In motorsports, the data has clearly proven numerous times that nothing makes a racecar faster around a track than the simple mod of adding more stickers. We have covered how to cut your own stickers in the Toolshed Engineer column and how to use a vinyl die-cutting plotter to etch glass  or how to make a track map white board. What we haven’t done is tell you how to apply those fancy new horsepower-creating stickers straight on your car. What seems like a simple process turns out to be not that simple at all. With stickers you have one shot to place them correctly, evenly and straight. If you mess up that one shot, your sticker will be heading to the trash can.

I quickly slapped on the black number 38 stickers on the side of this “crap-can-racing” surf-themed car. Obviously, I did a horrendous job of placing the stickers straight. We are going to show you how not to do this.

On my race team, sticker placement has been my job since the inception of Double Nickel Nine Motorsports. I don’t know why I have been assigned this job because I have proven over and over again that I can’t do it correctly. It drives my brother absolutely crazy when he sees stickers on the car crooked. Regardless, the team still allows me to mess this up continually. I don’t intentionally do this to our cars. I take pride in how our cars look. But, what I have found is when you are squatting down on the ground about to slap a sticker on a car you are very close to the bodywork and from that perspective you completely loose the overall view of the car and the ground, and if the sticker you are about to slap on a car is angled correctly. From that experience, I have placed on the car a lot of crooked stickers.

After many mistakes made, I finally discovered the way to properly place stickers “straight” on a car. Our Honda Challenge 4 car is an example of the stickers being level to the ground. This was done using the method in this column.

Experience is the best teacher and failure is always a nice reminder that things can be done better. Eventually, I started paying attention to what professional graphic designers were doing and stole a few techniques from them. Start by using a well-lighted place to work, with no breeze. Wind loves to play havoc with stickers. The next pro tip is to have some painter’s tape, sharp scissors and nice squeegee.

These three simple tools are the keys to level placement of stickers: some painter’s tape, scissors and a squeegee. This particular squeegee has two operable sides to it. One side is plastic and the other is felt. The plastic side is for use when the sticker still has the masking over it. Once the masking has been pulled off the sticker, this plastic side will scratch the vinyl sticker, so instead use the softer felt side of the squeegee.

Modern cars these days don’t have a single straight edge to use as a reference to place a sticker straight on a car. Car designs today are dynamic flowing aerodynamic blobs that don’t help one bit when looking to place a decal on a car that is level to the ground. The solution to this problem is to place the car on a level surface and then extend the plane of the ground up so that when the car is going down the track the sticker you are trying to add will appear level to the eye of a viewer. This can be done by simply cutting a piece of a cardboard box to the height you want the decal. This cardboard is extending the plane of the ground up to the height of the sticker.

This Ford Fiesta ST doesn’t have a single straight edge on the body to help place a sticker. The only way to ensure the sticker is straight is to use a piece of cardboard and painter’s tape to delineate where the sticker should be placed correctly and level to the ground.

Determine how high you want a sticker on a car and then cut a cardboard box that you have around the shop from your latest Amazon shipment for car parts to use as a plane. It helps to cut an even square shape out of the cardboard. Otherwise this whole project was a waste of time. Once you have the plane cut, then set the cardboard against the car. You can slightly adjust the angle of the cardboard to change the height of the sticker. As long as the cardboard is straight on the top and bottom and the car is sitting on a level surface this “plane concept” will work regardless if the cardboard is leaning against the car. Then use a piece of painter’s tape to trace the height of the cardboard so the cardboard can be moved out of the way for more work space to place the sticker level on the car.

Here you can see the four step method. 1. Cut a level piece of cardboard. 2. Set your height. 3. Trace with painter’s tape. 4. Remove the cardboard. Now you have a level reference to place a sticker on the car. Easy.

Now that you have a level location for the sticker, allow me to provide a few more tips for placing the sticker perfectly level on that newly located plane. This method helps, especially for larger more complicated stickers, to place things level on a car. The trick is not to remove all of the backing paper from the sticker prior to placing it on a car. Instead we will only pull half of it away and use our scissors to cut half of that backing paper away.

Stickers like this have backing paper on the rear of the sticker and masking tape on the front of the sticker. The method for placement is to remove the backing paper, place the sticker on the car, squeegee, and then remove the masking. Because this is a large sticker, we are going to use a different method for placement by adding one more step.

The workflow goes like this: First ensure the bottom of your sticker with backing paper and masking tape has a perfectly straight cut at the bottom. This edge will be mated with the level painter’s tape on the car to ensure the sticker is level. Peel half of the backing paper away finding a natural stopping point (like between two numbers). Cut away half of the backing paper with scissors so the backing paper you don’t need is out of your way. Then, holding away from the car the sticky portion of your sticker, place the portion of the sticker that still has backing paper on the car, ensuring the bottom of the sticker is level with the painter’s tape on the car. Based on this work flow everything should be perfectly level. And since you have not placed the sticker portion of the sticker on the car, you can take your time to move the sticker up and down to ensure it exactly where you want it. Now squeegee down the sticky side of the sticker onto the car. Then peel the backing paper from the other side of the sticker and then squeegee that side down. This process is easy and it is a game changer.

Peel half of the backing paper away. Then use scissors to cut the backing paper and discard it.
Keeping the sticky portion away from the car, use the backed portion of the sticker to place the sticker on the car matching the bottom of the sticker with the top of the painter’s tape. This ensures the sticker is perfectly level.
Use the plastic side of the squeegee and apply the non-backed side of the sticker. If you work inside-out you can ensure you don’t get any air bubbles between the paint and the sticker. You will be left with half the sticker applied and half with backing tape still on it.
Peel the backing off the other side of the sticker. Then, using the inside-out method, squeegee down the rest of the sticker. Because half of the sticker was already applied, you won’t inadvertently put the sticker on crooked. The sticker will line right up with the level painter’s tape we applied with our cardboard plane.

Now we have a perfectly level sticker on our car exactly where we want it. Squeegee some more to ensure there are no air bubbles under the stickers. Then remove the masking tape to leave behind your perfectly level sticker. Awesome.

Carefully remove the masking tape, ensuring you don’t lift off the car the sticker you have painstakingly placed level on the car. Use the felt side of the squeegee to work out any air bubbles you didn’t see when the masking tape was over the sticker.

What you will be left with is a perfectly level sticker placed on your car with no air bubbles. Underneath that sticker will be the temporary painter’s tape you used as a guide. Pull that off of the car and head to the race track to put the added horsepower from more stickers to the test.

Now that you have a level sticker on the car you can remove your painter’s tape which was just there as a guide. Painter’s tape is used as it doesn’t leave behind any sticky residue.

Taking the time to place stickers on your car in a way that is aesthetically pleasing to the eye will help you appear like a more professional racer. Even if you are a completely unprofessional person, your stickers don’t have to give that away. Take your time with this process. Patience ensures your stickers go on correctly. Good luck and I’ll see you at the track looking sharp!

With everything on nice, tidy and straight, it is time to hit the next HPDE or road race event.
Image courtesy of Rob Krider

1 COMMENT

  1. Applying heat will soften stickers and allow them to shrink and expand better over areas that are not flat. It also aids in removing air bubbles. Some stickers can be removed if started incorrectly (before using squeegee) and re-applied after rejuvenating with some heat. Check out videos on applying stickers to go karts for more info.

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