Wrap It Up
Is paint passé? In some cases, maybe. Vinyl wrapping is faster and cheaper, and can make a mean-looking logo.
Last night I dreamed I was trapped in a Tupperware box, woke up in a cold sweat, swimming in a fuzzy white haze. I felt like yesterday’s Caesar salad. (Although I was still crisp and fresh in the morning, Tupperware really does work.) Rarely do I identify with leftovers, even on a subconscious level, but there’s a reason for it this time. While researching this column for the last couple weeks, I’ve been reading, writing, and living in a world of plastic: Vinyl, to be more specific; the kind that comes in a roll with stickum on the back and does a nice job of rejuvenating topsides. Vinyl wrapping has been an alternative to paint for more than two decades but is today becoming more popular. Why? What’s wrong with paint?
Nothing, but vinyl is sometimes cheaper and quicker, and is being chosen by more and more yacht owners as a replacement for linear polyurethane and other traditional finishes for hulls, decks, interiors, and even cabin furniture. I’ll come clean right up front: I’m not totally comfortable with this. I’m an old-fashioned guy who worked on a boatyard paint crew, back when paint came in one can and was applied with a brush. (I used to think this made me a Luddite, but recently I’ve been corrected: I’m actually a Neo-Luddite. Google it.) Maybe I’m all wet too, as wet as foul-weather gear in hurricane season. Fiberglass boats are really fiberglass-reinforced plastic; they’re skinned with gelcoat, another plastic; and linear polyurethane paint is, yep, plastic. So, with all this hardcore plasticity going on, what’s the difference if the boat’s also covered with stretchy, colorful vinyl? And even “plastic” itself is such a vague term, isn’t it? What’s my problem? Maybe I need to get out more.
Plastic Pluses and Minuses
The big advantage of vinyl-wrapping a hull is lower cost compared to linear polyurethane, most of the savings coming in fewer labor hours. According to the Wild Group, leaders in wrapping megayachts—the 223-foot steel motoryacht Aviva is one of their best-known projects, wrapped in 2,600 feet of gunmetal-grey vinyl—wrapping costs about two-thirds as much as a top-quality LP job, thanks to reduced labor time. Both procedures demand a perfectly prepared surface—even minor scratches and dings will show up through both the thin skin of vinyl and a coat of LP—but once the yacht is ready for topcoating, the vinyl rolls on in one shot. No primer before the color (except with bare metal hulls), no gloss topcoat after. Roll it on, squeegee out the air, and you’re done. OK, it’s a little more complicated than that, and requires skilled wrappers for a first-class job, but you get the idea.
Cost isn’t the only advantage. To many yacht owners, time is money, and they’d rather be enjoying their boats than have them laid up in the yard for months getting shiny new topsides sprayed on. Wrapping gets the boat back in service quicker, and the owner having fun sooner. For yachts in the charter biz, shorter refits are even more important. Should the topsides come out on the short end of a bad docking or a rambunctious launch driver, vinyl is easier to repair than LP, too, and vinyl advocates claim the material is more UV-resistant than paint.
Advocates also say vinyl wrap is easier on the environment than LP, because no chemicals or solvents are used on-site during an application, and therefore no fumes are emitted; drying paint releases vapors, some of them toxic. However, environmentalists consider PVC manufacturing one of the world’s worst producers of hazardous byproducts, including dioxins, PCBs, carcinogenic phthalates, and other nasties. When its service life is over, vinyl can be recycled—PVC can be reused again and again—or broken down (controlled incineration) in waste-treatment plants. Tossing it into the landfill, however, is not good—the bad stuff can leach out into the environment. Open burning is even worse. But scrapings and blasting debris from removing LP paint has to be collected and disposed of safely, too, as do leftover solvents and other components, so there’s no free lunch with either material. If you’re green, do your research before choosing a topsides coating.
It’s Not All Vinyl
So where do you start if vinyl turns out to be your final choice? We talk of “vinyl wrapping,” but while most of the stuff that comes off the roll and onto the boat is PVC, some of it isn’t. Some wraps are actually polyolefins, among the world’s most commonly used plastics; polyethylene and polypropylene are both polyolefins. (Most Tupperware is low-density polyethylene, a safe plastic for food storage; so is Saran Wrap.) What difference does all this make to the end user? In practice, not much, but it explains why some wraps are fine for interior use—wood-grain designs for covering joinery, for example—but won’t hold up outside, while others can be used anywhere. There are even wraps for lining swimming pools and Jacuzzis. The important thing is to match the wrap with its use, something an experienced wrapper will know.
While there are several manufacturers of wrapping vinyl, two that are used by most pros are 3M’s Wrap Film Series 1080 and Avery Dennison’s Supreme Wrapping Film SW900. 3M’s website lists 269 variations of Series 1080, in enough colors and finishes (including metallic) to satisfy just about anyone. Series 1080 is one of the most popular wraps for marine use. A standard roll is 60 inches wide, up to 50 yards long—so unless you’re wrapping a megayacht, it’s more likely any seams will run longitudinally somewhere between chine and gunwale. (Expert wrappers can make an overlapped joint that’s almost invisible.) Avery Dennison makes SW900 in more than 100 colors and effects, including some cool metallic films.
Wrapping vinyl incorporates a protective surface layer to improve UV and abrasion resistance. Vinyl is softer than gelcoat or linear polyurethane, and even with the protective laminate is more susceptible to damage from sunlight, abrasion (e.g., from fenders) or impact (e.g., the tender or club launch coming alongside too hard). Fishermen need to be careful with the gaff; wakeboarders and waterskiiers have to watch their gear, too.
For belowdecks, 3M’s Di-Noc architectural finishes come in a variety of designs—more than 500, according to company literature, including 94 woodgrain patterns, just right for rejuvenating joinery or even cabin furniture. (Automobile wrap shops can even cover spoked wheels with vinyl, so furniture is a doddle for an expert wrapper.) Forget stripping, sanding, and recoating; just wrap it. In six or seven years you’ll have to re-wrap, but by then you’ll be tired of teak, anyway, and will want something else—maybe cherry or mahogany, or even chrome, or just a simple color. Any decent wrapper will have access to these vinyls and many others. But vinyl-wrapped joinery suggests to me clear plastic slipcovers on furniture—I prefer not to live surrounded by plastic, and joinery that’s properly finished in the first place doesn’t need refinishing very often if given even a modicum of care. Maybe you feel differently.
Application and Aging
Applying vinyl wrap requires few tools: basically, squeegees and a heat gun, plus tape to hold it in place until it can be tacked down. Unlike LP, which requires a paint shop for spraying, vinyl can be applied outside by a crew working from staging. Once the surface is scrupulously clean—wrap manufacturers call for “like new” condition—the main thing is to keep it dust-free. Laying down the vinyl is a job for professionals: The long lengths of material used to minimize joints make it awkward to corral, and working it around compound curves, spray rails, hull windows, design features, and other impediments while maintaining a glass-like surface takes skill and patience. But the adhesive is low-tack, so the crew can reposition the vinyl as necessary, stretch it, and then use heat to lay it into place around tight curves and corners.
Once the covering is just right, squeegeeing out the air activates the adhesive. There are channels in the vinyl to make this easy; it’s not like trying to get air bubbles out of a windshield sticker, something I can’t do to save my life. Marine wrappers add a primer around the edges to improve adhesion before laying down the vinyl and seal the edges with clear tape after. Once adhered, the wrapping sticks like a barnacle until it’s time to peel it off, which leaves the surface undamaged. After a good cleaning to remove old adhesive, new vinyl can be laid on.
But how long will vinyl last? It depends on the climate, the vinyl, and the adhesive. Most yacht wrappers use permanent adhesive that should last for seven years, sometimes longer. (Other adhesives are meant for short-term wrapping, say for carrying the logo of a sponsor who’s on board for only a season, or in cases where the yacht owner likes to change colors frequently.) The vinyl itself can also last up to seven years with UV protection—some manufacturers claim up to 12 years. But that’s the best case: only certain colors, often just black and white, adhered on a vertical surface, in temperate climates. Other colors, metallics and pearlescents don’t last as long, and any vinyl on an exterior horizontal surface has a shorter life than the same one that’s vertical. Hot sun? Takes years off your vinyl. Dig deeply into the 3M and Avery Dennison websites for the company line on how long vinyl will last under different conditions. The bottom line is, take the manufacturer’s and wrapper’s lifespan claims with a healthy dose of salt. But isn’t that true of everything?
Let’s Get Graphic
Whether you like the idea of wrapping your boat or not, one place that vinyl truly excels is in graphics, where it’s the only sensible choice. Painting logos and intricate graphics on a hull can be costly, if you can even find someone with the skill to do it. But there are lots of artists around who will design your graphics on the computer for printing onto vinyl. The design is limited only by the skill of the artist at the keyboard or pad. Then it’s just a matter of sticking it on. This isn’t quite as easy as it sounds, but it’s within the skill level of most boat owners, or at least within the skill level of one of their friends. The first place to try is a local sign shop; any decent sign shop can work in vinyl, and many do vehicle wrapping—cars, vans, buses, and sometimes boats, too. If you search for “boat vinyl” or “boat lettering” you’ll find a local shop that can do the job. If you’re not looking for anything exotic, BoatUS lets you design your graphics online; they print and send them to you for a DIY install.
For fancy work—let’s say a mermaid swimming along the topsides of your center console, or a trophy marlin leaping from the Gulf Stream—your best bet is a professional sign shop that’s used to boats. The shop will design your custom graphics on the computer, then print it on the wrap, using a large inkjet printer. The vinyl used for graphics doesn’t come with a protective laminate; the sign shop adds one after printing. Without it, the ink in the graphics won’t last long in the sun, wind, and salt air, so be sure the shop you deal with can do this.
Fancy vinyl graphics are used on offshore racing sailboats and America’s Cup boats to display the names of sponsors, and on tournament fishboats, bass boats, racing powerboats, etc. When the sponsor backs out, his name can be easily peeled off, and a new sponsor squeegeed on. Vinyl is a good choice for lettering and graphics on the transom, too. No artist required.