Hydro dipping (also known as immersion printing, water transfer printing and hydro imaging ) is a unique process that allows you to apply graphics to almost any three-dimensional object. This process has been used for years in the auto industry along with many other fields. Other items like firearms, helmets, gaming controllers & ATV's are widely decorated with hydro films these days. There are many different materials (substrates) the film can be applied on such as plastic, metal, wood, and more. Below are the steps in the dipping process and things to know.
I know that I shouldn't have to get into this, but I am just to be safe. Keep in mind when hydro dipping, that if water would damage the item any other time such as with electronic devices, then you do not want to dip it as the item will be fully submerged under water. In other words, DO NOT dip your Xbox, PlayStation or even your gaming controller. You need to take it apart (this will most likely void any warranties) and only dip the shell without the electronics. This goes with almost any electronic device.
On a side note, if you want a pair of camouflage socks or a lamp shade with dragons on it? Then go for it!!
NOTE: Some suppliers of hydro film will lie and tell you that you have to use their paints and/or activator. This is NOT true and is just a sales gimmick. Though some activators may work better with some types of film, a good and high quality activator will work for most all films such as HydroVator or K2 SuperBrew.
After you have decided on an item to be dipped and what design you want to use, it is time to prep the item for dipping. Really, the prep process is no different than if you were just going to be painting the item. You still need to sand/scuff up (if needed or required) the item, prime it, apply a base coat and a clear coat to protect it. The only difference is that now you are adding one step after you apply your base coat and before applying your clear coat, and that's the dipping process.
The base coat is the layer of paint that gives the film something to adhere too and provides the backing color or secondary color to the hydro film design. Most films are designed to work with a white or light tan base coat, but many films can be applied over almost any color. Even a film that is designed for a white base coat can be applied over another color to completely change the coloring of the design and make it truly unique.
When viewing our in stock designs, you will see the recommended base coat color in the product details.
NOTE: You do not have to use a gloss or high gloss base coat just because you want the item being dipped to look like glass when your done. In fact, it is your clear coat that will give the finished product the glossy or matte finish you desire.
Designs are printed using a special kind of ink on a PVA (Polyvinyl Alcohol) film usually with a rotary printer and some small batches on wide format printers using special inks. This film is water soluble and is designed to absorb moisture which allows the film and ink to soften and become more pliable.
Most films are designed to be hydrated on 90°F water for 60 seconds. Some films such as our Metallic and 40 micron films still need 90°F water but require longer to hydrate, about 90-120 seconds.
When laying the film on the water, you need to be sure that you are laying the correct side of the film facing down. The most reliable way (in my opinion) is to wet your finger and thumb and then grab a corner of the film. When you let go of the film, it will stick to either your finger or your thumb. The sticky side goes facing down. The reason it is sticking to your finger/thumb is that side of the film is the side that is designed to pull in the moisture to hydrate the film.
Check for those air bubbles!! After you lay the film on the water, you will need to get close up and look for air bubbles trapped under the film. An air bubble will prevent that spot of the film from hydrating and therefor leave you with a spot of only your base coat after dipping. When you do find an air bubble, gently blow on it to make it move off to the side and out from underneath the film. Some air bubbles get stubborn and you may need to gently poke/press on it to get it to move.
For smaller or more flat items that are being dipped, such as a light switch covers, you can tape off the border of the film to lay on the water and hydrate. Cut a few relief cuts in the tape before laying on water.
We do recommend however using tanks that allow for barriers rather than masking off borders. This allows the film to naturally expand/contract as needed when hydrating and dipping. If you do not have a high dollar professional dipping tank, don't worry. Before you go to dip, get two pieces of masking tape ready. One that is about 4 inches wider (left to right sides) than the tank and one about 4 inches longer then the depth (front to back) of the tank. After you lay the film on the water, make sure the film is in a corner of your tank and lay these on the water about a quarter inch away from the film and use the extra couple inches to secure them to the sides of your tank. The two pieces of tape will over lap each other and float on the water. By doing so, you will be creating the other two walls (barriers) for the film and it will prevent the film from expanding to far out and acting the same way the barriers on professional grade tanks do.
Activator is a chemical that is used in the dipping process that makes it all possible. This chemical is applied to the film after the film has finished hydrating. When the activator is applied, it makes the film dissolve and liquefies the ink.
When dipping with metallic films, you will need to apply a quick and light spray over the film as soon as you lay it on the water and again after it is done hydrating.
Under and over activating are two of the leading causes in problems with hydro dipping. You are not applying a layer of paint, you just need enough activator (with a fine mist, fan pattern spray) to cover the film lightly.
Not all activators are the same. Make sure you are using a good, quality brand activator. We recommend HydroVator with all out films.
After the film has hydrated and the activator has been applied, the item that is having the graphics applied on is slowly lowered (dipped) into the film. As the item is being lowered into the water that has the now liquefied film on top, the surface tension of the water presses the film/design to all angles and surfaces of the item being dipped. This allows the design to be applied on curves and different angles. This film adheres to the surface of the base coat as a result of a chemical reaction between the activator and base coat. The activator softens the outer layer of the base coat which allows the design to bond with the base coat on the item rather than just being another layer over the base coat.
After your are done dipping, you will notice that the dipped item has a slimy residue all over it now. This residue needs to be rinsed off. People do this in many different ways, using shower heads, garden hoses and even the kitchen sink (again, not recommended as the activator has a strong odor) for the rinsing process. When rinsing, you can help speed things up by gently rubbing on the item while rinsing to help loosen the residue. Don't rub to hard though or you will rub the design back off. You will know when you are done rinsing as the item will start to have a dry feel to it and all the slimy residue will be gone.
This is the final process and probably one of the most important steps in the process. The clear coat is what protects the dipped design and gives it the glossy or matte finish you want.
Hydro dipping is as durable as the paints and clears you use. If you use an automotive grade paint, then your graphics will be as long lasting and beautiful as the paint on a new car. Different paints are used for different applications, such as auto grade paint (for rims and auto parts) or Cerakote (for firearms and bows). You need to choose the right paint for your project.
Have questions, contact us anytime.