A Basic Guide to Vinyl Signs, Decals, and Graphics

Blog_Basic_Vinyl_header_200x89So you bought a vinyl cutter or are thinking of getting one.  You want to start covering all the doors, windows, and walls in your world with superb signs, dazzling decals, and inspirational decor. But you still have many questions about what you need to get up and running quickly. The good news is, it’s easier than you think. Start here with our Basic Guide to Vinyl Signs, Decals, and Graphics.  We’ll cover the basics on the hardware, software, and supplies required, and give you an overview of the process of creating vinyl signs and decals.

Signmaking Hardware – The nuts and bolts

You don't need a state-of-the-art computer, but you do need internet access and a good processor

You don’t need a state-of-the-art computer, but you do need internet access and a good processor

Personal Computer: The first thing you need is a personal computer.  Today’s sign software is in the  ‘Cloud’, so you’ll need internet access;  broadband if possible.  You’ll want enough processing power and RAM to run the software efficiently so look for a PC with a 2.0 GHz processor or better, 2 GB of RAM, and 4 GB of open space on your primary hard drive. 4GB of RAM is recommended. Your monitor should have a minimum screen resolution of 1152 x 854 and be capable of 16-bit color. Those are pretty easy targets to meet these days so you don’t need a state of the art computer.

An Apple MAC will work, but you’ll find that in the sign industry, you’ll have a lot more options with a Windows PC.  If you’re a die-hard Apple fan, you can use Adobe Illustrator, but you’ll be limited to buying specific brands of vinyl cutters that come with Mac compatible plugins. Please click here to read more about those.

Vinyl Cutter: We have a staggering variety of cutters available: too many to talk about here. If you don’t have one, you’ll want to start here with our Basic Guide to Choosing a Vinyl Cutter.  Here are a few quick tips. For small, simple  graphics less than 10 feet in length, a Vinyl EXPRESS R Series  cutter may be ideal. If you plan to make small intricately detailed images, the Vinyl Express EnduraCUT 2  will excel by virtue of its advanced digital servo motor. To add longer jobs and thicker media to the mix, a Vinyl EXPRESS Qe6000 is the best value. We have over 20 other options, including plotters for high speed sign production, T-shirt transfers, contour-cutting printed graphics, automotive window tint applications, sandblasting, and more.  So check out the aforementioned buyer’s guide or give us a call and we’ll try to find the best cutter to help you meet your aspirations.

Signmaking Software – The Secret Ingredient

Can the vinyl sign software you use create professional quality vector graphics? Many cannot.

Can the vinyl sign software you use create professional quality vector graphics? Many cannot.

“Starter” Package Perils: Most people entering the sign market either as a vocation or hobby spend so much time deciding on which cutter to buy that they give little thought to the software purchase. This is a mistake. Whether you’re making inspirational wall decor or commercial banners, choosing the right software can mean the difference between fulfillment and frustration. This is because the difference between good graphics and great graphics is often in the design. The design tools are in the software, not the cutter. Choose wisely. Click here to view a summary of the various design tools found in our four levels of LXi Software.

Some companies offer trial or temporary software that has to be renewed every month or year. Or cracked and pirated software that could contain viruses and malware. Avoid this like the plague it is. You need real, professional signmaking software with the features you need to be successful.

Use your own software? Many people come to the vinyl graphics game with other software applications they’d like to use. The most common of these are CorelDRAW, Illustrator, and PhotoShop. Some of these applications will work. Others won’t.

Vinyl sign cutters use vector graphics, which are composed of straight or curved paths connected by points or nodes. It’s line art in its simplest mathematical form.  These paths determine the motion of the blade on vinyl and therefore, the shapes the cutter produces.

Page printers, like the one on your desktop, are driven by software applications that convert pixels to dots. These are referred to as raster or bitmap images. Raster based software is difficult if not impossible to use for vinyl graphics because its output is in dots; a form your  vinyl cutter can’t convert to shapes and letters.  The most popular of these raster based graphics applications are Microsoft Paint, Corel PhotoPaint, PaintShop Pro, and Adobe Photoshop.

CorelDRAW, Adobe Illustrator, and AutoCAD are all vector applications that can be used with vinyl cutters. Depending on which cutter you choose, you may be able  to send your artwork directly from the software to the plotter, or design the artwork in your vector application and send it indirectly by using a dedicated sign software (CAS) application like FlexiSign or Vinyl Express LXi.

Sending files directly from CorelDRAW or Illustrator requires a plug-in. These are most commonly found in brand-name plotters from companies like Graphtec and Roland. Sending files indirectly by using FlexiSign or LXi is a more common process that gives you more options in the brand and cost of the vinyl cutter you choose. This requires exporting your art in a common file format, then importing it to the sign software, before sending it to the cutter. While it can be done, there are tradeoffs. Producing the artwork entirely in dedicated sign software is the most efficient and reliable option.

Converting raster graphics to vector objects: Many clip art packages are provided in raster format instead of vector format. This means they print fine on your page printer, but not on a vinyl cutter. How can you convert these raster images into vector objects? Built into our LXi Expert, Master and Master Plus packages are an auto-tracing feature which creates vectors from raster or bit images. These are not perfect vectors, and often need hand or manual optimizing and tuning, but this feature can save you a lot of time.

Signmaking Supplies

Signmaking Vinyl and Application Tape

You know what signmaking vinyl is. Application tape transfers the cut vinyl to the substrate.

Vinyl & Transfer Tape: When you send a vector  image file to a properly configured vinyl cutter, it cuts that path only in the top two layer of the vinyl: the  face film and adhesive.  Since the release liner beneath the vinyl is not cut, this is referred to as a ‘kiss cut’. After the vector shapes are cut, you need to remove the excess vinyl – the negative space inside and around the letters. The removal process is called weeding. After the vinyl has been cut and weeded, the letters must be transferred from the release liner to the desired substrate. The substrate is what supports or displays the applied vinyl graphic. Common substrates are banners, glass and sign blanks.

So of course the first thing you need is vinyl. It would take volumes to bring you up to speed on the myriad varieties of adhesive backed vinyl products available. Suffice to say there are lots of choices. But you’ll find they fall into three categories; calendared, cast, and specialty vinyls. For a primer on the difference between cast and calendared vinyl, check out our Cast and Calendared Vinyl Primer.  Whatever you choose, they’ll go through the same basic process of being fed through the cutter and ‘kiss cut’.


Transfer or App Tape with Squeegee

Transfering the vinyl to the substrate using a squeegee

Application or Transfer Tape: 

Once the weeding‘s done, you’ll have a design that’s ready to apply to your intended substrate, but it’s still on the release liner. How to get it to the wall, floor, sign blank or banner? For this you’ll need some transfer tape (also known as app tape).

As its name implies, transfer tape is used to transfer the weeded vinyl letters to the substrate. You carefully lay a sheet of tape on the vinyl and press it down with a squeegee. At this point, we refer to the graphic as having been pre-masked. If you’re selling graphics online, you can ship this pre-masked item to the customer so they can transfer it to the substrate of their choice. For this kind of DIY graphic, you’ll want to choose a tape that stays flat so it still looks professional when it reaches your customer. Otherwise, the edges will begin to curl up and collect dust which is not a good presentation.

Tapes with a layflat formula are best for these applications and are generally easier to apply smoothly. These include R-Tape ConformEnduraMASK PerfecTear LayFlat, and Main Tape’s PerfecTear Plus and Preview Plus application tapes. If you’re applying the graphic yourself, it’s time to complete the transfer. This is done by peeling the tape up away from the liner. The letters will come along for the ride. If they’re difficult to transfer, you’ll need to use a high tack tape or modify your process a bit. Click here for transfer tips.  With the pre-masked graphic stuck to the application tape, it’s time to transfer it to the substrate.

Application Fluid: This can be done one of two ways, referred to as “wet” or “dry” applications. Generally, it’s best to do it dry, meaning without any lubrication. The issue here is proper placement. If you’re using an intermediate or premium vinyl, you should be able to place it lightly on the substrate and pick it up to reposition it until it’s juuuust right. Then use your trusty squeegee to apply firm pressure on the tape, which activates the vinyl’s adhesive and bonds it to the substrate. Then you peel the tape and voila! You’ve just installed a stunning new vinyl graphic.

What about that wet option? If you’re not sure you can get it just right, you can cheat a little by using an application fluid such as RapidTAC or SureGlide. Spray a light mist on the substrate or the sticky side of the pre-masked graphic. Be very conservative. You only want to moisten the adhesive, not soak it. For more information on the proper use of application fluids – inlcuding what vinyls you can and can’t apply wet – please refer to our Basic Guide to Application Fluid.


Coroplast Substrates 18" x 24"

These 18″ x 24″ coroplast substrates make an excellent substrate or base for your sign.

Substrates: Now that you have your computer, cutter, software, vinyl, tape, and weeding tools, it would be good to have some handy things on which to stick your stickers. Those are the substrates we’ve been talking about. Substrates come in two types: rigid and flexible. Rigid substrates include aluminum sign blanks, license plate blanks, corrugated plastic signs, and of course, windows. The best rigid substrates for vinyl are smooth, flat, and chemically stable. For more insight into what works and what doesn’t, please start here.

Flexible substrates include banners, awnings, and trade show graphics, but by far the most popular flexible substrates for vinyl are good old fashioned banners. Vinyl-ready banner material can be purchased in single sheets that are already hemmed and grommeted. These are ready to use. Just add vinyl and use the grommets to hang the banner. There’s a right way to do that too.  You’ll find the details here in  our -you guessed it- Basic Guide to Banner Making.


Support Resources etc: We should probably talk about clip art and safety rulers, but that’s more than enough to get you started. If you take a trip through the warehouse with a big ole virtual shopping cart, you’ll have just about everything you need to turn your ideas into nifty signs and decals. For a little extra help in figuring it all out, check out our Basic Vinyl Graphics DVD, which is chock full of demonstrations and tips. You can buy one for $59.95, or stream it at no charge at SignWarehouse TV. You’ll also find lots of helpful hints on here on our Blog and our Tech Support Blog.

Did we leave anything out? If so, feel free to ask questions in the comments below. Now fire up that cutter and get busy making  superb signs,beautiful banners, and  dazzling decals.