Stripping Vinyl Graphics Made Easy

Stripping vinyl graphics may never become a sign makers’ dream, but it does not have to be a nightmare, either.  Ask most sign makers about stripping vinyl graphics and they’ll cringe. Let’s face it. Stripping vinyl is not the most glamorous of tasks.

“Stripping vinyl is the ugly side of our work,” said Frank Barbaria, owner of Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Sign Express, a unique display and sign solution shop specializing in custom trade show, promotional and event graphics. “A lot of sign makers would rather not do it.”

To avoid the pain, Sign Express actually recommends that customers take their vehicles to an auto detailing shop where the vinyl graphics can be removed for a much lower rate than what his shop charges.

But there are a variety of tools, techniques, and industry secrets that could take away some dread and add some profits to the task of vinyl stripping. Avoiding some common stripping myths could also save your business and its employees a lot of money and aggravation.

Dispelling the myths
Let’s start with dispelling a few myths about stripping vinyl graphics. Yes, stripping is a trial-and-error process, especially for graphics that have been sun-baked on to a car for several years. But sign makers agree that some trials can lead to costly errors and lost customers.

The “faster is better” approach, for one, can be a major time waster. Vinyl is not like a Band-Aid that has been on your skin for a day or two. Most vinyl applications remain for at least a year and the quick strip method can snap the vinyl into smaller pieces that must be tediously removed bit by bit. In order to get the graphics off in as few pieces as possible, the better strategy is usually a slow peel.

“The vinyl has to have time to adjust,” says Barbaria. “If you get your hands very far away from the work, typically it will snap. So you have to keep reaching in very close. Slow and even is what we have found to be best method for stripping vinyl graphics.”

Stripping No-no’s
Some other no-nos include using abrasive solutions. Anything abrasive, say experts, can quickly damage the paint on an automobile.

And using Exacto knives or razor blades on vinyl that’s been applied to an automobile is just plain foolish, say experts, because it’s too easy to nick the paint and bring liability to the sign shop.

On glass it’s a different story, of course. A four-inch razor blade with a handle allows sign makers to scrape an entire window very quickly, regardless of how hard the adhesion is to the glass. But even on windows sign makers need to exercise caution with razor blades, says Andrew Akers, vice president of American Sign Shops, the franchiser based in Raleigh, NC.

“People sometimes don’t realize that the windows have a film on them,” he says, “and a razor blade will cut right through it.”

Setting Fees 
The most common mistake, however — and one that directly affects your bottom line — is failing to price the job correctly. Stripping vinyl is much more costly than applying vinyl in terms of man hours. That’s why Barbaria, for one, suggests that customers take their cars to an auto detailer to have the vinyl removed.

“Stripping vinyl graphics can be one of the most challenging things in a day to day sign shop’s operation, specifically when you are trying to estimate the time that it takes to do a stripping job,” says Akers. “You can’t have a set fee. The labor time can be twice as much to strip as it is to letter.”

Before an American Sign franchisee gives a vinyl stripping quote, says Aker, a spot test is performed to determine how difficult it will be to remove the vinyl. American Sign Shops encourages its franchisees to give the customer the option to strip the vinyl independently and bring the car back for the new vinyl application. American Sign Shops will even show the customer how to strip the vinyl.

“Most of the time, demonstrating how difficult it is to strip the vinyl is the only way you can justify the price, because it usually costs more to strip a van than it does to re-letter it,” says Akers. “Once the customer tries to do it themselves, most of the time they don’t care what it costs.”

Vinyl Challenges
Beyond pricing, the hands-on challenges of stripping vinyl are many. Factors like the type of vinyl and the length of time it has been on a vehicle can have a major impact on how easy or difficult the graphics are to remove.

“If the vinyl been on a vehicle for six years and it was an intermediate vinyl, you are talking about some serious issues,” says Akers. “It’s not just a cut and dried thing.”

Indeed, says Barbaria, if the graphics are old, or if someone makes the mistake of using an cheap vinyl, the graphics become flaky and fall off into very small pieces, multiplying the man hours needed to produce a clean surface.

The vinyl can also leave ghosting on the vehicle where the paint was protected by the vinyl overlay and is therefore darker than the rest of the car. With dark paints that can happen in as little as one year, says Barbaria, and while it can usually be buffed out it does add an extra step for the sign maker.

Vinyl Solutions
OK, so now that you know what not to do and how to price a job. Let’s find out what are the best practices for stripping vinyl graphics. Experts say the process really comes down to pull, heat, pull, heat, pull.

“For a vehicle, the only secrets are heat and patience,” says Akers. “That’s really what it takes. Once you can get a corner of it, you can use a heat gun or hair dryer. Some people might even use propane gas torch and just heat the vinyl.”

Of course, the hotter the heat the higher the possibility of causing damage to a vehicle. You have to balance melting and burning things, says Barbaria, with getting the vinyl off.

Vickie Stapleton, owner, Vinyl Graphics in Cheektowaga, NY Stapleton agrees: “You want to be real careful with the heat gun because you can damage and bubble the paint of the vehicle, or whatever it is you are removing the vinyl from.”

Besides heat and a lot of patience, stripping vinyl graphics also requires a product called the Little Chiseler. Sign makers say no vinyl stripper should be without one. It’s the hands down best tool for removing vinyl graphics and can be purchased at any sign supply house. Akers sent a Little Chiseler to every franchisee and said the one-dollar tool has been a godsend.

Vinyl Pitfalls
Of course, even if you are aware of and have prepared for the challenges involved in stripping vinyl, there are still some pitfalls that can snare you. The biggest time waster is removing the adhesive residue that is often left behind when the graphics are very old. Removing the residue then requires a special solution and an extra step in the process.

“There’s no wonder product out there,” says Stapleton. “I’ve tried a lot of different things and they all pretty much work the same.”

Stapleton uses a adhesive remover by 3M. Barbaria’s shop uses Rapid Remover. And Akers’ franchisees use a couple of different products, such as Goo Gone and Goof Off.

“I would start with alcohol, then move to Goo Gone, which is a citrus-based product, then Goof Off, which is used for removing paint from floors,” says Akers. Some sign makers have even gone as far as trying WD-40 with little success.

Now that the dirty part of the job is completed, you can focus on the fun part: applying new vinyl graphics. But before you do, says Stapleton, you want to make sure the surface is completely clean. Use soap and water to remove any remaining residue or a cleaner that doesn’t leave behind any residue.

A Word about Banners
Removing vinyl graphics from glass is not much of a challenge for the experienced sign maker, so we’ve been focusing mostly on cars. But there is another common area of vinyl application for sign makers: banners.

When it comes to vinyl letters on banners, most sign makers would just as soon sell the customer a new banner than strip and re-letter an old one because it is the less expensive option.

But you could gain customer loyalty with a few simple suggestions for your banner customers. For example, says Akers, if the customer has a banner with dates that need to be changed every year there is an easy solution.

“We recommend to our customers that soon as their event is over to go ahead and pull the dates off the banner while it’s still easy,” says Akers. “Then they can clean it with alcohol to get all the adhesive off, roll it correctly, and store it so that when they bring it back next year it still looks good.”

Stripping vinyl graphics may never become a sign makers’ dream, but armed with the proper knowledge and tools it does not have to be a nightmare, either.

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