Tips and Tools for a Successful Graphics Installation
You’re getting more and more requests for wide-format work — especially graphics to be installed on vehicles, windows, walls, and floors. This is great news, and much like the cut-sheet world of printing, a job isn’t done until it’s finished. Whether binding a book or applying graphics on the windows and walls of a bookstore, you need the right tools and training to do the job right — the first time.
To get the most up-to-date information, I talked with Chris Ulmer, creative director and owner of Crystal Coast Graphics in Jacksonville, N.C. Ulmer holds a good number of industry certifications, including the PDAA Certified Installer designation with the Vehicle & Fleet and Architectural Films badges. Needless to say, Ulmer is a great resource, and I was glad he was available to share this information.
Let’s start with the tools you should consider having in your bag to bring to all installs. Ulmer shared a picture of his tool bag packed with a good assortment of basic tools. It is ready whenever he needs to do an on-site install.
Here are some of the basic tools he brings:
- Razor knifes and extra blades (both 30- and 45-degree blades)
- Backing paper cutter
- Squeegee assortment with different types and hardnesses. Some of the squeegees will have buffers (felt on the edge)
- TSA-1 roller for walls and textured surfaces
- Cleaning solution and adhesive remover
- Plastic and metal scraper blades
- Tape measure
- Masking tape
- Stabilo pencil in a couple of colors
- Wrap glove
- Heat gun
- Masking tape
Let’s explore this tool bag further.
Squeegee assortment with hard and soft squeegees along with buffers for them: The more textured a surface is, the softer the squeegee needs to be. If it is a smooth surface, such as glass, a hard squeegee will work great. For more textured surfaces, such as drywall, you would want a softer squeegee. Buffers (or felt on the tip) on those squeegees are always a good idea so you do not scratch the graphics.
Razor blades: Having a few razor blades is a good idea. Bring an Olfa utility knife and an NT cutter, both with snap-off blades so the edges are always sharp and a good cut is easily achieved. A 30-degree blade is great for trimming around things like fasteners on a wall, and a 45-degree blade is great for almost everything else. Be careful when you are cutting on glass that you do not use black carbon blades as they will scratch the glass.
Backing paper cutter: This is typically a knife, such as one from YelloTools, that allows you to cut the backing paper without accidentally cutting the substrate you are applying it to.
TSA-1 (textured surface applicator) roller: This is a 3M roller used for heavily textured surfaces. It works great on brick walls, for example. It is super soft and allows you to really push the vinyl into the crevices.
Cleaning solutions: Typically 70/30 isopropyl alcohol is good for cleaning. Wipe the surface dust off first, then clean with the alcohol. Adhesive remover and plastic scraper blades work great if you are removing old decals prior to installing new ones. Always test a small area with any chemical prior to using it to make sure it doesn’t affect the substrate you are applying the graphics to.
Tape measure: Bring a basic tape measure to make sure everything is aligned and straight. A level is also useful, and a laser levels makes for quick work when trying to get the graphics level, even if the floors and walls are not.
Stabilo pencils in a few colors: These are good for making marks on glass and walls when lining up graphics. The marks easily clean off with alcohol.
Wrap glove: This allows your hand to serve as another squeegee. You can glide your hand or fingers along the graphics easily to make sure the graphics are flat and all the bubbles are removed. Both PROSeries and WrapGlove make great products for this.
Heat gun: This is great for removals, as well as installs. If you need to restore the vinyl back to its original shape because you stretched it, heat guns are great for this. They also activate the adhesive, so it’s always a good idea to go over your project once applied to make sure all the edges are down, and no bubbles have come up. This is known as post-heating and is an important step in any install. The heat gun aids in double checking this, and having an IR thermometer will help you make sure the heat achieves the right temperature to set the adhesive.
Masking Tape: A lower-tack masking tape will hold up graphics while they are being lined up. Blue painters’ tape works well for this.
The Installation Process
In Ulmer’s case, the first thing he does once receiving a job for installation is call the facility to coordinate a day and time. He also recommends a site visit to help reduce the surprises he may run into. Sometimes an install might have to be done after hours if it is a busy retail environment, or things might have to be moved out of the way prior to the install. Think about anything that is attached to the wall (like fixtures) that may need to be removed to make it easier to install the graphics, and be sure to bring a few standard tools (e.g., screwdrivers, wrenches, etc.). This way, the location is prepared for your arrival and will go as smoothly as possible.
O.K., so now you have your tools ready, and you’ve called the facility. The next thing is to get the graphics ready to go. Have them rolled up from the bottom and numbered (if it’s a multi-panel install). Bring a proof of the job along with the graphics, and have the pieces labeled with the corresponding number to the proof. So, if a wall graphic is four panels, each panel should be numbered, and the proof should have lines breaking it up into four pieces, each numbered so it’s clear where everything goes. Place the graphics in a box to keep them safe, and get ready to head out.
Now that you’re onsite, your tools are ready, and the graphics are ready and have been checked against the proof, it’s time to figure out how long the job is going to take. This can be hard to calculate, as it is so dependent on your skill set and the graphics you are putting up. You can always run into small issues, and planning ahead will make them easier to manage.
Give yourself a slightly larger window of time than what you feel you will need. This way you will have time to problem solve and still be finished on time. Having tape to help hold the graphics up while working with them is like having a second set of hands. For large graphics (more than you can hold with your arms outstretched), tape or another installer will be a must. There is also a technique known as pre-seaming, where you can put the larger graphics together in the comfort of your shop. That can make the install go easier.
There are a number of resources for training. The PRINTING United Alliance PDAA installer community is rolling out a training program in 2021 for retail graphics installation that will include a certification testing component. 3M is also well known for its training and testing. And The Wrap Institute has a great video tutorial program where you can see quite a number of installation techniques.
Before we wrap up, it’s important to have a quick understanding of adhesives when considering any job. There are typically three different adhesives you will run into when installing vinyl. The first is permanent, which is pretty simple and self-explanatory. This type of adhesive is not going to come off easily and so should be used with caution in any retail environment. Retail graphics are changed out frequently, and unless it’s for a long-term application be cautious of a permanent adhesive.
The next type of adhesive is removable — again, pretty self-explanatory. This adhesive is designed to be installed easily and be removed or repositioned without a lot of effort. A great example is window graphics, which are usually changed out frequently. This adhesive is very user-friendly, so if you make a mistake, it just pulls off and you can do it again.
Lastly is repositionable adhesive, designed to be pulled up and moved easily. This is used a lot in vehicle graphic vinyls. Repositionable adhesive does have the ability to become semi-permanent once you have either squeegeed it down with some pressure and/or applied heat to set the adhesive. Always rely on the manufacturer or distributor of the vinyl to recommend the appropriate vinyl and adhesive combination for a successful result.
There are so many materials, so many tools, so many surfaces that it can be impossible to go over every situation, but if you have a process that you follow for every project, your chances of success will be much higher. Take your time, have good techniques, and you will turn out good work.
Problems will arise, and you will inevitably mess up a panel or a piece. Communication is the key here. Be upfront if something gets messed up, and get it remade. Sometimes the customer will tell you to do the best you can and save it; other times they will want it reprinted. Everyone makes mistakes and people get it, as long as you communicate. Now, go on and hang some vinyl.
Related story: Wide-Format Finishing and Installation Tips
Ray Weiss, Director of Digital Print Programs for PRINTING United Alliance, joined the Association in 2014. He assists association members with technical information on digital printing as well as digital equipment, materials, and vendor referrals. He oversees training and certification workshops at PRINTING United Alliance along with the Association’s Digital Equipment Evaluation program. Ray is project manager for both the PDAA Certification program and PRINTING United Alliance's Digital Color Professional Certification program and is an instructor for the Color Management Boot Camps. Ray regularly contributes to the Association's Journal and won the 2016 Swormstedt Award for Best in Class writing in the Digital Printing category. Outside of work, Ray enjoys biking, international cuisine and spending time with his three fantastic grandkids.