Vehicle graphics surface preparation isn’t one size fits all. Before you apply adhesive vinyl graphics to any surface, you should know the basics. If not, it could cause problems down the road. Here are some of the critical points you need to know about surface preparation when installing adhesive vinyl graphics. 

Best Vehicle Graphics Surface Preparation for Various Substrates

5 Steps to Vehicle Graphics Surface Preparation

1. Clean surface with mild soap and water to remove organics

Surfaces must be completely clean. Organics, such as animal and insect remains, food particles, and plant material may be removed with mild soap and water in most cases.

2. Remove petrochemicals with solvents

You might need solvents to remove petrochemicals, for example, wax, oil, or diesel. Understanding how solvents affect the material and following directions on the label will help prevent surface preparation failures.

3. Wipe the surface with isopropyl alcohol 

4. Dry the surface

All surfaces must be completely dry before applying graphics. 

 5. Inspect the surface for lint, dust, dirt, and moisture and reclean as needed 

Graphics Surface Preparation For Other Surfaces

When most folks think about graphics applications, they envision decals or 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 glass. Different surfaces require distinct preparation protocols. Proper preparation of the surface before installation is critical to a successful application. 


Only finished metal surfaces may be covered. If the surface has been re-painted, You must give it time to cure or dry, which will vary by the type of paint (always follow the manufacturer’s recommendations.) Most metal surface paints require 30 days to completely gas out and dry. We don’t recommend application on some metals, including brass, copper, and lead.


All wood surfaces, including edges, must be finished. Interior wood surfaces require at least a primer, and the exterior should be primed and finished. All imperfections such as holes or scratches must be filled, sanded, and finished. If not, they will show through the application. 


Be very careful cleaning drywall as it is susceptible to damage by many types of cleaning fluids. Remove all dust and debris. Never attempt to install adhesive vinyl on unfinished drywall. Paint on the surface of the drywall must be in good condition for the adhesive to hold. If you’re not sure, place a small piece of adhesive vinyl on an out-of-sight area, press it down, let it sit for an hour, and then rip it off. If paint comes off with it, it’s not a good candidate for adhesive vinyl graphics. 


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. Not all plastics accept adhesive vinyl graphics so, be sure you know what type of plastic you’re working with; FAQ: Can Adhesive Vinyl be Applied to Plastic?

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. It might be best to have a 3M Certified Graphic Installer inspect the surface before considering adhesive vinyl application. 

Vehicle Graphics Surface Preparation – Match the Surface to the Preparation

As you can see, 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 sure proper surface preparation procedures are being followed is to seek an expert’s advice. If you’d like our advice on vehicle graphics surface preparation, please contact us. We’re prepared to assist you. If you’re ready, click here to Request a quote. 

We also suggest checking out our article on How to Remove Adhesive Vinyl Graphics.

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.  TKO Graphix has the largest, company-employed installation crew, along with a network of installers across the country. Our crews are knowledgeable, 3M™ Certified, and travel the United States to service our customers.

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), delivering the best installation services possible. 

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

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