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Striping Your Miata

by Nick Jenkins

I know this article would go better with lots of how-to pictures. Unfortunately I've never taken pictures while striping a Miata, and while there are thousands of cool photos of striped Miatas on the Internet, I couldn't find any showing the actual process. Hopefully a few cool completed photos will be enough inspiration for now, and my picturesque descriptions will give you some idea what I'm talking about. Next time I stripe a Miata, I promise, there will be pictures. The beauty of the Internet is that I'll be able to add those pictures to this very page, delete this paragraph, and no one will ever be the wiser.

I also thought I could go online and find all kinds of articles on Miata striping, but an extensive search on Google (okay, first page only), turned up only a couple of "How I Striped my Miata" articles that left out a lot of important details. So I'll start from scratch.

When it comes to striping your Miata, the single most important detail is correctly locating the stripes. Other things are important, too, like eliminating bubbles, but a few bubbles in the application won't be visible from more than five feet away, while a stripe that isn't quite straight is going to look bad from the Moon.

So the first thing we need to do is get out the blue painters tape and a good tape measure. A cloth tape measure will be kinder to your paint. If you
Not an actual Miata

not Miata
like, you can draw on your car with a non-permanent felt marker, but tape is easier to work with, less messy, and it shows up better, except maybe on a Mariner Blue Miata. I like blue tape, but you can also use regular tan masking tape. Masking tape sticks better, especially when wet, so it may actually work better for you. It shouldn't be necessary to mention this, because you've no doubt already done it, but it's best to stripe a car after it's been freshly washed and waxed.

Twin rally stripes are the easiest kind of stripes to get lined up properly. All you need to do is find the centerline of the car. A 3/4" strip of tape (good luck finding 3/4" tape—seems to be all metric now) on either side of the centerline will give you a 1-1/2" gap between the stripes, which is just about perfect. Go with wider or narrower tape if you want a different sized gap, but if you're not sure how that will look, stick with 1-1/2". Below is a picture of a red Miata with skinny little stripes and a 3" gap. Don't make that mistake.

Measure the centerline of the car at several locations along the hood. The tape itself will NOT help you make a straight line when it comes time to stretch a long strip from the nose of the car to the back of the hood, so it's important to mark the centerline every foot or two. This might be easier if you run strips of tape crosswise over the car, and then measure in from a
Actual Miata

Miata
fixed point like the edge of the hood. You can mark the centerline on the tape with a pen. The good news is, 8" or 9" vinyl WILL keep a straight edge when you start applying it, so a slight wavering of the painter's tape won't hurt. But get it close to center, and as straight as possible. If it's off even a sixteenth of an inch, people will notice.

Do the same thing with the tape on the trunklid. Remove the license plate so you can run tape all the way down the rear finish panel and the bumper. Also tape the centerline of the lower lip below the front grill scoop, and don't forget the windshield header if you want stripes there.

Now for the moment of truth. But before we start, here's a couple of things to keep in mind about applying vinyl. First, you no doubt have heard that stripes are applied wet. To do this, you'll need a small spray bottle and a small squeegee. Fill the spray bottle with water and then add a few drops of dishwashing liquid. The amount of dishwashing liquid is important. Too much and you'll leave a film between the stripes and the paint. The stripes won't stick as well as you might like when they dry, and they could bubble later when it gets hot. Too little and the stripes will stick too well when they're wet, which will be very frustrating if you don't get them lined up perfectly the first time.

So how do you know how much soap to add? Experience is really good, and it wouldn't hurt to do a few test runs with some scraps to get a feel for it. A proper soap solution shouldn't feel too slimy, but it should be more slippery than, say, Windex or Fantastik. In general, a few more drops is better than too few. You might notice in the picture of the non-Miata above, there's a bottle of Windex on the hood. This is what we would expect from a Mustang owner. Don't make that mistake.

Because we'll be using water, and water has this unfortunate tendency to evaporate, especially in the kind of nice, warm weather that makes the vinyl really easy to work with, we want to do the actual striping in the shade. A garage is fine, so long
Stripes on a Miata

Miata
as it's okay to get soapy water all over everything in the garage. The alternative is to wait for a hot, muggy, overcast day when everything is so much more fun to do outdoors.

The next thing we need to figure out is the best way to properly position and fix a piece of vinyl in place. Wet the surface of the car with your soap solution, then lay the vinyl paper-side-up on the car. As you peel away the backing, spray the adhesive side of the vinyl. Don't touch the adhesive until you've sprayed it. Once it's wet you can handle it it without a problem, but try to keep it clean.

Once the paper's off, flip the vinyl over and place it in position, then wet the top of it with the spray bottle. It should slide freely over the car. If not, add a few more drops of soap to your spray bottle.

Because the vinyl will slide easily, you can take a few minutes to get it lined up with your blue tape. Once you've got it lined up, you need to lock the vinyl into place so it can't slide anymore, then you can start
Squeegee. What kind of a word is that?

squeegee
squeegeeing out the water. Lock it into place by running the squeegee across a few inches of the vinyl in a key location, such as an edge that sits next to the blue tape. Now start from that location and squeegee out the rest of the water, being careful to push the soapy water toward an edge, and not trap any underneath. If the vinyl starts to dry, the squeegee will start to stick and you risk stretching the vinyl and making a big huge mess. Keep the top of the piece wet by spraying it whenever the squeegee starts to drag.

Another thing we need to know, if we didn't already, is that Miata hoods have bulges. The nose of the car is one big compound curve, and none of the other panels are very flat either. That's why the car looks so good. Cast vinyl, on the other hand, is flat. When you're laying a big piece of wet vinyl over your Miata, it may look like the edges aren't going to lie flat. Patience. Vinyl is flexible. The trick is to lock the vinyl into place where positioning is critical, such as next to your blue tape, and then work the water out from the other edges with your squeegee. As you do this, the vinyl will stretch enough, with the help of the adhesive, to fit the compound curves like paint.

There's a limit of course to how much the vinyl will stretch. We'll be careful to avoid that limit. We won't try to do the entire nose of an NA in one piece, for example. We can cover the nose of the car from the hood down to the beltline groove with one piece, and from the groove to the grill opening with another piece. The vinyl is so thin that seams barely show on a flat surface, and a seam in the groove will be all but invisible.

Okay, we should be ready. We're going to start with the trunklid because it's relatively flat and mistakes won't be as prominent as they'd be up front. The trunklid is done in two pieces, with a seam at the bend. In a perfect world we would do the short vertical section first, so the seam would run "against" the airflow, making it less likely to lift. But the world's not perfect and life isn't fair. We'll do the top section first.

Cut your first stripe an inch longer than the top of the trunklid (24" would be about right). Go ahead and wet the car and peel the paper, spraying the adhesive constantly as you go. Flip the strip over and line it up with the blue tape, making sure the rear edge just covers the bend at the back of the trunk. Make sure the forward edge of the vinyl runs at least half an inch or so
Stripes good, spoiler bad

Miata
past the forward edge of the trunk. Spray the top of the piece, then slide it around until it's perfectly flush with the blue tape. Hold it down near the middle of the trunk along the centerline, and lock it into place with the squeegee. Work the water out with the squeege along the length of the centerline first. Don't push any harder on the squeegee than necessary, or you risk stretching the vinyl, but do get all the water out.

Once the entire centerline of the stripe is locked in place, start squeegeeing outward from the middle until the stripe looks like paint. If you do get a bubble that you can't work to the edge of the piece, a pin prick in the middle will release the water and let you smooth the vinyl, by starting at the edges of the bubble and working toward the pin hole. When you're done, the pin hole will disappear.

Do both top stripes, then apply the short vertical sections. They should overlap the top stripes by about 1/4", so the seam ends up right around the middle of the bend, where it'll be the most invisible. Don't worry about the CHMSL (brake light) right now, we'll trim it later.

The last thing to do, after everything has had a chance to dry (10-15 min.) is to dress the ends of the piece. In most cases, the ends will wrap around a sheet metal edge. A quarter-inch wraparound is ideal. Cut the end with scissors or x-acto, and squeegee the piece right up to the edge, then wrap it around the edge with your fingers, pulling it taught all the time. The edge may not want to stick because the adhesive is still wet. If that's the case, dry it with a little bit of heat from a hair dryer. After the edge is stuck down, a little more heat from the hair dryer will keep it there. Always be careful not to apply too much heat.

Sometimes one edge of the piece will need to be cut to fit flush with a piece of body trim, like the forward edge of the short strips in front of the trunklid, or around the CHMSL. In some cases you can make the cut before you apply the piece, before you've peeled the backing. This makes positioning a little more difficult, but the results are usually better. One thing to note about pre-trimming a piece of vinyl: don't let the backing paper get wet if you can help it. It's easy to do if you're using the car as a jig, because the car by now is pretty well soaked. Wet backing paper is a b-you-know-what to remove.

In other cases, like the CHMSL, you can't pre-trim a piece. Instead you need to trim with an x-acto and a new number 11 blade. Make an initial cut to within a quarter inch of the edge, to get rid of most of the excess. Make the final cut very carefully, and
Either got lazy, or got really sick of the color.

Miata
for best results make your cut directly over the rubber gasket between the paint and the trim piece. Err on the side of the trim piece, not the paint. Use a q-tip or similar to dab the edges into place, cutting darts as needed in the curved sections. When everything is done, hit it with a heat gun to make sure it's dry. Dab some more if any edges try to curl up.

Continue applying pieces to the back of the car. You'll start to get pretty good at it, but will run into trouble with the license plate cutout. I've gotten the best results for this section by doing it in several small pieces, with seams. Cut a few 3/4" strips of vinyl, and apply these to all of the inside corners of the cutout. You need to do this dry. The exact position isn't critical. The corners where the edges meet will be the trickiest parts, but just keep cutting smaller pieces to fit until you get complete coverage. Small pieces of vinyl have a lot of stretch to them, and in this case feel free to use all the heat from the hair dryer you want, because you're only looking for full coverage, and all of the edges of these tiny pieces will end up getting covered over.

What you want to end up with is three flat sections left to cover (on each side): bottom, side, and the panel where the licence plate goes. With a pair of scissors, cut pieces to fit these panels, making sure they extend slightly past the 3/4" strips in the
Even less fun than it looks.

license area
corners. Apply these pieces wet, then trim around the license plate light lenses.

When the cutout is done, apply the actual stripes to the finish panel one at a time. Do these last, after the trunklid and bumper. You'll need to use those stripes to align the outer edges of the finish panel stripes, because you won't be able to line them up with the center tape. These pieces will have to be trimmed for the badges on the rear panel. Don't try to remove the badges. Bad things are likely to happen. Better to trim around them. You can also pre-trim these pieces, but err on the side of cutting too little, and clean up any overlap later. It's possible to slip a very narrow edge of the vinyl under these trim pieces, but don't count on it. Squeegee the stripe right up to the edge of the cutout, then trim the cutout section with an x-acto knife, leaving a quarter-to-half inch inch overlap. cut small slits in the corners, then wrap the edges into the cutout. Use heat as necessary to get the edges to stick.

By the time you finish in back, the front will be relatively easy and should end up looking really nice. You can do the front in just four sections: hood, nose above the beltline, nose below the beltline, and lower lip. Be sure to have a little overlap at the beltline, about a quarter inch or so. It won't show. Be sure the first section in the beltline is good and dry before you apply the next section. Use heat to dry it, and get in there with a towel to really press it down. You don't want the first section lifting when you're trying to overlap the second. It's a big huge mess.

There are a couple of obstacles up front. If you have a badge on the nose, the stripes will have to be trimmed around it. I've had good luck doing this by
The heartbreak of a gap too small

Miata
pre-trimming the stripes, using the car as a jig. Just make sure you don't cut away too much, and make sure you have enough overhang front and back based on where you made the cut for the badge. I've also had good results trimming around the badge after putting on the stripes, but pre-trimming was a lot easier. Again, the edge of the vinyl will somtimes slip under the badge, but not very far.

The second obstacle is the windshield washers. I've never had great results either trying to pre-cut holes in the stripes for these, or trim them afterwards. I got the best results by removing the washers completely, and popping them back in after the stripes were in place and the vinyl was trimmed around the hole.

There are a lot more compound curves up front, so take your time. If you reach a spot on a compound curve where it just seems impossible to get the vinyl to lay flat, you can try two things. The first is to heat the vinyl with a hair dryer. Be very careful here, because you're really trying to get the vinyl to contract, and when vinyl's hot it's very easy to stretch. There are two kinds of stretching—plastic and elastic. Elastic stretching is good, it's what you want. Too much heat, though, and you'll get
The satisfaction of a job well done

Miata
plastic stretching, which you don't want. So just a little bit of heat and gently massage the vinyl flat. It takes a lot of massaging and a little bit of stretching, and it won't always look like it's going to work, but you'll be surprised by how much the vinyl will give.

If you don't have the patience for that, plan B is to cut a dart in the vinyl. This will create a seam, but if it's not in a prominent place, it'll look okay. Make sure the dart extends an inch or so into the area where the vinyl sits flat, so the seam overlaps gradually. Before you cut the dart, make sure you slip some backing paper under the vinyl so you don't cut down to the paint.

So now we're just about done. I guess this was a little more work than I thought. At this point the car should look all soapy and dull. Rinse everything off with a hose, then towel it dry with a microfiber cloth. The only thing left to do now is stand back and admire your work. Let the stripes dry at least 24 hours, then take the car out for a spin and show them off. Have fun.