So You Want To Be a Vinyl Pro

Before you can claim professional installer status, you have to learn the basics to avoid common mistakes. Discover some fundamentals tips that will serve you well for many years.

If you are just getting started with vinyl applications then you’ve got a lot to learn. But if you are diligent to take one step at a time and believe the old adage that practice makes perfect, then you, too, can install like the pros ­ and make a nice living to boot. Of course, if you want to avoid as many mistakes as possible during your learning curve, then lean on the advice of industry experts as they share what they know about fundamental techniques of vinyl applications.

The Most Common Mistakes
Let’s start out by addressing some of the most common mistakes that plague beginners. If you ask vinyl pros, they’ll tell you that the most elementary mistake is neglecting to adequately prepare the surface, or substrate. Dirty substrates can cause a myriad of problems and almost ensures vinyl failure in the long haul. (For more information on this subject, read our article, “Vinyl Techniques: Preparing the Surface.

“Beyond not preparing the surface, the next biggest error beginners make is to stretch the vinyl beyond its capability,” says Jeff Stadleman, technical marketing manager for the graphics product group at MACtac, a manufacturer of pressure sensitive adhesive. “You can stretch vinyl with a heat gun and push it down, but if you stretch it too far then it will to tend to pop back up.”

Another common mistake is using the wrong application tape, or pre-mask. Low, medium and high tac tapes serve different purposes, so it is important to understand what to apply when and why. (For more information on how to properly use application tape, read our article “Overlaminating and Pre-Mask Secrets Revealed. This article is forthcoming.)

“The hands-on part of applying vinyl has to be learned. You can’t just grab a piece and go for it,” says Stadleman. “You have to learn how to handle the squeegee and the vinyl at the same time. Practice on some smooth surfaces first, then work your way up to some slightly curved surfaces, and, finally, move into rivets and corrugations. Your ultimate goal is to do a wrap.”

Some Simple Techniques
When it’s time to apply the vinyl, make sure you are applying to a flat surface to maintain even pressure with the squeegee. You’ll need to press very hard because the adhesive on pressure sensitive vinyl film consists of a layer of microscopic beads that must be burst. Those beads are burst when you applying pressure to the film, hence the name “pressure sensitive.”

“A lot of people use an arch motion,” says Molly Waters, spokesperson for Avery’s technical marketing department. “That will induce some torque in the material. The problem with that is when you get down to the bottom you will wind up with extra material that you really don’t know what to do with. To avoid that problem, use straight squeegee strokes and overlap them. You can always snap the graphic up to reposition it a little bit, but if you take your time it will prevent a lot of problems.”

Some experts suggest squeegeeing on the reverse side (the back of the liner) and pulling the release liner away with the application tape side down. Most installers also “shake” the graphic, a motion similar to popping a towel, because they believe it rids the graphic of static. Static builds up for many reasons, including air temperature and humidity. (For more reading on how environmental concerns impact vinyl application, read our article, “Vinyl Techniques: Considering Environmental Conditions.” Shaking the graphic may be an old wives tale, but most professional installers practice this habit nonetheless.

“When you take a decal and pull the backing sheet off the graphic, just the motion of pulling it off creates static that builds up on the surface of the adhesive. But just shaking the decal every so slightly, you kind of shake the static off,” says Nathan Franzblau, founder of the Professional Decal Application Association, an association of independent certified installation companies. “You can do the same thing just by touching your hand to the side of the vehicle while holding the graphic and the static will discharge. Pulling it slowly will certainly reduce static. You need to do something, otherwise a decal could just jump out of your hands and land on the side of a truck and you might not be able to get it off. You don’t want that to happen, so you want to remove as much static as you can.”

A Few Words about Weeding
Weeding is the process of removing the extra vinyl around the graphic. This is not much of a challenge with large graphics, but can be trickier with letters. For example, if you are weeding the world “H-E-L-L-O,” then you are removing the unnecessary vinyl that surrounds and flows in between each letter, like the centers of the P’s and O’s.

When you cut away the unnecessary material, be sure to leave about an inch of extra release liner beyond the vinyl. Then turn the piece face down and anchor it with tape around its perimeter. Once you remove the backing, simply pull unnecessary vinyl surrounding the letters away from the release liner. Experts suggest bending the liner flat back upon itself and maintaining as sharp a release angle as possible during removal.

You’ll find that the adhesion of the vinyl to the release liner is stronger than the adhesion to its backing, which will make the weeding easier. The final step is to put the packing sheet back on the release liner with the letters in place, cut around the perimeter and pull the sheet away from the work surface.

Experts say the biggest mistake that beginners make during the weeding process is trying to go too fast. The secret is to use the best possible equipment and take your time. If your knife is dull, then you won’t get a clean cut and it makes weeding more difficult. “Peel the material off a little bit at a time,” suggests Waters. “Rock the material back and forth and try to get a good angle as it comes away from the top and bottom of the individual letters.”

Here are a few additional truths to keep in mind. The smaller the letters, the more difficult the weeding process. So if you are a real beginner then practice with larger letters first. Vinyl with tighter liner adhesion is easier to weed. So if you are new in the game, then explore the market to make sure you choose the vinyl with the most weedability and least slippage while cutting.

Holding and Hinging
Hinging is a technique that allows an installer to put a decal in the proper position without assistance. This vinyl application method holds the decal in place so the installer can remove half the backing sheet, put half the decal down, then remove the hinge and apply the other piece without the decal changing position on the vehicle. The method of hinging depends on the size and shape of the graphic ­ and even the height of the installer.

“A taller person may do a top hinge,” says Waters. “A shorter person may start in the middle or just above center and continue to work down, breaking the graphic apart into smaller pieces. You can achieve the same end effect either way.”

You should also consider where the decal is going. That means having a plan for the installation. Franzblau relates it to putting together a jigsaw puzzle. When you have completed the jigsaw puzzle you have an entire picture, but most people put it together in a certain order, e.g. edges first and working out to the center. Hinging allows you to put all the pieces in order before you apply them so you know where they go.

The most popular hinging methods are vertical, horizontal, center and top. Vertical hinges run up and down and are most often used for horizontal graphics. Horizontal hinges are just the opposite. Top hinges are a variation of the vertical method and center hinges are a variation of the horizontal method. “The horizontal hinge is good for fleet graphics or when you are working with long panels,” says Waters. “So when you have a long graphic you may start at center or just above center and then work up and the down.”

The world of vinyl application is vast. There are many techniques to learn on your journey from beginner to professional. As vinyl applications make their way beyond store shop windows, onto vehicles and into airports, there will be plenty of opportunities to earn a buck in this business. But Avery’s Waters has some sage advice for installers at any level: “Most of the time people are doing stuff by the job so the faster they get it done, the more money you make, but if you take your time then you only have to do it once.”

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