3-Step Prep for Vehicle Graphics

Whether you are installing trailer graphics or doing a full wrap of a car or van, surface preparation involves a three-step process of detergent washing, solvent cleaning and a final wipe down with IPA.

Step 1.

Vehicles should be washed the day before vinyl application with detergent and water. This should remove much of the water-soluble dirt. Washing the day before the installation allows enough time for the unit to completely dry, even underneath the rivet heads and between the panels, where it really counts.

Washing a vehicle by hand is very time consuming, and frankly, should not be the sign person’s responsibility.  Insist that the fleet owner have this done.  Units that are not washed should be subject to a washing charge. To cover your tracks and avoid any potential arguments with the client, put this clause in writing in the contract.

Be sure the unit is completely dry before applying the graphics.  Water trapped underneath the rivet heads can cause the vinyl to “tent” or lift at these areas.  Moisture under the panel seams also causes lifting problems.

Cleaning a vehicle for a wrap, of course, requires a little more tender loving care. In these cases, every part of the vehicle must be spotless before you start, including  underneath the wheel wells, the door jams and the edges of the hood and trunk.

Step 2.

After washing the surface with detergent and water, the second step is to solvent wipe the surface. Even though a washed surface looks clean, contaminants such as waxes, grease, tar and oils are most likely still present.
To remove these contaminants, use DuPonts 3919S Prep-Sol, Xylol or a wax and grease remover. In the sign trade, many graphics installers use eco-friendly alternative cleaners, such products as Rapid Prep or Universal Products’ TFX Professional Striping Cleaner.

SAFETY NOTE: Whenever you use any type of solvent always read the warnings on the label and in the MSDS. You should work in a well-ventilated area, wear the recommend safety equipment and follow the recommended procedures. And if you’re the boss, you make your younger employees follow the rules too.

CAUTION — Test, Don’t Guess.  The formulations of the various solvent cleaners and wax and grease removers vary greatly from one manufacturer to another.  Some formulations are very strong. To ensure you don’t damage the paint system of a car or truck, test the solvent on an inconspicuous area of the vehicle before using it.

Step 3.

Since some solvent leaves an oily residue, give the surface a final wipe with 70% isopropyl alcohol (IPA).  This last step should be performed with both hands. In one hand, you’ll need a rag saturated with alcohol. In your other hand, keep a clean rag or paper toweling. After you apply the solvent, wipe it dry before it evaporates. Do this final cleaning right before vinyl application to remove any airborne contaminants that may have settled on the vehicle’s surface.

Final Remarks. As critical as surface prep is, it is often the last thing that an installer thinks about.  Frequently, it’s overlooked all together. But it’s the first thing that will cause adhesion problems.  Consider this: if you don’t clean off the dirt and grease from the substrate, what is the vinyl going to stick to? Dirt and grease!  Improper surface preparation is a sure recipe for vinyl graphics failure. If you want your graphics to stick, take the time to properly prep the substrate prior to the graphics application.

The three-step procedure for  prepping vehicle surfaces does a great job on dirt, grease and tar for the majority of applications. It will not, however, cover you on every application. There are always those troublesome exceptions to the rule. Two exceptions are chalked paint and oxidize aluminum. These applications require special surface prep, which I will cover in upcoming articles.

For more information about surface preparation and graphics application, I highly recommend reading The Graphic Installers Handbook. This comprehensive guide to vinyl graphics installation is a “must have” resource for the beginner or seasoned professional. Written by Rob Ivers, the certification director for the PDAA (Professional Decal Application Alliance), the handbook covers every aspect of vinyl graphics installation. Contact Rob at www.robivers.com for more information about his book. Rob also offers PDAA certification classes as well as private graphics training.