Introduction: Applying Vinyl Graphics to Vehicles

About: I am currently converting a 1988 40' Bluebird school bus into a motor-home / workshop that I plan to live, work and travel in. This is my second such project. This one will probably be my retirement home. Sti…

A great song writer, named Lionel Richie, wrote and sang a song called "EASY". That was the inspiration behind the name I've finally decided on for my bus. The first line of the song is, " That's why I'm easy, like a Sunday morning".

Part of the plan for the bus I'm building is to have a workshop in the rear of the bus. One of the things I will do in the workshop is make signs. I got started with this idea by wanting to do the graphics on the bus myself. I purchased a sign making machine and a new hobby was launched. I will be promoting my hobby on my website and my blog They are both under construction and probably will be until I get completely set up in the bus but I am able to make signs and graphics by request for anyone that may want something in the mean time.

Step 1: Gather Your Supplies

You will need:

1. Vinyl (for how ever many colors you choose) I purchase my vinyl from Sign Warehouse.
2. Application Tape
3. A means of cutting it out (will offer suggestions later)
4. A squeegee
5. Soap and water solution
6. Work area large enough to lay out graphic flat
7. Wax paper (if cutting out by hand)

Step 2: Design Your Graphic

You can design your graphic on most anything. Computer, pencil and paper or even crayons if you'd like to see it in color. Vinyl graphic material is not very expensive at all. Depending on how many colors and how detailed you would like it to be will determine how much time and effort you will have to put into the project. I settled on four colors and easy text and graphics. Mine was simple enough that I could have cut it out by hand but just happen to have a handy sign cutting machine lying around.

Try several designs until you decide on what you'd like to do.

Step 3: Cutting Out Your Design

There are several ways you can approach this step. The cheapest way is to cut it out by hand. Another way is to have a sign shop or a friend with a vinyl cutter cut it out for you. You can even cut it out with a Cricut cutter if you have one available. The Cricut cutter, however, will limit the size of graphic you can cut out. You'd have to cut a larger image in sections and piece it together.

Once you settle on a design transfer it to the vinyl color for that shape. For your first try, you may want to do a single color graphic. If cutting by hand be sure to keep the backing paper on the vinyl for this step cutting through the vinyl and backing paper at the same time. If cut on a Cricut or vinyl cutter it will only cut through the vinyl leaving the backing paper in tact.

If you used a vinyl cutter you will have "weed" the image. This means peeling the unused portion of the graphic from the backing paper and leaving the part you'd like to keep. This can be a tedious and time consuming part if your project is very detailed. It must be done VERY carefully because if any part of the vinyl gets stuck to another part it is virtually useless.

If you cut your project out by hand, cut the vinyl and backing paper together around each image and set each aside.

Step 4: Masking Your Graphic

Follow these steps if you used a vinyl cutter. See steps below if you cut your project by hand.

Once you successfully weed your graphic, all your spacing and layout are preset for you. You should have the backing paper the full size of your graphic with blank spaces where there is to be no graphic. You now want to apply the application tape over the vinyl and backing paper and smooth it out with the squeegee. If your graphic is not that large cut a piece of application tape large enough to cover the entire graphic. Apply tape starting in the center smoothing it out towards the edges. If your graphic is larger, apply the tape starting at one end smoothing it towards the opposite end. If your graphic is wider than the tape apply it in layers overlapping the tape. You must cover the entire graphic with application tape as this is how you will transfer it to your vehicle.

Follow these steps if you cut your project by hand. See steps above if you used a vinyl cutter.

Layout all your cut pieces as they will be applied to the vehicle. Layout them out on top of the wax paper. Apply the application tape over the cut pieces and wax paper covering the entire graphic. Make sure everything is positioned as you want them to be applied to your vehicle.

NOTE: If you are using more than one color, you must carefully position any parts that overlap before you apply the masking tape. Notice how the "E" and a few of the birds overlap the sun in my example.

Step 5: Prepare the Surface to Be Applied.

Surface preparation doesn't take much. You want to apply your graphic to as clean and smooth a surface as possible. Especially if this is an outdoor project. Clean the surface with a mild solution of dish soap and water. If you need to use a stronger cleanser, do so then finish up with the mild soap and water solution. After the surface dries wipe down with isopropyl alcohol (the clear alcohol) available at any drug store or Walmart to remove any soap residue. Let it dry thoroughly and you are ready to show the world your colors.

Step 6: Apply Your Graphic

I'd suggest you try your hand at something small and manageable first. But if you're like me you're just gonna go all out the first time. Have someone handy to help you position the graphic properly. I don't have a picture of this but tape the graphic, masking tape and backing paper in place where you want it positioned. If you're good at things like window tinting it's basically the same procedure. You can use what's called a dry application. If you're not good or have any doubts use a wet application. Note the wet application will take a little longer to dry and set but it is very forgiving. You will be able to slide the image around a little to get it exactly where you want it. If you use the dry application it will immediately stick (and I do mean STICK) wherever you touch it to your surface. The only way to re-position it is to rip it off and start all over again. Therefore, in the words of the Grail Knight in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade", "Choose wisely!".

However you choose, start out by taping the entire graphic to your surface with the masking tape and backing paper still attached. Tape it in position where you want it. Step back. Eyeball it. Make sure it looks right. Then lets get started. Find the centers top and bottom and on both sides. Tape these four spots down. Start with either the left side or the right side, which ever is more comfortable for you. Remove that tape. Hold the un-taped half graphic in your opposite hand. Start peeling the backing paper off the un-taped half. Place a piece of tape on the backing paper to tape the now folded in half graphic to itself masking tape side to masking tape side. With the graphic held in place, peel the rest of the backing paper off to the half way point and cut it away. This is where you choose wisely. If you are using the wet application, spray your soapy water solution on the surface to be applied. It doesn't matter how wet you get it. You're gonna squeegee it all out anyway. However the wetter it is the more squeegeeing it will take and the longer it will take to dry completely but the more forgiving it will be. If you are using the dry application then just have at it and GOOD LUCK! For both applications you will un-tape the folded over side and starting at the center start laying your graphic down by holding it with one hand and using the squeegee to smooth it from the center to the top, bottom and side. If using the wet application make sure you get enough water out from under it to hold it in place before moving on to the other side. If using the dry application, it's already stuck.

Once you're satisfied with the first half, you'll repeat the process with the other half.

When you are satisfied with the application, start peeling the masking tape off from one corner slowly. Watch carefully as you do. If any of the vinyl start to come up STOP immediately and squeegee it back down. Continue this until you have removed the entire masking tape.

Step 7: Step Back and Enjoy Your Work

Vinyl graphics are not as difficult as they may appear. And they are definitely not hard to apply. You cam buy many pre-printed graphics on the internet and apply them yourself. Many of the newer sign shops can print just about anything you want in any size you want and apply it for you or for you to apply yourself.

It takes no special care as this is the same vinyl used by the automotive industry in their design work.

You can show your team spirit. Advertise your business. Or just have your say for the world to see. Whatever you decide, have fun while your're doing it.

Don't forget, I'm far from finish my school bus conversion. More to come. Check back often or signup to follow me. You can follow my entire school bus conversion and my travels at

Thanks for looking, Leonard