A Perfect Wrap

The wrap installation business is not for the faint at heart. The work itself is challenging, requiring installers to ensure that every wrap is perfect, no matter how big or how many awkward contours are inherent in the object. Equally challenging, say these business owners, is dealing with the profession’s operating environment, which often resembles the Wild, Wild West.

There are two approaches to running a company that specializes in wrap installations. One approach is to provide the full suite of graphic services, offering design, printing, and installations. Others focus solely on the installs, aligning with printers to get the job done.

Road Rage Designs in Spring Grove, IL, is one of the former. Named Road Rage Designs to emphasize the dedication felt by owner and president Mike Grillo and his staff, the 15-year old company offers vehicle wraps and graphics, corporate identity, interior and exterior digitally printed media, and graphic design.

“We wrap a lot of different things,” said Grillo, noting his company installs graphics on walls, floors, countertops, and vehicles, such as cars, boats, and fleets. Not surprisingly, each application requires different materials.

“The business is extremely cut- throat, as least here in Chicagoland,” said Grillo. “There are a lot of gypsy-type businesses, here for a year and gone. They aren’t licensed, and they don’t provide good work. I had one competitor who called the banding [because of the wide-format device used] his unique printing technique!”

Grillo’s most challenging task is not the technical acumen required to ensure a job well done—it’s educating clients about the difference between a “gypsy-type business” and a company like his own.

“I have insurance, I work in a controlled environment—I have 6,600 sq. ft. of indoor space to wrap the vehicle,” explained Grillo. “Some of the fly-by-nights work in a parking lot. If the installer breaks a mirror, and he doesn’t have insurance, the customer loses. My guys are insured.”

Cheap material also is an issue. “Manufacturers are coming out with cheaper material that’s less expensive but doesn’t hold up,” said Grillo. “The customer doesn’t know what they are getting.”

With a nod to the stormy winter much of the country has been experiencing, Grillo noted that prepping a vehicle is critical to a successful wrap. “Vehicles will come in caked in salt—the truck is black but it looks white,” said Grillo. We ask our customers to wash their vehicles, but a lot of times they come in unwashed, and we wash it by hand. Plus, the bigger trucks and the SUVs can’t go through a car wash.”

AB Installations, Inc., which serves the Mid-Atlantic region, has customers bring in vehicles the night before, so they can be properly washed and dried, reported Julie Martin, director. “If the moisture isn’t completely evaporated, it can lift up the vinyl wrap.”

John Carthey, owner of Corporate Installation in Houston, echoed Grillo’s concerns about the installation business environment. Carthey, on the board of directors for both United Standards Application Group (USAG), for 3M-certifited graphics installations, and Professional Decal Application Alliance (PDAA), now a part of SGIA, a non-affiliated certification process, cites these two vinyl graphic application organizations as standard-bearers for the industry. The PDAA is recognized by Arlon, Avery, Clear Focus, Flexcon, HP, MACtac, Oracal, Ritrama, and Roland DGA.

Many reputable installation businesses, such as Road Rage Designs, which is PDAA certified and an Avery test center, and Corporate Installations, certified by both USAG and PDAA, seek out these industry certifications. AB Installations ia a master certified member of PDAA and a USAG member.

“A lot of installers don’t know the properties of the product they're installing,” said Carthey. “Materials are designed for installation on specific surfaces under specific conditions. They have different longevity rates—some are better for short-term use, lasting only six months, while others will last five to seven years. Calendered vinyl is a cheaper material, while cast vinyl has greater durability.”

Corporate Installations handles decal application and structural graphics renovation as well as design and engineering consultations. It has installed floor graphics, wall murals, and refurbished vending machines with vinyl. Within its 9,000 sqft office/warehouse complex with two bays, Corporate Installations has developed national fleet programs for some of the country’s largest transportation and energy companies, such as Shell, and installation production for consumer-focused manufacturers and retailers like Levi Strauss and Under Armour.

Knowing which tools to use is also key. Icon Image in Cerritos, CA, a USAG and PDAA-certified shop, produces custom and fleet wraps for a host of high-end clients, including US Foods, Safeway, and BestBuy. It partners with top-shelf printers, and often works with custom car shops to wrap ultra-expensive cars, such as Porsches and Lamborghinis. To ensure that the original paint isn’t scratched during the installation, Sino Tour, co-owner and senior installer, uses Knifeless Tape from Knifeless Tech Systems.

Knifeless Tape is an installation tool that is applied to the vehicle body wherever cuts will be needed, prior to the application of the graphic film. “It’s very thin, like a fishing wire,” said Tour. “It slices the film without damaging the car.”

Once the film is applied, the installer simply pulls the high-strength filament embedded in the tape’s center, producing sharp cuts in the vehicle wrap. Installers don’t have to worry about scratching the paint with a knife.

“You can create any design—flames, for example,” said Tour. “It’s brilliant”

No matter what the project, the wrap has to be engineered so it looks like paint, says Tour. “You hide the cut vinyl in the body lines of the vehicles, in the door jams, the molding—wherever you can so it looks seamless,” he notes.

Vehicle wraps is only one part of Icon Image’s services toolkit. “With custom wrap work, there’s so much you can do besides vehicles,” adds Tour. “It’s relatively inexpensive compared to paint, and it brings a lot of aesthetic qualities, a level of sophistication to the project. The material keeps getting better and better.”

One of the other benefits is that it allows the customer to easily change the color or look of the object being wrapped. The electric blue piano on stage during Jack White’s show-stopping Grammy performance was actually a standard black Baldwin piano transformed by Icon Image with a custom wrap. Wrapping instruments is a growing part of Icon Images’ business.

“A lot of our corporate fleet clients don’t want to paint their tractors, because they lease them,” said Tour, “They hire us to efficiently engineer a wrap, offering a cost-effective color change or creating an overlay with a graphic design or logo. Then, when they return it in five years, they don’t accrue the cost of painting the trailer. You can also easily change the decal if your logo changes. Plus, the car wrap protects the paint.”

AB Installations is a for-hire installation company, concentrating on providing professional installations of graphics and signs, said Martin.

Located in Sykesville, MD, with climate-controlled bays in Virginia and Maryland, the company focuses on three areas: fleet, retail, and out-of-home advertising, typically specialty promotions.

“We work with printers all over the country and outside of the US, providing them with the necessary expertise and training skills for installations, mostly self adhesive, dimensional lettering, and clear mounted signage” said Martin.

To ensure a successful installation, communication is a critical part of the process, making sure that all parties are on the same page. “We have a lot of back and forth with customers to make sure we understand the parameters,” said Martin. “Having flexibility is key. Schedules are constantly changing, there are delays in artwork approvals, shipping, or because of the weather. We often have to adjust in real time.”

Top challenges include “managing the customer’s expectations, educating them about the process as well as maintaining the integrity of our clients, which are the printers,” said Martin. “A lot of time we are the only people who actually see the customer. The printer can be from California, and the client is here in DC. The printer ships the graphics and we install them. It’s really important for us to maintain that ethical and professional standard at all times, where printers find you credible enough to rely on our reputation to represent them.”