A laminate (a.k.a over-laminate) is a film of clear adhesive vinyl that is applied over the print in order to protect it. “Protect it from what?” you may ask. From the elements.
All signs that are used outdoors need to be laminated. Otherwise, the ink will fade away under the continuous bombardment of sun rays, the repetitive pelting of the rain, and the unrelenting attacks from the wind. The end result, if left without lamination, is an old, beaten-up sign, that reflects poorly on your business and gives it the feeling of being “old”— an impression you want to avoid.
Inks are chemicals that are “injected” in the middle of the vinyl layer (under the surface), where they lay protected from gentle forces such as rubbing and gentle rays such as artificial light. Therefore, indoor signs don’t need to be laminated since they are usually exposed to kinder elements relative to their outdoor cousins.
Lamination takes time, efforts, and special machines. Therefore, laminated vinyl signs cost more than their non-laminated cousins. Even in the age of digital flatbed printing, lamination (by adding clear cover ink over colorful ink) is still cost more.
If you’re used to paper printing, you probably have used a warm laminator, at school, at your work, or even at the local printing shop, in order to cover the paper document and protect it from water. Usually laminated paper documents are used as menus in restaurants, or even reusable documents in the doctor’s office, where the patient has to sign the same document every visit. You’ve probably noticed how the end result of the lamination is a rigid product.
Vinyl sign laminate remains flexible after application since it’s usually applied cold (no heat is required). It’s hard for the untrained eye to tell if a vinyl is laminated or not. That’s why you need to ask your printing shop whether the quote they give you is for a laminated or non-laminated final product.
The laminate comes in matte and gloss finishes. The gloss finish is shiny and alluring. The problem is it’s also reflective, which makes it troublesome for image display. For instance, if you display a picture of clothes on a window, the reflection of the light off the gloss laminate will obscure the details and force the eyes to ignore the picture. The matter that may render the sign obsolete. That is where the matte finish comes to play a role. It looks dull and doesn’t reflect the light, which makes it suitable for image display.
Colored cut vinyl, which is used in car and window lettering, doesn’t need lamination since its color is a pigment that’s added to the vinyl during the manufacturing process rather than a droplet of vulnerable ink embedded under the vinyl surface under pressure. These pieces of color vinyl are easier to handle, but limited in color and cannot create a gradient.
Lamination is not limited to large signs. All stickers and labels that are going to be exposed to the sun or to water also need to be laminated. This rule applies to car stickers, car decals, bottle labels, and even car wrap. Perf vinyl (often used in window graphic at nail salons and spas) need to be laminated when it is applied over side and rear windows of wrapped vehicles.
Therefore, when you print a sign for the outdoors make sure you get a quote for a laminated vinyl. If you want your customers to pay attention to the details of the displayed image on the sign you need to choose matte laminate. For the indoor you don’t need to laminate unless you think the sign will be exposed to sun light (through a window) or water (such as a waterfall or mist). In these cases, choose matte laminate as well regardless of whether the details are important or not. Indoor signs are notoriously reflective of the ambient light around. Matte laminate can eliminate this problem and makes the vinyl sign look elegant.