Monday, June 25, 2007

Making Sense of Car Decals and Car Graphics Materials Terminology.

How often do you web surfers, when window shopping for decals or car graphics, come across decal sites that boasts about the type of material that is used and yet by the time you leave the site you still have no clue as to what they are talking about? I'm sure there's a lot of you out there and a lot of sites that do that, ours included. So in this blog i am going to explain a little bit for you the anatomy and terminology when it comes to decals and vehicle graphics.

Die cut decals.
You've seen the term used at numerous places including Most places, if not all, that offer die cut decals use the same equipment and materials that is used in the sign industry. The term die cut means the decal is cut using a cutting machine instead of being printed. The cutting machine is a plotter, think of it as a plotter used in the old days to print out the floor plans by architects. Well, instead of a pen, a blade is used and instead of paper, a roll of vinyl is used. The design is cut with the machine, then the parts that are not part of the design are peeled off and thrown away. "weeding" is the term used in the industry. Die cut decals are only cut from solid color vinyl material. They don't have gradations in them or be a color picture.
Car graphics, such as flames or tribal designs for example are manufactured the same way as the small die cut decals that are applied to vehicles. The only difference is the width of the vinyl roll that was used and the quality of vinyl which i will explain shortly. After the decals are "weeded", transfer paper is applied to the die cut decal. Think of the transfer paper like the masking tape you buy from a store except in different width and tackiness. The transfer paper is applied on top of the decal. What this does is holds the decal so that the paper in the back of the decal can be peeled of to expose the sticky side. This is an industry standard of how die cut decals are made. No matter if it's a 5" decal or a 6 foot die cut flame that is going to be applied to the side of your car. They both come with some sort of transfer paper on top of it.

Vinyl Material Used for Decals.
So, now hopefully you have some idea as to how decals are made we will talk about the type of material that is used to make them. The material that is used to make decals and graphics is also the same material that is used by sign makers to make signs, window lettering and fleet graphics for company vehicles. The material is vinyl. Vinyl comes in many colors, finishes, such as glossy or matte and even metallic. Some of the fancier and expensive ones even come with designs in them like diamond plates. Just like with any other product, vinyl material also come in brand names. Some of the popular ones that are out there are 3M, Arlon, Oracal, and Avery. Some are very expensive and some are reasonable. However in my opinion, it is not the price of the vinyl that determines the quality of it. Most sign makers like to stick to a particular brand because of the working characteristics.
So how is determined what type of vinyl is used for what application? There basically 3 types of vinyl. Calendered, Cast, and Intermediate. I'm sure you have seen these terms when visiting decal sites. Besides the type, their life expectancy is also another factor. They come in different life such as 1 year, 3 year, 5-6 year, 7, 8, and 9 year vinyl.
Calendered vinyl is the cheapest and shortest life vinyl. We never use it for numerous reasons. When calendered vinyl is manufactured, it is poured in a cast, then it is stretched out. This makes it unstable. In the long run it will shrink, crack or fade. They are basically used for short term applications such as banners and the vinyl has about a 1-3 year life depending on brand and it also comes in at 3 mil thickness.
Cast vinyl is the highest quality vinyl. The name says it all, it is basically cast poured when it is manufactured. Cast vinyl has 2 characteristics to it. It comes in 2 mil thickness and can conform to just about any surface. Meaning, if were to put a company logo on a semi truck's trailer, i would use cast vinyl because it can conform to all the rivets that are on the trailer. Only cast vinyl can do that. Calendered vinyl will leave a bubble around the rivet which will eventually dry and crack. The other benefit of cast vinyl is the life. it ranges anywhere from 6-9 years depending on the brand. Cast vinyl is also used for car graphics because it can conform to all the contours and edges of the cars body.
The other type of vinyl that is used and very common is Intermediate vinyl. This is a type of vinyl that is between Calendered and Cast. It's comes anywhere from a 5-6 year life depending on brand and is about 2.5 mils. This type of vinyl is excellent for decals because it doesn't shrink or crack like calendered vinyl and has a longer life. However, it is only good for flat surfaces and minor contours like vehicles. It is not recommended for trailers with rivets because it will do the same thing as calendered. It cannot conform around rivet so it will leave a bubble around it. It is feasible to use with good characteristics depending on which brand is used.
Final note. Like i stated above, the material that are used to make decals and vinyl car graphics are the same materials used by sign makers. Which also means that decals can be applied to any vehicle or window surface and can also be applied to boats, kayaks, snow mobiles, horse trailers, skateboards or just about any smooth surface and are weather resistant from rain, sun and snow, depending on the life of the vinyl that is used. So the next time you are surfing on the web for decals or graphics and terminology like high quality cast vinyl or 6 year weather durable vinyl is used, you should have a pretty good idea on the quality and the life of the material. i hope this helped out a little bit. However if you have any questions, feel free to email me at or visit our site at

Calendered Vinyl
Short term life. 1-3 years depending on brand. Flat surfaces only. 3 mil most brands.
Intermediate Vinyl
Medium term life. 5-6 years depending on brand. Flat and simple contours. No rivets. 2.5 - 2.7 mil most brands.
Cast Vinyl
Long term life. 7-9 years depending on brand. Flat, contour and rivets. 2 mil most brands.


Pioneer Websites (Paul) said...

Thanks for spelling out the difference - excellent article!

Can you comment on what airbrushed means then? These claim to be airbrushed car stickers but I'm not sure where they fit into your categories...


my blog said...

well this is really nice way to do things


Mark Scott said...

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