How to Create Vinyl Decals

Step 1: The Design

Create in photoshop (or illustrator, corel or whatever), xerox a cool design, cut something out of a newspaper… this is the fun idea part! Vehicle Signage Sydney is a great way to mobilise your brand or company name.

After you have your design on paper and the size you want cut it with about a half-inch margin (you can use this as a template and hold it up to whatever you’re sticking it to in order to make sure you have the right size and the placing looks good).

Since I did a multiple layer design I printed out two of the same image. I could have also printed each layer separately but I didn’t feel like it. It’s kinda like screen printing.

Note: Had I printed out each layer individually I would have been able to combine the two post-cutting onto the same backing with a tricky application of transfer tape. I preferred to combine the two on the actual surface itself because it is easier… but if you’re making a multi-layered decal for someone else or don’t yet have somewhere to stick it, you can do it that way.

Step 2: Vinyl Selection and Securing Image to the Vinyl

Cut a piece of vinyl about a half-inch bigger than the design. Since I had a remarkably curvy piece of vinyl, I taped it to my cutting surface. The aforementioned benefit of having a small portable cutting surface. If the vinyl isn’t too curly I usually don’t tape it down as it allows for easier manipulation of the project when cutting.

Tape the template to the vinyl as flush and in as many places as you can. If you have big empty spaces in the middle of your design, cut a hole in it and tape the middle too. As you start cutting you’ll find the paper moving a lot. The more anchor points, the less this happens. Small pieces of tape make it easier to remove the template afterwards.

Step 3: Cutting

This is the tedious part. This is what gives you the hand cramps and finger calluses. If you get a headache from straining the eyes or focusing too much, take a break. You don’t have to finish it all at once. I’ve had more than one sticker take several days (the Pirate Bay logo on my truck was a nightmare to cut! All those sail ropes and wooden slats on the hull!). Opposite what most people think, it’s actually the smaller decals that are harder to cut and take more time than the big ones. The larger ones are trickier to put on, but that’s later…

Tips for cutting:
– This step is where you have freedom of interpretation. When doing a detailed work, you may want to round corners, ignore small details or straighten edges. This is the last step for creative input on the design.

– Probably most important: cut inner designs first (see pic description) like the inside of an “O” or “A” for example. If you cut the border first you’ll have to tape it back to cut the inside part.

– Better to cut too deep than too shallow. Also, better to overlap cut-lines (on corners for example) than to leave a gap. Re-tracing cuts when you’re picking and the template is off is a pain. If you cut through the paper, you can fix it by taping the back (see pic description) when you’re done. After a while and depending on the thickness of the vinyl (and template paper) you’ll find the right depth. Until the blade dulls, that is, and you replace it with a new one. Then you’re cutting all the way to the table until you adjust all over again.

– You’ll soon find certain lines are easy to speed through, especially if it’s shading or folds or something organic. However, it’s important not to get complacent and forget where you are in the cutting. Certain lines need to be straight or your whole piece will be off; borders, circles, parallel lines, and text especially. Take glimpses at the whole picture occasionally to make sure you’re on the right track. It’s easy to get tunnel vision when you’re just looking at the lines.

– If you make a mistake, wait until you take the template off to correct it. The paper gets in the way and your repair cuts won’t be as clean.

Step 4: Picking

This part used to daunt me in the beginning because I was afraid I wouldn’t know which parts to pick out and which to leave. As long as you made your cuts right, pick a negative space or outside piece to start from and the rest solves itself as there should be no adjacent pieces.

Start by cutting the border into sections to make removal easier if you have a design with a complex edge. If your design is a circle or something, obviously you don’t have to do this (although you still may). Then just pick a piece with the tweezers and begin. I find the corners are usually the easiest places to grab from.

Once you have the design picked, you can go over it and trim edges or line up straight lines.

Step 5: Add Transfer Tape and Trim

When applying the tape, make sure the decal is flat (tape it down if you must) or else it will distort. Static electricity is your enemy and transfer tape has a lot of it (another reason to tape the decal to your work-station). Start at one end and slowly roll it down, following the tape with your fingers to make sure it is completely flush and there are no creases or bubbles. Bubbles aren’t too big a deal on transfer tape, but wrinkles are. They are hard to fix once the tape touches the vinyl, especially if you have a detailed decal. If the decal is larger or has big spacious pieces, then it may be easier to fix on the spot. Don’t worry about it too much because you don’t want to stretch the vinyl. It can still be fixed after you apply it. Sometimes.

After the tape is on trim it to about a half-inch from the decal and leave one end overlapping (it helps with decal placement later on, in addition to making it easy to take the backing off).

Step 6: Apply to Surface!

First of all, clean wherever you are going to put it. Then place it and secure the overlapped tape side. I marked the opposite side with a dry-erase pen as a guide. Make sure your tape overlap is large enough to hold it in place securely enough to not move when you take the backing off. If you need to, you can cut more backing off to make the flap bigger if there’s enough room.

Once it is in the proper spot, take the backing off and roll it down, making sure it goes down even and minimizing air bubbles. Press firmly on the decal to make sure it is adhered well. Rub it all over making sure every little piece has been covered.

Take the tape off pulling back at a 180 degree angle. Small details and pieces will give you trouble and stick to the transfer tape. On bigger pieces, air bubbles are your worst enemy. A trick I read on-line for applying larger pieces and allowing some flexibility after placing the sticker is to spray a mild soap mixture on the surface before applying the decal. I’ve never tried this because I don’t know how you’d get the decal away from the transfer tape without adhesion to the surface. If you get it to work, this method allows easier brushing out of air bubbles and even minor placement adjustments.

If you get air bubbles you can’t squeeze out, just lance them with the x-acto (in a slicing motion, not poking… you don’t want to stretch the vinyl). If you get creases or folds, simply slice them then make them overlap each other so that the decal lays flush (creases stick out like a sore thumb, seams are practically invisible).

Do a final rub of the decal on the surface to make sure every piece is set. Take a step back and admire your work. You are finished!

That is unless you’re using the decal as masking for painting, in which case remember to take the decal off after roughly an hour after the last coat of paint is applied. You want to take it off while the paint is still soft so it doesn’t tear or stick to the mask.

Vinyl decals are easily removed unless they’ve been on your car a few years. They will still come off cleaner than a regular sticker but will be brittle from sun exposure (you’ll end up with lots of vinyl pieces wedged under your fingernail from scraping). A little Goo-gone gets rid of the adhesive gunk. Click here on how to apply decals from your car.