Hydrographics is more common than one might think. Chances are if you have woodgrain interior in your vehicle it was done using the hydrographic process. Another common use is camouflaged firearms and archery equipment. This process is not limited to just those items. Any surface that can be painted can be done. This includes all metals, plastic, glass, ceramics, and even wood.
In the process, the substrate to be printed goes through standard painting procedures: surface prep, priming, and paint. The paint color is determined by the hydrographic film. Films come in a variety of patterns. Camouflage, carbon fiber, woodgrains, and animal prints are just a few. Some films require a specific paint color to achieve the final look while others are more transparent and the customer can choose the color. Colors can be standard single tone, metallics, glow in the dark, thermal, or chameleons.
After paint the item is ready for dipping. The film to be used is cut to size then placed in a water transfer printing tank which heats water up to a specific temperature. The film floats on the surface of water for a specific period of time. This allows the film to hydrate and soften up. After the time is reached, an activator solution is applied to the film. This activator bonds with the ink in the film turning it back into a liquid that suspends on the surface of the water. After activation the item is then submerged through the liquid image on the water. Once the liquid image makes contact with the painted item a reaction is made creating a bond between the image and paint. When the item is removed from the water the image is adhered to the part, leaving the printed image on the surface of the item.
Once dipped the item is then put through a rinsing cycle of water. This removes the polyvinyl alcohol, which is the plastic material the film is printed on. This is required to removed the contaminations left behind. After a thorough rinse, the part is then left to dry.
When dry the item is then ready for the final step of clear coating. Automotive grade clear coat is used to seal the image and paint for a more durable finish. When clear coating there are different effects that can be achieved. Flat, semi gloss, and high gloss are the most common options. Candy coat clears can also be applied. This is a colored pigment that changes the effects of the film.