How to apply vinyl stickers without bubbles and that won’t come off

Knowing how to apply vinyl stickers to hull of a boat is one of those things you are used to if you race often or have sponsors or technical partners. When we talk about vinyls with separate letters, we all had our share of trouble when we first tried.

Quite typically the first vinyls you applied are those of a race you took part in. In the rush of preparations, with the boat in the water at the mooring, I saw the worst things done. Many boats arrive at the starting line that have already lost or torn part of their event vinyl. So let’s see how to apply vinyl stickers avoiding the formation of bubbles.

OSTAR - Roberto Westermann - Spinning Wheel
OSTAR – Roberto Westermann – Spinning Wheel 

How to apply vinyl stickers

Let’s start with the vinyl stickers themselves, as you may have to have them made. Graphics companies that produce adhesives don’t always understand what it means to surf at 20 knots on a sailboat. A very strong jet of water will try to unstick our logos day after day. Everything they tell you about how to apply vinyl stickers needs to be reviewed when it comes to a sailboat.

Ambrogio Beccaria
Ambrogio Beccaria 

The material to use and how to apply vinyl stickers

When you contact the graphics company, more and more often they will propose the use of micro-perforated vinyl stickers or similar names. They will explain how these micro holes on the surface will make applying logos very easy. In particular, avoiding those annoying bubbles that thus become a thing of the past. Here’s the problem though – those tiny holes are your worst enemies.

You have to insist that it’s plain, old-fashioned vinyl, the bubble-popping bastard. Otherwise, your work will all be done in vain at the first upwind leg or the first big surf. Surfing so fast you feel you are dividing the water ahead of you like Moses and the Red Sea. Those sprays at the bow make us rejoice and experience incredible emotions but they are not quite a joy to our bow logos or numbers. The latter are a little less happy with the high pressure jet they are facing. Explain to the graphic designer that you know how to apply a bubble-free vinyl logo without the need for micro-perforations.

So – if the graphic designer insists it won’t be a problem, as they apply them to vans which drive through car washes, don’t give in. Logos and numbers after being stuck on become more and more permanent over time but at first unless you do the job right they will come off quite easily. If you apply the stickers when still on the hard and see no water for months, the problem may never arise. But during my round the world sail I have seen that sooner or later, even if only partially, no matter how much time has passed, the vinyls will get damaged. So let’s face it, it is much better to learn how to apply the “bastard” type vinyl stickers.

DIY jobs: surface preparation

Before each race, there is a bustle of vinyl logo application experts pacing up and down the pontoons with a bucket water and dish soap. Those unfamiliar with this technique have never applied a vinyl sticker. And anyone who has ever even tried to apply a sticker totally dry will know that chances are it will be a terrible result. It’s okay if it’s the logo of a weekend race, but I think it’s also a form of respect for the organisation to apply them right. Don’t run away, you have to learn how to apply a vinyl logo whether you like it or not.

How to apply vinyl stickers: clean the surface thoroughly
How to apply vinyl stickers: clean the surface thoroughly 

The problem is that modern detergents, to be less aggressive on your hands, contain waxes. These waxes prevent the glue from behaving as it should and you will lose any logos or numbers. If you really have to use dish soap, buy the cheapest you can find. This, in the hope that it is of such bad quality that it is nearly corrosive to your hands and contains no skin softening waxes, but at least will make the vinyl adhere well.

The same goes for degreasers, you have to buy proper boating ones or use acetone as most domestic degreasers nowadays contain waxes. A golden rule for all boat jobs! Imagine how bad they are, if you clean a surface with a domestic product it does not allow the subsequent adhesion of a resin. As it leaves a layer of wax that will act as a mold release agent! Fortunately, the alternative is very simple, you have to buy denatured alcohol, the pink/purple one (depending on the country), preferably unscented.

How to apply a non-perforated vinyl sticker

After cleaning the surface, spray a large amount of alcohol to completely wet the surface. Do this on the back of the sticker as well, making sure there is not even a dry spot left. At that point you can place the adhesive, move it, straighten it and finish the application. Take a credit card or a smooth spatula and place a piece of cloth on it. From the centre to the outside, let out the air and alcohol out.

How to apply vinyl stickers: here's the trick
How to apply vinyl stickers: here’s the trick

 

You should always try to apply vinyl stickers the day before going to sea, thus giving the glue at least one night’s time to get a better grip. However, by using alcohol instead of detergent, the result is guaranteed. A litre of alcohol is enough for a couple of logos, but given the very low price it is not a problem. For cut-out letters, don’t rush to remove the backing layer. Apply, check that everything is ready and proceed with great caution so as not to take away parts of the writing.