Wide-format Graphics: Choosing the right adhesive films

Photos courtesy 3M Canada

By Jeff Uzbalis
One of the most exciting aspects of the wide-format graphics business is how every day is different. Every customer has different needs. Every project has different specifications. And, to some extent, every surface has different properties that will affect how a graphic film can adhere to it.

The issue of surface compatibility is all too often forgotten, but if the right questions are asked from the outset, it will be much, much easier to bring a project successfully to life, achieve the client’s objectives, avoid damaging property and prevent costly failures, by choosing the right product for the application.

Getting the details
Many sign shops get vague inquiries from customers, like “What have you got for stairs?” The answer, of course, depends on additional factors with respect to the scope of the client’s project. Stair graphics may be part of a long-term branding effort or simply a short-term promotional application for a single event. They may involve applying films to the horizontal tread surface and/or the vertical riser of each stair. They could be indoors or outdoors, applied to surfaces of stainless steel, glass, concrete, powdercoated metal or brick, among other material options. They might need to be applied over existing graphics—and the customer may need them to be easily removable later on.

In this way, one initial question from the customer leads to many others from the signmaker. The same is true for other applications. When a customer asks for a door graphic, for instance, the signmaker will need to know whether the project is meant to blend into a wall mural or stand out for wayfinding purposes.

Indeed, appearance is a particularly important aspect of a project, even at the earliest stages. By understanding what the client feels would be an ideal outcome, signmakers can offer suggestions of product combinations he/she may not even know exist, such as metallic colours, ‘day/night’ reflective films for around-the-clock visibility or specialty cast films that can conform to extremely complex curves and textured brick surfaces. Films with ‘micro’ technology, for example, use the latest scientific advances in ‘comply’ adhesives to make wide-format graphic installation faster and easier, resulting in a smoother, bubble-free appearance.

Lamination protects graphics from dirt, fading and vandalism, as well as providing a finish.

Adhesive duration
As mentioned, one critically important part of understanding what the customer wants to achieve is knowing how long the graphics will need to be in place. Indeed, the duration of a project is just as important to product selection as appearance is.

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The length of time for which a graphic film will stay up effectively will depend exclusively on the type of film and its adhesive. The spectrum of options available range from permanent at one extreme to ultra-removable, changeable at the other, each with its own benefits and risks.

Films with permanent adhesives are, of course, meant to remain in place for the life of the items to which they are attached. Typical applications include warning and safety labels on equipment.

Removable adhesives have traditionally been the most popular options because they can hold graphics in place until they are removed with heat and/or chemicals, without damaging a sound surface. Vehicle wraps, for example, are typically printed on graphic films with removable adhesives.

With today’s trend of short-term branding for special events, pop-up stores and other promotional activities, films with ultra-removable adhesives are gaining popularity. They adhere well, but are meant to do so only temporarily.

There are also two main categories of specialty adhesives for installation on less traditional materials. The first are for low-surface-energy (LSE) surfaces, which can range from the plastic sections of all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) to powdercoated metal shelving and racks.

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