Avoiding Bubbles and Wrinkles During Vinyl Applications

Learn how to avoid these pesky problems during vinyl installation with advice from the pros.  

Wage war against bubbles and wrinkles with practical techniques designed to yield picture perfect graphic installations.

Your graphic is picture perfect. Your substrate is squeaky clean. And your tools are top of the trade. But you still wind up with those frustrating bubbles and wrinkles that diminish the look of the finished product.

What’s a vinyl installer to do? Beginners often use a wet application with translucent or clear vinyl to eliminate bubbles and wrinkles, but experts say wet applications can actually create bubbles and wrinkles if not done properly. Avoiding bubbles and wrinkles is a matter of tender loving care from the moment you handle the vinyl until it is applied on the substrate.

Before you begin
To rid yourself of those blasted bubbles and worrisome wrinkles, you first need to understand what causes them. For starters, if you don’t store your vinyl properly, then you can’t expect it to perform to its maximum capacity. (For more information on this topic, read our article, “Vinyl Techniques: Considering Environmental Conditions.

You’ll also want to avoid applying pre-mask on the same table on which you cut the graphics because your material could pick up contaminants. Of course, if your substrate is not clean, then you can potentially run into all sorts of problems. (For more information on this topic, read our article “Vinyl Techniques: Preparing the Surface.

Get the water out
In most cases, squeegeeing the vinyl at a 45 degree angle with overlapping, firm strokes will rid the vinyl of most of the bubbles and prevent wrinkles. Don’t be concerned about pressing too hard. So long as the squeegee glides across the vinyl smoothly then you should attain good results. That said, be sure to check your equipment before squeegeeing. The edges of your squeegee should be smooth and even the slightest knick can cause streaks or bubbles during the application process.

Pulling the pre-mask off prematurely can also leave you with unsightly bubbles in your beautiful creation. “When you are using pre-mask you need to wait a little while before you pull it off because if the adhesive hasn’t had time to bite into the substrate, then as soon as you pull the pre-mask off you can pull the graphic back up and create bubbles,” says Molly Waters, a spokesperson for Avery’s technical marketing department.

Water left between the surface and the adhesive can also cause bubbles and wrinkles, according to Lindsay Howard, product specialist for Oracal, a vinyl manufacturer in Jacksonville, Fla. “Make sure the film is properly squeegeed to get all the excess water out from between the surface and the film adhesive so there’s no bubbles,” she suggests. “Then you will have a really good bond between the media and the substrate.” Howard also notes that the use of ammonia-based cleaners to prepare the surface leaves a film on the window and can affect vinyl adhesion and cause bubbles.

Invest in high-tech materials
“You don’t get bubbles with some of the new materials from Avery and 3M,” says Nathan Franzblau, founder of the Professional Decal Application Association, an association of independent certified installation companies. “These premium vinyls allow you to install dry whereas economy vinyls can be somewhat aggressive and more difficult to work with, leading to wrinkles.”

3M’s Comply Performance is technology that allows air to easily escape through micro-replicated channels under the surface of films as they are applied. The technology was designed to allow installers to apply vinyl faster and more easily while eliminating air bubbles.

Meanwhile, Avery Graphics touts its EZ Apply technology for dry-application film. The film has an embossed liner that creates air-egress channels in the adhesive, which allows air bubbles to be pushed down and out without leaving wrinkles in the vinyl.

These premium vinyls may cost a little more, but they can save you a lot of headaches.

Help! I still have bubbles.
So what do you do if, despite your best efforts, you still have bubbles? Stay calm, know that it happens even to the best installers from time to time, and pull out your air release tool, or use a straight pin or sewing needle, to pop those aggravating air pockets. Do not use a knife or a razor blade because you will do more damage to the vinyl.

Unless your installation is purely riddled with bubbles, once you pop them there will be no sign that they were ever there because quality vinyls are self-healing when it comes to a few minor pin pricks. The trick is to press around the air bubble to gather the air in a single point. For example, if you have two air bubbles very close to one another, then the goal is to get those bubbles to merge into one larger bubble so that you only have to make one prick.

“Puncture any air bubbles with a straight pin,” says Waters. “You’ll want to poke a small hole at the bubble’s edge, rather than in the center and then re-squeegee from the edge of the bubble towards the puncture.”

What about wrinkles?
Many of the same squeegeeing techniques will help you avoid wrinkles in the first place. Of course, mishandling the vinyl can cause wrinkles before the film ever gets installed. If you wind up with wrinkles, however, don’t worry. Removing small wrinkles is typically as easy as pushing from the center of the wrinkle toward the edge of the graphic with your fingernail to even out the bunched up materials.

Removing larger wrinkles is an altogether different story. That requires slitting the material and then overlapping the vinyl. While this is far from a perfect world scenario, it is much better than leaving an air pocket in the vinyl because that air pocket will cause premature failure that is not covered under the vinyl manufacturer’s guarantee. You may be off the hook, though, if a large wrinkle is at the edge of the graphic because you can use a little heat to soften the film, lift it up, stretch the vinyl out until the wrinkle is gone, and then reapply the film.

With a little experience, bubbles and wrinkles will be a thing of the past ­ or at least nothing to hit the roof about. If you can’t eliminate them from the get go, then at least you are equipped to make quick repairs that leave you satisfied and make your customer happy.


As seen on signindustry.com