So, prepping a vehicle for graphics installation isn’t complicated. You have decals, contact information, or a company logo to install on your fleet vehicles. You’ve washed the cars or trucks and let them dry. Is there anything else you should do before applying the graphics? So, how important is prepping a vehicle for graphics installation? 

“The biggest mistake is not prepping the surface,” says Jeff Stadelman. “It’s so important to have a clean surface to put the adhesives down on. That’s definitely the number one error.” No matter the substrate,­ glass or paint,­ and no matter the installation method ­wet or dry – if you do not clean the substrate properly then you will end up with a contaminated surface that hinders the performance of the adhesive.” — Preparing the surface.

“In most cases, graphic failure is caused by a misstep in the installation process—and a good portion of those missteps can be traced to insufficient surface prep. Therefore surface prep is an absolutely vital step in every type of graphic vinyl wrap application.” — Prep before you wrap.

Clean it and then Clean it Again

“Surfaces must be finished, clean, and dry. Organics, such as, animal and insect remains, food particles, and plant material, in most cases, may be removed with mild soap and water. Solvents need to be removed such as petro-chemicals, for example, wax, oil, or diesel. Understanding how solvents affect the material and following directions on the label will help prevent surface preparation failures. All surfaces must be completely dry before applying graphics. Uncured finishes may hold and leach moisture, which will adversely affect vinyl graphics placed over the uncured surface.” – – Vehicle Graphics Surface Preparation for Various Substrates

“Consider all substrate surfaces contaminated, and must be cleaned prior to pressure sensitive material applications. Even freshly painted or recently cleaned surfaces will collect dust and dirt quickly, and should be cleaned prior to film application. Be sure to clean all edges, corners, crevices, and hard to reach areas as well, these are difficult and often overlooked areas.

All surfaces should be dry. The trapping of any moisture under graphics can cause premature failure by bubbling, incomplete adhesion, or creation of an ice layer in extreme cold situations. Inadequate drying, failure to pre-cure some substrates like poly-carbonates, condensation at low temperatures, or high humidity can and will lead to moisture.” — Vehicle Preparation for Installation TKO Graphix Training

It’s not complicated to prepare a vehicle for graphics installation, but if you leave a step out, the outcome can be disastrous.

Prepping a Vehicle for Graphics Installation

Clean the vehicle using a 50/50 mixture of water and isopropyl alcohol, and be sure to use lint-free rags. Use one rag to apply the alcohol, and another to dry. If the vehicle is really dirty, you might consider washing the car first with soap and water, then cleaning with the 50/50 mix.

Standard Method – for lightly soiled surfaces

  • The surface to which the films are applied must be completely clean, smooth, and dry before final preparation.
  • Remove all dirt and grime with a commercial synthetic detergent solution and warm water (1 ounce per gallon). Avoid detergents with lotions, waxes, creams, or oils.
  • Be aware some window cleaners have waxes. Use of automated car wash facilities requires additional cleaning as some chemicals used in these systems will prevent complete adhesion of film.
  • Interior walls with grease and/or oil present will require special attention to remove contaminants. Prepare a solution of trisodium phosphate and warm water as specified in the manufacturer’s instructions, and clean the substrate.
  • Thoroughly dry the substrate with a lint free cloth or paper towel. Allow porous materials to dry completely before application.

 Method – for removal of light grease and oils

  • Saturate a clean lint free cloth or towel with IPA (Isopropyl Alcohol)
  • When using industrial grade IPA, mix 2:1 water to IPA.
  • Wipe the substrate thoroughly, wipe with a clean dry towel immediately before the IPA evaporates.
  • Change cloths as they become dirty.
  • Make sure the substrate is dry. Use a heat gun or torch to complete the process when necessary

Solvent Based Method – for removal of heavy grease and oils

  • Saturate a clean, lint free towel or cloth with solvent.
  • Clean the substrate with the solvent cloth removing any grease, oils, or dirt.
  • After thoroughly wiping with cleaner, dry wipe the surface completely using a clean, soft, lint-free cloth before solvent evaporates. NOTE: There must be no dirt, oil, grease or solvent residue remaining on the substrate prior to decal application.
  • As the towels or cloths become dirty, discard and use fresh ones. Accumulated dirt or contaminants on the towel or cloth will prevent effective cleaning of substrate.
  • Make sure the surface is completely dry. If necessary, use a heat gun to remove moisture.

CAUTION: Prior to cleaning with solvents, test the cleaning solvent on an inconspicuous area of the application surface.

Paint Precautions:

  • When applying film to a newly painted surface, follow all drying and curing instructions provided by the
    paint manufacturer prior to surface preparation and film application.
  • Allow fresh paint to cure at near room temperature for one week prior to film application.
  • Recondition chalked and otherwise weathered paint surfaces with buffing, followed by substrate preparation and cleaning instructions as specified in the before mentioned IPA method.
  • Some paint systems provide an extremely smooth surface, hence, initial adhesion will be low,
    extra dwell time is necessary to achieve maximum adhesion.
  • Resurface any section of painted metal with bare or rust spots.
  • Non-film covered portions of painted metal should have a minimum of one finish coat.
  • Primer and paint should be from the same manufacturer.
  • Some pigmented paints may cause bleed-through on some graphics or films, test prior to using.

Pro Tip — For your final pre-installation step, coat the surface with 3M 94 Vehicle Graphics Primer.

So, How Important is Prep?

How important is prepping a vehicle for graphics installation? The answer is it’s critical. Using the wrong material can cause a bevy of problems. Little things such as cleaning with a dirty rag leaves behind grime that can reduce the adhesion of the vinyl leading to damage, which is not such a little thing. Leave a spot of water on the surface and eventually it will bubble up, especially if it freezes. Bubbles in vehicle wraps aren’t pretty and they almost always rip.

Try cleaning the substrate with the wrong solution and you may leave behind a waxy build up, invisible, but deadly to adhesive vinyl. Small spots of oil, grease, and contaminants can reduce even the best looking fleet graphics to looking like something out of a demolition derby. And it’s not only cleaning the substrate, it’s knowing the vinyl will adhere to the surface. Is the surface ready for adhesive vinyl graphics? Graphics applied to fresh uncured paint, or over rust and dents usually only leads to disappointment.    

We Can Help 

Using the correct adhesive vinyl, properly applying the graphics, and following these simple preparation steps ensures your vehicle graphics will work as intended. So, if you want to be 100% completely certain your vehicle is ready for adhesive vinyl installation, hire a pro. If we can answer any questions or help you with the surface preparation of your fleet, Contact Us, because we’re prepared to help you!

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