How To Wrap Your Car

Change your car’s appearance easier than Superman changes clothes.

When wrapping a vehicle, it's best to use a helping hand.
DepositPhotos

Gone are the days when switching up your car color involved a major time and financial commitment comparable to getting a full back tattoo. The introduction of vinyl car wraps has made it easier and more economical than ever to give your ride a face-lift.

Change up your car’s appearance for the year, the month, or even the day, going with whatever look suits you. Once you’re over it, just peel the wrap off to reveal your car’s original paint job. Wrapping your ride opens up endless possibilities in the way of designs, colors, textures, patterns, logos, and more. 

Here’s the kicker: Many people are intimidated when it comes to wrapping their own cars, thinking it’s a precision job best left to professionals. No worries. The Drive’s crack info team has laid out a guide explaining what vinyl automotive wrapping is, how much professionals charge, how much it costs to wrap a car yourself, and how to wrap a car. 

A installer uses a felt-edged squeegee to smooth out the vinyl.
DepositPhotos

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Car Wrapping Basics 

Estimated Time Needed: Hours to days, depending on the size and style of the vehicle

Skill Level: Intermediate, Expert

Vehicle System: Exterior

What Is a Vinyl Car Wrap?

Vinyl car wraps have been around for years, as far back as the 1950s. Full vinyl vehicle wraps made their grand entrance into the automotive world in Germany in 1993 as a way for advertisers to showcase mobile billboards. Cast vinyl car wraps are the most popular types, and you can get cut graphics, half wraps, or full vehicle wraps. These wraps are large sheets of pressure sensitive vinyl film that adheres to your vehicle without peeling, chipping, or fading. The newest and most innovative car wraps look so much like real paint that most of your buddies would never guess you paid a fraction of the price for what is essentially a temporary tattoo for your car. You get all the “cool kid” points without the lifetime commitment. And, when you get sick of it, it’s easy to remove or swap out. 

Car Wrap Safety

Working on your car can be dangerous and messy, so here’s exactly what you’ll need to ensure you don’t die, get maimed, or lose a finger and that you keep your jeans, shirt, and skin spotless—hopefully.

  • Safety glasses
  • Mechanic’s coveralls (optional)
  • Closed-toe shoes
  • Protective gloves

Everything You’ll Need To Wrap Your Car

We’re not psychic, nor are we snooping through your toolbox or garage, so here’s exactly what you’ll need to get the job done.

Tool List

Many of the items above can be purchased together in pre-packaged car-wrap kits.

Parts List

Organizing your tools and gear so everything is easily reachable will save precious minutes performing this job. You’ll also need a flat workspace, such as a garage floor, driveway, or street parking that’s also well ventilated. Check your local laws to make sure you’re not violating any codes when using the street because we aren’t getting your ride out of the clink.

Installers use lintless gloves to apply vinyl wraps to cars.
DepositPhotos

Installing a vinyl wrap.

Here’s How To Wrap Your Car

Cleaning and Surface Prep

  1. Thoroughly wash the vehicle, including all corners, crevices, creases, and edges. Be sure to open the trunk, doors, and hood to clean hidden areas. Use The Drive’s guide for how to wash a car.
  2. If you wax your vehicle, remove the wax with wax cleaner.
  3. Clay bar the vehicle. Use The Drive’s guide for how to clay bar a car.
  4. As a final measure, clean the vehicle with an isopropyl alcohol mixture in a spray bottle. Basically, you want your car to be free from any dirt, dust, debris, cat hair, and so on that may screw up the placement of your car wrap.
  5. Once everything is dry, it’s best to apply the vinyl as soon as possible to avoid future contamination.

Apply the Wrap

Grab a buddy, and let’s get to it.

  1. Select a starting point. For beginners, we recommend starting on easier flat surfaces such as the doors, hood, and trunk lid and advancing to the most difficult areas.
  2. Remove any interfering parts such as door handles, logos, grilles, grommets, plastic inlets or scoops, trim, or other pieces that will get in the way.
  3. Use the tape measure to approximate the amount of vinyl needed. As a precaution for mismeasuring or accidents, add about six inches horizontally and vertically.
  4. Without placing the vinyl on any potentially contaminated surfaces, cut the material.
  5. With a friend, remove the backing of the vinyl and drape the vinyl across the surface. The vinyl is specially formulated to only adhere under certain levels of heat and pressure so that the vinyl can be moved around the paneling for precise placement. Over lightly curved surfaces, drape the vinyl with some tension.
  6. Pick a center point and begin applying pressure to the vinyl with the felt-edged squeegee. Push outward to the edges of the vinyl to eliminate any air bubbles.

Cuts and Edges

  • For long straight cuts, use knifeless tape.
  • For edges or the gaps between two panels, use the heat gun to heat the area and use lintless gloves to slowly press down the center of the line. Then, carefully cut down the center of the opening. Use the heat gun to slightly heat the area again and use the squeegee and wrap stick to fold the edges in and under. Typically, folds require 2-3 millimeters of material.
  • Once all your vinyl is in position, with corners and edges folded in, use the heat gun to go over the surface of the vehicle. As you heat the surface, use a lintless glove to once again press down over the surface and ensure adhesion. This will seal the wrap in place. 
  • Most manufacturers have specific temperature guidelines for heating and post heating. Because many of these wraps have “memory” to help prevent stretching, they need to reach certain temperatures to “forget” their original positions. If possible, use an infrared thermometer to check your heating procedures as you go.

Curves and Wrinkles

  • On curved surfaces, place the vinyl with tension before application. 
  • Once you start to apply, some wrinkles will inevitably appear. When this happens, use the heat gun to soften and conform the vinyl to the surface. 
  • If you run into a group or cluster of wrinkles, do not try to flatten with squeegees. With two hands, grip the end of the vinyl and slightly pull up and out until the vinyl is flat. Maintain the tension, use the heat gun to flatten any wrinkles, and drape the vinyl over the surface with tension. 

Bubbles

  • Bubbles may appear due to gap tension, improperly cleaned surfaces, poor squeegeeing, or expansion. You will find bubbles during the application process, but they might pop up after application as well. 
  • If found during the application process, lift the vinyl up and try again, if possible. If not, use the tiniest needle you can find, poke a small hole, and use lintless gloves to push the air out with your finger. 
  • You might need to use the heat gun to remove any wrinkles that formed because of the bubble.

Detailing and Post Heating

  • Finishing, detailing, and post heating the car is key to styling a new wrap. Without proper attention to detail and correct adhesion, the wrap will look unprofessional, wrinkled, or creased. If the edges aren’t sealed correctly, they could lift up and allow dirt, air, and water underneath the vinyl and cause it to fail. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s directions for post heating to the letter.
Installing car wraps requires a heat gun to manipulate the vinyl.
DepositPhotos

Heating a vinyl car wrap.

Pro Tips to Wrap a Car 

Wrapping a vehicle can be a difficult, time-consuming task. These tips will help ensure the process goes as smoothly as possible:

  • Vinyl can only sustain a certain level of heat specified by the manufacturer before it’s damaged or destroyed. We recommend testing and practicing with extra vinyl before applying the real deal. Your look and finish could depend on it.
  • Different types of vinyl act differently due to various technologies and adhesives. Just because you’ve used one type does not mean a different type can be applied the same way. Read the instructions and follow temperature and pressure guidelines.
  • For precision cutting, place your blade right against the squeegee. This allows for controlled blade length, controlled cut points, and extra stability.
  • Reflective wraps are extremely difficult to work with due to creasing and the sensitive nature of the chrome. Alex Belov, general manager of Tinting Chicago, recommends leaving this to the pros.
A properly wrapped car should look as if it's been painted.
3M

An Audi wrapped in Bronze.

Video 

This in-depth tutorial will take you through proper vinyl car-wrap installation from start to finish. It also includes some nice tips and tricks to make the process even and your finished product even smoother.

FAQs About Car Wraps

You’ve got questions. The Drive has answers.

Q. How Long Does a Wrap Last?

A. The average life of a car wrap is about five years when properly maintained. Environmental factors, however, can decrease a wrap’s lifespan. 

Q. Does Wrapping Ruin Your Paint?

A. No, wrapping your car will actually protect your paint, as the wrap takes the brunt of the world’s dirt, debris, and environmental wear and your paint stays hidden below. It is not, however, primarily designed as a protectant, and paint can still be damaged through the vinyl by external hazards.

Q. Do You Wax a Wrapped Car?

A. You don’t. All you’ll need to do is wash your car from time to time with soap and water and dry it immediately with a squeegee or a microfiber towel. Certain finishes such as matte, however, require special washing techniques detailed by the manufacturer.

Q. Does Wrapping a Car Prevent Rust?

A. Yes and no. If your car already has surface or scale rust, it will continue to rust since that’s a chemical reaction within the metal, and no amount of surface protection will stop it. If, however, your car is pristine, it can prevent rust caused as a result of rock chips, scuffs, and scratches as long as they don’t penetrate the vinyl. 

Q. Does a Wrap Fade?

A. No, your vinyl wrap won’t fade, as most modern high-quality wraps are designed to far better standards than other vinyls. Your wrap will continue to look good until you need to replace it or your mood demands a different color.

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