Wrapping a Car: The Drive’s Garage Guide
Change your car color like you change hair color.
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Changing your car’s color sounds like a major commitment, on par with tatting up your neck, but the advent of vinyl wraps has made that line of thinking a fallacy. Automotive wraps can completely alter a vehicle’s appearance for a day, a month, or a couple years, depending on the owner’s mood. When the look tires, simply peel the wrap off and restore the vehicle to its original dress.
Rather than painting, wrapping a car opens customization to an alternate universe of possibilities. They come in countless colors, patterns, textures, and finishes. Without the weight of permanence or costs of repainting afflicting the decision-making, creativity can fly unencumbered.
Wrapping a car is a precision job that is often left to professionals, but labor costs can quickly add up to a scary bill. Below, 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. Let’s get into it!
Professional Costs Vs. DIY Costs
Most costs incurred from professional jobs are due to the labor-intensive nature of wrapping a vehicle. Because of this, professional installation compared to doing it yourself is drastically different.
We spoke to Alex Belov, General Manager of Tinting Chicago, for the estimated professional starting prices of a variety of vehicle types.
These price approximations are generally for the easiest and most basic wrap applications. A Tesla, for example, is one of the simplest vehicles to wrap due to its smooth, flat, and simple exterior design. The pricing increases when you include upgrades such as specialty vinyls, custom designs, jobs that require parts removal, chrome deletes, and wheel wrapping.
Belov also notes that black cars are the easiest and most cost-efficient to wrap because some people leave select parts exposed. A white or red car, however, requires more time and labor to wrap and cover.
*The prices below include top-quality vinyl such as 3M or Avery.
Motorcycle: Starting at about $1,500. Belov did state, however, that Tinting Chicago doesn’t do motorcycles due to the look of the seams. There are other outfits that can do this.
Luxury sports car: Starting at about $5,000. A recently completed Ferrari cost the owner $7,000, according to Belov, and select vehicles can reach five digits.
Family sedan: Starting at about $3,000.
Compact crossover: Starting at about $3,500.
Full-size SUV: Starting at about $4,000.
Truck: Starting at about $4,000.
On Amazon, before tax and shipping, rolls of 3M’s standard 2080 Series Gloss Black vinyl wrap cost $17 for 5 square feet, $36 for 10 square feet, $60 for 25 square feet, $113 for 50 square feet, $217 for 100 square feet, about $325 for 150 square feet, about $420 for 200 square feet, and about $620 for 300 square feet.
The largest amount is 375 square feet for approximately $770. These prices will vary depending on the color and design of the wrap, the brand of vinyl, and the vinyl retailer.
The Drive’s Garage Guide to Car Wrap Installation
With our guidance, any DIYer can wrap a car at home. Use these tools and follow these tips and instructions for a smooth installation.
Estimated Time Needed: Hours to days, depending on the size and style of the vehicle
Skill Level: Intermediate-Expert
Vehicle System: Exterior
Car Wrapping Safety
Working on your car can be dangerous and messy. Use these items to ensure your safety and prevent any accidents.
Everything You’ll Need To Wrap a 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.
- A friend (sorry, introverts)
- Heat gun
- Felt-edge squeegee
- Breakaway knife with spare 30-degree blades
- Small magnets
- Soft magnetic tape-measure
- Teflon-coated backcutter
- Spray bottle
- Microfiber towels
- Vinyl-wrapping lintless gloves
- Knifeless tape
- Compressor (optional)
- Infrared thermometer (optional)
Many of the items above can be purchased together in pre-packaged car wrap kits.
Organizing your tools and gear so everything is easily reachable will save precious minutes waiting for your handy-dandy child or four-legged helper to bring you the sandpaper or blowtorch. (You don't need a blowtorch for this job. Please don’t have your kid hand you a blowtorch—Ed.)
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.
Application Conditions & Storage
If you’ve purchased vinyl but are not yet ready to apply it to a vehicle, it needs to be stored vertically in a room temperature setting devoid of moisture and direct heat or sunlight. Similarly, conditions need to be just right when you’re ready to apply vinyl wrapping to a vehicle.
Most importantly, the wrapping must be done inside, in a clean dust-free environment. Manufacturers also recommend the inside ambient temperature rest at about 70-74 degrees Fahrenheit. If the temperature is too hot, the vinyl could stretch too much. If the temperature is too cold, it could make the vinyl too brittle.
Cleaning And Surface Prep For Maximum Performance
Similar to sanding a vehicle’s exterior before a fresh coat of paint, a car must be cleaned and prepped before applying vinyl wrapping. Any dirt left underneath the wrap could ruin the look, or worse, create bubbles and cause the wrap to fail. Loose paint and/or rust will also need to be repaired beforehand. Follow these preparation steps to get your vehicle ready to go.
- 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.
- If you wax your vehicle, remove the wax with wax cleaner.
- Clay bar the vehicle. Use The Drive’s guide for how to clay bar a car.
- As a final measure, clean the vehicle with an isopropyl alcohol mixture in a spray bottle.
- Once everything is dry, it’s best to apply the vinyl as soon as possible to avoid future contamination.
Applying the Wrap
Grab a buddy and let’s get to it!
- Select a starting point. For beginners, we recommend starting on easy flat surfaces, such as the doors, hood, and trunk lid, and advancing to the most difficult areas.
- 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.
- 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.
- Without placing the vinyl on any potentially contaminated surfaces, cut the material.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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. Use these techniques to finish the job correctly.
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 wrapstick to fold the edges in and under. Typically, folds require 2-3 millimeters of material.
- Once all of 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 “memories” 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.
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.
The Drive’s Pro Tips For Wrapping a Car
Wrapping a vehicle is a difficult, time-consuming task. Use these tips to ensure your first time is a good time.
- 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 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.
FAQs On Wrapping a Car
You’ve got questions, The Drive’s informational team has answers!
How Long Does a Wrap Last?
The average life of a wrap lasts 5-years when properly maintained. Environmental factors, however, can decrease a wrap’s lifespan.
Can You Wrap a Car Yourself?
You can! Just follow the guide above.
Does Wrapping Ruin Your Paint?
It does not. In fact, wrapping your car will protect your paint as the wrap takes the brunt of the world’s dirt, debris, and environment while 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.
Do You Wax a Wrapped Car?
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.
Does Wrapping a Car Prevent Rust?
Yes and no. If your car already has surface or scale rust, it will continue to rust as that’s a chemical reaction within the metal and no amount of surface protection will stop it. If, however, your car is pristine, it will prevent rust due to rock chips, scuffs, and scratches from forming, so long as they don’t penetrate the vinyl.
Does a Wrap Fade?
No, your vinyl wrap won’t fade as most modern high-quality wraps are designed to far better standards than other vinyls. It’s safe to say your wrap will continue to look good until you need to replace it or your mood demands a different color.