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How do you remove old vinyl graphics—and price it?
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Successfully removing old graphics can be a challenge that takes time and expertise. Solvents, machinery, heat, elbow grease and scrapers all get into the act. Some old graphics give up easy while others can turn the task into a pain. Besides the mechanics of getting the old vinyl off, you have the issue of estimating the cost of removal. Not easy.
There are several variables—the type of film, how long it’s been on, the finish of the substrate, the climate and more. They make it hard to estimate removal time and give an accurate price. While some say that removal can take anywhere from 50 to 100 percent of the time it takes to apply graphics, every sign maker has stories of removal projects that became costly timeeating nightmares. That’s why many use time-and-materials pricing rather than give a firm quote for removal.
We shared the experience of five sign makers on the subject of removal in our recent Trade Secrets e-letter and found more great tips to share. We’d like to hear yours, too. Drop us a note at email@example.com
Grind it off, steam it off
I often use the MBX Vinyl Zapper
for vinyl removal. It works great. You just work back and forth as if you were using a polisher and let the wheel remove the film. After that you can keep going and remove the adhesive. Let the tool do the work, without applying pressure. I’ve never had it do any harm to the painted finish. You can clean up any leftover adhesive with citrus cleaner and a plastic scraper.
I find the off-brand eraser wheels don’t last as long and don’t work as well. I use the MBX wheels and just add a $30 material cost on any removal project. One wheel will do four or five trucks, but I use that number for my material cost.
The POD Steamer 2 is another good tool for vinyl removal. It comes with several nozzles, so you just choose a size that works for the job. The steam heats the film up and softens the adhesive so that you can peel it off. If any adhesive is left behind, we get that with citrus cleaner.
I also use it for wrap application when I need to make the film conform to a complex shape, like a mirror. Steam the film then stretch it as needed. It works better than a heat gun because that sometimes gives you too much heat in one area. I use a wide nozzle on the steamer and fan it over a large section of vinyl until it’s soft enough to work with. It gives you a larger piece of softened film to stretch.
Every removal job is a little different. I find that a good quality vinyl comes off easier and leaves less adhesive residue. With the steamer, one person can steam it and another can be pulling it off. It goes faster that way.
As for pricing, I usually figure an hour of shop time plus materials for a set of truck doors. A wrap on a van or a box truck means more time, but once you’ve done a couple, you’ll know how long it takes. If you’re not sure, you can explain that it’s time-plus-materials and give them a rough estimate or maybe a range that you expect it to fall between.
Bob Bjorkquist, Bob’s Signs, Healdsburg, California
Vinyl-Off and a heat gun
I recently had to remove the graphics from both sides and rear of a semi trailer. I didn’t know what I would run into, but I estimated that it would take 10 to 15 hours. I ended up hitting right at 12 hours.
I used CrystalTek Vinyl-Off. You spray it on, let it stand a bit, then apply heat and another coat of Vinyl-Off. I used a propane torch and the old vinyl came off, glue and all, with the help of a plastic scraper. It worked well, and I felt pretty lucky.
Jerin Payne, O’Really Wrap Designs, Winterset, Iowa
Covering adhesive remover with newsprint helps it work
I often use the heat gun to soften and remove old vinyl lettering, and have had to use the steamer method at times as well. If one approach is not working well, try the other. I once had to change the address on more than a dozen trucks and vans for a customer, from fairly new to quite old. Some—particularly the newer ones—came off with the heat gun, but others did not do very well. I switched to the steamer, which worked better on the very old vinyl.
The amount of glue residue left behind seems to vary quite a lot from rig to rig. I use the 3M Adhesive Remover that comes in a rectangular red and white quart can. It works very well without attacking the paint.
It does, however, require staying wet on the surface for a few minutes to do its work. That can be a problem on vertical surfaces like truck doors and sides of vans. I first remove the vinyl and then place a piece of newsprint over the adhesive that is left. Then I soak the paper, but just a bit at a time. It’s easier to keep it wet that way. After a few minutes I remove the paper, and most of the adhesive comes off with the paper. What is left comes off easily with a clean rag and more of the remover.
Dic Bason, Bason Signs, Lebanon, Oregon
Dull a razor blade to use as a scraper
I’m often enough stuck with doing this drudgery, so I know that time, patience, knowledge, experience, tools and tricks are all required. It’s a nasty, messy job, and I get sick of that smell after an hour or so. I prefer to do it outside or with a fan blowing across the floor to get the smell out of the bay.
After the vinyl has been removed, you’re left to deal with the adhesive. One trick that I came up with is to spray on the adhesive remover and cover it with kitchen plastic wrap. This keeps the adhesive remover from evaporating, especially in the summer, and lets it do its magic. I work from one area to the next, moving the plastic along as I progress.
A van covered with graphics generally takes about a day, and I’ve done several of them. I’m unsure of how much time it would take to do a wrap. I’m also a big fan of using a steamer. It can make an amazing difference when you’re dealing with old, brittle vinyl. Over the years I’ve had to repair mine a couple of times and find that putting some white vinegar in the steamer helps to break down the internal mineral deposits.
I see no other way than to use the citrus-type chemicals to strip off the adhesive. Some work better than others, but this is also determined by the type of adhesive. Some adhesives are water-based; others are solvent-based. Experiment with different brands. I use Rapid Remover
, which costs about $70 a gallon. The Goo-Gone household brand is generally the least efficient of chemical options.
I use a dulled razor blade in a metal holder to remove the softened adhesive goo. I round the corners then dull the blade by razor strapping it over some fine sandpaper in a sanding block, as you see in the photo. You need a metal blade holder because the adhesive solvents will melt a plastic one.
As I scrape off the softened goo, I wipe it on a corner of a Job Squad paper towel, folding the towel as I progress. You do not want to drop this nasty stuff on the floor. If so, wipe it up immediately.
When all the goo is removed I wipe the area down with a clean paper towel. I follow that with a Windex and alcohol wipe until it’s squeaky clean. Then I’m finally ready to apply some new graphics.
Removing old vinyl graphics takes time and patience, so be sure and charge appropriately. Include your materials cost and allow for the “nasty mess factor.”
Casper Cox, Prizam!, Chattanooga, Tennessee
Use masking tape to take stubborn adhesive off
Removing old vinyl graphics is always a tough one. It can be a crapshoot— especially if it’s a wrap or a large box truck. It can take days. I use a heat gun and elbow grease, and in stubborn cases I have used a wallpaper steamer. I never use chemicals as many of them are nasty and cleanup is horrible. As for pricing, I never give a set price for removal. I tell them my hourly shop rate, then explain that “it takes whatever time it takes.”
Here’s a tip for removing leftover adhesive that I discovered by accident: Squeegee wide masking tape over the adhesive, then pull it off slowly. This often removes the old adhesive in one pull. Sometimes a little heat will help the masking bond to the old adhesive better. Then slowly pull it off, leaving a clean surface. It works well on reflective film, too, when the reflective layer of the film remains on the surface after you pull the vinyl off.
Chris Lovelady, Vital Signs LLC, Thomasville, Georgia