Behind The Scenes: How Is Automotive PPF Installed?

PPF, or Paint Protection Film, is a thin transparent film adhered to a vehicle’s painted body panels to protect the paint from damage—consider it a physical protective barrier to protect the paint from bird droppings, bug splatter, acid rain, sap, and hard water.

Unlike home-applied wax and polishes, which only create a thin microscopic barrier between the paint and the environment, PPF should be installed by an experienced professional—proper installation requires training, specialized tools, and practice.

To learn more about the process, we visited Tyler O’Hara, owner of American Wrap Company in Newbury Park, California. The Southern California shop is an authorized dealer for XPEL—its Ultimate Plus PPF is recognized as the best on the market today.

Every job is different, depending on the type of vehicle and how much paint the owner wants protected. A simple job, which would just cover the front of the vehicle, would take “one to two days,” explains O’Hara. A more complex installation, covering all of the paint, could take “three to five days or more, depending on the car.”

To simplify the installation process, I’ve broken it down into five basic steps:

Step 1: Cleaning and Paint Correction

Automotive paint—even that of a brand-new vehicle—contains flaws, surface contaminants, and micro scratches. So, the paint surface is thoroughly cleaned and meticulously polished before PPF is applied (effectively sealing everything beneath it). Old wax, silicones, minor scratches, marring, swirl marks, hazing, and other blemishes are removed. This process, often called “paint correction,” prepares the vehicle’s clearcoat for PPF.

Step 2: Remove Accessories

PPF is applied to the paint’s surface, which presents a dilemma when it reaches the edge of the panel next to a component or piece of trim. To cut corners, some installers will stop short, leaving a small gap of unprotected paint (and an unsightly line). Premium shops will remove components (e.g., taillamps, door handles, windows, etc.) so the PPF may continue to the edge and wrap around for a seamless installation. They will also remove badging, which will be reinstalled later. While there are reasonable limitations to how far a shop will go (e.g., removing the front windshield is taking things to the extreme), pulling off simple snap- and bolt-on components is expected of a first-rate installation.

Step 3: Cut PPF to Approximate Size

PPF may be ordered in pre-cut sheets to fit some applications, but most professional installers will order large rolls (typically 60”-80” wide and up to 75’ in length) that need to be cut to size to fit the vehicle. American Wrap Company uses a computer-guided vinyl cutter to cut precise patterns for its installations (improving accuracy and reducing product waste). However, some pieces are still cut by hand with a sharp blade. With rare exceptions, the pieces are not cut to their finished size, as a small amount of overlap is required for the edge wrap.

Step 4: Apply PPF

XPEL applies a protective backing to the PPF during manufacturing to protect the pressure-sensitive adhesive, which must be peeled off before installation. “PPF is installed with what we call a ‘tack and a slip’ solution,” says Chris DiMinico, product manager at XPEL (read my interview with DiMinico here). “What constitutes the tack versus the slip solution would change per installer because they have different techniques. So, with the tack solution, that is an isopropyl alcohol mix, typically with distilled water, just to make sure there are no contaminants in it. And then, with the slip solution, it’s typically a baby shampoo and distilled water mix. And you use baby shampoo because it’s the only shampoo that does not have some form of silicone in it.”

The PPF is ‘floated’ onto the surface with liberal amounts of slip solution—it can then be maneuvered into place. Once positioned, a hard plastic squeegee presses the liquid out from beneath the surface, simultaneously adhering the PPF to the paint. “The process takes time and patience,” mentions O’Hara. “Much care is taken to ensure that there are no contaminants trapped between the film and the vehicle’s surface.”

Curved pieces present additional challenges. Thankfully, PPF is flexible, so it may be gently stretched around complex surfaces—if the film is pulled too far, it will develop unsightly ‘stretch marks’. This is where experience and expertise come into play (on that note, O’Hara came in first place in the 2022 XPEL ULTIMATE PLUS Paint Protection Film Installation challenge last year). Lastly, the squeegee process pushes the slip solution to the edge, where the film is then carefully wrapped out of sight.

Step 5: Ceramic Coating (Optional)

Technically speaking, the PPF installation is done once the last corner is wrapped and the vehicle’s components are reassembled. But most professional shops, like American Wrap Company, will apply a ceramic coating to the film. “Sticky contaminants, like tree sap and road tar, are PPF’s worst enemies,” cites O’Hara. “A ceramic coating will protect your paint protection film from stubborn contaminants. It will also make your PPF easier to clean. That’s because the ceramic coating is naturally water-repellant. When you wash your car, the water is pushed off, taking gunk and grime with it.”

I asked O’Hara how XPEL’s PPF should be maintained so the product’s 10-year warranty is preserved. “It’s effortless to maintain. I tell people to hand wash only, no abrasives, no polishing compounds, no cutting compounds, nothing like that. What I do on both of my cars is hand wash it with pH-neutral soap, blow dry it off, and then use XPEL Ceramic Boost to maintain the dust- and dirt-resistant surface.”


Special thanks to Tyler O’Hara, owner of American Wrap Company, for allowing me to visit his shop and take pictures a half-dozen times for this story.

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