Back in November I bought a really cheap Nissan Leaf. It might be the perfect around-town commuter for very little money, as it has served dutifully since. I honestly couldn’t have spent $2,000 in a better way. But since then I’ve set about spending time and money on this car in very dumb (and fun) ways, like a set of three-spoke wheels, underglow, painting the taillights, and debadging the car. After a couple of months driving it, however, I just couldn’t deal with it being black anymore.
There’s nothing worse than a greyscale car, in my opinion. Why bother driving if you aren’t going to make a statement? My Leaf was anonymous and largely devoid of feeling as a dark paint jellybean blob. I felt like I was driving an episode of Perry Mason or something. Boring, procedural and colorless is no way to drive through life. Particularly in my electric light town of Reno, Nevada. I made the conscious choice to be bright.
Because this was a cheap car, I didn’t want to go through the motions of getting the whole thing re-painted. A good paint job is several thousand dollars. Hell, a professional wrap job is several thousand dollars, too. After looking up the cost of materials, I knew the best course of action was to do it myself. After studying the process at YouTube University for a little over three weeks, I was confident enough to give it a go.
I will begin by saying that this is not an easy job. Wrapping a car is extremely time intensive, especially for a first timer, and you will absolutely make small dumb mistakes that compound into difficult-to-fix errors. The final result of this wrap is something I’m perfectly happy with having done myself, but it would be absolutely unacceptable if a shop had delivered this. Keep that in mind before you decide to jump in with both feet.
I decided to start small by wrapping two choice interior components. These components were both a dark gray smooth plastic material with no texture, so they would accept a wrap easy enough, and they were small enough that I could bring them inside to wrap while I watched Star Wars: Rebels from the comfort of my couch.
The interior work turned out well enough that I turned my attention to the exterior. Again, I went with smaller parts first, including the massive parking light section aft of the headlight, the hatch handle, and the spoiler. All of these components were easily removable and could be wrapped inside the warm house.
These components again slowly worked up my confidence to dig into bigger sheets and larger panels. So, on a Friday night after work, I rolled the Leaf into my shop, threw it up on jack stands, and started pulling parts off of the damn thing.
By the end of the night I had removed the wheels, headlights, both bumpers, mirrors, the charge door, the hatch handle (again), fender turn signals, and pulled off all four interior door cards so I could get the exterior door handles off. This was probably the most labor-intensive part of the job, but it’s imperative to getting a good wrap. I also removed all four of the black door top trims, as the black was peeling off, exposing chrome underneath.
Wrap material isn’t like clear bra, in that it’ll be ruined if it gets wet. It’ll also be scrap if it gets dirty. To prevent this, I took the car through a touchless car wash before parking it in the shop, then I went over each panel with a chemical cleaning spray and microfiber towel. I followed that with a wipe down with a blue shop towel, and an extra run with isopropyl alcohol wipes to prep the surface for stick.
That same night, I kicked off the real wrap job with the hood and driver’s side fender. The roll of material came as a continuous sheet 60 feet by 5 feet. I started by unrolling as much material as I needed, leaving a few inches on all sides of the panel. It’s good to be conscious of the size of everything. If I were to do this again, I probably would not have used a virgin sheet of wrap for a small panel like the hood. I probably could have cut the hood out from the cast off from doing one of the quarter panels, if I’d been thinking far enough ahead.
The wrap material we chose was Avery Dennison’s gloss ambulance yellow, and I have to say this material is extremely pliable and easy to work with. Not only does it stretch pretty easily, but it lays down smooth and can be picked up and re-worked as necessary. Using a heat gun and a soft wrap squeegee, I started at the high points of each panel and pushed the air out from under the material, and it slowly took shape.
Getting the edges and corners to look right is easily the most frustrating part of wrapping a car. Exposed edges, like around windows, for example, are difficult to make look smooth. Wrap-over edges, like around the ends of panels, are a little easier, but you can get some material bunching around the corners of a hood, for example. Trying to cut away as much material from the corner as possible, and then wrapping under each other was my method of solving that problem, but it didn’t always work out great. It’s also much harder to keep wrinkles out of the material once it’s been folded under a panel. Many swears were uttered in this process.
After six hours of labor, this is what the car looked like. I had worked from 6PM to midnight, and was totally bushwacked. Up and at ‘em the next day, thankfully an otherwise empty Saturday, I did a full 12 hour effort.
I kicked off day two by first finishing off the passenger’s side fender, then moved on to the rear quarters. Of course, the rear quarter panel on each side is an unbroken piece of sheet metal which includes both the roof rail and the door sill. There is nothing more nerve wracking than unrolling 15 feet of a 60 foot roll and hoping you get it right. Some wrappers can get that one sheet to also do both of the doors that I cut out, but because of the way the sill rolls up into the door, it would have required a lot of stretching to make work. Instead, I used the driver’s side cutout to wrap the tailgate and the passenger’s side cutout to wrap one of the doors rather than both.
The quarter panel went fairly smoothly, and the roof rail was an absolute cinch, but the rocker was a bit of a nightmare. It meant a lot of sitting and laying on the hard concrete, and dammit I’m getting old. Or at least my back is. No matter, I managed to make it work.
Once these panels were done, I was able to start buttoning things up again. I reinstalled the tail lights (after popping some LED bulbs into the reverse lamp slot) and the tailgate handle.
At the end of day two, the car looked like this. All four doors were wrapped and it was looking pretty damn good, but I’d run out of vinyl. Sixty feet disappears pretty quickly when you’re a first timer. Some of the pros say you can do a compact car like this with just one roll of material, but apparently I’m not good at it. In any case, I still had two bumpers to wrap and the roof was still black. I think the black roof grew on me, though, because I decided to leave it that way for now.
On Sunday I was back at the shop for another go-round. With only scraps available to work with, I spent that time wrapping the remaining trim bits like the door handles and charging door. It was nice soothing small part work, and I was able to binge watch the Snowpiercer show in the process, so win-win. By the end of Sunday, I had cleaned up the shop a bit, reinstalled the door handles and interior door panels. Another 6 hours down, and another 20 feet of material ordered.
In the meantime, I took the headlights and heat gun home with me for a separate project because I absolutely despise chrome. After removing about 19 screws and unplugging a bunch of electrical components, I applied heat to the edges of the headlight lenses to release the sticky seal. This was a time and labor intensive process, but once they were apart, I was able to take the chrome middle segment of the light out and give it a nice even coat of matte black Krylon Fusion. Once reassembled, they look pretty damn nice, if I do say so myself. This is a simple modification that has been floating around basically since big plastic headlight housings became a thing, but now manufacturers like Porsche use blacked out headlamps as a trim differentiator, so all these years later it’s still cool. Maybe.
Another shipment of ambulance yellow came in on Wednesday afternoon, and that night I got the wrapping work done. The bumpers were by far the most frustrating part of the wrap, taking a full seven hours for both ends of the car to be complete. Thankfully the Planet Money podcast released an episode about public domain, and spent five hours reading The Great Gatsby in its entirety, so I had plenty to keep me entertained.
Through it all, my good boy Henry was there to lend a helping hand. Unfortunately he wasn’t any better at this than I was, so I didn’t have anyone to help me out of the trouble spots. I got extremely frustrated with the large indents on both bumpers, and couldn’t get them to suck down flush with the surface. As a result I ended up cutting both the plate surround area in the rear bumper, and the grille surround in the front bumper out, leaving them black. I may eventually fill those in with extra material laying around, but for now I’ll leave them black to see how I like it long term.
The same goes for the roof. I may eventually wrap it, but for now I like it in black.
Of course, in the process of taking the bumper off and on a few times, I broke one of the brackets. Once that came in on Thursday afternoon, I was able to install the front bumper, get the wheels back on, and get it down on the ground for the first time in 6 days.
From a wrapping perspective, I bought a brand new heat gun from Harbor Freight for the job. It worked way better than my decade-old Ace Hardware gun. This is a good tool for the job, and works great for the price.
I also spent some money on a nice set of wrapping tools from NuWrap Supply. I had originally planned to have some help on this project, but they were otherwise unavailable so I did it solo. In any case, I ordered a pair of Paint Is Dead Proseries felt and neoprene edged squeegees, and a pair of the same Proseries Proknives. Neither were cheap, but both were a worthy investment. If I were to order again, I’d say getting the Profinisher pushing tool for edges would be worth buying. I also grabbed a nice set of X-acto-style knives from Harbor Freight while I was there.
Oh, and for your own sake, you’re going to want a rolly stool and a step stool. I already owned both of those, obviously.
Okay, so how much did all of this cost?
60 ft Avery gloss ambulance yellow vinyl - $491.52
20 ft Avery gloss ambulance yellow vinyl - $199.21
Paint Is Dead wrap squeegees and knives - $47.72 (after 10 percent sale discount)
Harbor Freight heat gun - $14.99
Harbor Freight 33 piece hobby knife set - $16.99
And considering I spent maybe 35 hours of labor on this project, it’s easy to see why a professional charges into the thousands for a good wrap. Their prices aren’t unfair, they’re just more than I wanted to pay. Ultimately, I’m happy I did it myself, as it’s another skill I have under my belt. It’s not perfect, but it looks really good from like 10 feet away.
Add this up with the wrap and the wheels and tires and underglow and I have a good bit more into the modifications now than the car’s $2,000 purchase price. But I’m so much happier with it now. It’s not just a Leaf, it’s my Leaf.
I’m not going to show you my mistakes, but you can believe that they are indeed there. I’ll just let these distant photos make the car look much better than it actually is. Don’t look too close, please. Ultimately, pobody’s nerfect. And in that way, my car and I are alike.