Bob Smith Industries 900x250 v2

Custom Vinyl Graphics

Custom Vinyl Graphics

The opportunities, tools, and techniques to finish, customize, and personalize your aircraft have never been better. Whether your model is scratch-built, kit-built, or an ARF, your creativity combined with a computer, a local sign shop, and vinyl material can provide you with many colorful new options.

The vinyl has been cut. With a careful look, you can see the outline of “U.S. ARMY.”

Weeding removes the unneeded material. Start the process with tweezers or a hobby knife and pull the unwanted material away completely. The adhesive is very aggressive, so don’t let it touch other vinyl.

Vinyl material is fantastic for our application; here are some of its characteristics:

  • • 1 to 3 MIL thick (1 MIL is .001 inch)
  • • Has aggressive adhesive (this stuff goes through car washes)
  • • Is extremely flexible (easily bends to compound curves)
  • • Is permeable (air bubbles trapped underneath migrate through)

The vinyl is self-adhesive and comes attached to a waxed paper backing. There is a wide variety of standard colors available. In addition, there are also new techniques that allow you to match colors of vinyl with the colors on your aircraft. A designer creates the desired shape on a computer and a specialized cutter cuts the vinyl without cutting the waxed paper backing. The installer then “weeds” the vinyl, pulling out those portions that will not be part of the finished design. The installer then lays “application tape” over the finished design while it is still on the waxed paper backing. This tape has adhesive that is stronger than the bond between the material and the waxed paper backing, but not as strong as the adhesive on the vinyl when it’s applied to the finished project. The installer removes the application tape carrying the design from the waxed paper backing and places the design on the project. Since the adhesive on the back of the vinyl is stronger than the adhesive on the application tape, the design is left on the project when the application tape is removed.


Note the remnants in the middle of the letter U. You will be able to remove them using a hobby knife or tweezers.

The backing paper with the weeded letters is cut to size. The installation tape is applied to the letters. Note how the top edge of the application tape is aligned with the top of the letters. This aids in proper positioning. The application tape pulls the letters from the carrier paper while maintaining alignment of the letters.

The application tape is removed. Don’t worry about any bubbles. They will simply disappear as the trapped air perfuses through the vinyl.

The weeding process is complete.

Blue low-tack tape provides the alignment strip for the letters that are now on the application tape. Simply align the top of the application tape with blue tape. Press down on each letter, then slowly and carefully remove the application tape.

Here is the finished product. Any trapped air bubbles will disappear over a short period of time.

Installing something like AMA numbers is straightforward. Determine the desired location and press the application tape with your design in place. A little pressure from your finger, a flexible flat squeegee, or credit card will transfer the design to your aircraft. Gently and slowly remove the application tape, and you’re done. When location is a little more important, I trim the application tape very close to the design before removing the design from the waxed paper backing. Then small marks on the aircraft with a lead pencil, grease pencil, or marker will give you alignment points to establish the proper position.

Vinyl sign material is the best thing I have ever used for striping. Its remarkable flexibility makes it easy to bend around corners that other material simply can’t. Since the adhesive on the vinyl is very strong, once in place, it won’t move. I once had strips of black vinyl cut to 1/16-, 3/32-, and 1/8-inch widths and 48 inches long. There was no need to weed the vinyl or use application tape as I simply pulled up the strip that I needed and applied it to the airplane. If you have a small project, you can cut the strips yourself.


Many ARFs include thick stickers for decorations. I find these difficult to apply over compound curves. Plus, an overhanging clear plastic is common and you don’t see this on a full-size aircraft. Think of the stars and bars on a WW II military aircraft or roundels on WW I aircraft. The sheen on these stickers is typically different than the covering on the aircraft. This was the situation on a giant PT-19 I recently finished. The stickers had begun to yellow and had the characteristic clear carrier. I was concerned that since the roundels were going over both open bays and a hard surface on the wing, I was going to have problems getting the stickers to adhere smoothly. I created vinyl roundels by first computer cutting the blue circle, then the white star, and then the red circle. Each color was “weeded” and unneeded material was removed. The white star was then applied to the blue circle. Then the red circle was placed on top of the white star for a three-layer decoration that is only a few thousandths of an inch thick. In this case, I chose to not use application tape. I marked the proper location for each roundel on each wing, and then sprayed the wing with soapy water (do not use anything with ammonia as it can weaken the adhesive). I lifted the roundel off the waxed paper backing with a no. 11 hobby blade. The roundel was positioned as it floated on the soapy solution. Once I was satisfied with the location, I began in the middle circle and gently pushed the soapy solution out to the edges. The process was easy because I knew that if there were any trapped bubbles left, they would disappear in a few days. Access panels and trim tabs were easily added. The vinyl is available in a flat black, which is perfect for anti-glare panels and wing walks. I even used the flat-black vinyl to create the “frame” on the windshields. The uneven mold lines on the clear plastic quickly disappeared.

Step 1: The roundel begins with a vinyl circle. Unneeded material has been weeded away, leaving just the circle.

Step 2: The same process applies to the star and center circle.

Step 3: Two options are available for assembling the roundel: application tape or a soapy solution.

Step 4: I prefer the soapy solution as it provides the chance to adjust the position of both the star and red center circle

Step 5: Lift the assembled roundel off the backing paper. I found that a hobby knife works best, as it easily slides under the vinyl. Be careful to keep the vinyl from folding over on itself.

Step 6: Slide the roundel into position.

Step 7: Once in position, gently push out the excess soapy solution. Work slowly from the center. It does not have to be perfectly smooth as any residual bubbles will perfuse through the vinyl.

There are designs that you can cut and assemble yourself. They can be as simple or as complicated as your ability to cut. Think sunbursts and other simple designs. All aircraft have inspection covers, trim tabs, fuel caps, etc. These shapes can be easily created and duplicated on the computer. A lifetime supply of various sizes can be obtained. The key is an extremely sharp-cutting instrument.


Earlier, I mentioned the permeability of the vinyl. Should a bubble get caught under the material, time will make it disappear. That’s right: no puncture holes, no lifting, and no repositioning. Air trapped underneath will simply migrate through the vinyl over time. If the bubble is trapped under a solid surface, a couple of days should do it — especially if it is warm and the project can be exposed to direct sunlight. If the bubble is over a bay on a wing, the bubble may take a couple of weeks to disappear.

What about the inevitable wrinkles that occur with iron-on film? Do not use an iron directly on the vinyl. The best technique is to warm a large area around, and including, the vinyl. Work slowly. Again, it is best to experiment first.


Getting started involves nothing more than visiting your local sign shop. Explain what you are trying to do and ask if you can purchase some scrap for practice. Start by trying things on an old airframe. If you get a custom color, check to see if it is compatible with the fuel you will be using. If you have a design in mind, ask them to create it for you. After doing signs and banners all day, they may welcome a chance to get their creative juices flowing! I have found everyone to be very friendly and willing to help. Your ideas and experimentation coupled with the creativity of the designers in the sign shop will lead to stunning results.


Updated: February 10, 2016 — 11:47 AM

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  1. And if you are artistically challenged (like me) you can get lovely warbird graphics from Callie Graphics! Way nicer than the ones that come with the ARFs.

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