Modern vinyl signwriting is a marvel to behold; very high resolution graphics designed on a computer and rapidly printed directly onto sheets of vinyl, before being cut by another machine far more accurately than most technicians would be able to manage by hand. The technologies and chemistry used in the production of vinyl film have also advanced significantly to meet the evolving demands of businesses and consumers.
Nowadays, vinyl signage is in operation improving road safety and providing businesses with a modern, bright and highly versatile means of identifying and promoting themselves. This hasn’t always been the case, however, and like many inventions that go on to become ubiquitous, vinyl signage had rather humble beginnings.
It was back in the late 1930s that vinyl was first tested as a signage material. After several tests, the first road signs with a layer of high-visibility reflective vinyl sheeting appeared in 1939, beginning a new era in signwriting. The potential for reflective vinyl coating films used on road signs to protect the surface underneath led to the invention of non-reflective films. It was this type of vinyl film that was first used for vehicle identification and advertising.
Another significant leap forward in vinyl technology was the invention of cast vinyl production techniques in the 1940s. Pre-existing techniques were based upon extrusion, using ‘calendars’, or rollers, to stretch and squash the vinyl to the desired thickness. Because the shape of the vinyl film is constantly changing throughout this mode of production, the finished product tends to be weaker and prone to shrinkage.
In the casting technique, a mixture of resins and plastics are poured onto a liner and passed through heaters and coolers. The vinyl isn’t stretched or squashed, producing an inherently strong and thin film resistant to shrinkage. Calendar and cast vinyl techniques are both still used today, with cast vinyl remaining the best choice for high quality film graphics boasting uniform colour. That said, calendaring and other extrusion techniques have naturally improved over the years, and in many instances and applications perform just as well as cast film.
Competition in the signwriting industry
By the early 1950s, non-reflective vinyl lettering had been invented. Adhesives were not as developed as they are today, and the application of the lettering to a substrate relied upon either heat-activated or solvent-based adhesives. The manufacturing technique used for the non-reflective lettering was the coating technique, producing around 20 feet of film a minute. The process was unreliable in the early days, however, and very often 50 per cent or more of the vinyl produced was unusable.
Despite this, early vinyl lettering materials had many properties that gave them an advantage over the traditional hand-painted signwriting industry. These included far greater durability and the possibility to be die-cut, allowing for mass production of regular and uniform signage. One of the first uses for early vinyl lettering was to decorate American military planes with the logo of the Air Force.
Technological leaps and bounds
The pace of invention and innovation picked up even more as the 50s unfolded. 1956 saw introduction of many more colour choices, together with the release of vinyl film with pressure sensitive adhesive. These developments broadened the possible applications of vinyl, enabling the creation of visually appealing emblems, logotypes and signs using vinyl. But progress didn’t stop there. Just two years later in 1958, a high-visibility fluorescent film arrived on the market, seeing quick adoption in schools’ and hospitals’ signage.
That same year, an easy-peel silicone release liner was also developed. These are still used today to protect the adhesive backing of the vinyl film. 1958 also saw the arrival of even more colour options, including metallic-effect films with choices such as gold and silver. One of the first high profile uses for these was in the creation of the metallic stripes on American Eastern Airlines planes.
The 1960s saw the development of textured and embossed films, including a wood-grain effect that saw huge use in the cars of the era. The major innovation of the period was the invention of repositionable adhesive in 1965. This adhesive made vinyl appropriate for an even broader range of applications, hugely expanding the market.
By the 1980s, translucent films had appeared on the market. This was significant due to the large number of technical challenges it was necessary to overcome. Wide-format vinyl films just 2mm thick could display a huge advert with uniform colour density and uniform backlighting. Technology continued to work miracles into the 1990s with the advent of micro air channels to allow air trapped under the film an escape route. This made bubble-free installation an achievable reality, eradicating the need for needles to pop troublesome air bubbles.
A bright future ahead
Developments have more recently focused upon the environment, with the creation of lead-free inks and metal-free piezo UV inks offering increased durability and flexibility. Work is underway to remove all lead pigments from graphic films, crucially and preferably without sacrificing the high level of performance that consumers and designers alike have come to expect from vinyl signwriting.
Other imminent advances include enhanced films that conform to more challenging surfaces including compound curves and deep draws. Easy application and residue-free removal are also top of the list. The evolutions of the past 70 years have been driven by the needs and expectations of the vinyl signwriting industry, and this is expected to be the case looking into the future.
In this changing and exciting industrial environment, the team at The Sussex Sign Company have the expertise and knowledge honed over two decades in the industry necessary to guide you through the science of vinyl signwriting towards a solution perfectly tailored for your business’ needs. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch and we’ll do our utmost to assist you.