When it comes to protecting a car’s paint, there are a plethora of directions you can take. While the clear coat that rests atop a vehicle’s paintwork is engineered to serve as a frontline defense against the elements, this transparent coating has its own inherent weaknesses and drawbacks.
Faded, peeled, cracked, scratched, oxidized, and discolored clear coats can be seen on cars everywhere, rolling reminders of what happens when you neglect to clean and protect your automobile. While the paint underneath may be completely fine, due to the clear coat taking the brunt of the abuse, it’s going to look like complete crap due to the damage resting atop it.
On the upside, an increased demand for automotive paint protection film (PPF) in recent years has eliminated many of these clear coat conundrums. Not familiar with PPF? Here’s a quick rundown on what it’s made from, and how it works.
That said, there’s still a lot of confusion out there over what PPF can and cannot do, especially when exposed to extreme situations. The pendulum swings both ways too, with the pros and cons of PPF either being overly exaggerated, or completely understated.
So let’s shovel through the bullshit, and get down to the facts, because there’s much to be gained by having a paint protection film installed on your automobile, and a lot that can go wrong as well…
What is Paint Protection Film?
A Little PPF History Lesson
Much like America’s favorite lubricant, (we’re talking about WD-40 here… pervert), paint protection film was not originally intended for automobiles or civilian use, but was developed as a tool for military operations.
It was the height of the Vietnam War, and the U.S. Department of Defense (D.O.D.) was receiving one report after another of helicopters being significantly damaged by shrapnel and debris. This was especially apparent on areas like rotor blades, and across surfaces carrying sensitive military equipment.
According to automotive experts, the D.O.D. set out to find a solution, which is precisely when good old 3M comes into the picture. The textile and chemical giant was gung-ho about finding a solution to this problem, and tasked some of its greatest minds with developing a protective layer that could be just as resilient as it was transparent and lightweight.
Before long, the U.S. military was presented with what appeared to be a solid solution to its chopper problem. By modifying the chemical structure of a super strong urethane film, 3M’s engineers had developed a product that could withstand both significant amounts of elemental abuse, and moderate surface damage from things like artillery shrapnel. Inexpensive, relatively easy to apply and replace, and resistant to UV degradation and common aviation fluids, this film was an instant success.
Due to its ability to conform to almost any surface, and then form a tight bond with whatever it was allowed to cure atop, this film became commonly referred to as helicopter tape, or “heli tape” for short. Today, this product is still marketed as heli tape in certain global markets, even though it is rarely used for its intended original purpose.
Quick Nerd Note: Since PPF started life as a military application, there was no need for it to create a glossy, or completely clear appearance, therefore early versions were either completely opaque, or a dull, hazy-looking sheen.
PPF’s Transition to Automobiles
Over time, 3M began to refine and re-engineer this revolutionary military protective film for use in the civilian sector. However, it literally took decades for PPF to evolve into the high-quality thermoplastic urethane film of today, and almost as long to catch on in regard to popularity.
While selling the military on a tape-like protective film that would keep helicopter parts from being damaged was fairly easy, getting car owners to agree to having their vehicles cloaked in super strong “plastic wrap” was a huge challenge. Offered as a “protective topcoat for painted surfaces,” and sold in a kaleidoscope of colors and thickness levels, car paint protection film slowly but surely grew in popularity.
Eventually, high-end car owners and detailing shops began to buy more of these pricey film coatings, as their protective benefits and projected longevity indeed lived up to the hype. Everything from bug splatter and bird droppings, to surface scratches, rock chips, and all manner of oxidization and UV damage were rejected by PPF, and it looked like the product was set to become one of the biggest game changers in the history of car care.
Paint Protection Films of Today
Nowadays, 3M’s line of automotive paint protection films come in two offerings: A Pro Series (also known as clear bra), and a colored Matte version. Both are backed by a 10-year warranty, and when properly installed by a professional, offer what 3M refers to as “unrivaled scratch and stain resistance.”
With their ability to be custom designed to fit a specific vehicle, unique “self-healing characteristics,” and ability to match most factory matte paints, 3M’s PPF offerings have seen a significant growth in popularity in recent years.
Quick Nerd Note: The top layer of the PPF is comprised of an elastomeric polymer substance that helps the material maintain a natural shape once it’s been stretched or applied to something like a painted or clear coated surface. This allows the PPF to “self-heal” when light scratches occur, and pretty much eliminates any risk of swirl marks.
Types of Paint Protection Film
While 3M may have created PPF, and fine-tuned it for automotive applications, there are a handful of other manufacturers out there offering paint protection films. Some of these companies include Suntek and Llumar, both of which are offshoots of the Eastman Chemical Company, and XPEL, which is the official protective film partner of Team Penske.
A few nicknames for these protective products include:
- Clear Bra
- Clear Mask
- Invisible Shield
- Clear Wrap
- Car Protection Film
PPF vs Vinyl
There’s a lot of confusion about the differences between PPF and vinyl, or if there is any difference whatsoever. So here’s a breakdown of the nuts and bolts that make each of these clingy products unique.
Vinyl wrap is a relatively thick substance, which makes it much easier to install and provides additional coverage, but it is not transparent. The PPF, on the other hand, is not a tint. It’s usually crystal clear, is much lighter, and self-heals when scratches occur.
Paint Protection Film
When placed next to a run-of-the-mill roll of vinyl wrap, it becomes apparent that PPF is a far thinner, and far more lightweight alternative. The perks of procuring it in either a clear or tinted shade are also unique unto PPF, as are its ability to offer superior surface protection and “self healing properties,” both of which vinyl has in limited supply.
So while a vinyl wrap may offer some level of paint protection, it is typically installed for aesthetic or marketing purposes, because shipping trucks are basically rolling billboards, right? In contrast, a PPF is going to either be a matte-like armor, or if transparent, a see-thru shield that allows glossy painted surfaces to safely shine underneath.
How to Install Paint Protection Film
If you’re going to have your vehicle covered in PPF, or are daring enough to try the install on your own, there are a few steps that must be considered. Again, this is something we strongly suggest leaving to the pros, especially since PPF can be a bit tricky to work with when compared to vinyl wrap.
Spend the Big Bucks and Plot Your Own Path…
Most professional PPF installers are also vinyl wrap specialists, window tint professionals, or some other form of custom automotive service. Of these shops, those with enough capital typically forego guess work, and opt for a machine called a “plotter” instead. This computer-controlled contraption reads what dimensions are required, and then painstakingly cuts the PPF into sections, all tailormade to fit a particular body panel. This pricey piece of equipment is particularly useful when working with intricate areas, making the installation of things like headlight protection film an absolute breeze.
Or Buy a Few Bulk Rolls, and Grab Some Sharp Tools
For all of the shops out there who don’t have oodles of dollars to drop on a plotter, the cutting and installation of PPF revolves around purchasing a bulk roll of film, and shaving any unneeded overhangs. This process results in a shit ton of measuring and test-fitting, and material waste is exponentially higher due to the width of the roll being used.
Quick Tip: 3M has a lot to say about PPF install environments and surfaces, so we gleaned a few top tips to save you some time.
- Vehicle surface temperatures and ambient air temperature should be between 55°F and 90°F (13°C – 32°C)
- The vehicle should be removed from direct sunlight and winds above 5 mph
- On repainted vehicles, paint must be thoroughly dry and completely cured before any attempt to apply film to the vehicle is made, in order to avoid film bubbling due to paint out gassing.
- Be sue to overlap squeegee strokes in order to ensure no solution is left between the film adhesive and the painted surface.
For optimum results, pros either wear gloves, or wash their hands thoroughly prior to PPF application to avoid film contaminants like fingerprints, from fucking-up their hard work. While the PPF installation process may vary based upon the vehicle in question, or the brand of paint protection film selected, the following procedures remain the most widely utilized…
1. Scrub a Dub-Dub
Removing debris is not only crucial to the appearance of a paint protection film, but its performance capabilities as well. A good rule of wrench here is to think of a PPF like it were a ceramic coating, because the clear stuff is only going to emphasize and then lock-in whatever rests underneath it.
So if your ride is riddled with scratch marks and rust, that clear bra is only going to make them all the more notable, and pretty damn difficult to repair. Spend the money and get all necessary paint correction and body work steps knocked-out before proceeding.
Paint and clear coat in pristine condition, it is now time for a washing with some clean microfiber cloths and the old two-bucket car wash approach. Opting to clean surfaces with something like 3M’s General Purpose Adhesive Cleaner, which contains specially blended solvents for removing adhesive residue, wax, grease, tree sap, road tar, oil, and bugs is also a good idea when applicable.
Surfaces sprayed and scrubbed, follow the adhesive cleaner with an ammonia-fee, automotive-safe glass cleaner, which will remove any adhesive cleaner residual solvents lingering on the surface. Skipping this window cleaning stage could be catastrophic to your success, for failing to do so will likely result in shitty PPF adhesion and unsightly bubbles.
2. Cut Your PPF to Fit That Shit Homeskillet!
Once all of the surfaces have been prepped, the installer will cut the PPF sheet down to size in preparation for installation, much like window tint. This is typically done in sections, with areas like the hood, rocker panels, quarter panels, side mirrors, door, and various other portions being measured and mocked-up for installation.
3. Spray and Pray
Installing PPF requires an activator, or a fitting solution. 3M recommends using a two-solution application method here for optimal results. For a soap solution, just fill a 16 oz. spray bottle with water and add .6ml (4 drops) of Johnson’s Baby Shampoo or Aveeno Baby Wash /Shampoo.
An alternative option, is the full isopropyl alcohol blend wipe-down approach. Simply fill a 16 oz. spray bottle 75% full of water and then top it off with 25% isopropyl alcohol with a 70% rubbing alcohol rating. Remember to wash your hands before starting this stage of the application, as it helps avoid the imprinting of oily fingerprints on the adhesive.
4. All Lubed-Up and Ready for Action
Once the top surface of the film is wet with the solution of your choosing it’s time for the squeegee lovefest to begin. But while your squeegee may slide effortlessly across the filmy surface, it’s worth noting this is when it pays to be a pro.
Paint protection films don’t always like to fit perfectly when applied, and as we previously mentioned, is typically far more finicky than vinyl. This stage in the PPF install process involves a series of spraying, moving, squeegeeing, repositioning, and re-squeegeeing to remove any bubbles or creases in the film.
5. Fire in the Hole!
Once the PPF has been properly applied, and any lingering bubbles and/or creases have been removed, it’s time to bring the heat. Here, the use of an industrial heat gun and a touchless instant temp reader are used to activate the adhesive, and thus cause the PPF to stick to the surface. This stage also causes the material to shrink, creating a clean, tight fit on whatever it is protecting.
How Long Does Paint Protection Film Last?
Arguably the best attribute of a paint protection film is its longevity. According to 3M, a professionally installed paint protection film should last anywhere from 5 to 10 years. This explains why many of these products are covered by a warranty when the installation is conducted by a certified company specializing in PPF installations.
That said, much like car wax, ceramic coatings, or any other form of paint protection for that matter, there are a few variables that may impact product longevity. Some of the more common factors that impact a PPF’s longevity are:
- Shitty Surface Prep
- Piss-Poor Application Etiquette
- Environmental Ass-Kickings
Pros and Cons of Paint Protection Film
- Superior protection against rock chips and scratches
- Prevents the formation of paint swirls
- Near Deadpool-like self-healing properties
- Can last up to 10 years when properly maintained
- Can reduce the shine of a vehicle’s paint if not pampered
- Not always very hydrophobic. (Many professional PPF installers suggest a ceramic coating application services on top of a fresh layer of PPF for unrivaled paint protection.)
- Inferior PPF products and knock-offs will often discolor and develop a yellowish tinge
- Once damaged, it will need to be completely removed and replaced
- Not a very good DIY solution
- Has been known to damage paint if left for too long and not properly maintained
- Most expensive modern paint protection product
How to Get the Most Out of a Paint Protection Film
Almost all of the cons listed above can be negated by combining a high grade PPF with a quality ceramic coating. This is why a lot of performance car owners will only install a PPF on the front portions of a vehicle (where rock chips and acidic bug guts are most prone to fucking shit up), and then apply a 9H-rated ceramic coating on top of this PPF, as well as other areas of the vehicle.
This helps to improve shine (PPF is notorious for becoming dull over time) and improve the surface’s water and debris-repelling hydrophobic properties. This will also cut down on the need for frequent car washes and wax installs, thus saving the vehicle owner significant amounts of time and labor.
A Few More Paint Protection Film FAQ’s
As you have surely been able to gather, paint protection films are a brilliant product, especially when it comes to protecting the exterior of a vehicle from things like airborne debris damage. That said, we still get a lot of questions from car owners about the PPF installation process, with the following being the most commonplace.
What is the most important factor in choosing a PPF installer?
-Experience matters, especially when it comes to installing PPF. Unlike a vinyl wrap, this product can be tricky to install correctly, which is why it’s always best to work with a certified PPF installer with solid reviews.
What type of warranties are available with PPF products?
-That depends upon the product you use, and who installs it. We’ve seen various PPF products being offered with a slew of different warranties. The most common warranties range from 5 to 10 years, but that only covers manufacturer defects, so you’ll be shit out of luck if there is an issue with the prep chemicals used, or the shop doing the install.
Are certain PPF products better than others?
-Reviews of PPF products vary depending upon quality, longevity, price, and ease of install. That said, as the originator, 3M still seems to hold the crown for highest PPF reviews, despite being the most expensive.
Are there any alternatives to using PPF?
-There’s a lot that can be said for a vehicle’s intended purpose. If you’re looking to protect your vehicle’s clear coat and paint from things like rock chips and scratches and it outlast anything else on the market, then PPF is the clear winner.
However, pairing a high-end, 9H-rated ceramic coating with a flawlessly installed PPF will create a shield that offers the best of both worlds, and should always be opted for by those looking for unrivaled protection.
Parting Shots, and a Verdict on Paint Protection Film
Paint protection films, or PPF, are an outstanding way to shield a vehicle’s surfaces from damage caused by the worlds most abrasive debris. However, it isn’t really intended to enhance the luster of a paint job either, nor is it very good at keeping vehicle surfaces clean.
So is a high-end PPF worth the up-front cost and the steep fees associated with utilizing a pro installer? That’s for you to decide. Living in a harsh environment and beating the ever-loving shit out of your beloved daily beater every day? Then it’s probably time to upgrade to a PPF, and then coat it with a slathering of Armor Shield IX ceramic coating.