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April 10, 2007

Wrap Your Baby

Trendy hull decor fills numerous needs

The hull-wrap concept started out like so many advertising ideas: How do you grab more people's attention? Great advertising minds are always searching for more ways and places in which to invade our world, get their clients' messages to an increasingly ad-hardened audience and, hopefully, sell more products.

Near as we can tell, the 3M Company initially created the vinyl product we now use on boats to cover the sides of public transportation buses. That way, cities could generate revenue from selling the entire sides of their public transportation rather than just small posters.

Applying, maintaining and replacing the vinyl coatings proved so easy that soon all manner of vehicles started taking advantage of the technology. Company trucks touted the latest products, car buffs added colorful graphics that previously would have cost thousands of dollars and many artistic hours, and ultimately, the boating community discovered the cost-effective benefits of the "wrap."

To the male mind, boats and women have a lot in common: No matter how basically beautiful both might be, they can always look better dressed up.

In boating, the hull-wrap trend started with the go-fast fishermen, both fresh and salt. Bass and kingfish pros discovered that they could offer more bang for their sponsors' bucks than just adding another patch on their shirt. The vinyl wrap could showcase sponsor logos, pictures and products in big, blazing color, not to mention boost their own egos by broadcasting their personal identities. Since these anglers use their boats constantly, they also correctly assumed that vinyl wraps could provide additional protection to their hulls.

But more conservative tastes noticed and decided that with some tuning, the vinyl-hull-wrap technology could benefit them, as well as save them considerable money at the same time. How?

In most cases, if you want a hull some other color than white, you must pay extra for a colored gelcoat. Of course, your boat's manufacturer may not offer colored hulls or perhaps very limited hues. Nothing says that you can't cover your hull in a vinyl wrap of one solid color.

According to Dominick LaCombe, president of American Custom Yachts, "If you wanted to paint, say, a 34-foot center console hull with a two-part epoxy paint, it would probably cost you in the ballpark of $10,000. Most of that cost comes from preparation - removing any mold-release agents or wax from the new hull's gelcoat. If the hull has already been painted and the previous paint can be used as a primer coat, then obviously it would cost less,"  he says.

And of course, the hull will look gorgeous.

However, you can expect that a vinyl wrap, even including any design and graphic additions, will cost approximately half that, and less if you want a solid color. Jason Getman at SignZoo in Sarasota, Florida (a company many SKA pros use), figures you should plan on spending between $135 and $150 per linear foot for an offshore boat if you bring it to them. Obviously, it costs more if they have to come to you and deal with applying the wrap in less-than-ideal conditions. Add to that a flat $500 initial design fee.

What Is It?
A wrap consists of a roll of white vinyl specially designed by the 3M Company (though other companies now manufacture the vinyl as well). A special printer applies solvent-based inks to the vinyl that bond molecularly. The ink actually sinks into the vinyl. An additional ultraviolet protective coating then adds durability.

Your Design
When you contact a wrap maker, the company obtains a hull schematic from the manufacturer to determine hull shape and size. You sit down with the wrap artist and build a concept for your design, which he or she then executes and provides you with a proof to approve or correct. The design can consist of artwork, logos and digitized photographs - pretty much anything you can imagine can now adorn your hull. Should you choose, you can even make the port and starboard sides different since a hull wrap consists of two separate pieces. In fact, about your only limitation is a 52-inch maximum height.

The Process

You've gone through the entire design process and are thrilled with your new wrap. Now, just as if you were going to paint your boat's hull, the first step in applying a wrap is to remove all wax, mold-release agents, dirt, grime, grease and the like from the surface.

The application technician hangs a tape line on the hull as a guide. The actual vinyl then hangs along the tape line. Starting at the bow, the technician begins removing the special backing, exposing the adhesive coating. The wrap adhesive - now pressure activated - sticks to the hull without the need for any solvents, soaps or water as are needed with many window tints and decals.

As the wrap gets stretched and smoothed, the applicator uses squeegee-like tools to coax air bubbles out from beneath the vinyl. Once the wrap has been completely installed, an additional clear 1-inch-wide laminate strip is added along the bottom and leading edges to prevent wind and water from prying their way under the wrap and loosening the adhesion.

The inks used in this process carry a five-year warranty against fading. Getman says that "most owners keep a wrap for 18 to 24 months before either trading the boat for a newer model or getting bored with the design and replacing it with a new, spiffier one."

Consider if you put a gouge into your year-old, epoxy-painted hull: Matching the paint can be an impossible challenge. However, even with a complex design scheme, fixing a wrapped hull could hardly be easier.

Take a digital picture of the damaged area. Send it to the wrap company, and they'll send you back a patch that matches exactly. Cut out the damaged area and apply the new replacement piece. Done correctly, it makes for a seamless repair that goes unnoticeable unless you inspect it with a magnifying glass.

Why Wouldn't You Want a Wrap?
Certainly, the boating world is rife with traditionalists who want that gleaming hull of fiberglass or aluminum or what- ever without a coating of rubber. Then too, the vinyl wrap doesn't actually cover the entire hull the way paint does. It only covers the freeboard, leaving about an inch of hull visible all around. That means the transom, bottom and stem all remain the color of the original hull. Worked into the design, this can be very attractive.

Finally, there are the boating curmudgeons who subscribe to J. P. Morgan's statement about painting yachts: "There are only two colors to paint a yacht: black and white - and only a fool paints his yacht black."