your time with your trim work. Sloppy trimming, excess vinyl and choppy cuts not only look terrible, but they are all points of failure on the wrap. Any flap of vinyl that is not smoothed down and trimmed, especially along the bottom of the vehicle and around the wheels, will quickly get dirt behind it. This patch will continue to fail, creating bigger problems.

Post-heat your graphics as you go. Each time you finish a section be sure to post-heat the area thoroughly. If you do it as you go you may see any returning bubbles hours later that may require extra heat.

When we complete a wrap, we wipe it down to remove any smudges and then do one more final post-heat. The heating as we go helps to release the memory of the vinyl and helps prevent lifting and bubbles. The final post-heat helps remove any fine scratches that may exist from the install and the final wipe down.


Our Wrap Maintenance Checklist is a single sheet of paper that outlines the information we've gleaned from our suppliers on proper care after the vehicle is wrapped. Most of the information is about proper cleaning methods and products, but we also point out to the customer what they need to do if they should see any problems arise.

If any bubbles should appear it will often happen in the first couple weeks. Fluctuations in cold, heat or moisture in the air can affect how well the wrap lays down. Usually it's a quick fix with a bit more heat. We tell the customer to avoid pressing on the bubbles or trying to fix it themselves. Typically the customer can just swing by with the vehicle and wait a few minutes for us to assess the issue and add more heat.

Washing a Wrapped Vehicle

Most questions we get about a wrapped vehicle is if it can go through the car wash. Since it's a pricey investment, we encourage the customer to hand wash the vehicle with a non-abrasive cleaner, avoiding strong solvents. Washing the vehicle from the top down with a soft sponge and rinsing thoroughly is the best approach.

Taking the vehicle through a car wash exposes the wrap to automated brushes that can lift loose edges. These brushes can also create scratches and dull the overlaminate.

Pressure Washing

We often see the use of pressure washing on our fleet accounts. The company has a lot of vehicles and needs to clean them quickly. Although we recommend avoiding pressure washing completely, some customers cannot avoid it so we give them a list of do's and don'ts on our checklist hand-out.

Check out the our checklist in the photos below. You'll see we include max pressure ranges, water temperature, nozzle distance, angle of the spray and other tips.


Waxing the vehicle after a wrap is another common question. Since the wrap already has a protective overlaminate, it's not necessary to also wax it. A Teflon or silicone-based polish can be used though if your customer wants extra protection. Carnauba-based waxes should be avoided and all waxes and polishes should not be used on textured, matte or other specialty wrap films.

Spot Cleaning

If your customer spills gasoline on their wrap they should wipe up as much of it as possible on-site and then follow up with a better cleaning using soap and water. Other road grime and bugs can be cleaned off with a citrus-based cleaner or degreaser. Instruct the customer to try any cleaners in an inconspicuous place and avoid hard scrubbing.

Extra Information

Weather conditions vary greatly, so be sure your checklist contains specific information for your region. Check manufacturer bulletins for the specific materials you are using to see what recommendations or limitations they make. Be sure your checklist covers this information as high elevations, urban pollutants and extreme weather can be a big concern for different regions.