Customizing your car, van, truck, or other vehicle using decals, vinyl lettering, or another type of sticker effectively displays your brand or personality to hundreds of people daily.
According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, U.S. drivers made an estimated 186 billion driving trips, spent 70 billion hours driving, and drove 2.62 trillion miles in 2016.
Need more convincing?
A 3M Commercial Graphics paper states that a single intra-city truck with graphics can generate up to 16 million visual impressions in a year... Study after study ranks mobile media as the most cost-effective and influential advertising media.
This guide will walk you through five easy steps to apply your car sticker like a pro, ensuring a seamless and bubble-free finish so you, too, can start to take advantage of these impressive stats.
If you'd prefer to watch how to apply a car decal instead, we've created this video:
Before you start, gather the items below to ensure a smooth application process.
- Cleaning supplies:
- Mild Detergent or Car Cleaning Solution: For washing and prepping the car surface.
- Microfibre Cloths: Dry and wipe the cleaned surface without leaving lint or scratches.
- Isopropyl alcohol: For removing tar spots and other final grease. Also known as rubbing alcohol.
- Masking tape: Use masking tape to measure and create a guide for proper decal placement.
- Measuring tools:
- Ruler or Measuring Tape: To accurately measure the placement area for precise decal positioning.
- Spirit level: Ensure your graphic is level (if required).
- Squeegee or credit card: A squeegee tool or an old credit card helps smooth out the decal and remove air bubbles during application.
- A pin or sharp knife: Use a pin or shape blade to puncture and release stubborn air bubbles.
- Heat gun or hair dryer: If you're applying onto curved surfaces, a hair dryer or heat gun can help soften the vinyl and make it more pliable.
- Application fluid (optional): A mixture of water and a few drops of dish soap in a spray bottle can act as an application fluid to prevent the decal from sticking too quickly, allowing you to adjust its position.
- Ladder or step (optional): If applying a decal to a larger vehicle or an elevated area, having a safe way to access the surface is essential.
With these tools, you can apply your vinyl stickers like a pro.
Step 1 - Preparation: Start with a clean surface
Before you apply your car decal, it's crucial to ensure the surface is clean and free from dirt, dust, and debris. A clean surface ensures your decals won't lift over time or have unwanted dirt & grit below the surface.
Follow these steps to prep your car:
- Wash the area where you intend to apply the decal using a mild detergent or car cleaning solution.
- Rinse thoroughly to remove any soap residue, and then dry the surface using chamois leather, lint-free cloth, or a microfibre cloth.
- Finally, get isopropyl alcohol and soak your microfibre cloth. Then go over the surface one more time. This helps to remove any final marks, such as small tar spots, bug stains, grease, and other hard-to-remove dirt.
A clean surface provides the perfect foundation for your car decal, ensuring it adheres securely and lasts longer.
Step 2 - Measure & tape: No more wonky graphics
Measure twice; apply once is the single point to remember from step 2.
Precision is critical when it comes to applying your decal. Follow these steps:
- Measure the area where you want to place the decal. Use masking tape to create a guide or frame around the desired location. This helps you visualize the placement and ensure straight lines.
- Step back and double-check the positioning and alignment from different angles. Ask a friend for their opinion, or use a spirit level. Make adjustments as needed until you're satisfied with the placement. Taking the time to measure and tape ensures that your decal will be perfectly aligned and symmetrical, avoiding any wonky or off-center graphics.
- Once you're happy with the positioning of your graphic, place it on the surface of your car and tape it down. How you tape your graphic will be different depending on the aspect ratio (the shape) of your graphic. The infographic below shows the tape positioning depending on your graphic's shape.
Step 3 - Apply without bubbles or damaging paint
Now comes the exciting part; applying the decal!
The key takeaway from step 3 is to work in one consistent direction!
Here's how to do it without creating bubbles or damaging your car's paint:
- Peel the backing paper away from the decal, starting from one corner. Be cautious to touch the adhesive side as little as possible.
- Align the decal with the taped frame and gently press the exposed adhesive onto the surface.
- Using a squeegee ideally (if not a credit card), smooth out the decal from the center outward or one end, pushing any air bubbles towards the edges. Work in smooth overlapping motions so you don't trap air bubbles. Imagine cleaning your shower and using a squeegee to remove the water on your glass - you don't want to miss any, so you overlap your previous wipe.
- Go over your graphic again in detail. Remove any stubborn bubbles by using a pin or sharp blade to puncture them at one end, and use the squeegee to remove the air being careful not to apply loads of pressure to give any creases. The video below shows how to do this:
Taking the time and patience during this step will result in a bubble-free and flawless application.
If your vinyl decal is particularly large, you can choose to wet-apply your vinyl decals. Wet application (also known as the wet method) allows you to place your whole graphic and move it around, which is super helpful!
You only need to spray your vehicle's surface with warm soapy water. Use more than you think - you'll use the squeegee to remove it later.
Remove the backing paper from your larger decal, then place the whole thing on your vehicle. Now start to squeegee the water out from underneath, working from the center out.
Once all the water is out, go over the graphic with heat to speed up the drying process, and you're good to go.
Step 4 - Remove application tape (optional)
If your decal comes with transfer tape, such as cut vinyl lettering, you'll need to remove it carefully:
- Slowly peel off the application tape at a 45-degree angle, ensuring the decal sticks to the surface.
- If the decal starts to lift, press it back down and continue peeling the tape away.
Step 5 - Finishing touches
To ensure your car decal looks professionally applied, take these final steps:
- Gently press down the decal's edges to ensure a secure bond.
- Allow the decal to set for at least 24 hours before washing your car or exposing it to extreme weather conditions.
- Go over your decal with heat to relax the surface of the vinyl to help it bond with the surface.
Applying a car decal might seem intimidating, but following these five steps can achieve a flawless and professional-looking result. Remember to start with a clean surface, measure and tape for precision, apply without bubbles or paint damage, and take your time during the process. With a bit of patience and attention to detail, your car will boast a stunning decal that turns heads wherever you go.
Where can you get custom car decals?
For high-quality custom vinyl car decals, check out our range of car stickers. There are different products and pre-made designs to choose from.
Frequently asked questions
Can I apply a car decal on a freshly painted car?
It's recommended to wait at least four to six weeks after a fresh paint job before applying a car decal to ensure the paint has fully cured and settled.
Will the car decal damage my vehicle's paint?
No, properly applied car decals should not damage your vehicle's paint. However, it's essential to follow the application instructions carefully. Using masking tape will also avoid damaging your paint.
Can I remove the car decal later if I change my mind?
Yes, most car decals can be removed without damaging the paint. Heat the decal with a hairdryer to soften the adhesive, then peel it off slowly. Any residue can be cleaned with a mild adhesive remover. See our full blog on removing a car sticker for more detail.
Can I apply a car decal, or should I seek professional help?
You can apply a car decal with the proper preparation and patience. However, seeking professional assistance can ensure a flawless application if you need clarification or want a complex design.