The success of an application and how long the graphic will last depends on how the surface is both prepared and cleaned beforehand. Other factors may include the properties of the vinyl, the chosen type of adhesive, the conditions under which the graphic is being applied, and how well the install can follow proper instructions. A seasoned installer using the best materials the market has to offer could be doomed to failure pre-application just because they didn’t properly conduct a particular step.

There’s a huge possibility that the graphic will be as durable as you’d like it to be, if you failed to properly prepare the surface beforehand, no matter what the circumstances may be.

In order to attain a successful, long-lasting vinyl graphic installation, surface preparation is the key although it is often misunderstood and overlooked upon. Just because the surface looks clean, does not mean that preparation and cleaning the surface is not needed. Not all substrates are to be prepared in the same manner, and there are specific measures to be taken in the composition of a surface. In the end, we can conclude the importance of understanding principles regarding cleaning and preparing of the different surfaces for optimal pressure-sensitive graphic applications.

Preparing and Cleaning

Start preparing for a graphic installation by carefully reading the instructions, just like any other procedure. When using solvent-based cleaners, make sure you review all instructions, including proper ventilation, use, and disposal. Wear gloves or other personal protective devices as required by the manufacturer’s warnings.

You’ll want to make sure you take extra precautions during preparation such as using new towels, to ensure the cleanest result. All surfaces should be completely dry before application and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to use a heat gun when removing moisture. Don’t forget to reference applicable performance guides given by graphic material manufacturers on choosing the right temperatures.

When cleaning a surface before applying graphics, be sure to choose your cleaning goal whether it is to remove organic contaminates such as dirt or food residue, or to remove petrochemical contaminants, like wax or grease. A three-step process is recommended:

Step 1: Wash the surface with detergent and water (one tablespoon per gallon) and a lint-free cloth. Dish soap used in the water can be used as well. Avoid using soaps that consist of creams, wax, or silicones including window cleaners that increase the risk of further contaminating the surface. Next, dry the surface, allowing the porous materials to dry completely with a clean, lint-free cloth.

Step 2: Use a solvent-based cleaner with a lint-free cloth to remove petrochemical contaminants. Be sure to test solvents first in an inconspicuous area, and use a clean, lint-free cloth to dry the surface before evaporation takes place.

Step 3: By using a clean, lint-free towel, wipe down the area with an isopropyl alcohol (IPA,) to remove dust, detergent or excess residue on the surface. If you are using industrial-grade IPA, mix it in a ratio of two parts IPA to one part water. Also, if you choose to use rubbing alcohol, do not dilute.

Different Substrates Call For Different Guidelines

Though the three steps above are good guidelines to follow, it is important to remember that not every surface type requires different preparation guidelines. The following is a list of substrate categories and additional pointers to keep in mind when cleaning.


Because Wood contains a specific amount of natural moisture and will absorb moisture from the atmosphere, it must be properly sealed first. All edges and sides must be coated with a high-quality paint or sealant that doesn’t purposely chalk, bleed or contain ingredients that travel to the surface.

Plastic and Rubber

Know exactly which material to use since there are so many polymer types falling under the “plastics” category. Some polymers, like polystyrene and styrene, react negatively to strong solvents. Others, like polycarbonate and fiberglass, should be tested due to the excess moisture stuck close to the material’s surface. Materials such as rubber and caulking are not recommended when it comes to the graphic application since films have poor adhesion to these materials. Lastly, skip step two when cleaning acrylic, polyethylene terephthalate (PET), or acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS.)

Painted Surfaces

Any surface material should always be thoroughly cleaned and coated with a strong bonding primer before being painted. For best adhesion results, semi-gloss or satin should be used as a paint finish. Before graphic application, paint should be completely cured; It’s a good idea to follow paint manufacturer’s recommendations for curing.


As a popular category for specific environmental graphic applications, preparation for the metals varies depending on metal composition and treatment. For example, stainless steel can be cleaned using three steps above, while untreated or unpainted steel should be both refinished and painted prior to the graphics being applied. Other properties of the surface will foreshadow addition steps necessary in the surface preparation such as the oxidation of a metal. It is important to remember that not all metals are recommended for graphics installation, such as brass, magnesium, and lead.