Most of the attention we give vinyl graphics involves how to put them on: what vinyl cutter to use, what vinyl, what transfer tape, etc. But there’s a sign industry twist to the old adage that what goes up, must come down. In vinyl sign making, car wraps, and other digital graphics, what goes on must eventually come off.
Sooner or later, you’re going to be asked to remove old vinyl before you can install your nifty new graphic. So this article will cover tools and techniques for removing old vinyl graphics.
The common approaches to removing vinyl range from basic to high tech with costs ranging from pennies to hundreds of dollars. Determining which approach is right for you depends on a few variables. Let’s consider the options.
Chisel and Clean
The simplest method for removing vinyl graphics is to pull them off. Of course, that’s easier said than done so there are tools designed to help you get under the corner of the graphic. The most common and affordable of these are plastic razor blades and “Li’l Chizlers”. Both are thin, plastic hand tools designed to slide under the edge of the vinyl and scrape it away from the surface without damaging the substrate. If you can pry the edges up with a Lil Chizler or plastic razor blade, you may be able to simply peel the rest by hand. This will depend on the age and type of vinyl.
The younger or more pliable it is, the better your chances of getting it off in large sections; or at least, entire letters. The older it is, the more likely it will be brittle and come off in little pieces. Long term UV exposure eventually bakes all the plasticizers out of the face film. Here’s a quick tip. If the vinyl is old and brittle, you may be able to get it to come off more smoothly by using a heat gun to warm the face film. This will also help soften the adhesive underneath and reduce the amount of work required to clean the substrate. If you live in a warm enough climate, and you’re removing vinyl from a vehicle, you can opt for the original ‘heat gun’ and just park it in the sun for a while before you attack it with the Chizlers.
Whether your vinyl comes off in complete letters or little pieces, you will almost certainly have adhesive residue. If you’re removing a vehicle wrap installed with premium cast vinyl that’s been in service for two years or less, residue may not be a problem. Avery EZ RS is designed for clean removability up to two years after installation. ORAJET 3951RA is engineered for removal with little or no adhesive residue for up to four years. So one could say the first step toward easy removal is choosing the right vinyl during installation.
If you’re not that lucky, how do you get rid of the residue after the face film has been removed? There are several products that excel at this. Two of the most widely used are Orange Peel, and Rapid Remover. Both work by attacking the chemical bonds of the adhesive and allowing you to wipe it off the substrate.
- Orange Peel citrus-based cleaner: Orange peel is so named because it’s a citrus-based remover that has a strong orange odor. It is non-toxic, biodegradable and environmentally safe. However, it should be handled with minimal contact to the skin in a well-ventilated area. Dab some on the adhesive and rub it in with a paper towel. Use a little “elbow grease” working on one area until it’s clear, before moving to the next area. It may come off in stages, but persistence and the powerful citrus agent will eventually produce a clean substrate ready for a new application of custom graphics.
- Rapid Remover: Rapid remover is a companion product to RapidTac application fluid and is a popular choice for professional sign makers. Its main selling point is the “rapid” part. According to the Rapid folks it ‘breaks down and removes adhesives in as little as sixty seconds”. After having chiseled or pulled away the vinyl, spray with Rapid Remover. Allow a few minutes for it to penetrate the adhesive, then scrape it away with a squeegee or the aforementioned Li’l Chizler. Get the rest of the residue with a few more spritzes of Rapid Remover and a paper towel. Since Rapid Remover is water-soluble, it’s easy to rinse the surface clean to get ready for the next graphic.
Vinyl Off: One Step removal
You may have noticed that we didn’t mention Vinyl Off above as an adhesive remover. That’s because Vinyl Off is engineered to remove the vinyl and adhesive in one step. With Vinyl Off, you apply the fluid directly to the face film. It penetrates the vinyl and softens the adhesive, allowing you to pull the entire graphic off in one piece– with no residue. Since it’s permeating the vinyl and adhesive, it takes a bit longer than Rapid Remover. Allow five to fifteen minutes for the formula to penetrate the face film and adhesive. Then you’re ready to remove that crusty old graphic. If there’s sticky residue left behind, you’re using too much Vinyl OFF. A little goes a long way.
What about reflective signage? Since some reflective films are made from acrylic resins instead of PVC, the same formula that penetrates ORACAL 651 will not necessarily work on ENDURALITE 8100. Reflective Vinyl Off works the same way as the original formula, but much more quickly. That reflective sheeting will be ready to remove in only 60 seconds. Whether you’re using Vinyl Off on standard or reflective vinyl, remember what Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben said. “With great power comes great responsibility.” Do not pour Vinyl OFF directly on the substrate. It may damage the paint. Saturate a paper towel, apply it directly – but sparingly– to the vinyl, and let it work its magic.
If you’re dealing with a really big job or a fleet of vehicles, you may want something more efficient, something more powerful. There are two such options for vinyl removal that are essentially power tools or attachments for blasting the PVC off of your substrate- without taking the paint off with it. These are the Power Stripe Eliminator and MBX Vinyl Zapper.
Power Stripe Eliminator. The Stripe Eliminator is a simple device.
It’s a urethane rubber wheel designed to be attached to an air or electric power drill. Just open the chuck, drop in the stripe eliminator, and fire it up. It has a smooth edge and, in most cases, removes both the face film and adhesive without burning or discoloring the substrate. The entire tool costs less than $25.00. Replacement wheels are only $19.95.
MBX Vinyl Zapper. The MBX Vinyl Zapper is a unique device made specifically for vinyl removal and surface refinishing.
The base tool is a hand held powered motor wheel that runs on household current and spins at 3,200 rpm. The vinyl version comes with a 25mm toothed wheel made from a rubber compound that grinds the vinyl away from clean metal, glass, or fiberglass without damaging the substrate or finish.
The wheel’s rubber teeth are designed to grip the edges of the vinyl and pull them away from the substrate. The vinyl eraser will remove DOT reflective tape and adhesives as well as vinyl lettering, decals, graphics and pinstripes. Unlike other solid vinyl removal products, it does not “sand” the surface, creating heat and potentially damaging the paint or substrate.
Each wheel is rated for about 90 minutes of use. The wheel will remove 35 – 50 square feet of vinyl per hour, so each wheel is good for removing about 50 – 75 square feet of vinyl (Results will differ with the type of material being removed, the age of the material, the exterior temperature, and the operator). Replacement wheels are only $26.49.
The MBX approach costs a little more than the alternative, but, according to Jason Lovejoy of Archbold,OH, “…it just works great and does the job well. It’s definitely worth the investment.”
What to Charge
Speaking of dollars and sense; the most commonly asked question regarding vinyl removal is what to charge. Many sign industry newcomers underestimate the time and labor involved. Some even “throw it in” with the cost of installing graphics. That’s not a good idea.
As noted above, there are lots of variables determining how long it takes to get the old graphics off. The best course of action is to charge by the hour using your shop’s hourly rate. That way, you’re covered no matter what it takes to get back to a clean substrate. If the job is demanding enough to require the purchase of new equipment like a Vinyl Zapper, you probably won’t be able to pass that cost along to the customer, but it will pay for itself over time.
Remembering that what goes on must eventually come off should motivate you to choose better quality materials as often as possible. Today’s installation may be next year’s removal. Whether it’s your work or someone else’s, removing old vinyl will eventually become a necessity in your shop; especially if you sell commercial storefront or fleet graphics.
The price you charge may depend on your preferred method and the kind of vinyl that needs to come off. In the end, your choice of method may come down to personal preference, but be aware of the options. Some jobs may only need a Li’l Chizler and a half hour. Others may need a vinyl Zapper and a half a day. Be prepared and charge accordingly.