Covering your motor vehicle in vinyl is one of the most eye-catching and price-friendly methods of giving your automobile a well-deserved facelift.
Without the expense, heavy-duty equipment, and mess of a respray — car wrapping is within your capabilities. I want to show you that — with just patience and a few basic tools — you can give your vehicle a professional-looking makeover in just one weekend.
Ready to be a custom king? Let’s get down to business.
What Is Car Wrapping?
Consider it as donning a Spiderman costume.
Ok, I know it sounds a little tenuous, but humor me on the metaphor for a minute.
Dressed as the web-slinger — you take on a totally new character. No longer are you an Average Joe — you’re a freakin superhero. Yet, when you’re bored of saving the world — you can take off the outfit and be plain old you again.
And that — in essence — is car wrapping.
Also known as vinyl, paint, and color wrapping — you enclose your vehicle in a sticky outer film. This gives your motor a clean, fresh, and — in most cases — a totally different appearance and character. The beauty is, companies have designed a multitude of individual designs, colors, and patterns, to suit particular aesthetics.
What’s more, you can create your own designs, and there are film manufacturers who will make a wrap to your specifications. This is most commonly carried out for business advertising — but you can equally have your car adorned with images of your kids, your wife, your dog, your wife’s dog, etc.
And, just like the Spiderman costume, you can take the wrap off again — meaning you can sell your vehicle to a new owner in its original color— without a picture of your girlfriend on the hood. Well, unless the purchaser wants a picture of your beloved on his car, I guess — but it’s at that point I’d begin to question his intentions.
Background to Car Wrapping
Back in 1954, California-based company, Newhouse Automotive, came up with a unique concept — retailing vinyl film for the average auto enthusiast to stick onto a vehicle — changing its appearance.
These weren’t full vehicle coverings — instead, they just extended along the flanks and the roof of the car. At a time when the only other method of altering a vehicle’s aesthetic was a respray — it was incredibly innovative.
So, Newhouse Automotive sold millions, made a massive profit, the owners retired to a private island, and vinyl wrapping took over the world.
Actually, none of that last statement is true — hardly anyone bought it.
The fault wasn’t the concept — it was the vinyl design — plaid or polka dots. US car owners didn’t really want their motors looking like a Scotsman’s kilt or a little girl’s dress — so this idea — which possessed so many opportunities — was dropped.
It took over 40 years for car wrapping to hit the mainstream.
If you’ve ever been to Berlin, Germany — or watched the movie The Bourne Supremacy (2004) — you’ll know that all the taxis in the city are beige, by law. Hence, every taxi driver either has to buy a new car in this color or find a garage capable of performing a respray.
The issue was, when it came to selling these cars, no one wanted a secondhand taxi. Hence, in 1993, KPMF (Kay Premium Marking Films) developed a beige wrap that would turn any vehicle into the required-by-law taxi color — but could subsequently be removed for resale.
General car owners caught onto this idea, demanding colors other than beige — and the vehicle wrapping industry was born.
Why Wrap and Not Respray?
The main reason for wrapping, as opposed to respraying, is that it’s not permanent.
However much you like Spiderman (I know, again) — I’m sure your fandom wouldn’t take you to the extreme of tattooing his costume over your body. This would make you dressed for life as this Avenger (and would also require you to walk around naked all the time).
And that’s the same as respraying (well, without the nudity).
To cover your car in a new paint scheme requires sanding back the original coat, applying a primer, and then covering your vehicle in its new coat — which can reduce the value on resale.
Car wrapping allows you to remove the film before retail — restoring the vehicle back to its original condition.
Additionally, a vinyl covering has the benefits over a respray, in that:
- It’s more cost effective.
- You can easily replace it if you don’t like it.
- It’s faster to apply.
- You can achieve a more unique look than paint.
- It’s simpler for a novice to complete than applying paint.
What You Will Need to Follow This Tutorial
Now it’s down to car wrapping itself! Check you have all the below tools and accessories before starting your project.
- A buddy.
- Floor brush.
- Vinyl wrap — a typical car needs a 25-foot roll of 60-inch wide film.
- Grease/wax remover.
- General car cleaning fluid (no wax).
- 90 percent isopropyl alcohol.
- Cloths that are lint free.
- A squeegee.
- Pencil and paper.
- Utility/DIY knife
- A heat gun for vinyl wrap.
- Cotton gloves.
- Work table — to keep your tools off the garage floor and dust free.
How to Wrap Cars With Vinyl — Step By Step Instructions
Now it’s down to car wrapping itself! Check you have all the below tools and accessories before starting your project.
- First, take the time to go around your car and thoroughly check out the bodywork.It’s important that you’re working with a smooth surface. Ok, every car will have a few minor scratches — that’s not an issue. However, any dents, oxidation, or chips will affect the vinyl finish.
Car wrapping will emphasize any existing lumps and bumps — giving it the appearance of the Appalachians. Furthermore, dents and dips can lead to bubbling or rips. Hence, always address any surface issues before attempting film covering.
- Select a suitable location for your vinyl project. Unless you’re a professional, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll have a laboratory-like, clean space.An enclosed area, such as a garage, is ideal — but, ensure you first give the room a thorough cleaning. Brush and mop the floors and walls, and if you have a robust vacuum cleaner, use that too. However, don’t immediately dive straight into the wrapping — wait for any disturbed dust to settle — and, if needed, brush and vacuum again.
While doing this, keep the doors of the garage closed — otherwise, you could be allowing even more detritus to enter your working space. Furthermore — as you’ll be using a car wrapping heat gun in this project — ensure that you have easy access to power outlets.
- Always wrap your car on a warm and dry day. As an indoor pursuit, it can be tempting to leave your vinyl project for a time when the outdoor weather prevents exterior DIY or gardening.Don’t do this!
Firstly, moisture in the air can prevent the film from adhering to your car’s body. Also, it’s important that the vinyl and vehicle are at the same temperature (around 68 degrees Fahrenheit / 20 degrees celsius). Hence, it’s a sensible idea to begin working in the late morning — when everything is at the same heat level. Therefore, store the vinyl wrap in the same location as your vehicle, to optimize temperature equality.
- Check your tools — ensure you have everything gathered together before you start wrapping. You don’t want to stop halfway through your project, searching the garage for your utility knife — only to discover your wife has stored it in the kitchen drawer as it’s handy for cutting the fat off meat.
- After you’ve addressed any dents, chips, and rust, it’s time to clean the bodywork. Use a wax-free car cleaning fluid and a soft sponge. Ensure you thoroughly rinse the vehicle afterward, to take off any residual soap. Allow to dry, and then readdress the car with a wax remover. Rinse again.
- When the car is dry, put on your cotton gloves. Rub all bodywork surfaces with isopropyl alcohol on a lint-free cloth.
- Remove embellishments from the car to help make it easier to wrap — such as surface badges, ariels, rear spoilers, etc. Once these are off, clean around the areas with more alcohol, to remove any new finger marks.
- Make a sketch of your car’s bodywork panels. These don’t have to be worthy of hanging in the Louvre — just as long as you know what they represent. Next, measure each part of your vehicle’s bodywork and indicate these dimensions on your diagram.
Remember the DIY adage — measure twice, cut once!
Add an extra half-inch to your dimensions. A certain amount of overlap allows you, with a little trimming, to ensure perfect coverage.
- Using your workbench and a utility knife, cut the vinyl sheet into the corresponding sizes of your bodywork panels. This allows you to crack on with your wrapping, without having to keep alternating tools as you switch from covering to cutting.
How to Install Vinyl Wrap on Cars
- If you’ve never wrapped a car before, my advice is to start on one of the smaller panels. This allows you to gain experience, and should you make a total hash of it, you’re going to waste the least amount of valuable film material.
- Time to grab your buddy. Although it is — theoretically — possible to wrap a car on your own, it’s incredibly challenging. And, unless you’re some kind of experienced vinyl guru, you’re going to see disappointing results.Older children, wife, neighbors — anyone can double up as your wrapping partner — the only prerequisites are that they can see and have two hands.
- Put on your cotton gloves and, with your partner, pick up your pre-cut vinyl sheet. Hold it in the air, with the colored/patterned side facing upwards. While keeping the sheet taut between the both of you — remove the backing material.
- Lay the automotive film over the (correct) panel — only pressing the center of the vinyl to the bodywork so that it gently adheres — while keeping the remainder of the sheet tight.
- Grab the hot air machine while your buddy continues to hold the film. The heat gun temperature for vinyl wrap should be set to around 180 degrees Fahrenheit. However, always check the information provided with your vinyl — depending on the construction and thickness of the film, the heat level you require can vary between brands. Ideally, use an automotive hot air gun, or a digital unit with at least 150-200 degrees Fahrenheit capacity.
- Starting at the center, use the squeegee to push outwards on the vinyl, to the edges of the panel — applying gentle pressure. Each stroke should slightly overlap the previous one, removing the majority of air from beneath the film.At the same time, follow the squeegee with the hot air gun, making gentle side-to-side movements to ensure the heat isn’t focused on just one area — which could cause the film to burn. The hot air machine allows the film to stretch slightly — preventing bubbles and creases.
How to Get Bubbles Out of Vinyl Wrap
- Even professionals get air and wrinkles in their wraps — so don’t panic! Using the hot air gun, apply heat to the bubble and work outwards towards the edge of the panel — making the film more pliable. Then, gently begin to peel the vinyl back to the air pocket again and smooth back out with your squeegee — at all times keeping the film warm with the gun.
Avoid the cardinal sin — DON’T POP THE BUBBLES!
This may be fine if you’re fitting a protective cover to your smartphone, but not for vinyl wrap — it’s just lazy.
Admittedly, piercing a bubble with a needle will remove the air — but you will still have an excess of material and a small hole in your vinyl. And, if you’re a car wrapping novice — the chances are you’ll experience a multitude of air pockets during your project. Burst them all, and you’ll have a motor that looks like it’s suffering from a bad case of acne.
Finishing and Edging
- You can have the smoothest vinyl-wrapped panels in the world — but if your edging is messy, you’ll ruin the whole aesthetic. Often, the finishing stage can take as long as the full car wrap — and it’s worth dedicating sufficient time to achieve the perfect trim.
Begin by carefully using your utility knife to cut the film to within a quarter inch of the edge of the panel. Next, set the hot air gun to 215-220 degrees Fahrenheit — this heat level will activate the glue, creating a seriously firm bond.
Use the squeegee to seal the edges, while continually moving the hot air plume over the vinyl. When the adhesive has set (after around 12 hours), trim off any remaining excess film with your DIY knife
- Once the edges are sealed, and you’re sure there are no bubbles or creases — it’s time for what professionals call the ‘post-heat.’ This gives the vinyl a semi-permanent adhesion to the bodywork. That is, it will remain in-situ — until you wish to remove it again — by warming it with your heat gun!Again, with the temperature, set at 215-220 degrees Fahrenheit (or as determined by the vinyl manufacturer), go over all the panels with your heat gun — gently smoothing along with your squeegee.At this stage, your vehicle should be looking awesome. Undoubtedly, you will be desperate to cruise slowly down the road, windows down, music pumping, and letting your neighborhood see your (kinda) new set of wheels.
You need to allow at least 12 hours (or a time frame stated by the film manufacturer) for the vinyl to bond properly. In the meantime, do something constructive — such as creating a playlist that’s in keeping with your vehicle’s new aesthetic. It’s somewhat counterproductive to have a gangsta-esque wrap while having Kenny Rogers blaring out of your speakers.
How to Clean Vinyl Wrap
You’ve spent the time covering your automobile in film — so it deserves to look its best. Here’s how to give your motor vehicle’s exterior some TLC.
- Wash it frequently. Car vinyl attracts dirt and detritus as much as standard paintwork — more if you have a textured finish on the film. You can remove stubborn marks, such as dried-on oil or gasoline, with some isopropyl alcohol and a lint-free cloth.
- Always hand wash. NEVER use an automatic car wash, as the powerful rotating brushes may catch the edges of the vinyl wrap, causing it to lift. If you’re feeling a little lazy, you can use a home-grade pressure washer. Before you start, however, ensure that it’s on a low setting (below 2000 psi) and at a temperature lower than 180 degrees Fahrenheit (otherwise you could melt the vinyl glue).
- For drying, use a soft silicone squeegee to remove any excess water, and then hand dry with a microfiber cloth.
- Many vinyl wraps are suitable for waxing — but first check with the manufacturer for your particular brand, as some wraps react with the wax and become hazy and dull.
How to Remove Vinyl Wrap With a Heat Gun
I know what you’re thinking — What?! I just put it on!
That’s true, but trust me, either through necessity or choice, at some time you will probably need to remove at least some of your car wrap. But, as long as you have a heat gun, it seriously is no big deal. You may want to take off the film due to:
Remember when you purchased your last smartphone? You freakin’ loved it. Taking it out of the box, you felt an overwhelming sense of joy and satisfaction — you knew your life was finally complete. A few weeks later and you experience the same indifferent attitude as you had toward your old phone.
The same applies to your vinyl wrap. A couple of years down the line and you could be tired and bored with how it looks — you want a change. The beauty of wrap is that you can give your car a completely different appearance — with little expense.
Hopefully, you took the time to consider the color and image of your vinyl wrap before applying it to your car. You may even have taken the extremely sensible decision of discussing it with your partner first.
Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.
Seeing the vast array of colors, textures, and patterns of the automotive wrap can lead to a momentary lapse of common sense. That shocking pink film seemed an exciting decision at the time — but after a couple of months of looking like a 1970’s pimp crawling the streets — you realize it may have been a mistake.
Luckily, it’s simple to remove and replace the wrap — and put an end to the rumors in your neighborhood.
Damage and Age
Vinyl is hard wearing — but it’s not indestructible.
Over time, your wrap will have to cope with stone chips, UV rays, water, accidental bumps, and sub-film oxidation. If it’s just a small area that has become damaged — you only have to replace the vinyl on that particular panel. Alternatively, if the color has faded over the years due to sun damage, you may need to re-cover the whole vehicle.
Removing Car Wrap With a Heat Gun — The Method
- Using a fingernail, or a thin plastic scraper, tease off the edges of the vinyl wrap from the car panel(s).
- Grab your heat gun and set it to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. This is most easily achieved with a digital hot air machine, as it allows you to select specific temperatures. Ideally, use a fishtail nozzle to ensure even heat distribution over a wide area. Some machines, such as the SEEKONE SDL2816, come complete with this attachment. Alternatively, you can purchase industry-standard, two-inch nozzles separately.
- Begin to warm the wrap with the heat gun, using side-to-side movements, covering an area of around 6-8 inches.
- Using your fingers, start to pull the film away from the bodywork, at an angle of 20 degrees. Should it become difficult to remove, reheat again.
- Once you’ve taken off all the vinyl from the panel, it’s time to eliminate any residual adhesive. Crank up your heat gun to 150 degrees Fahrenheit and begin to warm the glue. As it softens, remove it with a plastic scraper.
- Should there be any adhesive that’s impervious to your hot air machine, gently rub it with some isopropyl alcohol and a lint-free cloth.
Wrapping it up
With good quality vinyl, an automotive heat gun, and a little patience — you can give your car a whole new character — without the expense of buying a new motor.
Ensure you take time over surface preparation, enlist the help of a buddy, and use the hot air machine at the temperatures indicated above — and even as a novice you can achieve professional results.
If you know someone else who may benefit from this vinyl wrapping 101 — then feel free to share it with them!
You now know how to wrap a car — so get out to your garage and put this knowledge to good use!
Vinyl Wrapping a Car FAQs
Q: What Is the Point of Wrapping Your Car?
Car wrapping allows you to change the appearance of a vehicle without the time or monetary cost of a complete respray. The process involves applying a vinyl film over the original paintwork — changing the color and, if required, texture.
As the film is removable (with a heat gun and a little patience), the car can be returned to its original condition — hence, not affecting the resale value of the vehicle.
Q: How to Vinyl Wrap Exterior Trim?
You can wrap external trim — such as handles, fenders, chrome side-accents, and spoilers — color-coding them to match the rest of your vehicle.
The process is virtually the same as for covering the bodywork — but it does come with additional challenges. These exterior features are smaller than panels and have more elaborate contouring. Precise measurement is key — combined with some accurate use of a utility knife.
Q: Can a Wrapped Car Go Through a Carwash?
While you can take your wrapped car through a carwash — it’s not advisable and should only be done very infrequently.
The issue is the powered brushes. They can cause the vinyl wrap to become hazy — or mar the appearance with tell-tale circular scratches. Furthermore, they can lift the edges of the automotive film, which — in time — may make the vinyl peel from the bodywork panels.
Q: How to Vinyl Wrap Interior Trim?
Applying vinyl to your interior trim is a simple way to spice up tired dashboards, door panels, and roof linings.
However, automotive film is designed primarily for application to painted metalwork. It doesn’t bond well to orange peel finish, ABS plastics, rubber, and porous or textured surfaces. Hence, always test the vinyl wrap on a small, inconspicuous area of interior trim first, to ensure adequate adhesion.
Q: How to Remove Creases From Vinyl?
Apply heat to the crease with a hot air gun and gradually work out towards the edge of the vinyl. Using a soft, plastic scraper, begin to peel back the film until the crease is removed.
Then, reapply the film, keeping the material pliable with the heat gun. Create a smooth finish using a squeegee.
Q: How Long Does Car Wrapping Last?
Numerous factors can affect how long a vinyl wrap lasts on a car.
The most crucial aspect is how well the film was applied in the first place. Insufficient heat directed on the adhesive, and/or poor edging can lead the vinyl to peel.
Furthermore, other conditions, such as UV rays, detritus damage, water ingress, and poor quality film, could reduce its lifespan. Typically, a full car wrap can last anywhere between three to seven years.
Q: How to Wrap a Car Hood?
The easiest way to apply vinyl to your car bonnet is to leave it in-situ — don’t remove it from the vehicle.
Being around waist height — it’s in the ideal position for straightforward application. Furthermore, being relatively horizontal, it means that you can cover the hood simply, with little danger of creases and bubbles.
Q: Do I Need a Specific Heat Gun for Car Wrap?
At the very least, you need a heat gun to apply vinyl wrapping. A hairdryer, as suggested by many people, will not work.
Look for a hot air machine with controllable temperatures between the ranges of 120 and 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Furthermore, to enable you to deliver the correct distribution of heat, you’ll need a gun with both a fishtail and a concentrator nozzle.
Q: Can I Wrap My Car or Do I Need a Professional?
As long as you have time and a little patience — you can vinyl wrap a car yourself. Ensure that you have a buddy to help you manipulate the automotive film, in a clean and enclosed workspace. Then — with a heat gun and a few basic tools — you’re ready to go!