How to remove adhesive vinyl graphics without damaging your vehicle? Although removing vinyl graphics from the surface of a vehicle is tedious work. It’s often a simple straight-forward task. Removing undamaged decals is a step-by-step process. It’s important to take your time and not skip any step. Hurrying this process usually leads to bigger problems up to and including surface damage to the vehicle. Damaging the substrate of a car or truck during vinyl graphics removal can be expensive. The marring of the surface can be so severe that it requires paint. A new paint job can cost thousands of dollars. That’s why it’s so important to know how to remove adhesive vinyl graphics the right way.

Test it first 

The first time I saw a snap test was while traveling with an experienced TKO salesperson. He inspected an old bus a client wanted wrapped. The salesperson applied a piece of adhesive vinyl behind the license plate and then pulled it off. Paint came with it. He informed the customer that vinyl would not adhere to the bus.

“Vehicles aren’t all steel. They’re made of plastic, fiberglass, aluminum, and glass, and each surface may react differently to adhesive vinyls. The condition of the surface and paint should also be considered. If there are doubts about their condition, a snap test is recommended. According to 3M, “This test can be used to help determine if a substrate appears to have sufficient integrity to remain intact during eventual graphic removal.” — Will Vehicle Graphics Removal Damage My Paint?

“Always caution the customer  about possible damage to the vehicle, glass or sign substrate. Point out that there may be shadowing or discoloration visible underneath—the difference between the vehicle or substrate paint fading around the letters.” — Removing Vinyl Graphics

If you’d like to learn more and avoid the cost of damaging your fleet read on. Here are the basics of how to remove adhesive vinyl graphics the right way.

Wrap A Car Instead of Painting

Wrap A Car Instead of Painting

Step by Step — How to Remove Adhesive Vinyl Graphics

  • Use a hand torch to heat the surface
  • Move the torch back and forth. Don’t stay on one area
  • For the best results heat the surface to 160°
  • Use a plastic poker on the edges of the graphic to loosen it
  • Gently lift the decal
  • Pull up on the adhesive vinyl graphics at a 45° angle to remove the adhesive vinyl graphics
  • If it becomes difficult to remove you may need to reheat the surface
  • On full wraps or larger decals use a larger propane torch
  • Avoid pointing the torch at plastic parts such as handles, bumpers, and window trim. The heat can and will damage them
  • After removing the decal clean away excess adhesive. Do not use abrasive cloths or cleaners
  • Clean the vehicle with a citrus-based solution

Vehicle decals being removed from a work van

On too Long

Not every graphics removal job is simple. There are multiple factors that affect adhesive vinyl graphics removal. For example, adhesive vinyl graphics on a vehicle longer than warrantied, are difficult to remove. Vinyl left on too long almost becomes part of the surface. It’s almost impossible to remove it following basic removal guidelines.

“How long has the graphic been on the vehicle? If the decals have been on the vehicle longer then recommended, it can be difficult, time-consuming, and damaging to the finish. For example, seven-year vinyl, which has remained on a vehicle for more than ten years, can be challenging to remove and may pull off parts of the finish.” — How Do You Remove Old Vehicle Graphics?

Damaged Vinyl

Damaged graphics such as decals ripped and torn by tree branches are difficult and time-consuming to remove. And that’s even when you know what you’re doing. If this is the case with your old vehicle graphics, your best answer may be to hire a pro. Attempting to DYI damaged adhesive vinyl graphics often leads to more damage. And that can be time consuming as well as expensive.

How to Avoid Costly Vehicle Graphics Mistakes

It’s Cheap Material

Using the wrong material  creates problems during removal. For example, using cheaper short-term adhesive vinyl on a long-term application is a no-no. It may save money up front but can be a nightmare at de-identification (removal of old adhesive vinyl graphics).

“There are many types of materials available. However, several factors besides the printed product affect the removability of the graphic. Including climate, location of graphic on the equipment, condition of the surface, and installation. There are several steps that can be taken to avoid these potential problems before the graphics have been produced.” — How to Reduce Fleet Graphics Removal Expense

When Heat Doesn’t Work

“Have you ever been asked or hired to remove vinyl vehicle graphics that are cracked and weathered due to their age or the material used had a permanent adhesive? If you have, you know how difficult these graphics can be to remove and the amount of time it can take. There are times where using a heat gun or propane torch just doesn’t work.” — Avery Dennison: Removing adhesive vinyl from weathered graphics.

“I was talking with Gary Meunier — one of our national account managers — about a bid to remove graphics from a fleet of vehicles, for a company preparing to return them at the end of a lease agreement. We didn’t install the graphics, but we are one of the few companies trained and prepared to properly remove the lowest bid decals. The company was surprised it would cost nearly as much to remove the decals as what they had paid to have them installed, because it was a cheaper material with a permanent adhesive. It is difficult, labor-intensive, and time-consuming to remove such materials.” — The Lowest Bid Mistake.

Avoid Dangerous and  Environmentally Unfriendly Chemicals

They are many chemical options for removing adhesive vinyl graphics. Unfortunately several of the options are toxic to humans and the environment. One such is methylene chloride, which is also found in paint removers.

“Methylene chloride, also known as dichloromethane or DCM, is a solvent used in a range of products. The average consumer is most likely to encounter it in paint strippers, even though safer alternatives exist. Methylene chloride has been linked to cancer, cognitive impairment, and asphyxiation.

Numerous people have died from exposure to methylene chloride. In 2017, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed to ban this chemical’s use in paint stripping. EPA didn’t act until 2019 to finalize the ban, but then only banned consumer uses and sales, leaving workers unprotected. We’re calling on retailers to take action and stop selling paint strippers containing methylene chloride. In the meantime, if you need to remove paint or a coating, make sure to avoid methylene chloride and other toxic chemicals like N-methylpyrrolidone (NMP).” — The Facts: Chemicals of concern methylene chloride.

Your Best Solvent Option

Your best solvent option is oranges or rather solvents based on citrus. These solvents not only work, but they’re also environmentally safe, and non-toxic to humans, and they smell good! They’re primarily processed from orange juice by-products, skin, seeds, and pulp thus saving tons of waste. The active ingredient in citrus-based solvents is d-limonene, which is so safe it’s used in food supplements.

“Recent studies have proven that d-limonene, which is considered as GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) solvent by the US Food and Drug Administration, as a valuable alternative for traditional solvents for extraction, such as methyl ethyl ketoneacetonetolueneglycol ethers, and numerous fluorinated and chlorinated solvents…”Science Direct: Development of a green procedure of citrus fruits waste processing to recover carotenoids.

Steam it Clean!

Steam is green! At TKO we use steam removal on large and difficult removals. It’s easy to use, safe, and non-corrosive. We use steam pads at low temperature to soften the vinyl and the adhesive behind it. The results usually mean less residual adhesive. As well as a friendlier workplace, and zero damage to the environment.

“The key to steaming off decals is to get the temperature correct: too hot, and you may damage the finish; too cold, and the only thing that happens is it gets wet. We suggest you experiment first on a small, unexposed area of the vehicle.” —  How Can I Safely Remove Decals From My Trailer?

What about Removing Adhesive Vinyl from Glass?

“Removal of vinyl from glass is a little different than vehicle or substrate vinyl removal. Heat is one of the main tools with vinyl removal but should not be used on glass.

You can look for a more scientific explanation online, but the short answer is that glass does not expand and contract evenly when heat is applied. Unless the glass is specially treated, like with some cookware, it can break when heated.” — Sign and Digital Graphics: Vinyl graphics removal. 

How to Remove Adhesive Vinyl Graphics? Hire us.

We Offer Full De-Identification Graphics Removal. Whether you purchased your original fleet graphics from TKO or not, we can help with the removal. We have more than one facility set up for complete graphics removal whether you have five vans or one-thousand 53-foot trailers we’re prepared to remove your old graphics using heat, safe citrus-based solvents, and steam. If we can answer any questions or be of service, Contact Us.

Did you learn something from this post? Will it help you avoid adhesive vinyl graphic mistakes on your fleet graphics? If so, we’ve done our job.

Would you like to learn more? If you enjoyed this, you might also like this video. The video shows step-by-step vinyl graphics removal.

Video — How to Remove Vinyl Decals.

“We are proud to be a 3M™ MCS™ Certified Warranty Manufacturer, which means our customers receive consistent, outstanding products backed by 3M’s most comprehensive warranties. We are members of the United Application Standards Group (UASG), and master certified through the PDAA (Professional Decal Application Alliance), delivering the best installation services possible.” — About TKO Graphix