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How to Apply Vinyl Labels to Metal

Matt McKay

Successful application of vinyl labels, decals or lettering to vehicles, machines and other metal surfaces starts with proper surface preparation and planning. Even small dirt particles will appear as imperfections in the vinyl, so thorough cleaning is an absolute necessity. If applying vinyl over seams and rivets, they may at first seem problematic. But a few easy tricks can make easy work out of these and other surface obstacles. Vinyl contains an aggressive adhesive that becomes stronger with time, but even the best adhesives are no match for fuel, oil and other chemical residue on the application surface.

Cleaning the Surface

  1. Mix a car wash detergent and water solution in a bucket.

  2. Wash the surface thoroughly with soap and water using a sponge.

  3. Rinse thoroughly with clear water through a hose, or with buckets of clean water.

  4. Dry surface with clean, dry cotton towel, wringing the towel out frequently.

  5. Inspect the surface for cleanliness, making note of imperfections or surface obstacles which you may have to address.

Measure and Apply

  1. Measure the vinyl label and application area to ensure proper fit and orientation. Perform a "dry fit" by holding the label into position, and marking the corner and edge locations on the metal surface with a China marker (grease pencil).

  2. Tape a strip of masking tape along the top edge of the label, forming a hinge. The label should be free to swing up and down, while being firmly held in place by the tape hinge.

  3. Swing the label up, securing with a small piece of masking tape, and spray the application area with a light coat of vinyl application fluid. The spray helps eliminate air bubbles and further strengthens the adhesive as it evaporates. The spray will also allow slight repositioning of the label if necessary.

  4. Peel the backing liner from the label, while holding it in an upright position on the hinge, and let it hang in a "U" shape, while one hand is holding the free edge.

  5. Smooth the decal onto the surface with a sign maker's squeegee, working from the top hinge edge down. One hand will operate the squeegee, while the other maintains the "U" shape. Squeegee pressure should be firm, and be certain to burnish all areas of the label as you work toward the bottom.


  1. Peel back the top layer of application tape (if provided by the manufacturer) to expose the label's vinyl surface.

  2. Wipe the label and surrounding areas with a cotton towel to remove excess application fluid.

  3. Force out air bubbles to the label sides with the squeegee. Stubborn bubbles can be pierced with a common pin or razor knife, and burnished with the squeegee.

  4. Form label around rivets or into seams (if present) by applying heat from a hair dryer, and burnishing the area with a sign maker's rivet brush. Piercing the surrounding rivet "dome" will assist in air bubble release from these areas.

  5. Burnish entire label once more with the squeegee to ensure adhesion. Some installers perform another burnishing after 12 hours or so, or when application fluid has evaporated.

  6. Tip

    Small labels, decals, lettering and bumper stickers can be applied in a similar manner but will typically not require application fluid. Commercial application fluid is superior to homemade concoctions of soap and water and is quite inexpensive. Installing when surface and ambient temperatures are above 80 or below 50 degrees Fahrenheit should be avoided if possible.


    Use care when handling needles and razor knife.

    Apply heat in short bursts, at a distance of 8 inches or more, to prevent melting of vinyl.