Tips and Tricks for Applied Graphics

Applied graphics no longer adhere to traditional surfaces like vehicles and billboards; with today’s technology, savvy sign shops are able to apply graphics to the most unusual and formerly unforgiving substrates including brick walls, pavement, windows, sidewalks, and more. Our experts weigh in on how these graphics can be created and applied to give companies a modern marketing edge.

Equipment Requirements

Fortunately for PSPs, creating graphics for rough surfaces does not typically require new equipment. Most existing equipment will suffice when it comes to printing the graphics.

Joe Walton, 3M Commercial Graphics Technical Service, says, “Sign shops are using their current wide format printers and laminators to create graphics for various surfaces. The key is to find the right product that will work for various surfaces. A product like 3M Envision Print Wrap Film 480Cv3 with the corresponding 3M Envision Gloss Wrap Overlaminate 8548G can be used for brick, concrete and other rough surfaces. For windows, a good choice is a product like 3M Scotchcal Clear View Graphic Film IJ8150.”

Jennifer Corn, LexJet product manager adds, “Inkjet media manufacturers are making it simple for print shops to offer solutions for rough surfaces to their clients that are easy to use and install. For instance, LexJet offers Simple MTS Adhesive Vinyl for multi-textured surfaces, which can be easily removed for up to a year and will hold graphics permanently in place for up to five years. There is also a wide variety of materials that can be used for windows, from perforated window vinyls to low-tack clear and white films and repositionable, adhesive backed fabrics like Photo Tex and LexJet Print-N-Stick Fabric for shorter-term programs. There are also tools available on the market designed for application to textured surfaces, such as 3M's Two-Handled Textured Surface Applicator.”

Although existing equipment may work well in the initial creation of the graphic, there are some items that are required for application purposes.

Walton states, “Essential equipment is a correct wide format printer, inks and laminator. Most 3M films can be printed with solvent, latex and UV inks. For shops that do not have electronic cutting equipment or just want to avoid that step, 3M has the perfect solution that can create the impression of cut graphics on clear windows: 3M Scotchcal Clear View Graphic Film IJ8150. It can be used on vehicles, windows and other glass surfaces with endless possibilities for creative printing techniques.

“Once the graphics are produced, other essential application equipment for rough surfaces would be a heat gun capable of 1000º F and various application rollers. A very good tool for speed and ergonomics would be the 3M Two-Handled Textured Surface Applicator TSA-4. This tool allows the heat gun to be set in place, which allows for faster speed and less tiring than holding the heat gun.”

Corn states, “The most common tools needed are a printer, laminator, squeegee or surface applicator and cleaning supplies. Novice installers should stay away from textured and rough surfaces where conformability is important until they are better accustomed to working with the media specifically designed for brick and brick-like substrates.”

The Application is the Thing

While creating the graphic seems to take no more skill than usual for PSPs, the application of applied graphics to rough surfaces is the difficult part. There are precise methods to ensure longevity and a smooth appearance plus a few tips and tricks shared by the experts.

Jodi Sawyer, Market Development Specialist at FLEXcon, shares tips to understanding the application requirements:

“Have a clear understanding of the application requirements and work with a materials manufacturer that can provide application expertise and guidance. This plays a key role in selecting the right self-adhesive materials with the performance characteristics that ensures the longevity of the applied signage. Here are some key questions….

  • What is the expected exterior life durability?
  • What’s the application surface – what type of material is the graphic being applied to?
  • What is surface type – smooth, rough textured, etc.?
  • Is the surface profile flat, curved, concave, complex curved?
  • What environmental elements will the graphic be exposed to: Heat? Humidity? UV exposure? Chemicals? Abrasion? Tampering? High foot traffic?
  • What specific graphic size will be needed?

Surface cleanliness and preparation are critical to ensure the longevity of self-adhesive signage materials. Maintaining adhesive contact with the surface is vital to prevent edge lift and potential failure.”

Sawyer adds, “Overlaminating is recommended for long term permanent graphics. An overlaminate can be used to protect and extend the life of the signage, change the aesthetics (for example: matte or luster or embossed, etc.), or provide functionality based on application requirements, such as floor graphics.

Tips for overlaminating:

  • Allow the inks to dry completely before overlaminating
  • Use “like” film types for the printable film and overlaminate. For example, vinyl/vinyl to avoid tunneling – vinyls expand and contract under heat and pressure at different rates than non-vinyl films.
  • Solvent-based adhesive overlaminates will provide longer term outdoor performance and resistance to moisture, heat, humidity and abrasion than water-based overlaminates.

Jason Yard, Marketing Manager at MACtac Distributor Products, offers: “There are many steps which must be employed to successfully apply graphics to uncommon surfaces. The first step is preparation of the surface. If it’s a wall or sidewalk, use a fine bristled brush or compressed air to remove all of the loose dust and dirt. Make sure the brick or concrete is dry and above 50 degrees F. The next most important aspect is using the right amount of heat and pressure.”

Corn states, “By visiting the installation site, the print specialist will know, in advance, exactly what type of surface the installation site offers. Having this information ahead of time allows the installer to pick the proper media for the job. Make sure the surface is clean and free of debris. Isopropyl alcohol or a cleaner designed specifically for vinyl application is recommended. Don't use soap, Windex or any ammonia-based cleaners as they leave a residue that will affect adhesion. Always test the surface before committing to the full application. Follow the installation guidelines from the manufacturer of the product, including having the tools necessary for installation (heat gun, roller, squeegee, etc).”

Although PSPs can certainly gain good information from vendors and manufacturers, there are still surfaces that are best avoided.

Walton says, “The best surfaces to avoid for an inexperienced PSP would be surfaces that don’t allow the film to adhere to the surface. These surfaces can be simple flat walls with a low VOC (volatile organic compound) type paint. It is very important to test the wall surface prior to installation to make sure the paint and the film choice are compatible. 3M has provided customers a wall test kit to aid in making the right choices. It only takes 15 minutes to determine whether the surface will be acceptable for graphics. Other surfaces to avoid for an inexperienced PSP would be the rough surfaces like stucco, brick and concrete block with mortar joints.”

Seeking Out New Clients

As with all new techniques, there continue to be markets that are underserved. Current and future trends also give PSPs a variety of opportunities to increase their client base.

Sawyer addresses some areas:

  • “Retail spaces are still untapped in terms of the possibilities for applied signage – branded zone transformations are increasing – combining multiple elements – walls, windows, floors, shelves, displays and counters to completely brand a space. Beyond retail spaces, the use of applied signage for special events & sponsorships, corporate facility branding, offices, hospitals, and barricades markets are opportunities.
  • Healthcare & Pharmaceutical branding – from the package on the shelf to the floor graphic drawing attention to the product to the counter graphic at the pharmacy counter…..these are areas where more brand differentiation is needed and applied signage helps meet that need.

Yard says, “The markets that remain untapped and underserved are local businesses where traditional sign codes limit the use of banners and permanent signage. Schools are also a big target. I tell customers to printout a small mascot on StreetRAP, install it for free with your logo and wait for the call. Schools and universities are always refreshing and remodeling and don’t realize graphics can be put on sidewalks or cinder blocks.

“Architectural graphics continue to grow in the industry. At this point, graphics can be installed anywhere—on anything. People are realizing there aren’t limits to applied graphics, so you will see more rough surface graphics in the future. Using them to wrap a whole building in conjunction with window graphics is still a relatively new concept but that trend is growing.”