Vehicle graphics surface preparation isn’t one size fits all. When most folks think about graphics application, they envision the installation of decals and full coverage wraps on multiple types of vehicles. The majority of what we do at TKO Graphix involves cars, trucks, and trailers, but that’s not all we wrap. We apply adhesive vinyl graphics to the exterior of buildings, interior walls, floors and windows. We’ve installed graphics on metal, wood, plastic, and porcelain. Different surfaces require distinct preparation protocols; recommendations for one surface may damage another. Proper preparation of the surface before installation is critical to successful application.

General Preparation

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 may be needed to remove 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.

6 Steps to Vehicle Graphics Surface Preparation

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.

  1. Clean surface with mild soap and water to remove organics
  2. Dry surface
  3. Clean surface with a solvent to remove petrochemicals
  4. Dry surface
  5. Wipe surface with isopropyl alcohol
  6. Inspect the surface for lint, dust, dirt, and moisture

Vehicle Graphics Surface Preparation by material 


Only finished metal surfaces may be covered. If the surface has been re-painted it must be given time to cure or dry, which will vary by the type of paint (always follow the manufacturers recommendations.) Most metal surface paints require a minimum of one week to dry. Some metals including, brass, copper, and lead are not recommended for adhesive vinyl application.


All wood surfaces, including edges, must be finished. Interior wood surfaces require at least a primer and exterior should be primed and finished. All imperfections such as holes or scratches must be filled, sanded, and finished.


Never attempt to install adhesive vinyl on unfinished drywall. Be very careful cleaning drywall as it is susceptible to damage by many types of cleaning fluids. Remove all dust and debris.


Plastics aren’t all the same and require different surface preparations, For example, solvents may damage polystyrenes and poly-carbons tend to trap moisture. Determine the type of plastic and follow the cleaning recommendations for the specific material.

Other surfaces

Glass and porcelain should be smooth, undamaged, clean and dry. FRP (Fiberglass Reinforced Plywood), concrete, and wallpaper all require specific cleaning methods and may or may not be suitable for coverage.

Vehicle Graphics Surface Preparation  – Match the Surface to the  Preparation

Surface preparation for adhesive vinyl application isn’t one size fits all. What may be recommended for cleaning one surface may damage another, and improper preparation can lead to graphics failure. The best way to be certain proper surface preparation procedures are being followed is to seek the advice of an expert. If you’d like our advice, please contact us we’re “prepared” to assist you.

“TKO Graphix is a national fleet and vehicle graphics company helping customers since 1985. We provide full-service graphic design, digital printing, screen printing, graphics installation, and removal of large format graphics.

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

If you’re ready to move forward click here to Request a quote. 

If you’d like to learn more we suggest, 3M — Select and Prepare Substrates for Graphic Application