Vehicle wrapping is not as easy as it seems, and if you are thinking about adding vehicle graphics to your print services portfolio, Mike Horsten provides a useful guide to vehicle graphics and their applications from Earth to Space.


Last time I was on a conference somebody asked me if it was possible to wrap an item with a nice print or textile fabric. Interested in the question and knowing how diverse answer it would be, I asked him what he wanted to wrap. Instead of explaining the object he wished to wrap, he told me that he did not know, but wanted to know all the possibilities.  

This was quite an elaborate question because there are so many possibilities and ways to wrap things. Ranging from shrink wrapped bottles all the way up to wrapping airplanes and water-sport boats.  So, I had to confess that I had to tell the gentleman a full and complete answer would be more than one sentence and that I would need to refocus on all the possibilities. 


After investigating the subject, a bit further, I found out that the knowledge of many of the graphics print service providers, knew as little as I did about wrapping. So now I was the expert? Well no, but I do know more about the subject of wrapping than I thought. Many years ago, I did do some vinyl applications of text objects and small graphics but always on a flat surface. No stretching, no heating of the media just spraying some application fluid (soapy water) and off you go.

Wrapping today is totally different than in my younger days. It’s the new and fashionable way to put advertising on an object. As the old school of painting things or painting signs by hand is pretty much gone, we needed something better and easier to deal with. Digital technologies allow us now to print those signs and put them on cars, airplanes and virtually any other objects. Even point of sale objects can be wrapped, saving cost and the need to make new one’s every time. For example take a look at the commercial soda fridge’s around the world, they are wrapped and when exchanged a new vinyl is applied making it look like new again. 


So how does it work, well it’s not as easy as one might think, cars for example are not flat but are really 3d objects, so making a nice image in Photoshop or Corel Draw is not going to help much as it will not look the same as the object and it would not fit. 

You would need to have and use some kind of template that can guide you through the design process. These templates and applications are readily available on the internet and they can make your job a lot easier. Next you need to know the printing technology you want to use. Remember you will be stretching the media a bit so not all ink types will work well with this condition. We need a flexible ink, like UV-LED or the trusted solvent or Latex ink technology.  For the argument let’s take solvent ink as the example that we are going to use for our wrap project. 


After the design is make we are ready to print but on what substrate. There are many vendors offering vinyl’s for this use, 3M, Avery, Hexis, Orafoil ect.  The question becomes more, will it be for inside or outside? do you need to protect it from scratches? how long will it be outside? If it’s used outside we need to laminate it to protect the ink from the evil of weather and sunlight. Remember that most of the vinyl used for wrapping will be cast film and this film is a bit thin. Laminating also gives you a bit more body to work with.  

Anyway, if you want to use the image for more then a few months you would need to laminate the substrate. This will protect the image both against scratches and the weather. We still need to know what media to choose, is it a monomeric vinyl or do I use a more expensive cast film that can be stretched better but is more expensive. Let’s take the easy way and use a Cast vinyl. The glue on the back side of the vinyl is also an important choice to make, permanent, means it’s there to stay and removing it will give you a headache. Again, remember that most cars are leased and will go back to the lessor and they don’t want to have anything on the car when you return them. 


So semi-permanent or removable are the two options we can choose from. Now we know that we will use a solvent ink on a cast film with semi-permanent glue and we will laminate it for protection. There is also a new technology available on the glue side of the substrate, its called bubble free or easy apply, this technology is based on having small channels of air on the glue side so that air can be pushed out in an even way. The glue will spread out over a few hours and close all the channels so you will have less or even no bubbles. Great, we are on our way. But we still need to apply it, and this is again not easy.  Have you ever tried to put a 160x120cm sticker on an object without folds’ bubbles or wrinkles? Well the first time you will not be able to do it, trust me, but there is a trick, use an application fluid. This is like a soapy fluid that will help you do the correct placement or use the easy apply glue technology vinyl’s. Another great tip is to always use a couple of strong magnets to position the media while you are applying the wrap. The magnets become your extra hands and you will need these extra hands to do your wrap. 

So, wrapping is not as easy as it seems, and apart from the printing part I would recommend you to play first or get professional help. Luckily many of the substrate suppliers are giving wrapping and application classes how to wrap your object. So even though I could not give the correct and direct answer to the customer on the conference I learned that wrapping is not as easy as people think. Take the wrapping of airplanes, this requires special skills and special vinyl’s that can resist temperatures from -60 Celsius to plus 50 Celsius so again this is not easy. Did you know a plane shrinks and expands over 5cm per flight so you will need to have some really suitable vinyl’s and ink’s? Many manufacturers have been deeply involved in these kind of aircraft wraps and together with the substrate suppliers and flexible UV-LED inks vendors and have now created a solution to this problem.

Today, it’s possible to supply the right solution to the aviation industry for this purpose. Going up even higher brings you to space craft, they have lots of stickers and these applications need to last, just think of the International Space station, there are hundreds of stickers on that object and they have to stay on. Bringing it all back to earth, you can always decorate your home appliances, kitchen cabinets, home doors and even the garage door.  

So before starting a project please analyse and ask questions first. 


Mike Horsten