Removing Vinyl Graphics

After heating the graphics with a weed burner, lift the graphic's edge from the surface of the vehicle, pulling the film at a low angle (preferably less than 45°) close to the work surface. If you are lucky, some or all of the adhesive will come off with the vinyl.

After heating the graphics with a weed burner, lift the graphic’s edge from the surface of the vehicle, pulling the film at a low angle (preferably less than 45°) close to the work surface. If you are lucky, some or all of the adhesive will come off with the vinyl.

Tips For Strippers

I would love to tell you that I had an easy way to remove vinyl and adhesive, along with a sure fire formula to make millions in graphics removal.  Although I have a few tips to make the removal jobs more trouble-free, they are never easy or fun, rarely profitable and frequently plagued with problems.

I learned early in my fleet graphics career, that you don’t get rich scraping old graphics off the sides of vehicles. Here’s why.  My first sale was a $26,000 job that involved removing old trailer graphics and applying new markings. In the parlance of decal installers, the respective processes are called de-identification and re-identification.

At the time, it never seemed odd to me that a “wet behind the ears”, greenhorn salesman should land such a big sale in  the first couple weeks on the job. Instead, I credited my success to my innate sales prowess.

I now suspect that my more experience competitors passed on the job, realizing that it was more trouble than what it was worth.  I had to learn the hard way.

Soon after we started the job, we realized that our company didn’t have the manpower to keep up with the work. To keep my customer happy, I actually exchanged my suit for work clothes at the end of the day and helped scrape off old vinyl.

With the heavy dose of reality, I learned little about humility as well as a few valuable lessons  about removals.

Traditional removal procedures

To date, no one has discovered a secret formula that makes old vinyl immediately disappear from the surface that it covers. Vinyl graphics only peel off without a trace of adhesive residue when they shouldn’t. Graphics removals usually require long, frustrating hours of hard work.

To make the job less of a tedious chore, sign makers and decal installers have developed various graphics-removal procedures. Most employ a combination of heat, chemical adhesive removers and specialized tools. No product, however, replaces  old-fashioned elbow grease.

The most reliable methods of graphics removal involve the application of  heat or steam to the graphics.   Heating softens the vinyl facestock and its adhesive allowing the vinyl to be more easily peeled from the surface.

To remove small areas of letters and graphics, a small handheld propane torch or industrial heat gun provides sufficient heat.  If the graphics cover a large area, however, you will need much larger torch.

A huge propane torch — known as a weed burner — is a perfect heat source for these jobs. With an extra long hose, the propane tank can be left on the ground, safely leaving the scaffolding free of clutter.

Heat a large section of the truck surface for approximately one minute. Keep the flame moving so as not to burn the vinyl or substrate.

To keep the surface hot when removing graphics, you can also direct heat from a torpedo furnace — also known as a “salamander furnace” — onto the truck’s inside wall. The furnace heat will keep the surface warm much longer, which helps keep the adhesive and vinyl soft and pliable.

After heating, use a fingernail, a Teflon®-coated plastic scraper or a plastic blade to lift the graphic’s edge. When lifting the vinyl from the surface,  pull the film at a low angle (preferably less than 45°) close to the work surface.  If you are lucky, some or all of the adhesive will come off with the vinyl.

As an alternate to applying heat with a propane torch or heat gun, some installers use steamers, which can cost as little as $80.  The steamer works by heating plain tap water and converting it to vapor.  Producing temperatures between 200 and 300 degrees Fahrenheit, the hot steam softens the film and its adhesive.

As vinyl gets older, the leaching plasticizer tends to make the film brittle. Picking off little bits and pieces of film is aggravating and time-consuming.  Using steam can make the vinyl more pliable and less likely to disintegrate during removal.

Steam also helps loosen the bond of the adhesive to the substrate, making vinyl removal easier.  To prevent damage to a painted surface, always test the steamer on an inconspicuous part of the vehicle.

Whether you use a heat gun, propane torch or steamer, the secret is to apply the correct degree of heat, something that can only be learned by trial and error. If the vinyl is too hot or too cold, not only will you leave the adhesive, but the film itself will break.

If anything can go wrong…

Graphics from the same roll of vinyl, applied to different substrates will remove with various degrees of difficulty.  A variety of factors determine how easily graphics can be removed: the age of the graphic, the substrate’s condition and the vinyl type.

These variables make the outcome of any removal job unpredictable, making accurate estimates nearly impossible – a lesson I learned the hard way.

Nearly years ago, I quoted on a removal job involving a dozen trailers in Florence, KY for the Square D company. I decided to remove the graphics on half of a trailer, which took less than two hours.  Based on that, I projected the job should only take four hours per vehicle to accomplish. To play it safe, we priced the job  at six hours per vehicle.

The job, however, required an average of 12 hours per trailer.   Here’s what went wrong. Graphics applied to new trailers with a smooth, factory-paint finish removed easily, while those applied to old, pitted truck bodies were extremely difficult to remove. The rough finish provided the adhesive with a greater total surface area. Consequently, the adhesive bonded better to the substrate than it did to the vinyl. When the vinyl was removed, the adhesive remained.

Although nothing can eliminate unforeseen problems, the following tips might make graphics removal more profitable:

  • Carefully survey the job before estimating. Look for potential problems, such as graphics applied to old surfaces.


  • Attempt to remove some of the graphics before quoting a price.Remember to include all the necessary extras in your estimate, such as     travel time, equipment rental and the cost of chemical removers.


  • Removals usually take longer — a lot longer — than predicted. Always cover yourself by increasing your estimated time by a factor of 1.5 to 2 times.


  • Get someone else to do the work for you. If you can, use an experienced, reliable professional decal installer as your subcontractor.


  • If your customer agrees, work on a time-and-materials basis. An arrangement such as this can prevent you from losing your shirt on the job.


  • If you have any inkling that graphics removal will be a problem, it probably will. Let your competitors waste their time with problem accounts.


Safety First

I have experienced a few accidents involving chemical adhesive removers including bad chemical burns and dizziness caused by overexposure to toluene. (Toluene is the nasty solvent in airplane glue that makes you high if you sniff it. It’s also used in many adhesive removers.)

Many of the chemicals that are used for adhesive removal are hazardous. Many chemicals used in adhesive removers pose serious health risks, because their toxins often enter the body by inhalation or skin absorption. Prolonged exposure can cause permanent health complications, including brain damage. Other solvents are carcinogenic, while strong acids and alkalis can cause serious chemical burns.

Every accident that I had the misfortune of experiencing was preventable.  In each case, I knew rules, but made a conscious decision not to abide by them.

Although some rules may be meant to be broken, it’s best to play it safe with chemicals. Always read and adhere to the recommendations in the manufacturer’s instructions and MSDS sheet. If you use dangerous chemicals, your tool kit should contain the appropriate safety equipment: chemical gloves, air respirator and safety glasses goggles.

Still Stuck With Sticky Stuff

Many different chemicals, including isopropyl alcohol, PrepSol™, kerosene, lacquer thinner, xylene and citrus-based removers, can remove adhesives.
Several citrus-based adhesive removers have been developed that considerably reduce the potential hazards to the environment, substrate and product user. Two such removers are Orange Peel™, marketed by Graphic Adhesives Products (Burbank, CA), and Rapid Remover™ from Rapid Tac (Merlin, OR).

My advice is to keep a variety of chemicals in your bag of tricks, when going on a removal job.  The reason is that what works wonders one day, may not work the next.

Start with a less aggressive remover, such as Rapid Remover or Clearstar’s Grafix Gone™, before trying the stronger and usually more toxic chemicals. Using this approach reduces the risk of paint damage and minimizes any health hazards.

Before working with an adhesive remover, always test the chemical on an inconspicuous spot of the substrate to make sure the remover doesn’t react with the paint.

Repainted vehicle surfaces are especially susceptible to damage from chemical removers. In a few graphic-removing jobs, I’ve stripped paint right down to either the primer or bare metal. Such accidents are embarrassing, to say the least.

Spray the remover on the adhesive residue. When the adhesive softens to a jelly-like substance, use a squeegee to scrape the gel from the surface. Old rivet brushes can scrub adhesive off the rivet heads.

Scraping off jellified adhesive is messy business.  To keep from spreading the mess all over the substrate, mask off the area around the graphic with masking tape and masking paper.  If you are removing large areas of adhesive, some of it will likely end up on the shop floor, so you may want to cover the area underneath you scaffold with brown kraft paper to aid in clean up at the end of the job.

You may want to alert your customer, that if the graphics have been on the substrate for a long period of time, the painted area under the vinyl film will have been protected from the degrading UV rays of the sun.  Following graphics removal, these unexposed areas will appear shiny and new next to the old and faded weathered areas.

One-step Chemical Removers

Several manufacturers have developed one-step chemical remover systems that will remove both the vinyl and its adhesive.  These systems include 3M Woodgrain & Stripe Remover, Vinyl-Off biodegradable vinyl remover and XXL 1000 Decal/Adhesive Remover.  Many of these removers are said to be environmentally safe, non-flammable and easy to apply.

These chemicals are designed to soften the vinyl and, after penetrating the graphics, loosen the adhesive.  These chemicals are designed to remove graphics without damaging an automotive urethane paint system.

For many types of removals, however, chemicals are not recommended. Removing screen printed decals with them can be extremely messy, because the remover can dissolve the ink and clear coat, causing the colors to drip on the vehicle.

To prevent staining, first mask the substrate with a premium-grade application tape. Then, apply masking tape to secure the edges protected by the application tape. Use a pressure sprayer to wash off dripping ink immediately.

Film and adhesive removers are often so potent they strip away everything except factory paint finishes. My best advice is to “test, don’t guess,” when using any chemical-removal system.

Different surfaces, however, will have different reactions to the vinyl/adhesive removers.  Many of these chemicals, for example, are not recommended for use on plastics and other surfaces.   Be sure to read the manufacturer’s instructions before using the removers or you could strip a paint job. If you are not sure of how a chemical will react, test the remover in an inconspicuous area of the substrate.

Many of these removers contain powerful chemicals that could attack the vinyl roof of a vehicle or the gaskets of windows.  Before using these removers, mask off areas that could be damaged by the chemicals.

Vinyl Removers, such as XXL 1000, can be applied with a garden sprayer, paintbrush or roller. Film and adhesive removers penetrate the facestock so that they attack the adhesive system.  In about 20 minutes, the film and adhesive soften. When the film starts bubbling, the user can peel the vinyl from the substrate, or blow it off using hot water and a power sprayer. These removers may not work with every type of film, such as reflectives or graphics protected with a polyester overlaminate.

If you use a high-pressure sprayer to remove the softened graphics, use caution or you could remove the paint as well. First, try to remove the film by hand. If a power sprayer is required, start with a lower pressure — such as 800 psi — and increase pressure as needed. Keeping the nozzle of the sprayer at least nine inches from the surface will also help prevent damage to the finish. When working with the power sprayer, begin at a vertical edge of the graphic and spray with a steady, up-and-down motion.

In some cases, adhesive residue remains on the surface. When this happens, spray the residue with remover, wait for the adhesive to soften, and wipe the surface clean with rags or paper towels. Finish cleaning the surface by wiping with isopropyl alcohol.

The surface must be perfectly clean before installing new graphics. Applying new vinyl over old adhesive practically guarantees film failure.

During the removal process, the adhesive will absorb the chemicals like a sponge, although some of the chemical will evaporate, and the residual adhesive retains the rest. If the new graphics are applied over the residue, the remaining remover will attack the new adhesive. This can cause new vinyl to bubble, peel or fall off.

Cold remedies

For some removal jobs, using heat is impractical.  Cold remedies, such as scrapers, plastic razor blades and plastic abrader wheels, should also be part of your graphics removal arsenal.

Rubber-abrading wheels are ideal for removing vinyl film and adhesive at the same time. Available in a variety of shapes and sizes, the vinyl abraders consist of an expanded polyurethane foam wheel.    Some of the popular abrasive wheels on the market include the Stripe Eliminator, the 3M Stripe-Off Wheel, and GAP’s Big Eraser.

Abrasive wheels, such as the Stripe Eliminator, bolt into the chuck of an electric or pneumatic power drill. Each vinyl eraser is different, so be sure to read the manufacturer’s instructions before using the tools. Typical operating speeds specified for these abraders ranges from 700 to 1200 RPM. Exceeding the recommended RPM guidelines can cause the abrasive wheel to disintegrate. Because flying  bits and pieces of rubber can be dangerous, always wear safety glasses, when using these tools.

A word of caution – graphics erasers are designed to work on graphics applied to durable surfaces, such as factory paint finishes and glass. Before operating vinyl erasing equipment, always test the tool on the substrate in an inconspicuous area to prevent damage to the surface.  Before using a graphics eraser, be sure to clean the surface, so you don’t grind the dirt and grime into the paint, resulting in scratches.

When the spinning wheel comes in contact with the graphics, it works like an eraser, rubbing off the vinyl and adhesive in one operation.  Only light pressure with the graphics is needed for the eraser to work. As the wheel rubs out the vinyl film and the adhesive and smudged residue often remains on the substrate. This residue can be wiped off with adhesive remover.