So, this post is supposed to answer what will adhesive vinyl graphics adhere to? But let me begin at the beginning.

I first began working with TKO graphics in 2008 as a freelance leadership trainer. It wasn’t until June of 2010 that I came onboard as a full-time employee. I was to continue to facilitate leadership development training but also to be part of the marketing team creating content for blogs and social media. I had a lot to learn because I didn’t know much about SMM (social media marketing) and even less about large format graphics and the vehicle graphics industry.

One of the lessons I remember from the summer of 2010 was a trip to Richmond, Indiana with TKO Graphix National Sales Consultant Gary Meunier. A friend had contacted me about wrapping a bus they had obtained. It was quite a story. The bus was more than 40 years old. It was a double-decker shipped here from London. And yes, it was right-hand drive.

Gary told me not to get my hopes up, but he was heading that way on other business, so he’d take a look at it. I asked if I could tag along to learn and Gary said sure.

Adhesive Vinyl Graphics Won’t Hide the Facts

When we got to the warehouse where the bus was being stored, he told it didn’t look promising. I didn’t understand because the bus certainly needed something. It was faded, rusted in places, and pretty dinged up. Gary explained that the condition of the surface was the problem. First of all, adhesive vinyl graphics will not hide surface damage that goes beyond a scratch. If there are dents vinyl won’t hide them – it will only cover them. You’ll still have the dent.

He went on to explain that if the surface is porous, loose, or rusted the adhesive will not stick. He pulled out a piece of adhesive vinyl graphic from his briefcase and applied it to a spot out of sight on the rear of the bus. After he had squeegeed it on, he pulled it off. It took the paint with it. Adhesive vinyl wouldn’t stick. The bus needed body repair and paint – not adhesive vinyl.

It was one of my first lessons about adhesive vinyl graphics. You can’t stick vinyl to every surface.

Time Travel

Fast forward to 2019, nine years later. In that time, I’ve learned a lot about SMM and vehicle graphics. However, I’m not as knowledgeable as I thought I was about surfaces. I sat down with Tom McClelland, who’s been with TKO Graphix for more than 25 years and has installed adhesive vinyl on more surfaces than I’ve seen.

I went to Tom with a list of types of materials and surfaces that I though adhesive vinyl wouldn’t adhere to and although I was correct on some of it, I learned that on many surfaces it depended on various factors. And like Gary did in 2010 when he inspected the bus, it’s often best to talk to an expert and have them look at. For example, I thought you could only apply adhesive vinyl to wood painted with high-quality enamel.

What Will Adhesive Vinyl Graphics Adhere to and Doesn’t Stick? 


It’s usually recommended that wood should be coated with high-quality enamel and then be allowed to cure, or gas out. The curing process depends on the paint, the manufacturer should be able to inform consumers of the time the paint needs to cure. However, the key isn’t the paint, it’s having a smooth surface. If enamel was coated over an unfinished, unsanded surface and is rough to the touch, adhesive vinyl probably won’t stay adhered. At the same time, Tom told me about the inside of a 53-foot trailer that was unpainted yet sanded smooth that we applied adhesive vinyl graphics to and it worked great.


I didn’t think vinyl would hold to rubber, but I wasn’t sure why. Tom explained in three words, “Because it’s flexible.” He told me that sometimes there’s a rubber sill between vehicle side doors, but if you try to cover the sill – it will peel. So, that’s a no to rubber.

Brick and Cement

Once again, I thought no way Jose, but Tom straightened me out. He told me there are vinyl materials specially designed for these surfaces. However, it’s important to inspect the surface to know what the best material would be.

“3M™ Scotchcal™ Graphic Film for Textured Surfaces IJ8624 conforms to moderately textured surfaces like concrete block, brick, industrial stucco and tile similar to those commonly found in sports arena, stadiums, restaurants, retail, and other public venues.  Adhesion depends on the substrate material, the texture of the wall and the adhesion technique.” — 3M™ Scotchcal™ Graphic Film For Textured


“According to experts, applying adhesive vinyl graphics to plastic can be a challenge. Some are friendly, and some are not. Outgassing is a possibility much of the time. Before considering wrapping a plastic substrate, you need to know its chemical composition.

Polycarbonates are used on equipment for automotive, home, and the office. Polycarbonates contain water which when covered with vinyl graphics may outgas forming water bubbles between the substrate and vinyl. An experienced applicator can determine the best method of installation, dry or wet.

Polymethacrylate (PMMA) is the clear, shatterproof plastic used as a replacement for glass. Most adhesives will stick to a PMMA surface; however wet installation may be the best to avoid outgassing.

Polyethylene is used for plastic bags, containers, bottles, and tarps. Vinyl can be applied to this material using dry application and for some applications heat may be required.

Polystyrene is a hard plastic. For example, computer casings are made from polystyrene. This material can be wrapped but outgassing varies from formula to formula and may cause separation.

Styrofoam is a polystyrene plastic, and although vinyl can be applied it’s difficult and isn’t recommended on some types of Styrofoam

Polyvinylchloride (PVC) is in most cases user-friendly for adhesive vinyl application; however, the hardness of the plastic impacts the installation. Hard PVC will accept the vinyl but may be difficult to remove while softer PVC may not offer the best adhesive surface.” — Can Adhesive Vinyl Be Applied to Plastic

Interior walls

So, smooth interior walls need to be a certain type of paint, right? Not according to Tom or 3M. And once again it’s not as much the type of surface but the condition of the surface that’s paramount. Any surface that is damaged, dirty, or uneven can create a problem. However, there are so many high-quality adhesive vinyls today that are created for nearly any type of retail or commercial installation that the key isn’t will it stick, the key is knowing the best material for the application.

“Turn smooth indoor surfaces into works of art with a wide array of 3M graphic films. From printable films and finishes to colored films and more, the ability to create vivid designs and make unforgettable impressions is at your fingertips. When your customers offer you a canvas, 3M graphic films can help make it a masterpiece.” — Wall wraps from inside out.

The Lesson

The lesson I took away from this, besides that I don’t know as much as I thought I knew, is that adhesive vinyl graphics can be applied to multiple types of surfaces – far more than I knew. But the critical point is knowing what material will work best on any given surface and the best way to know that is to go to someone experienced, like Gary or Tom.

If we can be of any help, Contact Us, we go deeper than the surface.

Photo by Lawless Capture on Unsplash