How to wrap your race car at home | Project LS-Swapped 350Z

Tom
Update by Tom Suddard to the Nissan 350Z project car
Aug 3, 2021

Fast, cheap and beautiful: three things that never seem to go together when it comes to paint jobs.

Well, until the 21st century rolled around.

As our LS1-swapped 350Z faced its return to the track, we found ourselves in the same position as every other racer: We wanted our car to look good, we wanted to spend very little money, and we wanted it now.

We’ll save the long explanation and just say our solution: vinyl wrap.

Once a novelty, vinyl wrap is now so ubiquitous that even this is probably more explanation than is really necessary: Big sticker go on car. Big sticker look good. Big sticker easily replaceable in case of damage. Capeesh?

Rather than spend $5000 at a paint shop, we’d wrap our 350Z at home for a fraction of the cost. We'd also be able to easily color-match replacement panels when the car accumulates wear and tear on track.

 

Vinyl Primer

Okay, okay: Calling modern wrap a “big sticker” is a little disingenuous.

Sure, it’s vinyl. And sure, it’s sticky. But modern vinyl wrap is actually a super-complicated material engineered to last years in direct sunlight, stick like glue without damaging the paint underneath, and apply without creasing, wrinkling, or trapping air bubbles.

Oh, and it looks cool, too: There are a bunch of styles available in 3M’s catalog, ranging from simple shades like White to complicated color combinations and patterns with names like Satin Flip Volcanic Flare.

How much does vinyl wrap cost? It depends.

Wrap is almost always sold in 5-foot-wide rolls of various lengths, with a full roll generally being about 25 yards long–usually enough to wrap one or two cars depending on size. A full roll of name-brand wrap (something like 3M or Oracal) costs about $800 depending on the color, or you can save a few hundred bucks by buying an off-brand product.

Word to the wise, though: We’ve bought off-brand wrap and regretted it, as it seems to be harder to install than the name-brand vinyl.

There are dozens of online sellers breaking full rolls down into smaller pieces, too, with the price per square foot increasing the smaller the order is. You’ll also run into limited distribution or mandatory accounts before you can purchase some brands. It’s easy to screw up when wrapping a car, so not every company wants its product to be installed poorly in a home garage by somebody without any training.

What about having a professional wrap your car? Sadly, this option wasn’t on the table for us, either. A simple wrap installation on a car like our 350Z costs about $2500, while fancy materials and designs can push that closer to $4000 in a hurry.

That would cover a lot of fuel and tires, so we decided to wrap our car at home.

 

Make a Design

Before we ordered anything, though, we needed a design. Race cars should have stripes and multiple colors and such, and we wanted our 350Z to look like a Race Car™. Plus, we’ve seen enough track-prepped 350Zs to know we’d be able to accentuate the positives while minimizing the negatives with a clever design.

Of course, every stripe, swoosh and swirl comes with a cost: effort. Since we’d be the ones applying the vinyl, we tried hard to limit the number of pieces we had to install. A car covered in individual puzzle pieces looks great, but not if you’re cutting out each one with a razor blade.

How do the professionals complete such complicated designs, then? Simple: They print them.

Instead of buying vinyl in the desired color, they instead feed white vinyl into a giant printer, which applies the design that’s then stuck onto the car. While we included some printed elements on our 350Z (more on that later), this process was outside our budget for this project. That meant we were limited to simple designs we could cut from solid colors.

 

That’s a Wrap

Okay, time for us to come clean: We’re not actually vinyl wrap experts.

Instead, we learned this stuff by talking to That’s a Wrap Shop, a new company run by a longtime wrapper (not the musical kind) that sells kits to wrap your car at home. For $799 (or $719 with the coupon code found in their email newsletter), it'll sell you a vinyl wrap kit pitched as “The easiest way to wrap your own car.”

Each kit includes a piece of vinyl pre-cut to size for each panel, along with all the necessary tools and instructions to apply them. There’s even a free T-shirt!

Is this the least expensive way to wrap your car? No, but the convenience was worth it. That’s a Wrap sends high-quality wrap (we chose 3M) and leaves plenty of extra material around each panel with amateurs in mind. There’s also a million small pieces, each with labels like “right-side mirror,” as well as a miniature test car and vinyl so you can learn how to do curves without hurting your own car.

Sure, we would have paid less per square foot by buying a roll in bulk online. But for the ease, advice, tools and the guarantee that we wouldn’t come up short, we think the price is fair. 

After running our design ideas by the company’s owner, Scott, a box arrived on our doorstep a few days later. Our car would wear matte gray out back and glossy red up front. Then we'd add a few simple pre-cut stripes to blend the two colors together.

Like it or not, we’d just committed to wrapping our 350Z at home.

Time to get started.

 

Prep Work

Since vinyl wrap is less expensive and easier to work with than paint, that must mean there’s no prep work, right?

Not quite.

While paint requires a perfectly smooth surface or else you’ll see every imperfection, vinyl wrap requires a perfectly smooth surface or else you’ll see every imperfection.

The good news is that this generally means less prep work if you’re wrapping a car that already has decent paint.

But our 350Z didn’t, which was one reason why we were wrapping it in the first place. We decided to ignore a few door dings (it’s a race car, after all), but the peeling clear coat on the driver’s fender would need to be fixed. The jagged edges surrounding the failing clear coat would be quite visible under the vinyl, and the vinyl’s adhesive could fail as more of the clear coat falls off.

Fortunately, race car bodywork (especially hidden by vinyl) is pretty easy. We feathered back the clear coat with a DA sander until we had a nice, blended edge. Then we sprayed the area with gray primer to prevent rust and give our vinyl a shiny surface to stick to.

As far as bodywork goes, that was the extent of it, so we turned back to the rest of the standard vinyl prep recipe, starting with trim removal.

Just as going the masking tape route typically ruins a nice paint job, trimming vinyl to the edge of a feature instead of wrapping it under/around that feature kills te wrap. Not only do these joints look ugly, but they’re also the most likely source of failure. We removed the 350Z’s door handles, badges, spoiler, windshield trim, mirrors, window molding, taillights, gas cap and rocker panel covers before proceeding.

There was only one piece of prep left: cleaning. And we don’t mean taking the car through the car wash. The cleaner the car, the better the wrap will adhere, so we spent 3 hours cleaning it with rubbing alcohol.

We scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed, wiping every nook, cranny, jamb and panel–front and back–with alcohol until the car was spotless. As we worked, we also recleaned every panel immediately before wrapping it, just to be safe. Finally, we were ready to wrap.

 

Hey, We’re Famous Wrappers!

That’s a Wrap claims that any amateur can wrap their car at home, and we’ll let you judge if that’s true based on our finished result. But we should come clean about our experience: We’ve done this before.

Okay, that’s not quite true. We’ve watched this be done before.

After a few hours at our local wrap shop documenting the process, we’d also wrapped a few replacement pickup tailgates since we’re too cheap to buy them in the correct color. So think of this project as trying to fly a Boeing 737 after successfully launching your kite a few times.

Still, we think you could do this yourself after reading That’s a Wrap’s instructions.

And the first one was simple: Lay out your tools.

You’ll need a felt squeegee, a knife and a heat source. We prefer to use a heat gun, but a propane torch is favored by most professionals thanks to its hotter, faster flame. Wrap gloves to prevent scratches and protect the adhesive from your grimy hands are also recommended and included in the kit, though we prefer to just wash our hands obsessively instead.

So, how do you wrap a car? We’re fond of the “drive fast and take chances” approach: Peel the entire backing off at once, throw the vinyl on the panel, then start in the middle and work your way out.

YouTube videos and your own bearings will do a better job explaining the process than we can with words, but as long as you’re okay with peeling and resticking the vinyl multiple times (it doesn’t hurt anything), you’ll be able to do simple panels within a few minutes.

Did you mess up and stretch the vinyl too far? No problem: Pull it off, whack it with some heat for a few seconds, and it will magically turn into fresh, clean, unstretched vinyl again. Just make sure you let it cool before working with it again, or else you could tear a hole in the material.

If there’s one takeaway from our time spent wrapping the 350Z, it’s this: Vinyl can stretch larger than its original size, but it never gets smaller than what came off the roll.

What’s that mean? Simple: If you’re wrapping a compound curve–like the front and rear bumpers of a 350Z–you’ll tend to have smooth vinyl on the curve and wrinkles around every side leading up to it. That’s because you have too much material on the sides. You’ll never fix this by repeatedly re-sticking the vinyl in slightly different ways.

Instead, fix this by stretching it to the extreme (seriously, this stuff is nearly indestructible) and pushing the entire panel deeper into the vinyl glove until it’s smooth and wrinkle-free. To see how this works at home, push a basketball into a cheap T-shirt until the shirt is totally smooth.

Once the top of each panel was wrapped, we pushed the vinyl around the edge and stuck it to the backside before trimming, leaving about ¼ inch of material behind to hold things down. Working alone, we managed to wrap every panel on our 350Z in about 30 hours–and finally realized why the professionals get paid to do this.

 

Finishing Touches

The 350Z was a proper two-toned race car, but that didn’t mean it was done: We needed to take care of our partners on this project, and no amount of time with an X-acto knife would produce a giant GRM logo we were happy with.

Instead, we stopped by our local wrap shop, Side Effects Graphics, and had them print three giant GRM logos plus a batch of smaller LOJ Conversions and American Powertrain decals, along with whatever else we needed.

This cost a little less than $300, and we stuck this final layer on top of everything else to complete the wrap. This meant that some areas of the 350Z have three layers of vinyl, but that’s no problem as long as everything is free of air bubbles.

To finish the car, we ordered a new set of matte-black badges online as well as yellow Lamin-X film for the 350Z’s headlights.

Does the yellow film serve a purpose? Besides protecting the lights from rock chips, it makes this car look mean as hell. As far as our camera is concerned, that headlight film was worth every bit of its $59.95 price.

We also wrapped the 350Z’s mirrors before reinstalling them on the car, employing more heat, force and stretch than we ever thought possible.

Oh, and did we mention the number panels? This is a race car, after all, so we stole some of our own panels from the Grassroots Motorsports online store.

After producing a bunch of sweat and a giant pile of tiny vinyl remnants, we stepped back to admire our work. The 350Z didn’t just look like a race car. It looked fantastic.

It’s certainly better looking than any $1000 paint job we’ve ever seen, and six months later it’s holding up great, too.

Here’s our takeaway: Put down the spray paint, order some vinyl, and make your car look as good as ours.

 

Fender Rolling

Spoiler alert: There are big, used slicks from BimmerWorld’s pro race team in our 350Z’s future. We’ll go into detail on the why and how soon, but there was a more pressing task: making them fit.

The BimmerWorld slicks rubbed the fenders like crazy, so we spent some quality time with a heat gun and a fender roller before applying any vinyl.

After an hour of work, we had plenty of room for the slicks, even at full suspension compression. And while we’d love to lie to you and say we accomplished all this without damaging any paint, yeah, not so much.

Even using a heat gun, we simply needed too much clearance from the front fenders to accomplish our goal without a few chips. They’re hardly noticeable under the vinyl, though.

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