Applying Vinyl Graphics to Aircraft

Are you ready to let your business fly high? Applying vinyl graphics to aircraft may be your next big opportunity.

There are opportunities to apply vinyl to aircraft, but it takes special materials and a steady hand to get into the business.

Have you ever seen those massive logos on the tails of airplanes, or the lettering along the side, or how about the other décor on smaller jets? Yes, sometimes it’s painted on. But oftentimes it’s vinyl.

Perhaps surprisingly, you don’t need special vinyl to install graphics or lettering on small airplanes. However, you cannot use traditional vinyl on pressurized aircraft. It can only be installed on aircraft that flies below 13,000 feet, such as a single engine, piston-powered Cessna or a Cirrus. Cessna has returned to painting its planes, but Cirrus still depends on vinyl.

When it comes to jumbo jets and large commercial aircraft, you have to use highly specialized aircraft vinyl that’s literally designed to breathe with the skin of the aircraft as it expands and contracts when it moves through different altitudes. 3M and Avery both make aircraft marking film. There are, however, liability issues. If the decal gets sucked into the engine, it could bring the airliner down.

That’s the bad news. The good news is there are growing opportunities to apply vinyl to aircraft large and small.

“Applying vinyl to aircraft is a special niche market. If you can respond to that, and learn how to work with it, you could gain some business,” says Greg Duchinsky, the marketing director at Sharpline Converting, a vinyl graphics manufacturer based in Minneapolis. “You can make lettering for the fuselage, do trim accents, pinstripes down the side or even work your way up to jumbo jets.”

Are you ready to learn more about installing vinyl graphics on aircraft? OK, then without further ado, let’s get into the nitty gritty of this niche.

Preparing the surface 
As with any substrate, all airplane surfaces are considered contaminated until they are properly cleaned. That means, you’ve got to clean the airplane before you can apply the graphics. You may need to get on a lift to reach it, but other than that, cleaning an airplane isn’t a mystery.

Basically, it’s a three-step process, according to Sharpline’s “technical gurus”

1. Saturate a clean paper towel with a solvent approved by local EPA regulations (VM&P naphtha) and wipe the surface to remove any contaminates such as silicone, chalk or adhesives.

2. Dry the surface with a lint-free paper towel before the solvent evaporates.

3. Spray the surface with Isopropyl Alcohol and immediately dry the surface with clean dry towel. This should remove any residue remaining from the cleaning solvent.

Temperature considerations
When working with aircraft, it’s best to apply vinyl graphic products when the air and application temperatures are above 50°F and below 100°F. That doesn’t automatically rule out cold weather installing, however. You just need to get a little creative with your tools.

Surfaces may be artificially heated when air and application surface temperatures are below the minimum requirements. You can use portable heater, heat lamps, hot water or steam. If hot water or steam is used, however, the surface must be dried thoroughly before application.

Preparing to apply the graphic
Now that you’ve properly cleaned the area surrounding application surface, spray a light mist of Pro-Bond to each rivet head. This enhances the bond and minimizes tenting over the vinyl graphic.

“Applying vinyl to aircraft is similar to applying vinyl to vehicles,” Duchinsky says. “The biggest issue on small aircrafts has to deal with all the rivets. You need to do some additional prep work to get the adhesive to set up and bind to the surface than you would with an automobile.”

Next, position the vinyl. Sharpline recommends positioning the vinyl graphic in place on the aircraft with masking tape, or application tape. As an aid for aligning and registering the graphic on the surface prior to application, make register marks on the side edge of the surface with a lead pencil, a marking pen, or small pieces of masking tape.

Once you’ve done this, remove the liner. Layback one half of the vinyl graphic against the aircraft and remove the liner by sharply flicking the graphic edge toward the face of the graphic with the ball of the thumb or a fingernail.

A small bend at a corner or edge will cause the liner to separate from the graphic. Pull the liner away in a continuous motion at a 180° angle. Duchinsky warns to always remove the liner from the vinyl graphic rather than the vinyl graphic from the liner.

Applying the vinyl graphic
Now comes the fun part. Align the vinyl graphic to the register marks and tack it to the surface with thumb pressure at the corners. (For larger graphics, use one or more additional tack points along top edge.)

Using a felt squeegee, begin application at the vertical center of the vinyl graphic and apply all the way to one edge. Then, return to center with overlapping strokes and repeat the procedure applying to the opposite edge.

If you’ve ever applied vinyl before, then you know you want to avoid bubbles and wrinkles in the vinyl graphic at all costs. That’s because bubbles and wrinkles allow some tenting of the vinyl. Whatever you do, do not squeegee vinyl down around rivets until paper masking has been removed.

Removing the masking
You’re almost done. The next step is to mist the application masking with a water solution. Then allow this to soak for a minimum of two minutes. This will release the bond between the application masking and the face of the vinyl graphic, Duchinsky suggests. Then, remove the application masking from the face of the vinyl graphic by pulling masking back upon itself – always at a 180° angle.

If you have your air release tool handy, this is a good time to get it out. Use the air release tool to puncture the graphic several times around the rivet head, then warm the vinyl graphic and form the vinyl over the rivet with a felt squeegee.

Also, inspect the graphic in the flat areas for air bubbles. To eliminate these bubbles, Duchinsky suggests, puncture the graphic at one end of the bubble with an air release tool and press out entrapped air with a felt squeegee moving towards the puncture.

You are almost done. When the entire graphic has been applied, re-squeegee the entire graphic using a felt squeegee. The graphics will often last longer than car wraps.

“The vinyl actually gets less wear and tear than vehicles because most of those planes are hangared. They don’t fly that often. They are not out on the streets everyday,” Duchinsky says. “Most of the graphics are on the sides of the aircraft, so it’s not like it’s on the very front taking a beating. People rarely fly as many hours in an aircraft as they drive in their car.”

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