A Basic Guide to Vinyl Signs, Decals, and Graphics
So you bought a vinyl cutter or are thinking of getting one. (Here are some great ones!)
You want to start covering all the doors, windows, and walls in your world with signs, lettering, nifty stickers, decals, and wall words.
But you still have many questions about what you need to get up and running quickly.
The good news is, it’s much easier than you think.
Here’s where to begin:
Signmaking Hardware – The nuts and bolts
Personal Computer: The first thing you need is a personal computer. You’ll want to get one with a DVD-ROM drive because our software packages come with a quick start DVD that helps you get your software and cutter setup quickly and easily; as long as you can view it. It won’t play in a standard CD-ROM drive. 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 hard drive space. 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, your life will be easier with a PC. If you want a no-brainer turnkey package, we offer complete systems featuring a Dell Pentium 4 Windows 7 PC that’s guaranteed to work with all the cutter and software packages we offer.
Vinyl Cutter: We have a staggering variety of cutters available: too many to talk about here. If you don’t have one, give us a call and we’ll try to match you with one that will meet your particular needs. For small graphics less than 10 feet in length, a Vinyl EXPRESS EnduraCUT or EnduraCUT Plus desktop cutter would be ideal. If you plan to make small intricately detailed images, the EnduraCUT Plus will excel by virtue of its advanced digital servo motor. To add longer jobs and thicker media to the mix, a Vinyl EXPRESS Qe60+ is the best value. We have over 20 other options, so give us a call and we’ll try to find the best cutter to help you meet your aspirations.
Signmaking Software – The Secret Ingredient
“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 words 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 virus’ 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 vectors, which are arcs, circles, and lines. Producing vinyl graphics is a vector based process, so vector software works on vinyl cutters.
Page printers, like the one on your desktop, use a series of dots to produce the image. This dot image is also known as a raster image. Raster based software (also known as photo editing software such as Photoshop, PhotoPaint, Photoshop Elements, etc. ) will be difficult if not impossible to use because they have no easy way to convert the dots into arcs cricles and lines.
CorelDRAW, Illustrator, and AutoCAD are all vector applications that can be used with vinyl cutters. Photoshop, PhotoPaint and Microsoft Paint are not. Depending on which cutter you choose, you may be able to send your artwork directly from the software to the plotter. For step by step instructions on how to do this, please refer to our Tech Support Knowledge Base. You can also choose to design your graphics in CorelDRAW or Illustrator, then import them into LXi or FlexiSign to be finalized and sent to the cutter. This export-import shuffle is a common process in commercial sign production.
Converting raster graphics into 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 images into vector objects, which as we know, are arcs, circles, and lines? Built into our LXi Expert, Master and Master Plus packages are and 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.
Vinyl & Transfer Tape: When you send an image file to the plotter, it cuts the shape from a sheet of adhesive backed vinyl on a paper release liner that’s being fed through the cutter.
So 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 March 2 blog post. Whatever you choose, they’ll go through the same basic process of being fed through the plotter and “kiss cut”. This is a process that cuts through the face film and the layer of adhesive beneath without carving the underlying release liner.
Weeding Tools: Once that’s done, you have to manually remove the vinyl around and inside the letters. This process, called weeding, can be time consuming and sometimes challenging. It’s probably the least popular aspect of creating vinyl graphics, but I find it relaxing; kind of like art therapy. To make weeding either less aggravating or more therapeutic, you’ll need some basic weeding tools to help you get a grip on the vinyl and pull it off. Our vinyl tool kit would be a good start.
App 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 Conform, Clear Conform, 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. Then when you place the graphic, you can move it around until it’s just right. Then squeegee the fluid out from under it, let it dry a bit, and carefully remove the tape. There are some vinyls, including reflective and metalized polyester (chrome look) films that don’t do well with wet applications, so it’s best to reserve this method for conventional cast and calendared vinyl.
Substrates: Now that you’ve got your computer, cutter, software, vinyl, tape, and weeding tools, it would be good to have some handy things to put the vinyl on. 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 about choosing the right substrates, give our November 2 blog post a read. 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. Please click here for details. If you want to make beaucoup banners, you might want to buy banner material by the roll and cut your own, which is more economical. You’ll need to invest in your own grommet setter to finish the corners, but they’re very affordable and easy to use.
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, the SignWarehouse Community Forum and our Tech Support Knowledge Base. Now fire up that cutter and get busy making some nifty stickers, decals, wall words, and signs.