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Wednesday, 27 December 2006 16:17

Tech Notes - Nov. 12, 2006

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Using computer-aided design to produce custom graphics for Meguiar's trucks

Recently we've been hosting workshop seminars here at Huntington Beach Bodyworks. Most people in this business of custom paint and fabrication know all too well how hard it is to find a place to learn your skills. This job isn't like the normal world, where you graduate high school, get a loan, go to college, get a degree in business, and become an accountant. There's never been an institution of higher learning when it comes to the custom vehicle industry.


Moreover, this business is so cut-throat, few who have refined their craft want to share their secrets. I caught the customizing bug at an early age when my father and I restored a '68 Chevy Nova. This is how many craftsmen learned their techniques - by earning someone's trust and having them teach what they know. However, times change.


Cabinet level experts

To begin with, we now have computer-aided design - something I definitely appreciate, but don't really know how to do myself. My talent lies in my hands, but I've learned over time that I don't have to know how to do everything myself. If I'm not the expert, I hire the best in that particular field. Like the President, I have an appointed cabinet of experts. Like Larry White, who is Chairman of the Art department of one local college nearby. He did all the computer design vinyl plotting for the Maguire's rigs, as well as countless other projects.


Of course, there's Terry Stephens, top dog airbrush artist and my go-to guy for anything art or graphic design related. Then there's Andy Jimenez, machinist/fabricator and a sponsor of the Black Knight - in my humble opinion probably the most wicked '56 Chevy to ever hit the streets. The Black Knight was unveiled at this year's SEMA show in Las Vegas at the Chicago Pneumatics' booth, the company that supplied many of the tools needed for the build.


Creating the graphics

HBBW's computer plotter system consists of a 30" wide vinyl plotter fed with a wide variety of 24" wide vinyl rolls. Sometimes clients specify that they want vinyl graphics rather than painted graphics. This is practical for advertising purposes in which the client can easily change the graphics, without going through the whole paint and auto body process. Most vinyl is made for this purpose. An almost infinite number of choices abound when it comes to vinyl - color, metallic, etc. For the Meguiar's rigs, we used spray mask vinyl, which doesn't break up when it is peeled off. It still stretches, but is more manageable than normal vinyl and it's solvent resistant.


In the case of the Meguiar's project, the artwork was pre-designed and, upon arrival, imported into our Adobe Illustrator program. Although the shop is filled with PCs for various office and accounting tasks, I purchased two iMacs for the sole purpose of designing and running the plotter.


Adobe Illustrator is our design program, which is set up to work in layers. When first opening the artwork, set that layer as a template. Then click the button that says "new layer." Lock the first layer and then click the new layer. This is where our work begins.


At this point it's pretty much tracing. All the plotter does is follow lines - known as paths - that have been input into the computer. Select the pen tool, which works with anchors. Click anywhere, hold the button down, drag the mouse and the computer shows the curve based on the way the mouse is being dragged.


Once you are satisfied with the curve, click on the next spot. This adds a new anchor and the computer automatically continues the path to the following anchor. And so on and so on, until you finally get back to the original anchor. During this whole process, you're following the template on your screen, fitting the path to the image on the screen. It's basically a sophisticated computer game of connect the dots.


When purchasing a vinyl plotter, it usually comes bundled with the software. We have chosen to use a separate illustration program for designing, because it meshes well with many other operations.


Putting it all together

After the vinyl is cut, the next step is to peel out the stencil. This process, called weeding, requires picking out what is going to be painted - and leaving what isn't going to be painted undisturbed. This is called weeding. It's can be a boring, tedious, and time consuming chore.


After the stencil is weeded, it is time to apply the transfer paper. Grab the appropriately sized roll of transfer paper. For Meguiar's, we used 24" wide rolls. It's difficult to avoid getting air bubbles in between the vinyl and transfer paper.


Rich Tip: To minimize this problem, lay down the transfer paper first - sticky side up. Then lay the weeded vinyl face- down over it. Next, grab a squeegee and rub out the bubbles, while it is face down. Afterwards, flip it right side up and squeegee out the rest of the bubbles.


Applying to vehicle

After the vinyl has been cut, weeded, and transfer paper applied, it's ready for application to the vehicle. Graphic vinyl material should be applied wet. Get a clean spray bottle and fill it with water, adding no more than a few drops of dishwashing detergent. This will lubricate the surface just enough to give some play with the vinyl material. When it is perfectly aligned, squeegee out all the water from underneath the vinyl and let it dry.


Alternatively, we use paint mask vinyl which I like to apply dry, because I don't want dishwashing detergent to react with my paint. I can also cut and modify the vinyl once it's applied with the dry method.


Back masking

After applying the vinyl, the next step is to back mask it. With the Meguiar's rigs, it was the Meguiar's and Car Crazy logos. My method entails using the same transfer paper to completely lie over the vinyl and then cutting it out with a brand new X-acto blade.


This transfer paper is actually a conforming paper masking material which is supposed to wrap around any three- dimensional object. Most airbrush artists use the same material to draw and paint their murals. We also used the same material for the flame layouts of the truck and trailers. Basically blanket the whole project with this transfer paper and cut out the design that is being painted.


Rich tip: Always use a brand new X-acto knife to prevent cutting through the vinyl underneath and into the base coat, which could lead to adhesion problems later on - not to mention cut marks all over your artwork.


Although there are many fine points involved in vinyl plotting that haven't been mentioned, these are the basic steps to preparing and putting vinyl graphics on vehicles.


Coming up

Part 3 will describe the actual spray gun work of the flames and the airbrushing of the Meguiar's project. Clear coating, color sanding, and the polishing of the rigs will be among the topics.


Rich Evans, owner of Huntington Beach Bodyworks in Southern California, is an award winning painter and fabricator. Currently he is offering workshops at his facility so he can share his special techniques to other industry professionals. For more information about Evans, visit www.huntingtonbeachbodyworks.com

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