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Under Wraps

Examining the Pitfalls, Potential, and Profits in Building Wraps

By Thomas Franklin

In our increasingly hectic, multi-tasking lifestyle, advertisers are realizing that the only way to get people’s attention is to dominate their field of view, ensuring that nothing stands in the way of the medium or the message. Enter building wraps.

These massive, façade covering graphics garner coveted looks not just for the advertisers, but for the shops that produce and install them as well. "Whenever you do a project like that, especially in smaller towns, it’s an event," says Cheryl Frenette, regional sales manager, Vomela Graphics. Wraps are frequently highlighted, not simply in industry publications, but in local and regional papers as a feat of technical and engineering prowess. They’re also, by virtue of the square footage and extensive service requirements inherent in producing and coordinating a job of this magnitude, fairly profitable.

"We sell a service, not square footage," says Jon Zinsmeyer, president and founder of The Big Print, LLC in San Francisco. Client hand-holding and in-house experience can go a long way toward boosting the bottom line, as firms will often pay for the assurance of a big job done right.

That’s the upside. But before a shop can embark on producing wraps there are several factors that require careful consideration. The first, of course, is the printer. Only a super wide or grand format machine can provide the return on investment (ROI) to make the work profitable, shops note. The second hurdle is mastering vinyl printing. Not only is vinyl a more expensive material, but because it’s porous, it’s a tricky surface to print on. Josh Bevans, CTO of Design to Print/dtp Express, notes that it took a full six months to ramp up his vinyl printing to the point of profitability. Ensuring that the colors pop on vinyl also takes experience. "You have to know your ink limiting. It’s not about making the colors darker, but making them pop," Bevans adds.

Proper proofing and quality control requires enough floor space to lay the wrap out in its full splendor to proof for drop outs. Manpower is another concern; wraps are heavy and can require eight or nine people to lift and fold for shipping.

Mark Johannesen, senior graphics consultant for Leader All Surface Printing, offers an interesting perspective on the wraps business. Leader produces them on a limited basis when requested by clients, but is not aggressively marketing the service. Johannesen—a thirty year veteran of the printing industry—believes there are two keys to successfully implementing building wraps into a shop’s mix. The first, he says, is offering a solvent-based solution. "We print with UV which is still more expensive. Given the large amounts of ink, I think you would need solvent," to be cost competitive, he says.

The second component is offering a national service with a sales and installation team capable of marketing and installing jobs around the country. "I know our market alone can’t sustain that kind of business, so you would have to have the expertise to handle," out-of-area logistics, Johannesen observes. "I think you have to tackle the whole scope of this business and not just little pieces," he adds.

School of Wrap
Never under-estimate the value of keeping up appearances. When the Albany, NY school district planned a gala unveiling one of its new Middle Schools, it realized that construction on the front of the building would not be completed in time for the event. Rather than have the dignitaries standing by an unfinished edifice, Cannon Design Architecture turned to Leader All Surface Printing to produce a decorative wrap.

"They called us, told us what they needed, and said we had ten days to do it," recalls Johannesen. Cannon’s staff designed the graphics file and would handle the installation, while Leader would print and ship the graphics. The entire project took ten days, seven to print and three to install. To ensure its safe transport, Leader divided the graphic into seven panels. Three measured 32x13 feet while the remainder sized in at 16x11, 3x30, 32x13, and 3x41 feet. They were printed on 13-ounce Ultraflex Normandy Pro Vinyl using L&P Digital Technologies’ Virtu Print grand format printer.

Johannesen says that since there wasn’t much photography in the graphic—most of which was occupied by Cannon’s trademark blue brand color —there were no scaling issues. "We created a CMYK proof on the vinyl we would use just so they could check their colors," he adds.

The big concern, Johannesen says, was the installation. "If we created larger pieces, it would be difficult to ship and install, so we split it up. We had to make them big enough to minimize the number of pieces to be assembled on site, but not so big as to make them" unwieldy, he adds. The vinyl was then grommeted and aligned to create a seamless appearance. Since the wrap was hanging over a construction site, the installation team bolted it directly to the building. "We didn’t have to worry about any wind issues."

Symphony of Construction
The Minnesota Orchestra in downtown Minneapolis strives, as most orchestras do, to attract a wider audience to their productions. They realize that great music is crucial, but compelling graphics don’t hurt either. Working with 3M’s community affairs division and corporate sponsor Target (whose headquarters is located adjacent to Orchestra Hall), the Orchestra decided to promote its upcoming season and its music director Osmo Vanska by wrapping their concert hall. 3M referred the work to Vomela Graphics.

Vomela Graphics was founded in 1947 by Jack Vomela and later acquired, in 1990, by Tom Auth. The company specializes in OEM graphics, fleet, screen, digital and direct printing, and ADA signage. The company is closely partnered with 3M and uses its UV 2500 flatbed and Scotchprint 2000 printers alongside printers from Arizona, Epson, and Hewlett-Packard (HP) for digital printing jobs.

The Minnesota Orchestra wrap involved the close coordination of 3M, Target, Vomela, and, of course, the Orchestra. 3M donated all the films and reimbursed Vomela for the labor. Target handled the design of the wrap and its installation and removal.

Target is known for many things, but designing wide format graphics is not necessarily its bread and butter. "Their design team was not versed in wide format," Frenette explained. "They used digital photographs taken at the orchestra’s performance. When we blew them up in Adobe Photoshop, they were four pixels an inch or in some cases eight to ten pixels—very low resolution."

Undeterred, Vomela printed a full-sized image on the Scotchprint 2000 and showed their clients a cropped area. "Amazingly, four pixels per inch worked just fine at the distances we were dealing with," she says. The real challenge was the design of the building. It featured alternating panels of metal and glass. "Normally we print out the panels and cut out the mullions in the field, but that would have taken forever with this building and we only had a three week window to install the job."

Instead, Frenette eyed the building blueprints to get a sense of the measurements between windows. "The blueprints showed 30 windows, we counted 28." With faith in the blueprints ebbing, Frenette rented a boom and took pain-staking measurements of each window. "It took days to measure." Armed with the measurements, Vomela began printing and computer cutting panels with a Zünd router in the shop so there would be no need to trim on-site. The full job was printed on the Scotchprint 2000 using a series of 3M Controltac materials, including the 8640 for opaque panels, over-laminated with the 8519 luster finish. For the transparent window panels, the firm used Controltac 8671 material, over-laminated with 8914. The largest panel measured 51x116 feet and the total square footage of the job was over 23,000.

"Our staff did an extraordinary job. If you make one mistake with the panels or the trimming, you’d be in big trouble. In my 15 years here it was definitely the most challenging I’ve seen," continues Frenette.

The installation was sub-contracted out to two firms: Color Graphic, which did the majority of the work, and New Image Technologies, who was called in to ensure the project was completed on deadline. "We took the full three weeks," Frenette recalls. "Thankfully, we had phenomenal weather."

To help the installation teams navigate the alternating steel and glass sections of the Orchestra Hall’s elaborate design, Vomela Graphics packaged the panels in boxes with slots in the top. Each box was lettered and numbered to correspond with a building area and specific window. The installers simply had to match the box’s labels with their building maps and pull the graphic out of the box. "I worked very closely with [the Orchestra Hall’s] facilities manager, and they were great throughout; they handled the permitting. They even helped us move scaffolding."

The wraps were installed in the first week of September. Originally, the Orchestra intended them to hang through the winter and come down in April, "but they loved them so much they decided to keep them up and swap out images at various seasons," Frenette says. Now that the graphics are slated to hang longer, Frenette says the company would likely use a more permanent adhesive to ensure they endure the harsh winters.

Leap Tall Buildings
Building wraps are not for every business. They present a number of logistical, marketing, and material challenges—challenges often as large as the graphics themselves. But for those willing to learn the ropes, make the proper investments, and master the often unpredictable variables, it can be rewarding.

Aug2006, Digital Output

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