Installing Graphics on Uneven Surfaces
Installing graphics on rough surfaces, such as brick, block, concrete, stucco, and tile, can be quite challenging. But if you have the right tools and know the proper techniques, you can master such installations with a little practice.
Let’s start by looking at tools. You’ll need a heat source, and this is one application where a heat gun has advantages over a propane torch.
Other tools to round up include:
- A stiff bristle brush (size dependent on the size of the application)
- A leaf blower or shop vac (on blower mode)
- 70/30 isopropyl alcohol
- Heat-resistant textured surface roller
- Heat-resistant glove
- Grout line roller(s)
- A squeegee with edge buffer to protect the surface of the graphic
- A knife with break-away blade
- Masking tape
- An air release tool
Now it’s time for surface prep, and that starts with the stiff bristle brush to remove any debris from the surface. The leaf blower or shop vac will clear any dust and microparticles left behind. Lastly wipe the surface with the isopropyl alcohol and a microfiber towel (be careful the towel doesn’t snag and leave contaminates behind). If practical, pressure wash the surface a day to prior to installation.
If the graphic is large enough to be in two pieces, make sure if the seam runs horizontally that you have the top piece over the bottom so there is no exposed seam for water and gravity to ruin your graphic. For the initial application, use the squeegee with the edge buffer to apply the graphic with just enough pressure for a good initial tack.
The next step is to use the heat-resistant textured surface roller and your heat source to thoroughly press the graphic into the surface of the wall or floor/walkway. Familiarize yourself with the manufacturer’s recommended application procedure (temp, roller speed, pressure, etc.). Keep the speed and pressure consistent, and keep the heat roller moving. If your speed and temp varies widely, bubbles, blistering, or scorching can be the result.
Once you have the graphic applied, go over the mortar joints or grout lines with a heat source and an appropriate roller until there is no visible tenting in the entire graphic. Make a final pass around all edges with heat and a roller to achieve as close to final bond of the adhesive as possible. Finish up with post-heating of the entire graphic, looking for any signs of lifting or air in the process and fix as needed. Now you just need to wipe the graphic with isopropyl alcohol and a microfiber towel and then clean up any trash from the work area.
Floor and Column Graphics
When applying floor graphics, especially on a rough-texture floor, many of the same techniques will apply. One pro tip is if the graphic will be in place for any length of time, it’s always good to round the corners to help avoid lifting. If you think about it, the corner has the least amount of surface area and therefore adhesive holding it down and with any high foot traffic area, these corners can be scuffed up, and from there it ends up pulling even more of the graphic, and now you have a hazard that is easily avoided by just rounding the corners.
Next up when discussing “uneven” surfaces has to be columns and walls. Columns can be deceptive, because on the surface they appear to be “even” or the same diameter from top to bottom but that is rarely the case. Measuring at several points will help you plan the installation so you have a greater chance of success. Just as with rough surfaces, having the proper tools will go a long way towards a successful install.
If the column is concrete you may need a heat-resistant textured surface roller, and you will need a heat source (heat gun or propane torch).
Other tools include:
- A seam ripper (liner cutter)
- A knife with breakaway blades
- Masking tape
- Air release pin tool
- A 3ʺ putty knife
- A medium flex squeegee (pro tip: mold the squeegee to the curvature of the column for ease of application)
- 70/30 isopropyl alcohol
- A microfiber tool
Before applying any graphics, you will need to prep the panel with the flange technique on the top edge. On both sides of the graphic, place a strip of masking tape approximately 1⅜ʺ below the top edge of the panel for the full width of the panel. Keep this tape as straight as possible. This tape will act as a guide to align the graphic to the top of the column and prevents unwanted tears on the vinyl side from the flange cuts.
On the liner side, with the seam ripper, make a 1½ʺ vertical zipper set line in the middle of the liner. Next cut one 1½ʺ wide hinges down each side of the panel for stability when installing the column wrap and preventing stretching/distortion of the material during application. Next on the liner side of the panel between the top edge of the panel and the top edge of the tape, cut flanges through the liner and vinyl every ¾ʺ. A 12ʺ column requires flanges every ¾ʺ to 1ʺ, while larger columns can take a wider flange. Do not cut through the masking tape. On the face side of the panel, use your hands to fold the flanges out towards the face of the vinyl. Having these flanges folded down will assist with getting the material to lay flat during installation.
This flange technique is a great way to get the graphic flat against the top of the column and you can then work the vinyl with the zipper set line and the hinge liners that you created to apply the graphic. One quick point: once you have the alignment good and taped down, use the metal putty knife to crease the top edge making sure the flanges are creased; the putty knife is then used as a guide to trim off the flange pieces.
Lastly in this article are “flat” walls. I put flat in quotation marks because I don’t think I’ve seen a flat wall with no blemishes or obstructions — and that’s not even getting into whether said “flat” wall is square. This article will touch on some of the highlight points I think any installer needs to know for a successful install.
- Starting with suggested tools we have:
- A squeegee
- A 45° knife with breakaway blade
- A laser level
- Adhesion test kit (or make your own)
- A seam ripper
- An air release pin tool
- A heat gun or torch
- A RollePro application tool can be useful
And don’t forget basic hand tools for removal of plates or other objects such as TV mounts, cameras, etc.
Here are some pro tips for uneven walls. First off, a self-leveling crosshair laser is a must-have tool for successful installations. Remember that a repeatable process produces repeatable results. Pull the same amount of liner each time and on each panel. Use the same squeegee strokes throughout the installation. Make sure to check the floor and ceiling for any change in pitch. A graphic may start out with 108ʺ of height at the beginning of the hall and reduce down to 105ʺ by the end.
How are you going to handle the graphic? How will you make sure the bleed is sufficient? Some of these challenges can be reduced with a good pre-install site visit. Take measurements of everything, bring your laser and show the client where the challenges are and how you would expect to handle them. Another pro tip: when you are having difficulty with adhesion, Zinzer Shieldz Clear Wall Size primer is a good option to help with adhesion. Just know that when it comes time to remove the vinyl, it will most likely damage the wall — but if it’s the only option to get a graphic to stay in place it’s worth exploring with your customer.
Depending on the application, you may choose to pre-seam the panel to help with installation. Which part of the graphic is most critical? In case you have to make a choice on level to the floor, you would want to make sure any text is level; however, a solid field of color can help hide that a wall is not level as your eye will not notice that as quickly as text that is not level. In the picture, for example, it’s important that the word “Hello” is level so start here, then move to the small piece of blue that is clearly not level, since it’s not an important piece.
If you’d like to learn more about installing graphics on windows, walls and floors, PRINTING United Alliance’s PDAA Certification program is a great training and certification event. See printing.org/workshops for dates, and I hope to see you at one soon.
Related story: How to Apply Media to Bricks for Wall and Floor Graphics
Ray assists association members with information on digital printing as well as digital equipment, materials, and vendor referrals. He oversees training and certification workshops at PRINTING United Alliance. Ray is project manager for both the PDAA Certification program and the PRINTING United Alliance Digital Color Professional Certification program and is an instructor for the Color Management Boot Camps as well as a G7 expert. Ray regularly contributes to the Association's Journal and won the 2016 Swormstedt Award for Best in Class writing in the Digital Printing category. Ray was inducted into the Academy of Screen and Digital Printing Technologies (ASDPT) in 2020. He also works with SkillsUSA to conduct the National Competition for Graphics Imaging Sublimation. Outside of work, Ray enjoys biking, international cuisine and spending time with his three fantastic grandkids.