February 13, 2008

Basic Vinyl Application Tools, Part Two: The Traditional

By Hingst, Jim

Wrapping up the wrapping essentials. Last issue, I began covering the necessary tools that should be in every vinyl installer's toolbox. I spoke about the next generation of application tools (the RollePro Vinyl Applicator Roller, the 3M(TM) Power Grip Magic Pad Rivet Applicator CMP-1, and three models of 3M's Textured Surface Applicators), as well as started a discussion about the long-time tools that still earn a place in the vinyl installer's repertoire (rivet brushes, heat guns, squeegees, etc.).

This month, I'll wrap up with a closer look at some of the more traditional tools that remain essential for vinyl graphics professionals.

Roller applicators. Although I prefer using the traditional squeegee for vinyl application, I own at least a half-dozen different types of roller applicators (also referred to as brayers). In shopping for a roller applicator, look for a heavy-duty one that will allow you to apply firm, downward pressure. I prefer the Sabel block roller because it's easy to handle, and I think it delivers the most pressure.

3M 5151 PFTE Glass Cloth Taps. Wrap this remarkable tape to the edge of your squeegee, and your squeegee will slide across a vinyl graphic like a skater on ice. So what makes this tape work the way it does? The answer: impregnated polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). To the layman, PFTE is better known by the DuPont brand name 'Teflon*," the slick stuff that makes frying pans non-sticky. The thick PTFE coating on the tape gives squeegees a non-stick surface. Even when working aggressively, this low-friction surface protects graphics from scratches.

Low-friction sleeve. After removing the application tape, always resqueegee the entire graphic, especially the edges and overlaps to prevent any edge lifting. Without the protection of application tape, hard squeegees can easily scratch bare vinyl. To prevent your vinyl graphics from damage, slip a low-friction sleeve (made of DuPont's polyethylene, paper-like Tyvek(R)) over your squeegee.

Felt squeegee sleeve. One of the new additions to my toolbox is a felt squeegee sleeve, which is made of an industrial-grade white felt. The soft felt squeegee sleeve (which prevents the edge of a hard squeegee from scratching or gouging the vinyl) is ideal for applying digital prints without an application pre-mask.

(Note: As an alternative to squeegee sleeves, you can also use a squeegee wrapped with a soft, felt edge. You may want to opt to make your own, wrapping a squeegee with the soft, felt side of a Velcro(R) strip.)

Air release tools. An air release tool is a fancy term for a needle attached to a handle. You can buy the bargain basement-type with a wood dowel for a handle, but my favorite has a retractable pinpoint that prevents me from puncturing myself when I place it in my shirt pocket.

Whichever tool you decide to use, puncturing the applied graphic in several places around the rivet head allows any trapped air under the vinyl to escape as the film is burnished. A common mistake is to use a razor blade or X-acto(R) knife to puncture the film. A razor or knife blade creates a slash in the vinyl, which will open in time as the film shrinks. On the other hand, a pin prick creates a circular hole, which will close around itself.

In applying vinyl, even the best installers occasionally trap air under vinyl graphics. Don't worry about the small ones. They dissipate with time. The large bubbles, however, must be popped. Using your air release tool or pin, puncture the bubble at one of its edges. Push out the entrapped air with your thumb. First squeeze the bubble at the opposite end from where the puncture is located; then carefully move your thumb toward the puncture.

One of my new toys is the 3M Power Grip Multi-Pin Air Release Tool. This tool features multiple pins, which allows you to puncture several holes in the vinyl with one pressing motion. (Why is it that my ex-wife comes to mind when I have this tool in hand?)

Wartenberg pinwheel. Vinyl that covers rivet heads must be punctured with several pin pricks prior to burnishing with a rivet brush. Many professional installers use a Wartenberg pinwheel, which is a chiropractor's needle point wheel used to test nerve response. By rolling the needle-sharp spikes on either side of the rivet row, the pinwheel creates tiny punctures that allow air to escape as the material is burnished around the rivet head.

Edge sealer. Some graphic applications are prone to edge lifting. For example, frequent spillage from gasoline or chemical tankers subjects its decals to extreme abuse. If the edges aren't sealed, the chemicals can seep behind the graphic, causing the adhesive to fail. Painting the edge of the graphic with a thin line of clear edge sealer, clear coat, or Butch Anton's Frog Juice(R) prevents lifting and peeling.

All metallized films (such as reflective sheeting or R Tape's VinylEFX(TM) films) should be edge-sealed. Unprotected edges are prone to corrosion and edge lifting.

Commercial edge sealers usually come in one-pint cans. A 1/4- inch paintbrush gives good control in applying a smooth coating of sealer without drips and runs. You can also use a foam brush to apply the clear coat. Remember edge sealer should only be painted on the edge.

Two-part edge sealers are recommended for reflective sheeting. If a commercial edge sealer isn't available, you can substitute a screen print clear coat.

Another alternative is to seal the edges of the graphic using Art Schilling's Sealit Pen. The Sealit Pen looks like a felt tip marker. Before using the pen, you'll need to prime it by shaking it vigorously for fifteen to thirty seconds.

Edge sealer and varnish aren't the same thing. One should never paint vinyl graphics with varnish. Varnishes contain very hot solvents that can penetrate vinyl facestock and attack the adhesive system.

Application fluid. The rule of thumb among many professional installers is to always apply graphics dry. However there are a few exceptions to this rule. Installing vinyl to a plastic sign face with an application fluid can result in a zillion tiny bubbles. Although these bubbles will breathe out from under the film and disappear after a few days of summer heat, the correct way to apply vinyl to a flat plastic surface is with a commercial application fluid. Note that I specify a commercial product and not some self- made concoction.

Extremely hot application temperature and vinyl films with aggressive adhesive systems are a couple of other exceptions to the rule. A hot surface can cause the adhesive of the graphics to pre- adhere to a substrate. Pre-adhesion means that the vinyl sticks before you want it to stick, thereby leaving you stuck with a graphics disaster.

With application fluid, you'll avoid pre-adhesion problems. These fluids aid installations allow you to float the graphic onto the surface. These fluids also permit you to reposition the graphic without distortion, until you register it to the right location.

Years ago, I told sign makers they could make their own concoction by mixing twenty ounces of water with a one-half tablespoon of dishwashing liquid and a one-half tablespoon of isopropyl alcohol. At that time, I believed application fluid was that simple. I was wrong. In doing a side-by-side test of my mixture versus the real stuff, I learned that commercial fluids work better because they promote faster vinyl adhesion to the substrate.

Don't waste your time trying to duplicate these products, because you'll never achieve the same consistency. Dishwashing liquid and similar soaps contain additives such as surfactants, emulsifiers, moisturizers, and perfumes (all of which are detrimental to an adhesive). Surfactants, for example, help cleaners break dirt's bond with the substrate. They have the same effect on adhesives, causing bonding failure and edge lifting.

I recommend using a commercial application fluid, such as Rapid Tac, Clearstar's Action Tac and Splash, or GAP's Quick Stick. Manufacturers of these fluids produce a consistent product.The high cost of these commercial application fluids prompts some sign makers to "extend" their supply of the mixture by adding water. Remember, if you dilute your application fluid, you'll dilute the adhesionpromoting characteristics.

Knives and scissors. For most graphics jobs, I prefer using an old-fashioned utility knife with a retractable blade. Still I always keep an assortment of high-quality knives and scissors. A sharp knife is essential for cutting vinyl at the seams. Uncut vinyl tears when the panels expand and contracts as temperatures change.

If you're cutting graphics during an application, use caution so you don't cut into the side of a customer's vehicle. With a little practice, you should be able to develop the skill to cut through a vinyl film without damaging the substrate. An X-acto knife with a # 11 blade is excellent for this type of precise graphics trimming. With very light pressure, a new blade will slice through a two-mil cast vinyl graphic, without cutting into the substrate. X-acto blade are relatively cheap, so replace them as soon as they dull.

For cutting vinyl, I prefer the OLFA(R) OLO Rolling Scissors, which uses roller bearings to cut. These rolling scissors produce a clean, straight cut.

Layout tools. For me, the most time-consuming part of any project is laying out the job. To help in this process, my toolbox contains an assortment of tools. For calculating dimensions on an installation diagram, an architect's scale rule, proportion wheel, and pocket calculator are essential. My other layout tools include: a tape measure, a straight edge, a T-square, felt-tip marking pens, Stabilo pencils, and a chalk line to help position the graphic elements. (Don't apply pressure-sensitive film over chalk lines, because the dust will contaminate the adhesive.) To tape graphics in place, have plenty of one- and two-inch masking tape. Wider rolls of masking tape are also needed to create center, top, or side hinges to aid application. When you select a masking tape, it makes no sense to buy cheap. For a few extra cents, you can buy a good- quality, name-brand product. Choose a tape that will unwind easily (with no unexpected tearing) and doesn't leave any adhesive residue that would require clean up.

Safety Equipment. Many of the chemicals used for adhesive removal are hazardous and toxic. For example, one of the removers that I frequently use contains toluene. Toluene is the solvent in airplane glue that can make you high. In addition to giving you quite a buzz, prolonged exposure to this solvent affects the nervous system and can cause permanent health complications, including brain damage. Other solvents are carcinogenic, while strong acids and alkalis can cause serious chemical burns.

If you don't follow the manufacturer's recommendations when using these removers, you can subject yourself to serious harm. When working with hazardous chemicals, it's important to protect you lungs, eyes, and skin. Chemical gloves, safety glasses, and a respirator are essential installation tools.

When working with hazardous adhesive removers or when spray painting, you should wear a charcoal respirator. (Note: A dust mask won't provide adequate protection.) I use a respirator that uses charcoal canisters that filter out harmful fumes.

Be aware that these charcoal canisters have a limited life. Within forty hours, the canisters become saturated with toxic material and require replacement. One rule of thumb: If you can smell solvents while wearing a mask, it's time to replace the filters.

The replacement filters come in bags that are hermetically sealed. You shouldn't open the bag until you're ready to use the filters. Once you do, the clock starts ticking. You can extend the life of these filters by storing the cartridges in a Zip Lock(R) plastic bag, when you aren't using the respirator.


At the next sign industry tradeshow or seminar, take the time to investigate the new tools on the market. Granted professional tools won't make the novice a professional graphics installer, but you can't do a professional job without them. Success in vinyl application is a combination of using the right tools, the right materials, and the right application technique.

Use the tools that work best for you. Compared to the tools used by other trades (such as carpentry or auto mechanics), vinyl application tools are actually very affordable.

Each year, I page through my favorite sign supply distributor catalogs and buy whatever tool is new on the market. I'll admit that most of the tools that I try end up on the bottom of a tool box, never to be used again. Some may view this as a complete waste of money. I think of it as research necessary for anyone in the business. Putting a product to the test is the only way that I can understand the advantages of one tool versus another. As one boss once told me, "If the tool works, continue to use it; if it doesn't, set it aside and try something else."

Jim Hingst Last month, Jim started the first of his two-part series about the tools designed to aid in the application process that are essential in any vinyl professional's toolbox. In our previous issue, he spoke in detail about some of the latest wares that were availabe and began his discussion on some of the tools that have long been popular. This month, Jim picks up where he left off with an overview of the remaining long-time tools that you should consider. "Putting a product to the test is the only way that I can understand the advantages of one tool versus another," he writes. "As one boss once told me, 'If the tool works, continue to use it; if it doesn't, set it aside and try something else.'" The conclusion of Jim's overview can be found in his "Hingst's Sign Post" column starting on page 26.

Copyright Simmons-Boardman Publishing Corporation Feb 2008

(c) 2008 Sign Builder Illustrated. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.