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Vehicles + Vinyl

Rev ‘Em Up

The many faces and flavors of vehicle graphics



Signhops that wrap, cut or handletter vehicle graphics are indebted to such automotive-industry leaders as Henry Ford, Louis Chevrolet, Lee Iacocca and numerous others whose companies survived and thrived via forward-thinking engineering and design. As aerodynamic, distinctive stylings have evolved, graphics providers can now create truly eyecatching graphics (though this carries the double-edged sword of requiring knowledge of how to decorate an ever-growing, intricate variety of models).

Of course, vehicle wraps don’t revolve solely around PT Cruisers, Hummers and other mass-consumer vehicles. Though vans may be mocked as a personal vehicle choice, they offer practical business transportation and a broad advertising tableau. And, while box trucks and tractor-trailers may not possess other vehicles’ allure, they remain a staple of over-the-road, visual communications. Some leading-edge shops are exploring new vehicle-embellishment possibilities.

Here, several industry experts measure the pulse of the vehicle graphics market and suggest how to maximize your vehicle-graphics work – and whether a shop will benefit from entering this market. And, a series of case studies showcases vehicle graphics’ ireasingly diverse market.

Material and market insights
Vehicle graphics are hardly new. When the first delivery trucks rolled off Detroit’s assembly lines, handlettering artists were in great demand to help proprietors differentiate their businesses. Even firetrucks became points of pride as municipal leaders sought a redder, more ornately gilded fleet of ladder trucks than those in neighboring towns.

Through the mid-1980s, vehicle graphics changed little – mostly paint formulations that improved coatings’ sheen, durability or color adhesion. Then, the vinyl revolution began, and most signshops perfected handcut-graphic fabrication or purchased a plotter. Vinyl’s elasticity and conformity improved, but vehicle decoration still proved time-consuming because the films’ heavy, rigid adhesives required labor-intensive removals for any mistakes.

In the 1990s, the tandem revolution of inkjet printing and media with repositionable adhesives unleashed a brave new world for vehicular applications. Though initial aqueous-print applications lacked the required weatherability to withstand glaring sun and harsh road conditions, solvent-ink prints offered better color conformity and easily withstood these rigors. Installers gave repositionable adhesives an overwhelming thumbs-up because they offered significant labor savings.


The latest material innovation, an air-egress system, is offered by a growing cadre of manufacturers. The system allows trapped air pockets to escape from beneath the media surface, which minimizes tunneling and reduces squeegee work. On the printer side, better quality inks and an expanding color-profile gamut offers numerous decoration options.

Arlon Inc.’s (Santa Ana, CA) chief offerings to the vehicle market are its 2-mil, cast 6000EF non-perforated and 6050 perforated-vinyl film with repositionable adhesive. Other suitable products include its high-performance calendered films, metallized-goldleaf media and metallic films.

Chuck Bules, the company’s technical-services manager, said solvent-based, vehicle-graphic printing launched the wrap craze because it offers moisture stability and enables durable, topcoat-free printing. Initially, he believed eco-solvent printing’s mild solvents weren’t sufficiently aggressive for the torture tests vehicle graphics sustain. However, Bules now believes eco-solvent formulations have improved enough for most work ascribed to full-solvent prints.

He said oversaturating media is the most common mistake. Bules noted, “Some signshops are under the impression that the only way they can get the color to pop is to drench the surface with ink. This is a huge mistake that diminishes resolution, triggers excessive solvent outgassing and ultimately seeps into the adhesive and retards its ability to stick.”

Whereas color profiles were shrouded in secrecy and understood only by industry gurus, Bules said print providers are self-educating and becoming familiar with the processes.

Currently, he estimates that partial and full, inkjet-printed graphics comprise approximately 70% of the vehicle-graphics market and, in the near future, plotter-cut graphics will exist “only on the low-end margins of the industry.” Bules said all media manufacturers will continually pursue ways to perfect ink saturation without impeding print quality.


To remain competitive, Bules advises signshops to increase product knowledge: “The reality is, a customer is going to want a shop to translate his business-card logo onto a vehicle in two or three days, and it’s up to the provider to know how to use profiles, templates, and appropriate printer and material matches to make that happen.”

Avery Dennison Graphics Div. (Painesville, OH) recently introduced Easy Apply RS, a 2.1-mil, cast film with a patent-pending, air-egress system that, according to the company, offers a five-year, outdoor-durable print.

Lance Hutt, Avery’s global digital-product manager, said improvements in ease of installation represent the most significant recent vehicle-wrap enhancement. Anecdotally, users tell him adhesive and liner-technology improvements reduced the average time required to wrap a vehicle by more than half.

The most common mistakes? Failing to properly clean the material, and overstretching media onto contours or compound curves.

“Many cleaning mistakes are attributed to using the wrong kind of solvent-based cleaner, or being negligent in first preparing the surface with a soap-and-water washdown,” Hutt said. “Over-stretching can be caused by pulling the film too hard manually, or from applying too much heat too fast. Effective applications require a balance of both.”

Hutt said, although calendered films may be suitable for some short-term wraps, cast films conform more effectively. This is due to their manufacturing process – the film isn’t subject to stress, which minimizes memory and causes the film to regress to its original form.


He believes the market will continue to grow for several reasons. Hutt said, “Vehicle wraps are a powerful, cost-effective medium for building brand presence and delivering targeted marketing. This fits into a growing trend towards customization and personalization. Lastly, as the technology continues to improve, it becomes more accessible to a larger target audience."

Oracal USA’s (Jacksonville, FL) most recent offerings tailored to the vehicle-wrap market include 395IRA vehicle-wrap film, which features an air-release system, and 3675 and 3676 perforated window film. Craig Campbell, the company’s product-application manager, credits improved material technology as a market-growth factor.

“Stronger, more flexible PVC facestocks, better pigments and more effective UV stabilizers have helped improve vehicle graphics’ lifespan while also reducing costs,” Campbell said. “There are more products today that suit a broader range of budgets, and repositionable adhesives and air-egress systems have enabled substantial labor savings.”

Though vehicle wraps represent the most recognizable vehicle-graphic market segment, Campbell estimates that inkjet wraps represent approximately 20% of the market (he estimates full-vehicle, plotter-cut graphics comprise an additional 15 to 20%). He cites an economy of scale that makes cut lettering more attainable to many – such a job can be sold for a few hundred dollars, whereas a vehicle wrap will routinely fetch $2,000 to $5,000.

Campbell said the wrap market’s evolution required cooperation between ink, media and printer manufacturers: “If there’d been any failure on any part along the chain, we might be five years behind where we are now. Media and inks had to become more price-competitive and widely compatible, and printers had to offer more color profiles, better resolution and more user-friendly features.”

Campbell worked as a graphic and production manager for two signshops prior to joining Oracal. Common fabrication errors, include improper materials and choosing shortcuts that appear to offer short-term, production-cost savings, he said.

“Picking a lower-grade media may reduce initial material costs, but having to trash material due to rework is hardly a good decision,” Campbell said. “And, using application fluid to install wraps is a mistake. It may work fine on a flat surface, but your goal is to form the material in and around complex surfaces. Residual fluid won’t allow the material to stay down, and the adhesive won’t work as intended.”

Roland DGA Corporation (Irvine, CA) equipment most commonly used for vehicle-wrap fabrication are the VersaCamm and Soljet printer/cutters and SolJet eco-ink printer. The company also offers proprietary media and qualifies other manufacturers’ materials for its machines. Laura Wilson, the company’s product manager, said shops must consider their capabilities and capacity before entering the market.

Wilson asked, “Is it your goal to print and install one wrap a week, or five? Do you want design only, install only, or to handle every phase? Answering these questions honestly should dictate your level of investment into this market.”

Wilson says more shops can offer vehicle wraps, in part because of the decreasing prices of inks (she estimates a drop from an average of 50 cents to 22 cents per sq. ft. in the last three years), media and printers. She also lauded design software’s enhanced scaleability and how the quality and easy accessibility of digital templates preclude reinventing the layout wheel when encountering a first Hummer or Scion.

Mild-solvent inks’ increasing vitality have also contributed. Wilson said, “Eco-solvent inks can now match full-solvent quality on virtually all projects at a more competitive price point and without the ventilation requirements,” she said. “UV inks have become more flexible, but not sufficiently so to conform to a vehicle’s surface.”

Resolution and durability requirements must also be respected. While 360 dpi may be sufficient for markets where vehicle wraps are less prevalent, or for a less discerning customer, sufficient resolution – 720 or 1,440-dpi when necessary – improves the client’s visibility and brand image. Clients must understand this need. Wilson said, “It’s still very common for a client to see a low resolution vector file or website graphics, and think this can be easily replicated. You must educate your customer.”

She believes too many providers send wraps into the world underdressed. Even short term vehicle graphics require the UV and abrasion resistance overlaminates provide.

3M Commercial Graphics (St. Paul, MN) introduced repositionable, adhesive-backed films to the market when it unveiled Controltac™ in the mid-’80s. In 2001, the company introduced the Comply™ air-egress system.

Tim Boxeth, the company’s graphic-media marketing manager, said the market grew significantly with better production methods that lowered costs. Further, he said new generation films’ higher ink-saturation points yield better colors.

“Vinyl graphics for buses, trailers and other large fleets have been around for more than a decade,” he said. “But doing a custom job with vinyl graphics wasn’t feasible because they were expensive and didn’t look like paint. As material, pigment and production technologies improved, prices dropped, and vehicle graphics became attainable for many small and medium-sized businesses.”

Installing vehicle graphics demands sufficient room to maneuver the film around contours and curves. Mike Stavreff, 3M’s technical-service specialist, advocates heating the film to approximately 180° F to position it into such areas as bumpers, curves or channels. Because film cools quickly, he advises promptly, yet gently, stretching the films.

After application, heat the film to 200° F. Use cotton gloves and a lowfriction sleeve to stretch the film into channels without burning yourself.

When deciding the appropriate laminate finish – cast overlaminates should be a given with high-performance, cast materials – consider the content and environment. Boxeth said graphically oriented wraps that roll in high-traffic areas should incorporate glossy laminates, whereas text-heavy designs should bear a luster finish.



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