Removing old graphics with an MBX Vinyl Zapper. Bob Bjorkquist, Bob’s Signs, Healdsburg, California
Removing emblems with the steamer is the same process used for removing old vinyl graphics. Bob Bjorkquist, Bob’s Signs, Healdsburg, California
All the graphics had to come off this trailer—front, sides and rear. Jerin Payne, O’Really Wrap Designs, Winterset, Iowa
Starting the removal process. Jerin Payne, O’Really Wrap Designs, Winterset, Iowa
When you peel off old reflective graphics, the foil and the adhesive often remain on the surface. Chris Lovelady, Vital Signs LLC, Thomasville, GA
Squeegee wide masking tape over the foil and adhesive that was left behind. Chris Lovelady, Vital Signs LLC, Thomasville, GA
When you peel the masking tape off, both the foil and the old adhesive come off with it. Chris Lovelady, Vital Signs LLC, Thomasville, GA

How do you remove old vinyl graphics—and price it?

By SignCraft Magazine

Posted on Friday, March 13th, 2020

Issue after issue of SignCraft shows great-looking cut vinyl graphics and printed wraps on vehicles, but seldom do we talk about removing them. But to paraphrase the old saying, “What goes on must come off.” 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 time-eating nightmares. That’s why many use time-and-materials pricing rather than give a firm quote for removal.

What do other shops do? We share the experience of three sign makers here. And since we know there’s always more than one way around the barn, we would like to hear your tips on vinyl graphics removal, so that we can share your insights and shortcuts in an upcoming Trade Secrets e-letter. Drop us a note at signcraft@signcraft.com.

Bob Bjorkquist, Bob’s Signs, Healdsburg, California:

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 4 or 5 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.

Jerin Payne, O’Really Wrap Designs, Winterset, Iowa:

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.

Chris Lovelady, Vital Signs LLC, Thomasville, Georgia:

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 clean-up 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.