Apply Self Adhesive Vinyl Like a Pro

Nothing is more disappointing than applying a perfect graphic to a clean substrate with top of the line tools only to wind up with bubbles and wrinkles in the vinyl, detracting from the finished product.

You may have started off by doing wet applications, as most beginners do, using translucent or clear vinyl, but the professionals agree: wet applications of vinyl can actually create more bubbles and wrinkles when not done properly. If you want to apply vinyl nearly perfectly you have to take every step of the process into consideration, starting with the initial handling of the vinyl to the final laying of it on the substrate.

Here’s some tips to help…

Getting Started

Store your vinyl properly. If you don’t store your vinyl in the proper environment, you can’t expect it to perform to its full potential. Make sure you keep it in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight. Rolls should be suspended or stood on-end on the roll blocks provided. Please click here for more specific information about recommended temperature and humidity conditions

Also, do not store the film for more than two years. Avoid contamination. Don’t apply the pre-mask on the same table where you cut the graphics; the material could pick up contaminants. Also, make sure your substrate is perfectly clean. Dust on the substrate is one of the most common causes of “bubbles” in applied vinyl.

Check the equipment. Make sure the edges of your squeegee are smooth, and knick-free.

Application Tips

Squeegee with skill. Squeegee at a 45 degree angle with overlapping, firm strokes. Don’t worry about pressing too hard; just keep the squeegee gliding smoothly across the vinyl.

Give it time. If you are using a pre-mask, wait a little bit before you pull it off. If the adhesive hasn’t had time to grab hold of the substrate when you pull the pre-mask up you can actually pull the graphic back up as well. Whether you apply the vinyl wet or dry, removing the application tape can cause just enough stress to cause bubbles. Here’s a link to a simple tip that shows how to eliminate this problem by softening the tape’s adhesive with application fluid.

Speaking of fluids, if you do use a wet application, remember to get all the fluid off the substrate. Fluid left under the vinyl can also cause bubbles, so make sure you get it all out from between the surface and the film adhesive. Use firm pressure with your squeegee to force the fluid out from under the vinyl. Have some paper towels handy to dab it as you push it to the sides.

Invest in High-Tech Products

The other way to avoid bubbles in your graphics is to opt for a vinyl with air egress technology. These products make it easier to achieve bubble-free applications without application fluid. Air egress films started in the vehicle wrap segment, but are quickly gaining acceptance for standard signage.

All of our premium cast vinyls for vehicle wraps have some form of air egress technology that makes challenging installations faster and easier. The Comply Performance technology from 3M started this trend with a unique face film that allows air to escape through micro-replicated channels under the surface as the vinyl is applied.

Other manufacturers have responded with similar approaches. The first of these to come to market was Avery Graphics’ EZ Apply technology, with an innovative embossed liner that creates channels in the adhesive, and pushes air bubbles down and out without causing wrinkles. Today air egress liners are available on a wide variety of products including our PrismJET 230 Ultra premium calendared film.

Of course, premium materials cost more, but they do save a lot of trouble when it comes to smooth, picture-perfect vinyl application.

Fighting Bubble and Wrinkles

If you still have bubbles and wrinkles despite your best efforts for a smooth application, don’t worry. Use an air release tool to pop air pockets. Don’t use a knife or a razor blade, which can damage the vinyl further.

Most quality vinyls are self-healing, so after popping air bubbles you have little need to worry about the pin holes, or any sign that the air pockets were there. The trick to popping the bubbles without a trace is to gather the air to a single point, and make only one release point. So, if you have two small air bubbles close to one another, consider pushing the air into one larger bubble before pricking the vinyl. Poke the hole in the edge of the bubble, and re-squeegee from the edge of the bubble toward the puncture.

If you handle the vinyl correctly and apply carefully, you shouldn’t need to worry about wrinkles. However, if small wrinkles appear go ahead and push from the center of the wrinkle toward to edge of the graphic with your fingernail. This will smooth out the bunched up material.

If you wind up with a large wrinkle, you’ll have to slit the material and overlap the vinyl. Clearly, this is not ideal, but leaving the air pocket in the vinyl can cause premature failure that isn’t covered by the vinyl manufacturer’s guarantee. If the large wrinkle is at the edge of the graphic, try using a little heat to soften the film, lift, and stretch until the wrinkle is gone and then reapply the film.

Magic Bubbles

Occasionally, a vinyl graphic is applied smoothly and bubble-free, but bubbles appear a day or so later as if by magic. If this happens, you probably have applied your graphic to a substrate that’s still outgassing. Outgassing is a process seen in solvent based materials wherein the solvents used in manufacturing slowly evaporate as the product ages. This process, also known as curing, generally takes a few days to a few weeks depending on the product or surface. If you apply a vinyl graphic to a substrate that’s still curing, those solvents will be trapped, causing bubbles under the vinyl. In addition to being an unsightly nuisance, the trapped solvents can interact chemically with the vinyl’s adhesive causing it to fail. To avoid this, never apply vinyl to a freshly painted surface. Also be wary of decorating new plastics like Lexan headlight and taillight covers. Click here for more guidelines about substrates and solvents.

Practice makes perfect, and after a while you should get the hang of vinyl application.

How do you avoid wrinkles and bubbles in vinyl application? Share your tips in the comments section below.