Surface Preparation For Architectural Film

If architectural film is your niche, don’t miss out on top tips from industry expert, Brent Williams.

Over the course of my last two articles here at Vinyl Pros, I’ve briefly mentioned some of the specific skills needed to be a successful dealer. Among these, the use of primers for a durable, long, lasting finish is one of the most requested comments and I’ve had numerous readers reach out to me on LinkedIn asking for more detailed information on how surface primers should be deployed, how the overall installation process is affected by surface prep, primer or choice,  “XX” substrate and other variables in the installation process.

Let’s start this discussion with a brief look into why we need to prep in the first place…as well as a brief disclaimer: The tips and techniques that I will be offering here to you, the Vinyl Pros community, are the result of over 40 years of working with Di-Noc, Belbien, Reatec, Altino, and the majority of the other popular architectural film products on a daily basis. The techniques I will discuss were picked up from a mix of in-class training from 3M, Sangetsu and CI Takiron…as well as years of personally paying “stupid tax”, learning difficult and expensive lessons on the job, out in the real world.

Before we get into specifics on things like primers, I would like you to remember that our entire industry is still functionally “new“. As a specific industry, we are all still trying to learn the nuances of how we go to the market with these products in the Western architectural world. My way of doing any particular function, be it prep, prime, application or any other detail of our process, is simply “my way” and it works for myself and my dealers. You’re free to use, or not use, these comments as you see fit. 

The single most important skill to possess to become a successful architectural film dealer/installer is to never, ever stop learning. There are lessons to be learned in every application, good and bad. You learn from your clients, your competitors and myriad other sources of information…don’t ever miss out on the chance to advance your knowledge base. 

Please realize that there is no possible way that I can cover every specific situation, primer selection, finish decision and substrate selection that you may face out in the world. The hope here is to simply equip you with a way of thinking that lets you rationally work through the details of your individual application to provide the best possible outcome for your clients and make a fair profit for yourself. If you ever have specific requests for information, feel free to follow me on LinkedIn at 

Over the course of the next few issues, we will be looking at a number of industry topics in depth. These topics will cover:

  1. How to sell architectural films effectively
  2. How choosing a material finish can make or break your project
  3. Marketing Architectural Film: Changing the design/construction culture 
  4. Estimating made simple
  5. Project management
  6. How does your product stack up against other products?

These and other topics will be covered here over the coming months. I’ll also be doing a series of instructional webinars on my company website, so please follow my LinkedIn profile to hear when and how these webinars will be shared.

The most important rule of quality of surface that is frequently overlooked in the application of architectural film is what I call the rule of a quality surface. This rule is fairly simply stated, but a little bit complex in execution. What this means is fairly simple: the quality of the surface onto which you will be applying an architectural film finish must be capable of being brought up to the quality of the finish that you are planning to install. My favorite example of this is in the use of stainless steel.

Stainless steel finishes are hugely popular here in the United States. I refer to shiny metal finishes as the “bane of my existence“ because they are frequently specified in situations or on surfaces that simply don’t work for that type of finish. For example, I frequently see specifications for stainless steel finishes on the exterior of painted elevator landings (a “landing” is the external doors and the surrounding frame on an elevator). Normally, architectural film finishes are in play because the owner of the property wants to update or modernize the look of existing and tired surfaces.

Frequently we are asked to apply stainless steel finishes onto painted metal elevator doors that have multiple coats of paint, contaminants, bugs, dust, dirt…this list could go on and on. Those doors may have 20 (or more) coats of paint and, with their associated runs and drips, make for a rough surface that the typical viewer may have never noticed. The occupants of that building have gone in and out of those elevators for years, never seeing how bad the painted surface looks. 

But then we are asked to apply an architectural film finish over the top of that bad surface and things start to get sketchy.

For those elevator doors to look like brand, new, shiny, stainless elevators, you have to be able to get the elevator doors as smooth as real stainless steel…except that you can’t. Those multiple coats of paint may be concealing dents, dings, or other scratches to the surface, not to mention the roughness of the painted surface itself. No amount of sanding will be able to get that surface as smooth as new stainless steel. 

Trust me, I’ve been there, many times. I’ve also had the General Contractor in my ear at the same time, telling me that I’d better get on with it because he’s only giving me X amount of time before he runs me out of the building, etc. 

No pressure or anything. Once again, the industry doesn’t understand our product…they think “It’s just peel and stick…how long can this take?”

So, this leads us to the core problem. When this material is applied over an imperfect surface,  even though significant efforts have been made to improve the quality of the surface [hours of sanding, filling, and other surface work] but possibly still leaving some minor inconsistencies, the client will be left disappointed. Why? Because the final product simply doesn’t reflect the perfect quality of brand, new, stainless which was exactly what the client was expecting.

If they were wanting a surface finish that is somewhat regular, or not shiny…rough-hewn or dry woods or busy wood grain patterns for example, this issue almost entirely goes away because the minor surface imperfections that are left behind simply leave you with the illusion that the surface is mildly irregular, just like wood is mildly irregular. The imperfection of the desired finish makes for a result that the client is truly “expecting”.

Because of this rule, I always take the time to point out to my clients and dealers that assisting your customer and making their materiality choice is vitally important… because if they’re allowed to just choose what they “like“, you may be setting yourself up to be backed into a corner because they may ask for a quality of finish that you simply cannot attain and that will immediately create conflict between you and the client.

Please stay tuned and reach out if there is anything that I can do to help make your architectural film projects a complete success.  


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