What You Need to Know About Vehicle Wraps

Mike Grillo, president of Road Rage Designs, a Spring Grove, IL, provider of specialty vehicle wraps, has a number of rival vehicle wrap companies in his general vicinity. But Grillo isn’t worried about the future of his nine-year-old shop.

“One [competitor] went out of business, one is currently going out of business, and one is coming back for a third try,” he says. “We take pride in what we do. We warrant all we do, and it’s hard for others to compete with that.”

Like other successful companies providing vehicle wraps from coast to coast, Grillo and his colleagues have discovered the secrets of success in this competitive field. In the pages ahead, they, and others, share their insights, serving up their top tips and advice to help ensure your wrap is right every time.


Listen to Customers

The first step in creating the perfect wrap is the ability to really communicate with the customer. That involves listening well and also being able to let customers know when they are wrong in what they want, Grillo says.

“The customer knows their business better than you do, and your job is to learn their business from them, to help promote them in the best way possible,” he observes. “Everyone is an individual and has their own mindset. If you have a plumber who comes in for a wrap, he’ll have a mindset about how he wants to project himself. You have to get to know his business and his personality, and tailor the vehicle graphic to his business image and his company’s direction.”

As noted, that sometimes involves informing the customer he’s wrong about what he wants. One of Grillo’s favorite anecdotes is about a plumber who wanted a wrap depicting two pipe wrenches crossed, a real bad boy image, for his All-Pro Plumbing. “My designer said to him, ‘Who is your client?’ It turned out housewives were his customers. My designer suggested a rubber duck on the side of his truck. Today, he has a rubber duck on his truck. In parking lots, women come up, ask for his card, and say, ‘My child loves your rubber duck.’”

Customers should be reminded that vehicle wraps are intended to achieve three results: tell who you are, tell what you do, and tell how to contact you.

“The wrap is just eye candy to draw the attention of the person reading that message, and make it stand out on the road,” Grillo says. “If the wrap obscures those three messages, you’ve failed the customer.”

The customer should also be apprised of other considerations concerning the wrap, says Sam Twomey, manager of The Mad Striper in Murfreesboro, TN, which Twomey terms the longest-standing installation firm in the US.

Most wraps have perforated window film, which was invented primarily for commercial bus windows, he says. It will work on car windows, but is really made for windows that don’t go up and down. “You have to tell the customer that if you put perfed window film on windows that are raised and lowered, it voids the film’s warranty. The film is not made to be raked across rubber.”

The installer should also discuss with customers whether carmakers’ logos and emblems will be removed, which takes time and often damages them, or whether the wrap will be trimmed around emblems. “However they want to do it, we can do it,” Twomey says. “But it needs to be discussed ahead of time. It’s easier for them and for us to get that expectation taken care of ahead of time.”


Measure First

Veteran wrap installer Rob Ivers, president of Raymore, MO-based Rob Ivers Inc., a nearly 25-year-old company that installs graphics on walls, windows, and floors but primarily on vehicles, reports measuring is an overlooked practice.

“A lot of people don’t measure. They make templates, and some people use digital camera photos,” says Ivers, who not only installs wraps himself but trains others in the art and science of the discipline.

“I use templates. I take photos. But I always go out and measure the vehicle. I’ll measure a Camaro. It doesn’t have to be the Camaro.

“I think too many people rely too much on the templates and photographs, and those techniques do save time. But you can’t make a template absolutely perfectly configure to the vehicle. To achieve that result, you have to actually get off your butt and do a little measuring to make sure the other things are right.”

Another wrap specialist who hasn’t overlooked measuring is Eric Goodwin, president and CEO of Garage Graphics in Huntington Beach, CA. The 14-year-old company specializes in signs, stickers, banners, and car wraps.

“We’ll take a photo of the customer’s car, mock up the wrap on that photo, and transfer it to the template,” he says. “In the meantime, we’ve already measured several key parts of the car, like the wheelbases and certain other points, to make sure the templates we create are accurate.”


Prepare the Vehicle

To achieve best results, the vehicle to be wrapped has to be carefully prepared, experts say. That involves more than cleaning. “It requires taking off the hardware if it needs to be removed, and emblems as well,” Ivers says. “You are going to get a much better job if you take them off and leave them off.”

Many beginning installers can’t wait to get started with the wrapping part of the job, but neglect other preliminary steps. That’s a mistake because one of the places vinyl may come loose is those hard to reach spots, and they must be pristinely clean when the wrap is installed. “People getting into wraps may skimp on the vehicle preparation,” says Sean Tomlin, owner of Designer Wraps, a Millville, NJ, business established in 2006 to provide vehicle and wall wraps.

“That’s the most important part of the wrap. I’m talking about [cleaning] all the nooks and crannies: door jambs, corners, around door handles, wheel wells.”

Ivers notes it’s easy to clean the main part of a vehicle, “But you have to pay attention to getting the edges as super clean as possible, so you don’t wind up trying to get vinyl to adhere to places where there is contamination.”

Sino Tour, operations manager for Icon Image, a five-year-old Signal Hill, CA-based provider of wraps for windows, pillars, floors, and vehicles, is also fanatical about preparation. Tour informs owners they should wash the car prior to the wrap, but ensure it’s not waxed, which can compromise results.

Once the vehicle has been delivered to the installers, it’s essential they take great care with the cleaning of the vehicle’s surface. “It has to be very clean, very free of debris, because any contamination can compromise longevity of the wrap,” Tour says. “We use isopropyl alcohol to clean the surface all over. It helps to take off some of the wax and dirt that might be on the vehicle.”


During the Installation

Several key considerations can help ensure the actual installation is as flawless as possible, Ivers says. First, be careful not to overstretch the vinyl, because stretching can lead to lifting, he reports. Second, on convex surfaces like bumpers and mirrors, use a technique called pre-stretching.

“The vinyl is stretched before we need it, so it will shrink back when heated and fit tighter,” he says. “The vinyl will return to its original thickness and provide better adhesion.”

Next, trim well, avoid letting paint show, and use a knifeless system “that allows you to cut from the inside out, so you’re not damaging paint,” he says.

For Tour, the most important application rules begin with applying enough pressure to the vinyl to ensure it adheres well to the surface. “Also, make sure that around the seams your cuts are all well rounded,” he advises.

Rounding off edges helps ensure air moves more smoothly over them, he says. It is the same basic principle seen in floor graphics, where corners are rounded to make them less susceptible than right angles to the lifting that could occur when trampled upon through days or weeks of foot traffic.

“We deal with a lot of fleet wraps, and the vinyl will come in a kit with a pre-mask to it,” Tour says. “The overall goal is to make sure once you pull the pre-mask off, you squeegee a second time really quickly around door handles and seams, to make sure everything stays tucked in.”

Post-heat around door handles, around seams, around complex curves, and around recessed areas, Tour urges. “Vinyl has memory,” he says.

“If you post-heat with a heat gun around those areas, it basically helps the curing process and helps the vinyl become one with the vehicle. Especially here in California, we use a heat gun in those recessed areas.”

One final caution is offered by Kenny Miller, owner of Simi Valley, CA-based ThumbPrint, who advises wrapping in a controlled environment if at all possible. “We have an indoor environment where a semi-trailer or large motor home can fit,” he says.

“The controlled environment ensures you are installing the vinyl in optimal ambient temperature. You have consistent light, and you have enough room around the vehicle to step back and just confirm the graphics’ straightness.”


After the Installation

The vinyl has been installed, but the job’s not done. Ivers urges a post-installation check of the work by taking the vehicle outdoors into the sunlight.

“Raise the temperature of the vinyl to 200 degrees in the areas where it’s been stretched, to give it the best chance of long-term adhesion,” he suggests.

Goodwin, too, uses natural sunlight as a last check on the job’s quality. “After we finish the wrap, I check around the car, to make sure everything’s tucked in, and everything’s where it is supposed to be,” he says.

“We like to take it out and sit it in the sun, and check it after a few hours. The sun may bring up a bubble, or it may reveal a corner not tucked in. It’s just a precaution to make sure everything is in place.”

Advising vehicle owners on post-installation care is a final key step, Tour says. He and his installers urge owners to always hand wash the vehicle, rather than using a car wash. “If they choose to run it through a car wash, we prefer they do it in a touch-free wash, as opposed to exposing it to harsh bristles on the rollers you see in many car washes,” he says. “Vinyl can lift, peel, and fail.”

If you’re not happy with the wraps you’re performing, it could be a lack of professional training. Miller recommends professional training courses, which are offered by 3M and Avery. “Ours is a 3M-certified company,” he says.

“That really does help a newer installer know all the tricks and tips of doing it. Getting a certification, and not just one but several, shows you are a true professional and take the job seriously.”