'Secret Weapons' of Wrap Removal

Applying vehicle wraps can be relatively painless (see “Thick Skins: Wrap Installtion Tips” MyPRINTResource.com/1088799) , but taking them off – without damaging the surface underneath? That’s another story altogether. “Stripping vinyl is the ugly side of our work,” said David Wysong...

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Applying vehicle wraps can be relatively painless (see “Thick Skins: Wrap Installtion Tips” MyPRINTResource.com/1088799), but taking them off – without damaging the surface underneath? That’s another story altogether. “Stripping vinyl is the ugly side of our work,” said David Wysong, sales manager of Atlanta-based Adnormous Graphics. “A lot of sign makers would rather not do it.” Shad Interligi is in that camp. “I really dread removals and usually sub [sub-contact] them out,” admitted Interligi, owner of outdoor installation firm Real Hit Media, White Plains, NY.

There are, however, a variety of tools, techniques, and industry secrets that take away dread and add profits to the task of vinyl stripping. One stripping “don’t” involves abrasive solutions. Anything abrasive, experts agreed, could quickly damage the paint on an automobile. And using Exacto knives or razor blades on vinyl that has been applied to a vehicle is just plain foolish. It’s too easy to nick the paint and bring liability to the sign shop. “They can chip and scratch paint,” said Seattle wrap specialist Tim Cole of BIGink, which prefers rubber squeegees and plastic blades. Specialty removal tools, such as the Little Chiseler, also are available.

In an online blog, Sunrise Signs, a custom wraps and graphics shop in Gloucester City, NJ, offered reassuring advice: “As long as the vinyl hasn’t been left on for years past its original warranty (ours is five years) and it wasn’t applied directly after the vehicle was painted (always wait at least three weeks), your wrap can be removed without any damage to the paint job underneath.”

Rob Ivers of Rob Ivers, Inc., Raymore, MO, has been wrapping vehicles for 20 years and specializes in graphic installation training. He added his perspective. “Most of how it comes off depends on what it was applied to and how it was applied. Applying a wrap (or any vinyl) to a repainted vehicle may cause issues, especially during removal,” Ivers warned. “Any issues with paint and/or clear coat before installation will likely be made worse when removed.”

There’s also what seems like a no-brainer: Do not cut the paint when applying or removing. “Use heat to remove wraps,” Ivers added. “Most use a weed burner for quick, even heat. This is the ideal tool but caution must be used to not damage the vinyl or vehicle. Other heat devices are typically just too slow for efficient removal. And don’t go crazy with Primer 94 or similar during installation,” Ivers concluded. “Those areas will leave adhesive at the removal stage, making removal more time-consuming.”

Painted-on Primer

Adam Blackman, a 3M preferred installer and owner of ThreeFour Wraps, agreed with that last point. “It’s my biggest pet peeve: previous installers who have ‘painted’ with Primer 94,” said Blackman, who has been designing and installing vehicle graphics for 14 years. He got his start applying vehicle markings for trucking companies and police departments as well as the Secret Service. Citing primer overload as “the absolute worst situation,” Blackman said he has seen “boats and vans where every edge and contour has been painted -- with rollers!” The removal task for such excess primer requires a trio of adhesive remover, squeegees, and pressure-washers.

“We do mostly heat-and-peel [removals], so being in a controlled area is preferred – indoors, not outside,” added Blackman, who started ThreeFour Wraps near Philadelphia in 2005 and has done instructional videos for the US Air Force. When using a heat gun or torch in an outdoor environment, “a wind coming from the wrong direction can bubble the paint off a rear door,” he explained. Exercise caution with chemicals that soften paint so as not to “cook” it. “Chemically removing vinyl is costly, time-consuming, and very messy,” Blackman cautioned.

Sean Tomlin, owner of Designer Wraps in Millville, NJ, complained about too much primer, too. “Hopefully, whoever wrapped the car knew what they were doing -- and went easy on the 3M [adhesive] Primer 94 or [used] no primer at all. It’s the worst stuff to remove,” said Tomlin, echoing Blackman’s lament. It is a lot more difficult to remove a wrap that has primer, he added. “You have to spend messy time removing the primer itself. It will turn a half-day job into three to four days.” Besides, primer is not even necessary if the wrap is done properly, he added. “There may be a few areas on a vehicle that might require very little primer for adhesion support.”

On a normal wrap removal -- one with the proper use of primer or none at all -- the wrap pulls off nicely, Tomlin said. There are exceptions, of course, namely materials used, how long the vehicle has been wrapped, the geographic location, and how much of the vehicle was wrapped, for example. “Some materials are easier to remove than others; some rip easier than others; and some come off perfectly clean while others leave behind a lot of adhesive,” he explained. Also, how long the film has been on the car and location both play a big part into the wrap removal. “The longer it has been on the vehicle, the more difficult it may be to remove,” he said matter-of-factly. A garage-kept vehicle is ideal. “Warmer climates with more sun exposure tend to bake the film onto the car,” Tomlin stated.

Reflective graphics are the most difficult to remove, Blackman added, especially if it is uncertain how long they’ve been in place. “We go by the vehicle model year most of the time because customers usually don’t know,” he said. “With reflective, you need just the right amount of heat, and you need to pick and pull at 45-degree angles, not 90 degrees.” Another option is using erasing tools such as 3M Graphics Removal Disc, which attaches to a drill. “They turn vinyl to dust,” Blackman noted, “but factory paint is required.”

Lastly, how much of the vehicle is covered in film? “Commercial vehicles will almost always have either full or partial coverage, whereas personal vehicles or what we call Color Changes may also have their door jams wrapped. Or, the vehicle may have been completely dismantled and each corner and edge wrapped -- this all adds to the time and complexity of the wrap removal,” offered Tomlin of Designer Wraps. “If and when adhesive is left behind on the surface, we use either 3M Citrus Base Remover or Kline and a lot of paper towels. Once the adhesive is removed, the vehicle is then washed and wiped down with isopropyl alcohol.”

Wysong of Adnormous said his firm “uses many types of adhesive removers: 3M Removers, Rapid Remover, Goo Gone, Goof Off, Vinyl-Off, and in extreme cases we even resort to using xylene. I would start with alcohol, then move to Goo Gone, which is a citrus-based product, then Goof Off, which is used for removing paint from floors,” he explained.

Now that the dirty part of the job is completed, you can focus on the fun part: applying new vinyl graphics. “But before you do,” said Wysong, “make sure the surface is completely clean. Use soap and water to remove any remaining residue or a cleaner that doesn’t leave behind any residue.”

Steam vs. Blade

When asked to provide WFI readers with tips for removing wraps, Real Hit Media’s Interligi jested avoiding unwrapping at all costs. “Call in sick, or say your dog ate your removal tools.” If forced to remove a wrap, “go to the bar immediately afterwards,” he concluded.

But is it really that bad, Shad? Interligi knows of a fellow wrapper – a 3M Preferred Installer and Lowen Certified Expert -- who excels at unwrapping as well. His name is Kenny Tonn, principal of Tonn Inc. Brand Installers out of North Lawrence, OH, near Canton. Tonn has “a secret removal weapon,” according to his NY counterpart, and that trade secret happens to involve steam.

“We use a low-pressure steam system with a plunger head,” Tonn explained, describing a jerry-rigged set-up that’s “nothing fancy,” he insisted. “We run a couple of guns and hoses off it. Steam removes vinyl like nothing else,” added Tonn, who also is a master certified with the Professional Decal Application Alliance (PDAA) through SGIA. “It saturates the vinyl, making it more pliable so it pulls right up. There’s no ‘flay’ sticking up. The steam pretty much gets off all the adhesive, too, with the exception of some Avery films and reflectives.”

Tonn confessed that removing wraps can be a “nasty job,” but steaming makes his life easier. “I used the use the torch method before, and it was horrible,” he recounted. “What took six hours now takes 60 minutes [using steam]. Some super-old graphics you can’t get [remove] with a torch – and paint stripper and orange-peel oil are expensive.” Plus, there’s this silver lining in the messy cloud: Removal jobs often lead to installations, Tonn reported, adding that his full-service approach has been a proverbial foot in the door at several customers, including the US Foods, Inc. trucking fleet.

Pete Kouchis, owner of VisuCom Signs & Graphics in Mokena, IL, is using steam in a similar way on a slightly smaller scale. “I just picked up a second SteamBlade, a product from Jiffy Steamer Co.,” Kouchis said. “In my opinion, it produces a broader, gentler heat that seems to do a better job on many cases than a heat gun or a torch. We’re currently de-identifying a fleet of buses with reflective cut graphics. The steamer helps with the removal. Any residual adhesive can often be steamed to soften and scraped off with a chiller.”

Charge for It

While wrap firm owners “cannot make an installer out of a steamer,” Tonn cautioned, they can sell wrap installs at twice the price of removals. The most common mistake -- and one that directly affects the bottom line -- is failing to price the job correctly, warned Wysong of Adnormous Graphics. Stripping vinyl is much more costly than applying vinyl in terms of man hours. That is why, he said, “removal is charged by the hour: end of story. Stripping vinyl graphics can be one of the most challenging things in a day-to-day sign shop’s operation, specifically when you are trying to estimate the time that it takes to do a stripping job,” he explained. “You can’t have a set fee. The labor time can be twice as much to strip as it is to letter.

“Before an Adnormous representative gives a vinyl stripping quote,” said Wysong, “a spot test is performed to determine how difficult it will be to remove the vinyl. If the estimate is too high for the customer’s budget, Adnormous Graphics will even show the customer how to strip the vinyl. Most of the time, demonstrating how difficult it is to strip the vinyl is the only way you can justify the price because it usually costs more to strip a van than it does to re-letter it,” he noted. “Once the customer tries to do it themselves, most of the time they don't care what it costs.”

Avoid Razors (and other tips)

Tim Cole, a vehicle wrap specialist at BIGink LLC, Seattle, WA, which now is part of Rainier Industries, shares some other wrap removal tips:

  • A heat gun or propane torch is required to heat up the material (approx. 140 degrees F) and soften the adhesive.
  • With proper heat, wraps should come off fairly easily in large pieces or even full panels.
  • A quality wrap will often have the material “tucked” into window frames, tail lights, etc. Heat the material properly to loosen these areas and you can remove the vinyl without taking off the frames or lights. But sometimes you will have to remove these to remove all the vinyl pieces.
  • Ease of removal will depend on several factors:
    • Quality and type of materials originally used. Cheaper materials will prove more difficult. Cast vinyl with air egress will be the easiest to remove. Calendar vinyl is more difficult to remove and, in the worst case, peels off in small chunks.
    • If the vinyl was coated with liquid laminate (versus pressure-sensitive laminate), the material tends to tear. This is due to the thin coating of the liquid lam. The pressure-sensitive laminate acts to “hold” the vinyl together when you begin to pull it away from the vehicle.
    • Reflective vinyls also are difficult to remove and will often peel in small chunks.
    • Vinyl that has been applied to roofs for an extended time can be a problem because the material has been exposed to sunlight and has absorbed greater heat from the sun.
    • For difficult-to-remove vinyl’s, there is a “rubber eraser” product available which can be attached to an air tool. The spinning eraser will remove the vinyl without damaging the paint surface.

Fellers is a good source for vehicle wrap materials and supplies used for wraps, Cole said.

After Removal

  • A good installer will use additional adhesive for tight curves, seams, and indentations. This prevents the material from later “bubbling” up as the adhesion releases from these difficult areas. 3M P94 is a common adhesive used for extra adhesion.
  • Adhesive residue can be removed with several different solvents (Cleansolve, Rapid Remover, or common paint thinner). Never apply directly to the vehicle.
  • Always apply to a rag or towel, then rub the adhesive residue. If solvents are used, a good coat of wax is recommended to further protect the paint after the removal is completed.