In this guide, you will learn the basic application skills required to apply adhesive vinyl graphics on vehicles. This step by step project is loaded with process photos and practical tips.
Aspects shown in this article include surface preparation, positioning and application of vinyl graphics as well as finishing and post heating techniques. Suitable for beginners to learn with the use of adhesive cast or calendared vinyls.
Visit here to learn the difference between cast and calendared vinyl films.
Why use vinyl graphics on vehicles?
The global use of adhesive vinyl in signmaking and display is immeasurable. For many signmaking and display projects, the vinyl benefits of speed, accuracy, longevity and cost are unmatched. Especially for multiple quantities, large projects and vehicle graphics.
In using the appropriate vinyl materials on applicable surfaces, vinyl is an integral part of most commercial sign shops.
Essential toolkit for applying vinyl graphics on vehicles
- Pre-wipe degreaser
- Clean, lint free cloths
- Retractable craft knife
- Air release tool
- 1” (25mm) and/or 2” (50mm) masking tape
- Stabilo pencil
- Measuring tape
- Scissors (optional)
- Heat gun (useful but not always essential)
This featured project is graphics application for a double deck coach. The coach shown here has been refurbished and will be shown at various vintage vehicle events. The graphics which are being applied are relevant to the coach’s era.
Any vinyl application begins with preparing the surface. Vehicles should be washed thoroughly with warm water and soap before being rinsed and dried. Keeping the vehicle indoors overnight before the day of application is always preferred when possible.
If vinyl is to be applied over recesses, door edges, seal edges, trims, gaps and hinges they should be dry and free from dirt. To remove any sitting water, use a heat gun or hair dryer to blow the fluid out of the hard to reach areas.
Only then, clean with an appropriate liquid degreaser and clean, lint free cloths. There are several suitable liquid degreasers which are widely available. But make sure not to use any waxes or polishes on the vehicle surface, as these are likely to repel the vinyl.
The working environment temperature will also be important. Too cold and your vinyl will feel unconformable making it liable to rip or crack. Too warm and the vinyl will stretch and wrinkle easily. Try to find suitable sheltered premises wherever possible, away from wind and rain.
Always refer to the vinyl manufacturers’ technical specifications. The documents should be available from your vinyl distributor.
Positioning the graphics
The vinyl graphics used for this project are quite large. I produced these knowing that I’d have to handle them myself. So, I made sure to cut off any excess background liner* paper to make the handling easier.
Then, like a large jigsaw, I tacked each segment on the panels with 2” (50mm) masking tape. Once positioned on the vehicle, I measured from straight edges on the panels to the horizontal edges of the vinyl graphics. This ensured that the graphics were parallel with the panels. I also made sure that there were no kinks or wrinkles on the graphics.
Any adjustments are made at this stage. Stand back regularly and check that you are happy with the positioning.
Sometimes, the graphics do not compliment the shape of the vehicle. In those circumstances, optical balance is more important than equally mathematical measurements. Especially on curved or irregular shaped panels.
* The liner or carrier is the silicone surfaced backing paper which carries the vinyl.
The graphics are covered with paper application tape and positioned tightly with masking tape. You can also use magnets to hold the graphics in place – just make sure your panels are magnetic.
Applying the vinyl
Create a hinge with masking tape. For this segment, I use 2” tape to tack a horizontal line across the graphic so it won’t move. You can tape a hinge vertically too dependant on which is easier. Go past the graphic with the tape so that there is enough grab and the weight of the vinyl doesn’t pull the hinge off of the panel.
Now remove the tacked pieces of masking tape at one side of your graphic. I’m starting with the bottom half of this piece with the hinge still in place. Gently peel the paper application graphic off of the liner.
With a sharp craft knife, pair of scissors or snitty, cut the liner and discard safely to one side. Do not rip the paper liner as some vinyl liners have furry papers. The fibres of the paper can get stuck behind your graphic which will not be easy to remove, if at all.
The silicone surface of the liner is slippy, so be careful not to stand on the discarded liner.
Now with tension on the graphic, fold the vinyl into place on the panel surface. The graphic should be taut, with no wrinkles.
As shown in the photo, the placement of the graphic segment has not moved, and the taped hinge is still in place.
With firm pressure and overlapping strokes, use the squeegee to glide over your vinyl graphic at an angle of approximately thirty degrees.
Your vinyl graphic should be looking something like this. Notice that the vinyl remains taut at all times. The less wrinkles in the unapplied graphic, the less wrinkles on the finished vinyl surface.
Use the blade edge of the squeegee and work back and forth, continuing the overlapping strokes. Push the air underneath in even strokes, channelling exits out of the vinyl until you get to the edges.
Pro Tip: There are two main objectives to apply bubble and wrinkle free vinyl graphics.
- Keep the vinyl close to the surface and taut – not stretched.
- Push the air out from underneath the adhesive side.
Master these two principles of vinyl application and you can wrap almost anything.
If you do cause any large bubbles or wrinkles, be confident to pull the vinyl off of the surface. Do not try to pull uncovered (without paper application tape) vinyl off of the surface, as it is likely to rip.
The first (bottom) half of my first segment is applied as far as I can go. Now I remove the taped hinge and remaining tacked pieces of tape.
I can now remove the remaining half of the paper liner background. This will peel off easily as the first half has adhered the graphic to the panel surface.
Stack the paper liner remnants neatly in a pile and away from any footways.
Then fold the remaining half of the graphic back onto the surface and repeat the application process.
This vehicle has an unavoidable rubber trim running horizontally across the length of the side. It can’t be removed. The graphics are squeegeed towards the trim’s edges and tucked into them precisely.
If at all possible, remove any fittings from the vehicle. This makes for a simpler and neater finish.
Using a sharp craft knife, I can use the inside gap of the rubber trim as a guide to glide the body of my blade along. Not the tip.
These knives cut through bone so be extra careful when slicing your vinyl.
Pro Tip: Get into the habit of changing your blades regularly. I use Swann Morton 10A blades in retractable knives for these types of projects. I change my blade about every 1500mm of cutting.
Now peel away the excess and discard sensibly in your refuse bin. Try not to drop any excess pieces on the ground as you can end up wearing them.
Once the vinyl is sliced or cut around any panel obstructions, use the corner of your squeegee to tuck the vinyl in.
Because I have cleaned and dried the vehicle panels and any crevices thoroughly, I know that there will be no adhesion problems.
Removing the application tape
Leaving the vinyl to adhere for a short while before removing the tape is advised. Especially in colder temperatures. If you have several pieces of vinyl to apply, fit everything then remove the tape in the same order which these were applied. You will soon recognise a difference in how long to leave the tape for.
Pro Tip: With larger areas of paper tape to remove, spray water over the areas as the paper will remove much easier and faster. The water softens the adhesive.
Now you can remove the paper application tape at an angle of forty five degrees. Pulling with tension spread across the paper, fold it back onto itself.
Crumple the paper into a ball as you go and avoid any sudden tugs. This may lift the vinyl from the surface.
Heating and tucking the vinyl
In circumstances where obstructions cannot be removed from the vehicle, a heat gun is useful for helping to soften and mould the vinyl. It is also of benefit to post heat any panel gaps, seams or exposed edges.
At a moderate heat (too hot to hold your fingers 100mm in front of the gun), gently wave the heat gun around the object’s edges. Start slow and away from the object, judging the heat of the vinyl by the movement of the vinyl’s surface.
The vinyl will wrinkle gently under moderate heat. Do not start at a high heat and close to the vinyl surface, as this will scorch the vinyl.
When you notice the vinyl becoming more pliable, use the squeegee to tuck the vinyl into the objects edge. Again, work slowly and carefully at distance.
Move the heat gun incrementally towards the surface if the vinyl requires more fluidity. Do not stretch the vinyl, but lift gently when the vinyl is cool. This provides slack to then tuck the vinyl into the edges.
Work on small areas at a time rather than large expanses. Always heating gently and away. Use a felt edged squeegee. The felt edge glides over the vinyl surface better than the plastic blade edge.
Once the vinyl is tightly wrapped and heated around the edges of the object, you will see the difference in the vinyl’s appearance. There should be no air gaps or wrinkles surrounding the object.
Now with a firm grip of the craft knife, use the sharp tip of the blade. Cut gently and precisely on the edge of the object. Avoid cutting on the panel. The sharpness of your blade will do the work so little pressure is required. Practising this on sample panels first is advised.
You will be left with a tight, neat finish and clean edge surrounding the object.
This heating and cutting method can be applied to most obstructions and requires some patience. As well as knee pads or a cushion to save your sore knees.
Once all of the trimming and heating is completed, you can now post heat if necessary. Post heating is the process of going over and around your cut vinyl areas. At a high temperature, carefully heat all exposed edges where you have cut around gaps and obstructions. This aids the vinyl to adhere to the surface.
Removing air bubbles
When applying vinyl graphics to vehicles, air bubbles are almost inevitable. Sometimes they are small and other times, they can be large. If the air bubble cannot be pushed out with the use of your squeegee, there isn’t a problem with popping it. If done correctly.
Purchasing a retractable air release tool is a worthwhile investment. Prick the very edge of the air bubble gently.
Pro Tip: Never use your knife to pop air bubbles. Vinyl retracts once the adhesive properties tighten to the surface. The sliced bubble will then become a hairline split in the vinyl.
Then push the air out of the bubble with your squeegee or gently with your fingertip. If the bubble is large (larger than an adult thumb nail), move the air out in small pushes rather than one large push. The latter will cause the vinyl to wrinkle.
The vinyl frontier
Once all of your cleaning, tacking, applying, pulling, heating, cutting and popping is over… you should have your completed vehicle graphics.
Ready to exhibit in all it’s double deck wonder at various shows across the country.
- Clean panels at room temperature will provide a better finish
- Tack everything in position to allow for any adjustments
- Use long hinges to grab onto the vehicle surface
- Overlap your firm pressured squeegee strokes at thirty degrees
- Let the vinyl adhere for a short while before removing the paper application tape
- Remove the application tape at approximately forty five degrees and back on itself
- Change your craft knife blade often and with extreme care
- Invest in an air release tool
Understanding how to handle vinyl is a huge part of the application process. This will come with experience. Good luck with your next vinyl project.