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Given that over 50% of all cars have monochromatic shades, car owners are constantly looking for a new finish or appearance for their ride. For years, the solution was to get a custom paint job, until car vinyl wrap was introduced in the market in the mid-1990s.
Since then, vinyl wrapping has become increasingly popular as it allows car owners to temporarily change the appearance of their cars. Yet it has the same effect as a new paint job but is less costly.
Plus, vinyl wrap is a great way to protect the car’s paint from scratches and weather elements. Not to forget that you can even use it to advertise your business to attract new customers as you drive around town.
Unfortunately, while installing a car vinyl wrap may seem like an easy task, it’s far more complex, especially for beginners. For that reason, most people prefer to leave vinyl wrap installation to professionals.
Surprisingly, learning how to vinyl wrap a car isn’t that complicated, provided you’ve got the right tools.
Don’t believe me? Well, check out this comprehensive guide outlining how to properly install a vinyl wrap and make that decision for yourself!
A brief history of car vinyl wrap
Originally, vinyl was used for custom logos, decals, and lettering since the 1950s. However, it was not used in full car wrapping until 1993, when Germany mandated every taxi to be colored beige, but didn’t stipulate paint.
As a result, taxis used a beige vinyl from Kay Premium Marking Films, making them compliant with the new regulation in a matter of hours.
What is Car Vinyl wrap?
Car vinyl wrap refers to a blend of PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride) polymer and various additives to add color and make it flexible and UV-resistant. In fact, the word ‘vinyl’ comes from Polyvinyl Chloride.
Once these ingredients are mixed, they’re cast onto moving sheets, baked, and then cured. This results in a vinyl sheet that can be as thin as 2 mm, or about 2 thousandths of an inch thick.
In addition, these sheets have an adhesive backing that adheres to the car’s surface.
After adhesive application, these vinyl sheets go to the printer for custom graphics or cut into smaller rolls for individual consumers.
So, when you order the vinyl wrap, it will either come in rolls or in sections designed as a custom fit for the car parts you ordered it for.
Vinyl Wrap Application conditions and storage
First of all, temperature plays an important role in determining how well the vinyl wrap will adhere to the car surface. For instance, the risk of tearing is quite high when the temperature is too low since cold makes the vinyl film more brittle.
On the other hand, the adhesive will activate and bond more adhesively if the temperature is too high, making it difficult to reposition the vinyl on the desired surface. That said, the recommended temperature for installing vinyl wrap is 22 deg C.
You should strictly install the vinyl film indoors to maintain a consistent temperature. In addition, this will help to reduce the amount of dust & contaminants that may accumulate on the car’s surface.
Do not store the vinyl sheets in direct sunlight or near heat sources like space heaters and radiators. In addition, you should store them vertically and keep the humidity as low as possible.
Things you’ll need to install car vinyl wrap
- A heat gun for vinyl wrap
- Squeegee with a felt tip / Felt tip squeegee applicator
- Utility knife / cutting blade/ vinyl film cutter
- General Car Cleaning solution
- Grease/ wax Remover
- 90% isopropyl alcohol
- Masking tape/ Blue Painter’s Tape
- Tape measures
- Cotton gloves
- Infrared thermometer (optional)
- Wrap Cut or Knifeless Tape Fine Filament Edge Cutting Tape
- Microfiber towel / lint-free cloth
- Vinyl wrap (a typical car needs a 25 ft roll of 60” wide film)
- Work table (to keep your tools dust-free and off the garage floor)
How to properly install a car vinyl wrap (Step-by-Step Guide)
Step 1: Plan out how to vinyl wrap your car
Before you start preparing your car or ordering the vinyl wrap, you need to plan out the project. This step is essential since every car has unique dimensions as well as potential changes.
More importantly, this will help you know where you’ll need to adjust the installation procedure ahead of time to accommodate for areas with minor damage or curves.
Inspect the bodywork
That said, go around the car and thoroughly check its bodywork to ensure you’re working with a smooth surface. Although a few minor scratches are not an issue, other car paint problems like chips, oxidation, and dents will affect the vinyl wrap finish.
For instance, dips and dents can cause the vinyl wrap to rip or bubble. For that reason, it’s important to address these surface imperfections before you try to wrap your car.
Measure the panels you want to vinyl wrap
Next, accurately measure every panel you intend to wrap, including the hood, bumper, quarter panel, and so on. After measuring the length and width, multiply them together to determine the amount of vinyl wrap needed for each panel.
Afterward, add the calculated area of all sections together to determine the amount of vinyl wrap needed for the entire project. Remember to add another 10 sq ft to the total area to get the amount of vinyl wrap film you should order.
Buy your Vinyl wrap
Now that you know the amount of film you need for your project, it is time to buy the best vinyl wrap for your car.
While there are many factors you need to consider before making this decision, there are 2 main types of vinyl materials to choose from; cast and calendered. Cast vinyl is more flexible, and therefore easier to manipulate around edges and curves, while calendared vinyl is thicker but stickier.
In general, you should choose a vinyl wrap that has inbuilt air release channels for a smooth installation process. Moreover, you should buy about 15 to 20 ft more vinyl wrap that you will need in case you mess up any of the panels.
More importantly, avoid chrome vinyl wrap if you’re a beginner as it’s the most expensive and most difficult to apply for first-timers. It’s also worth mentioning that gloss and printed films offer better protection and last longer than matte vinyl.
More notably, you should not use vinyl wrap on wooden surfaces. Instead, you should use it on smooth surfaces like painted aluminum, glass, and corrugated plastic.
In addition, try to stick to well-known vinyl brands from reputable companies like VVIVID and 3M. For instance, the 3M Wrap Film Series 2080 is one of the best car vinyl wraps, thanks to its quality and ease of application.
Plus, it’s available in a wide range of colors and textures, and usually comes in lengths of 25 yards, although some supplies can cut custom lengths of as little as 1 yard.
However, if you need a custom design or finish, contact a car wrap professional in your area to help you find the perfect vinyl wrap for your car.
Choose a suitable location for the project
Moving on, look for a suitable location for your car wrapping project. In that regard, an enclosed space like a garage is ideal. However, you should first give the area a thorough cleaning.
Keep the garage doors closed while cleaning to prevent more dust from entering the working space. Also, make sure the workspace has easy access to power outlets if you’re planning to use a corded heat gun for the project.
As for the weather conditions, it’s recommended that your vinyl wrap a car on a warm & dry day. This is because Air moisture can prevent the vinyl film from adhering to the car’s body.
In addition, it’s important to ensure that the car and the vinyl are at the same temperature (around 20 deg C/ 68 deg F). In that regard, it’s a good idea to start installing vinyl wrap in the late morning, when everything is at the same temperature level.
More importantly, you should store the vinyl film in the same area as your car, to optimize temperature equality.
Gather all the tools & materials
Finally, make sure you’ve gathered all the tools and materials you’ll need for the project before you start wrapping.
Step 2: Cleaning & Surface Preparation
Thoroughly clean the car surface with paint-safe grease & wax remover to remove any grime or dust that may interfere with vinyl wrap installation. Alternatively, you can use alcohol-based cleaners like isopropyl alcohol to remove any wax, oil, or grease on the car’s surface, even though they’re not as effective as solvent-based cleaners. For that, isopropyl alcohol is best used for a quick wipe-down and spot cleaning.
After removing wax and grime residues on the car surface, use car wash soap to clean the car and rinse it with clean water, ensuring you get into all the corners, edges, and creases.
To clean ‘head-to-reach’ edges, wrap a lint-free paper towel over the squeegee and swipe multiple times. Use a clean portion of the towel for each swipe until the lint-free towels show no dirt on the swiped edge.
Next, use a clean lint-free towel/car-drying microfiber towel to thoroughly dry the car surface once you’re done rinsing it. If necessary, use a heat gun or a blow dryer to speed up the car drying process before you apply the vinyl wrap film.
Step 3: Apply the vinyl wrap to your car
If you’re wrapping a car for the first time, I’d recommend that you start with the smaller and flat sections like the doors, trunk, or hood. This will help you garner some confidence and experience before you proceed to the more difficult sections.
Also, make sure you remove any obstructions including door handles, trim, apertures, emblems, grilles, and plastic inlets.
Next, use a tape measure to determine the amount of vinyl film required for the part you want to wrap. Add about 6” both horizontally and vertically to account for any errors or mishaps in measurement.
Unroll the desired amount of vinyl wrap using the measurements you’ve taken above while keeping it off the ground and cutting it with a utility knife. Make sure you cut the film on a clean folding table or similar surface that is off the floor and free from any contaminants.
Alternatively, you can have a friend pull out the end of the vinyl while you hold the roll. This will help you until the film without laying it on the ground, which could damage it.
After cutting the exact vinyl film you need, double-check that the car surface is still free from any debris and dust. Also, make sure your hands are clean before you pull the backing off the cut piece.
More importantly, having a second person to help you with the application will make the process much easier.
Remove the liner backing
Now, wear cotton gloves and remove the liner backing from the cut piece of vinyl while keeping enough tension on the film before you lightly place it on the first panel.
Make sure the panel you’re working on is completely covered with no edges showing. Hold both ends of the vinyl wrap and pull them away from each other to create enough tension to remove most wrinkles from the middle.
Step 4: Work out any bubbles
Gently lay down the vinyl on the surface you are wrapping and use a 4” squeegee at an angle of around 45 deg to remove wrinkles and bubbles. Push out all air from underneath the vinyl starting from the middle and slowly work your way out to the edges.
Interestingly, the vinyl is relatively easy to move around after placing it on the car surface since it’s precisely designed to only adhere under a specific amount of heat & pressure.
Therefore, you can easily push it towards the edges while using the felt-edged squeegee to get rid of air bubbles.
After releasing all the air and ensuring the vinyl wrap is perfectly flat, use a heat gun to test the area you’ve just flattened. Any trapped air will form bubbles and can easily be pushed out of the vinyl if it has an air release.
However, if the trapped air is too stubborn to release, you can lift off the vinyl wrap film before you cut away the extra film.
Step 5: Cut away the extra vinyl and tuck the edges
Once the applied vinyl wrap is smooth, it’s time to cut away the excess material with a sharp blade. So, carefully cut the overhanging vinyl film, leaving about ¼ to 1/8” all around to avoid cutting the car paint underneath.
More importantly, the excess ¼ – 1/8” bit will help you to cover any cracks and tuck around the edges.
After making all the cuts, you need to tuck the excess material around the curved edges of the car body panel. Unfortunately, despite being a simple process, tucking the edges can be the difference between a ‘DIY’ and a professional look.
Even worse, the edges will fail if there is too much tension or stretch on the vinyl film. On the bright side, you can use a heat gun to soften up the vinyl and get rid of any wrinkles that might have formed near the edges.
With that in mind, you should use an infrared thermometer and automotive heat gun to ease the tension on sharp edges. Typically, heating the vinyl wrap to around 90 deg is enough to even out the wrinkles without degrading the material and activating the adhesive around the edges.
Use your fingers and a squeegee to firmly seal the edges of the vinyl wrap to the panel.
For knobs, handles, and other parts that are out of the surface, use a heat gun to heat the area to expand the vinyl Then use a utility knife to cut along the outside of the extruding part, leaving 1 – 2 mm of the film hanging over the edge.
Once you’re done, use the plastic edge of your squeegee to push the edges down around the handles and knobs.
Step 6: Heat the rest of the panel
Once the edges and corners are sealed and set, use your heat gun for the vinyl wrap to heat the rest of the film at around 212 deg F. Heating the vinyl film activates the adhesive on the piece for a long-term bond.
So, move the heat gun in sweeping motions in 15 – 20 cm (6 – 8”) sections, checking that the vinyl is firmly secured in any channels or recesses. At the same time, use a squeegee and your hands to firmly bond the film to the car surface.
If bubbles appear at the stage, use a utility blade or pin to pop them and press down the vinyl with your fingers to remove the air. Leave the vinyl wrap for about 12 hours to let the adhesive set fully.
As you can see, the process is straightforward, and easy to follow, even for beginners. So, if you’re planning to give your ride a new look, go ahead and follow the above steps and you’ll be good to go.
However, make sure you gather all the necessary supplies and observe the tips I’ve mentioned above if you want to get a professional look!
In addition, our post on how to remove vinyl wrap might come in handy in the near future if you ever get bored or want to upgrade the look of your car with another film or fresh paint job!
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