That’s a wrap: is a custom vinyl “paint job” right for your car?

Have you ever thought about changing the color of your car? Or wanted something really unique, like a matte paint job? Vehicle wraps used to be used mostly for advertising, but in the last few years they’ve been used more often for cosmetic applications.

It’s sort of a whole new frontier, and most people have a lot of questions about something they might be applying to their entire car. Here are answers to some of the things that you might be wondering.

What is it, exactly?

Vehicle wrap is vinyl film. It’s a lot like the film used for window tint, but thicker. There are lots of different thicknesses, and manufacturers. One of the highest quality wrap manufacturers is 3M, but your local shop will be able to help you select the right type to get the look you want.

Will it hurt my paint?

It seems like a wrap might bond with your paint over time, and take some with it when you when you remove the vinyl. But—as long as it’s a factory or high-quality paint job in good condition—that’s actually not the case. The materials used for wraps will adhere to your paint, but won’t actually bond with it, so you don’t have to worry about it leaving your paint compromised or damaged in any way.

It is of course important to have an experienced, reputable shop install the wrap. And if your paint isn’t in good condition to begin with, then a wrap isn’t a good idea.

Also, it’s important to wash your car thoroughly before you have the wrap applied—you want a clean, smooth surface, free of any debris or grime that could abrade or infiltrate your paint if the wrap is applied over it.

Will it protect my paint?

Some wraps are very thin so that they can stretch easily for a perfect application, so they don’t actually add any protection. They may provide some protection from the fading that results over time from UV rays in sunlight.

Other wraps are thicker, and they do offer an extra layer of protection for your car’s paint—a thicker wrap can protect your paint from minor chips, scratches, and small dings. It also can protect your paint. It won’t protect against major impacts, of course—if a rock hits your hood hard enough, or someone opens a door forcefully into yours, it’ll likely still cause a chip or ding.

photo: 3M

Are wraps expensive?

A good-quality wrap job is definitely not inexpensive, but compared to a custom paint job, it’s definitely a more affordable option. Prices vary by area, materials used, vehicle size, etc. But generally speaking, a full wrap job for a compact car will run somewhere in the ballpark of $2,500-3,500. In contrast, a custom paint job typically costs $8,000-12,000 or more—depending on the shop, the vehicle, and the type of paint.

How long will a wrap last?

A good-quality, properly installed wrap will last about 5-7 years before it starts to show any wear or need to be replaced. Glossy wraps tend to last a longer than matte, because glossy and printed wraps have a laminate layer that protects it, similar to the way a clear coat protects regular car paint. Satin and matte wraps can, however, be waxed for protection and longevity.

The longevity of a wrap also dependent on the climate and conditions where you live. Extreme temperatures can be hard on a wrap, and so can roads with a lot of dirt and debris, or road salt. Those sorts of things can mean your wrap will need to be replaced a little sooner.

Can I go through the car wash?

Yes! You can go through the car wash just as you would with a traditional paint job. You can even wax it for extra protection.

What if the wrap gets damaged?

Generally, wraps are pretty durable, so damage isn’t common. But if it does get damaged, it’s usually just a matter of replacing the damaged section—or piece—of wrap.

Does it look like paint?

Wraps come in a wide variety of different colors, patterns, and finishes. It even comes in chrome, if you’re into that (or you’re Justin Bieber. But then you’d probably get real chrome.) Some look like like something totally unique and different from factory paint. But if you’re just interested in changing the color of your car, and want it to look like regular paint, there’s a wrap for that, too! You can even design your own custom wrap, using this tool on 3M’s website.

How hard is it to remove?

It’s actually pretty easy to remove. A shop can do it for you, or you can do it yourself. A heat gun (or a hairdryer), or just leaving it sitting in the sun on a hot day will enable you to peel it off fairly easily, if you start with a corner.

If you’re thinking about a wrap, the best thing to do is talk to several shops in your area. Ask them about their policies—do they have a satisfaction guarantee, and/or a guarantee against bubbles or damage for a certain period of time. Ask to see some cars they’ve wrapped, both in person and in pictures. It tends to be a good sign if a shop has wrapped a lot of high-end cars. You also may want to call a few local new-car dealers and ask who they recommend for wraps. If you do your research, and find a shop you trust, you’ll be able to find the right wrap for you, and ensure a quality installation.

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