Unwrapping Installation Insights

Whether they’re vehicle graphics, building wraps or anything in between, installation of wraps takes a great deal of skill, patience, and experience.

Sure, materials have grown a lot more sophisticated over the past two decades. But all the technological advancement in the world won’t compensate for bad technique. If you want to master the ability to install wraps with great proficiency, it pays to heed the words of those who have spent years learning the art and science of wraps. We provide that sage advice in the coming pages.

These days, there is virtually no limit to what can be wrapped, says Scott Record, national installation manager with Jacksonville, FL-based Graphic Application Systems Company, Inc., in business since the early 1980s.

“You’d be amazed at what can be wrapped in vinyl,” Record says. “We have wrapped railroad cars to power boats to motorcycle helmets. And although I haven’t done it myself, I know some are wrapping wheels on high-performance cars, changing a chrome wheel to a matte black finish.”

When vinyl wraps were first introduced, they were used strictly for the advertising and commercial applications, he says. Today, they’re penetrating the private sector for use by those who want to alter the look of their vehicles.

Two reasons to seek out skilled installers are to ensure wraps achieve the appearance and longevity for which they are intended. “Any Joe Blow can slap vinyl on a car, but it’s the people who are trained in this, and have a passion for it who can do anything with a wrap,” Record says. Novices can make a wrap look good from 50 feet away. “But how does it look at five feet?” he adds.

A skilled and experienced installer can also compensate for mistakes made in production, adds Andy Gutentag, president of Lakeland, FL-based Graphic Systems Installers, which was founded in 1990 and produced some of the first bus wraps used anywhere in the very early 1990s. If there are errors in the production or design, a talented installer has the ability to compensate for those problems in the way he positions the wrap on the vehicle, he says.

According to Shad Interligi, owner of White Plains, NY-based Real Hit Media, which installs many of the high-profile advertising wraps on New York City buildings and also produces vehicle wraps, great installers aren’t made, they’re born. That is particularly true in the installation of vehicle wraps, which requires the right touch on curved surfaces.

“There needs to be a certain talent level,” he says.

“Many things can be taught. But you either got it or you don’t. You need to be artistic, but you also must have some dexterity with your hands, because you’re working with a knife, a squeegee, a heat gun, and a measure. That’s why it’s become a profession calling for talent. There are not that many tricks to the trade other than practice and developing muscle memory.”

If an installer has that dexterity, there are a couple of techniques that can be used through the entire process, which involve applying pressure repetitively on compound curves. “Once you get that down, it makes the next installation easier, and the one after even easier. Eventually, you don’t even think about it.”

Newer generations of products have made good installers even better at their craft, Record adds. 3M, Avery, Oracal, and other manufacturers have spent a great deal of money, time, and effort on the research and development of the latest films. “Those products are a pleasure to work with,” he says.

“For example, 3M’s 180 CV3 vinyl is repositionable, so you can tack it on the side of a vehicle, and move it before it is permanently fixed to the car.”


Start by Educating Customers

According to John Carthey, president and owner of Tomball, TX-based Corporate Installations Inc., a 21-year-old business that serves NASA and the southeast Texas oil giants with installations that range from building to gas pump wraps, one of the most important steps for any installer is to take time to educate customers, so they know what they will be getting.

“You don’t want to put up a graphic as it’s supposed to be, and have them freak out because they thought it would be something else,” says Carthey, whose clients including Exxon, Shell, Texaco, Gulf Oil, and Chevron.

“We lay out every step, from set-up to blocking out an area to installation and cleanup. We also want to make sure they understand the correct graphics for their applications. Many times, we get in there after the graphic has been ordered. But we try to get in before, to ensure they order the correct graphics.”

When wrapping a vehicle, it is essential that the surface be spotless. “If you don’t have a clean surface, it’s only going to stick so long,” Record says. “And it will look terrible after only about a week’s time.”

Proper cleaning of the vehicle is critical to ensure that edges and corners don’t lift, Gutentag reports. His company asks that owners wash their cars 24 to 48 hours prior to the wrap, to ensure every surface is absolutely dry. Trying to wrap a vehicle too soon after a washing can be hamstrung by residual wetness around moldings and in crevices. Even attempting to blow dry the vehicle won’t always guarantee all the water is removed. “And right before installation, we clean it with alcohol, to make sure all grease and grime is off,” he says.

If the vehicle graphics to be wrapped have been produced in multiple pieces, installation must begin at the back of the vehicle. Why? It’s because vehicles mostly travel forward, not in reverse. As the car is driven, “the wind will go over the seams, as opposed to lifting the seams,” Gutentag says. “Plus, dirt will not collect as readily, because it doesn’t have an edge to catch on.”

When it comes to cutting the vinyl, a sharp knife is a must, Record says.

“If you have a dull knife, that’s going to leave you with a jagged edge,” he adds. “You could sit there and wrap a vehicle perfectly. But if you make one bad cut, it’s going to stick out like a sore thumb.”

Even in warm and sunny Florida, where Record and Gutentag are based, it’s important whenever possible to perform the installation in a climate-controlled environment. Ideally, vehicle wraps should be undertaken in temperatures of about 70 degrees, Record says. Installers can work in temperatures above and below 70, but that variability can be detrimental. If it’s too cold, the vinyl will not adhere properly. And if it’s too hot, the adhesive on the vinyl may become “too aggressive,” he says. “If I have to wrap a vehicle outdoors, I’ll look for a shady area out of direct sunlight. It could be 80 degrees outside, and if I’m in direct sunlight, the surface temperature of the vehicle could reach 130 degrees.”


Tips for Building Wraps

Wrapping buildings is very different from wrapping vehicles, because the surfaces tend to be flat, Interligi says. “I look at the vehicle wrap as the top shelf of installation,” he remarks. “For the most part buildings have flat surfaces. It’s a matter of setting the job in motion, and everything falls into place after that.”

At Real Hit Media, the installers do their own site inspections of buildings to be wrapped, arriving at the dimensions and schematic for the designer to follow. “We help create the template, which the graphic designer is going to use in positioning a face, a logo or a tagline, to make sure it’s easy to read,” he says.

“On a building, you don’t have the luxury you would with a billboard, where you can do anything you want. You may have a window or a door on the surface to be wrapped, or a bus shelter in the way. There are a number of obstacles that need to be taken into consideration, so the designers know where they can put their art elements and where they can’t. A proper site survey and template yields a much better ad, because it gives that designer the ability to work with a proper canvas. HBO doesn’t want its ‘B’ chopped in half by windows.”

Keep in mind, too, that the sides of buildings are not composed of one material. Most feature three types of surfaces, brick, glass (for windows), and metal (for frames around windows). That could result in three kinds of materials making up the wrap. Few looking at an advertisement covering a building from the street will notice that three different materials comprise the wrap. But Interligi and colleagues have to ensure the right materials are covering the right surfaces.

Once the materials have been printed, considerable prep work must take place before the installation gets underway. If there’s a brick section 48-inches-wide, the vinyl piece covering that section must be that exact width. As well, the depth of windows must be considered, so that material fills that space and removes the appearance of dimensionality when viewed from the street.

Like other installers, Interligi can’t say enough about the improvements made to vinyl films over the years. “The materials have absolutely gotten significantly better,” he observes. “Every year, the big materials manufacturers make the products better, enabling installations to become easier. That’s great for installers, because it opens up new canvases not available before.”

So what’s the takeaway for those who’d like to do great wraps? Says Carthey: “Just keep learning your craft, because the industry keeps changing with different graphics and different substrates they’re installed on.”