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Vinyl Car Wraps: Cost & Benefits vs. Painting

Car wrap specialist putting vinyl foil or film on car.

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Vinyl Car Wrap vs. Painting

Would you like to drastically change your car’s appearance, add personal touches, or transform it into a vehicle that’s one-of-a-kind?

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You’ve probably considered a new paint job, but that’s time-consuming, permanent and not cheap. A high-quality paint job runs from $3,000 to $5,000. If you choose a special finish, such as matte, metallic or pearlescent, you can expect to pay much more than that. Once you start adding customization, like multiple colors, lettering, or graphics, you could be looking at $6,000 to $10,000 – or more.

Vinyl wrapping is an alternative to painting and it’s growing in popularity. What was once primarily reserved for high-dollar and commercial vehicles has grown to a multi-billion dollar industry in recent years.

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That’s because wraps allow for an infinite degree of colors and customization at a reasonable cost. Moreover, the process doesn’t take long, it’s easier to maintain than paint, it protects your car and it’s reversible. And, when properly cared for, a vinyl wrap can last as long as 10 years, though 3 to 5 years is about average.

What Is Car Wrapping?

A wrapped car is covered with a thin sheet of adhesive-backed vinyl. Wrap installers (known as fitters) stretch the vinyl around the vehicle and cut it to fit neatly around all contours. The fitters then use a heat gun to make the vinyl more malleable and help it adhere to the car. After applying the vinyl, the fitters use a soft squeegee to smooth out any air bubbles. Once completed, the car looks freshly painted. However, in some cases, the vinyl can have unique characteristics that aren’t found in normal paint, such as a plasticized, carbon-fiber or high-gloss chrome finish.

Car wrap specialist putting vinyl foil or film on car. Selective focus.

Credit: Group4 Studio / Getty

What Does a Car Wrap Cost?

A matte car wrap on a mainstream passenger car such as the Chevy Camaro, Ford Mustang, or Tesla Model 3 should cost you between $2,000 and $4,000, including labor. Approximately one-third of the total cost pays for the materials and design, while the rest covers the labor. Larger vehicles like SUVs and pickup trucks can cost nearly twice as much, because there’s more surface to cover. Luxury and exotic vehicles are significantly more expensive to wrap as well.

The cost varies widely based on the size of the car and the labor’s complexity, not only because of the design choices, but also the car itself. Some cars are easier to wrap than others thanks to their simple shape and lack of excessive lines, curves and trim pieces.

Metallic vehicle wraps and jobs with intricate graphics are more difficult to apply and are more expensive as a result. In fact, a high-gloss metallic wrap could set you back more than double the cost of a more conventional wrap.

How Long Does a Car Wrap Last?

When properly cared for, a vinyl wrap can last as long as 10 years, though 3 to 5 years is about average.

Protecting a Wrapped Car From the Elements

Once your vehicle wrap is complete, it’s critical to keep it in tip-top condition. A car wrap can last an extended period of time if you keep it out of the elements. Direct sunlight can cause the wrap to fade faster than those kept in a garage, and that sunlight can bake it to the car, which makes it difficult and expensive to remove. It’s best to garage your car as often as possible. If you don’t have a garage, invest in a good car cover. You can also get the wrap ceramic-coated to protect the vinyl, but that’s not a cheap solution.

Car being hand washed

Cleaning a Car Wrap

Keeping your car wrap clean is paramount. This is especially true if you live in an area where the roads are salted in the winter. Fortunately, cleaning a wrapped car is much easier than taking care of a paint job. Rather than washing and waxing your vehicle on a regular basis, you simply spray it off and wipe it clean with a soft cloth. There are also waterless washing products that are made for cleaning wrapped cars.

Most importantly, don’t ever take your wrapped vehicle through an automated car wash, since the brushes may tear and damage the wrap or even remove it from your car.

Applying the Car Wrap Correctly

A vinyl wrap won’t adhere well to a tarnished surface, and it’s not going to cover up paint flaws. The material should be installed over paint that’s in good condition. When it’s stretched over imperfections or damaged surfaces, it can often make those blemishes more noticeable.

Without proper care, your wrap could be due for removal or replacement in less than a year.

Where Do I Buy a Car Wrap?

There are vinyl wrapping vendors located throughout the country. As with any other service shop, some are better than others, so it’s important that you do your homework first. Check online for shop reviews. Some vendors provide images, videos and testimonials. These can be helpful, but remember that they’re there to promote the business.

Some installers are trained and certified by companies like 3M and Avery Dennison, but others may come highly recommended and boast years of experience, despite a lack of formal certification. Regardless of an installer’s credentials or certification, you should ask to see samples of their work. You may even be able to watch the installers working on a vehicle or see a wrap installation in person.

Remember, these people will be working on your car for hours, if not days. (Though most paint jobs take much longer, and you can’t have your car back on the road in under a week in most cases.) The fitters will have to clean your car and dismantle it – likely removing the side mirrors, door handles, grille, headlights, taillights and front and rear bumpers. Sometimes it’s also necessary to take apart or remove the doors and other body panels. In addition, they’ll be working with sharp tools while taking care not to damage or scratch the car. Unfortunately, if anything is scratched or damaged, you might not know until you have the wrap removed, which could be years later.

Can I Put a Car Wrap on My Own Car?

Automotive-grade vinyl film is available from companies such as Avery or Vivid Vinyls. Products from these companies are available either on their individual websites or on Amazon. Most average-sized vehicles require about 75 feet of vinyl, which starts around $500. Other notable vinyl suppliers, such as 3M and Oracal, require you to either buy their products from a third-party supplier like Metro Restyling or work with an installation partner.

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In some cases, you can buy your own vinyl and take it to a shop to have it applied. This could save you money, since you don’t have to pay the installer’s markup. However, make sure you check with the vendor ahead of time. Many vendors insist that you purchase vinyl through their shop.

If you plan to wrap your car yourself, realize that it can take days or even weeks to complete. You’ll likely have to remove all the same parts that the fitter would have: side mirrors, door handles, grille, headlights, taillights and front and rear bumpers, possibly even doors or other body panels.

On the other hand, partial car wraps are popular when people want to customize their car, hide imperfections such as scratches, or display marketing messages.

Here are the top 5 most common DIY car partial car wraps:

  • Headlights/Taillights
  • Rocker Panels
  • Hoods
  • Pillar Posts
  • Rear-View Mirrors

Removing a Car Wrap

Your car’s thin or chipping paint may peel away when the wrap is removed. Similarly, if you don’t take care of the wrap and it’s marred, torn or baked onto the car from too much direct sunlight, the removal process may be complicated. Not only will it take longer and cost more, but your car may be in rough shape once the removal is complete.

Once you’re ready to have your wrap removed, you should take your car back to the original installer. Removal can cost as little as $500, but more complex jobs may set you back $2,000 or more.

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