Practical tips for rough-surface wraps

Wrapping the Rough Stuff

A number of years ago a few companies wanted to bring out a solution for applying graphics to streets. I tested a number of products in the beginning, starting with MACtac StreetRap. Since that time, a number of companies, including 3M, Arlon and Oracal (to name a few), have begun offering rough surface wrap products. I have used a few of the products on many jobs and they work well. I think the biggest issue is the customer expectations for durability and the installation.

Arlon offers both DPF 6700 and DPF 8000 for rough surface applications. DPF 8000, shown here, features a special adhesive system designed to stick to low-energy surfaces such as concrete and brick. 

The main thing that makes this product different from other adhesive-backed vinyl films is the volume of adhesive on the film; typically this film has much more adhesive on it then other films. For most adhesive-backed vinyl installations, you must clean the surface very well with alcohol and install the graphics with a squeegee. But when it comes to rough surfaces such as outdoor concrete patio flooring, in most cases you have little to no control over the condition of the surface before you arrive. Was food spilled on it? Does it have dirt ground into it? Is it dusty or greasy? You must assume that the rough surface is not ready for your vinyl install and plan on making a thorough surface prep. 

It is important to note here that installing vinyl graphics onto a rough or highly irregular surface takes much longer than conventional applications. If you are doing this type of job, be sure to charge accordingly for your time. The challenge is to balance the time-driven success of the graphic against the cost and time to prep and install. 

Applying vinyl to a rough vertical surface is a bit different than working on a horizontal surface, so I will review each separately.

Installing graphic films onto a rough or unfinished wall can be quite time consuming due to the amount of time needed to work the vinyl into the irregularities of the surface. Be sure to charge accordingly. (Image courtesy Lowen Certified Installers)

Horizontal Rough Surfaces

Cleaning a horizontal surface can be more work than a vertical surface because of the issues caused by foot and vehicle traffic. When you introduce adhesive to a surface—like a sidewalk or a street (asphalt or concrete), a tile floor with wide grout, brick or cobble stones, etc.—you must understand that the adhesive will only adhere well to a solid surface and must not have anything loose in the way. 

For example, in a concrete park area, dirt and sand will inevitably collect on the surface, and when you apply the adhesive to the surface, most of the adhesive will grab the loose particles. The result is that there is not enough solid surface for the adhesive to grab, and the vinyl will fail because it just cannot stand up against the traffic. 

The huge benefit to the horizontal surface is gravity—the vinyl automatically wants to lay flat on the surface; and each person or vehicle that moves over the image applies more pressure to it, causing the adhesive below to grab harder to the surface. Other items that contribute to failure include gum, grease, food, water, etc. All of these items will likely cause the vinyl to lift in areas. Bottom line: Prep the surface well. 

I installed this 24’x16’ outdoor concrete floor graphic in front of the stage for an outdoor concert event. 

Here are some practical tips to consider:

• It’s a good idea to first pressure wash the areas for the graphic on the day before the install. Then on the install day—assuming the ground is dry and still clean—use a leaf blower and blow away all the fine dust, dirt and sand particles.

• Do not use a wire brush, screwdriver or other sharp implement to scrape the surface because any damage caused to the pavement will remain after the graphic is removed and the owners will be upset with you. 

• Using a torch or good heat gun, tack down the all edges. When the vinyl is still hot, use a small foam paint roller to roll down the vinyl into the rough surface. Heat is very important as this causes the adhesive to flow and become more aggressive. Plus, the heat causes the vinyl to become very soft and conformable. 

• If you choose to use a squeegee to apply the vinyl, be careful: when the squeegee encounters small rocks and rough spots, it can cause the vinyl to rip. Use the squeegee at a very sharp angle (almost flat to the surface) so as not to catch sharp parts. Follow up with the foam roller.

• Once all the edges are tacked down you can begin to work on the rest of the image. Yes, this takes time, but you must do it to insure a successful installation. 

TPM Graphics in Greenville, S.C. installed these impressive stadium graphics for the University of Southern Carolina in 2008 using then newly developed 3M Textured Wall Film. (Images courtesy of TPM Graphics)

• During removal of the graphic, adhesive residue can be an issue. If you can, try to remove the vinyl with some heat, 140 degrees is perfect heat to remove vinyl. In some cases you may still find some adhesive residue left behind. Use Xylene to remove it.

• If the surface is a brick walkway, be careful when removing the vinyl because sometimes the adhesive sticks so well that the bricks want to be lifted out of the ground with the vinyl.

• When removing graphics from an asphalt surface you might find that the graphics stuck too well. I have done a few on hot summer days and a month later I had a very difficult time getting the graphics off the asphalt. I found that the tar and the adhesive worked together to make a very strong bond.

Vertical Rough Surfaces

In my opinion rough wall surfaces are more difficult to install than rough horizontal surfaces, partly because you have to fight gravity, and also because you don’t have the added compression of foot traffic to help press it down. In any case, wall prep is very important. 

I find that many brick walls can be quite dusty, and it takes a lot of work to get the dust off the surface; especially if the grout has a 1/4" groove in which dust has collected. 

Here are some practical tips to consider:

• If the wall is outdoors, you can use a gas powered pressure washer or leaf blower to clean the surface. I find that I must do most of these jobs at night as the noise from these tools is too much for customers to deal with. 

• For interior walls I like to start cleaning with a stiff brush, then use a compressor (a high-recovery one like the builders use) with a vacuum. I blow the wall toward the vacuum end to keep the dust down. 

• If the interior wall must be further cleaned, use isopropanol alcohol on a terrycloth rag. Brick, cinder block, and many other common interior surfaces are quite porous so you don’t want to use industrial chemicals to clean on the wall. 

• When installing I like to attach the vinyl to the whole wall first by tacking down the edges using heat and foam rollers. 

• Press the vinyl into the all the cracks and around the different bricks/blocks. 

This is a temporary outdoor concrete stair wrap that was done for an NHRA drag racing event at Bandimere Speedway in Morrison, Colo. 

• Be careful not to overheat and burn the vinyl. 

• You can expect some tenting of the vinyl, and there will be small areas where the vinyl is not adhering to anything. But if you push the vinyl too far you will have failure attaching to the surface.

• Be patient. This is going to take you a while. When I install normal adhesive-backed vinyl on a flat 10' x 20' wall, it takes me about two hours. But if I am installing the same size graphic to a brick or cinderblock wall, it will take me between six to eight hours. 

If you are using outside installers you can expect to pay a lot more per square foot for the job. If you do the install yourself, be ready; this is a difficult job.

Impressive Results

In the end you will be impressed with the job and your customers should love it. Customers today are looking for something different in their business, bars, restaurants, and retail stores are embracing this street/wall wrap solution. Go and sell them on this; the money to be made is great. 

Okay then; good luck, and be smart with your money, and I will see you on the show floor!

Click here too view a PDF of Street / Rough Wall Film Resources.