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Making a Splash

Make Waves—and Avoid Drowning—in Marine Graphics

By Thomas Franklin

If you’ve ever seen or flown over the Grand Canyon, you catch a glimpse of the awesomely destructive power of water. Contending with water is one of the great challenges print service providers (PSPs) face when approaching the market for marine graphics. Overcoming this hostile force has its rewards, as the market for digitally printed boat wraps continues to expand. Most of the skill sets acquired for applying graphics to land vehicles are fairly easily migrated to the life aquatic.

Almost any marine vehicle—from jet skis to small motorboats and even larger yachts—can be wrapped. But it’s sporting, and particularly bass fishing boats, that grab the lion’s share of the business, says Tim Boxeth, marketing manager, 3M Graphics Market Center.

“The market is still growing in the competition boat arena, especially bass boat and offshore fishing tournaments,” seconds Jason Yard, application specialist, MACtac Graphic Products. “Due to current economic conditions personal watercraft wraps are not in demand, but this could change,” he adds.

At first glance, the transition from land vehicles to marine graphics seems fairly straightforward. And while there is plenty of overlap, and plenty of PSPs who make a healthy business catering to both markets, marine wraps still require their own set of certain skills.

Know Your Enemy
Water is the biggest concern. In most cases, the same high-end cast vinyls and overlaminates used for land vehicle graphics and wraps are also suitable for marine craft. They’re durable enough for fresh and salt water. In addition, both vinyls and overlaminates are highly conformable to adhere across and around the intricate curves of a boat’s hull.

“Our vinyl, laminate, and solvent-based adhesives are insensitive to salt water and are safely used in marine environments,” says Martin Kugler, corporate communications manager, Hexis USA.

MACtac’s IMAGin JT5529 B-Free Pro and Permacolor RAYZor overlaminate, Arlon’s DPF 6000 cast vinyl and Series 3220 overlaminate, Avery Graphics’ 1800 Easy Apply, and 3M’s Controltac Graphic Film with Comply v3 Adhesive IJ180Cv3 and Wrap Film with Comply v3 Adhesive IJ380Cv3 are all suitable products for marine applications.

“We offer a range of laminates strictly for boats as well,” shares Molly Waters, strategic sales support manager, Avery. These include a two millimeter product in a gloss and a matte finish and a 1.3 millimeter line featuring a gloss, luster, and matte finish. “If there are sharp contours on a boat, a thinner gage laminate is more conformable,” she advises.

For those already wrapping cars and trucks, switching to the water is mostly a matter of minding your edges, vendors recommend. “The transition from cars or trucks to boats is fairly easy as the surfaces of the vehicles are very similar,” explains Yard. “The key points to keep in mind when wrapping a boat are that the graphics should not go below the hard water line, always make sure the edges are sealed with a tape or liquid sealer, and be extremely cautious of the detail finishing.”

Not everyone who wraps vehicles will find the switch so easy, cautions Robert Messenger, owner, Phoenix Graphics, Inc. The Little Rock, AR firm, which specializes in vinyl graphics installations, handles a full range of applications from land to sea, indoors and outdoors.

“The number one reason for a boat wrap failure is the installer not taking the time to properly wrap and finish the boat,” continues Yard. “It is very important to post-heat, re-squeegee, and seal all edges and seams. If you skip these three steps the wrap will fail.”

“If you do have a seam, that edge should face the back of the boat. So when you’re going through the water, the exposed edge is not facing the front and doesn't cause the film to curl back or catch any debris in the water,” says Waters. Letting the graphic sit on land for 24 hours before introducing it to water is also advised.

As with cars and trucks, surface preparation is also important. For boats already placed in the water, their exteriors can absorb oils and need to be thoroughly scrubbed before applying the vinyl, explains Waters. “Any cleaning materials should be tested for compatibility with the vinyl,” adds Kugler.

Another vital point that may not be immediately obvious when contemplating a jump into the water is the design of the graphic. “There aren’t a lot of design templates for boats,” notes Boxeth. While PSPs have an assortment of off-the-shelf templates for cars and trucks, boats are very much a blank slate, requiring more initial, customized work in the design stage to ensure a proper fit around edges.

Watch the Warranty
Participating in the sporting boat market is a seasonal affair, and the graphics for the bass fishing market are promotional in nature, meant to display a sponsor’s brand and be removed when fishing season ends. Most graphics are only intended to last a few months, but that’s not always the case. In any event, understanding the warranty parameters of marine graphics is an important element of customer service.

Some vendors will not offer a warranty for products used in the water. Others offer specialized conditions on the normal warranty—including the universal rule that the graphics be placed above the waterline. None of the media vendors we spoke with required a special certification in marine installation to claim a warranty. Also of note, the Specialty Graphic Imaging Association’s Professional Decal Application Alliance (PDAA) does not offer marine certifications as a part of its installer certification program.

Still, Messenger, who is a PDAA-certified master installer, says such certifications are useful for the knowledge they impart and the confidence they provide for customers. “We sit down with all the media vendors and learn best practices and are constantly updated on the latest techniques, which we apply to our business,” he shares. Meetings provide an opportunity to “rub shoulders” with industry peers and share knowledge through personal networking, he adds.

Although most vendors interviewed say properly installed and laminated media can be submerged for long stretches without harm, the warranty is void if graphics are deliberately applied to an area of the boat that is located permanently below water.

Be sure to check with your supplier and media vendor before embarking on a project to verify you have the necessary coverage. “The normal warranties do not apply for marine applications basically because it is impossible to control the precise exposure conditions,” cautions Kugler.

As a general rule of thumb, media vendors warranty products provided they’re installed to their guidelines. The duration of warranty protection varies, but two years is common. “The standard MACtac warranty for boat wraps is two years on graphics installed above the water line,” explains Yard.

Likewise, 3M certifies a product for two years installed above the waterline using a company-approved ink and media combination and edge sealer, notes Boxeth.

Diving In
While the economic downturn took a bite out of personal boat purchasing, and generally dampened the advertising market, both vendors and PSPs offering marine graphics agree there is a growing awareness of the product.

Particularly when the alternative—painting—is more expensive and at least semi-permanent; a digitally printed vinyl graphic presents an appealing option that can be swapped out as sponsors, or aesthetics, change.

For PSPs with a foothold in land vehicles, the water is an appealing avenue for growth. Newcomers to this niche must remember to mind the edges. Graphics should no go below the hard water line and edges should be sealed tightly. Design is another concern, templates are rare, but for the innovative print provider this can be remedied.

Apr2010, Digital Output

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