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In the interest of sharing some information, this will be the first of (hopefully) a long line of semi-technical discussions wrapped around carbon fiber and the processes through which it's manufactured. I'll save the long winded introduction and jump right into the three most popular methods of production, chemical differences, pros/cons of the various methods, etc... and I'll break them down one at a time.

Anyhow, the 3 most popular methods of production are:

  • Lamination
  • Vacuum Infusion
  • Pre-Preg

For this discussion, we'll cover Lamination/Overlay and work on the other methods at another time.

Feel free to chime in with any questions you might have. :)


Lamination, otherwise knows as "carbon fiber overlay", is generally offered in two flavors: temporary double sided tape stick-on or permanent chemical bonding.

Double Sided Tape Stick On is exactly that: it's an outer "shell" of carbon fiber designed to mostly reproduce the part underneath it, stuck to that underlying part with double sided tape so you have the general look of carbon fiber without the high cost of full reproduction or chemical lamination. Generally speaking, this is going to be the easiest to install, since you should be able to simply remove it from the box in which it arrived, clean the stock parts already installed in your car (we recommend alcohol wipes), and simply "peel and stick" the new parts over the old.

In some cases, this can leave you with a not so great fit and finish, since you can clearly see the new parts are simply stuck to the old, but there are a few companies that offer some decent kits, especially for the money. The photo below is a good example of one of the nicer kit's I've seen for the C6, for example. It's especially attractive when you consider you can buy a 15 piece interior kit for under 300 dollars.

Worth mentioning: the low price to buy a kit using this method usually means low cost materials are used. I can't say I've ever seen one of these kits that DIDN'T turn yellow and crack. If you keep a car for a long time, this may not be the best method for you, if long life is important to you.

Pros:
Low Cost
Quick Turnaround
Easy Installation
Not permanent, so you can change it at any time.

Cons:
Low cost materials are used
Short life expectancy
Potential fitment issues




Chemical Lamination: This method is arguably the more desirable of the two, since it leaves you with an OEM part with real carbon fiber chemically and permanently bonded to it. When done correctly, this should leave you with a part that looks like it came from the factory. This method is incredibly labor intensive, since it is completed in stages.

Pros
OEM quality fit and finish
Very high quality OEM appearance
Longest Life Expectancy
High Resale Value relative to original purchase price.
Widest range of available interior parts, especially when perfect fitment is taken into account.

Cons:
Highest Cost
Time to completion can be long, depending on scope of project
Complex installation requirements. (Old parts have to be removed to install)



Stage I: Prep
The OEM part is prepared to accept the carbon fiber. This includes a soap and water rinse to remove oils and cleaning solutions used on the parts, hand or machine sanding of any top coatings to expose the natural substrate, and hand taping any areas in which we don't want resin/epoxy exposure.

Stage II: Wet Work

This is the stage where we lay the groundwork for the actual carbon fiber application. A chemical is measured and mixed with an activator, and then applied to the OEM part in order to act as a "glue" to bond the carbon fiber to it. At this stage, it's vitally important that you not only use the right chemicals for the job, but you also MUST have a properly cleaned and prepped substrate.

Any lingering contaminants, or simply using the wrong chemicals can, and often do, result in delamination, which we obviously don't want. EVERYONE deals with delamination from time to time, but it's our job to figure out how to minimize those occurrences.

Generally speaking, a LOT of companies tend to use Epoxy resins, which are relatively inexpensive and visually very clear, but from an adhesion perspective, we see more delaminations in laminate projects that use Epoxy than any other method. For us, we don't use epoxy for exactly that reason. While I won't be sharing the specific chemical cocktail we use for our lamination methods, I CAN tell you it's two separate chemicals and in three years of business we've only had exactly 3 delaminations. In all three cases, the delamination was a direct result of improper prep and not the chemicals used. (We feel the chemicals we use are a serious competitive advantage, since they simply don't come apart.)

As an aside: two of them were internal test pieces and only ONE made it to a client. (And we warranty all of our products for as long as you own them, so we replaced it no questions asked.)

Stage III: Carbon Application.

This is where we, as carbon fiber technicians, make our money. What you want to buy, and we would like to sell, is a clear, STRAIGHT carbon fiber weave laid down for you to look at and enjoy for years. Unlike some of the other methods of carbon application, this requires that we start with dry/loose fabric and physically handle it as we lay it down on the parts. It takes a seriously delicate and artistic touch to get this part right and I'm sure a BUNCH of you have seen some terribly wavy carbon fiber.

When it's too wavy, it's completely undesirable, in my opinion.

Anyhow, once the "glue" has been laid down, we have a very narrow window with which to work. If we try to put the carbon down too soon, the "glue" will be too soft and the carbon won't adhere properly. If we wait too long, the carbon simply won't stick at all, so you've done nothing but waste your time, since you now have to start over.

That sweet spot is called "B Stage." The perfect conditions of B-Stage is when you can touch the resin/epoxy with your finger (ALWAYS wear gloves) and it's tacky to the touch, but it doesn't come off on your fingers. It's that magic moment that the carbon has it's greatest chances of being stuck permanently.

Once the carbon is applied and we're satisfied with how it looks, we then apply a SECOND coat of the chemical used for adhesion to the top of the carbon, so as to lock it into place.

Until that second coat dries, it's a waiting game but as soon as it's dry, we move to our second chemical and get building. :)

At this point, we start working on a heavy film build in order to leave a nice, thick coat of our clear chemical over top of the carbon. Up to a certain point, the more of that chemical we can leave in place, the more of a deep 3D look you get.

Here's an example of a piece we're doing for a GT-R right now. It's in the early stages of film build.





Stage IV: Finish Sanding

Now that we've built up our clear resin/epoxy film, and it's cured, it's time to sand it back to the original shape of the OEM part.

Ultimately, this phase is the one that drives up the cost of laminate work due to the ungodly volume of labor that can only be done by hand. Sure, some machines can be used from time to time, but this is basically 90% flat block and sheets of sand paper and 10% other stuff. It's this phase that makes or breaks the project, because if we don't shape it properly, the project won't look like it came from the factory. The LAST thing anyone wants is a wavy, lumpy carbon fiber part that cost a bunch of money. :D So, a technician has to use multiple grits of sand paper, flat blocks, and a TON of elbow grease to get us ready for the final phases of project completion.

Stage V: Clear coat and paint edging (also: wet sanding and polishing)

Once the film build of your clear resin/epoxy has been reshaped to reflect the original dimensions, it's time to touch up with paint and protect it all from UV damage. Again, this is an area where you run the risk of a wide variation of product applied. Some of these more bottom line driven companies will use a lower end clear coat, which has a limited lifespan once applied to the parts, whereas a quality clear coat, which is obviously more expensive, will offer a lifetime of protection. (We use PPG DCU 2021, which comes with a lifetime warranty from PPG.)

Moral of the story: If you buy carbon fiber parts, demand they be clear coated.Period.

We've dealt with some of the largest suppliers and chemical manufacturers in the country and the feedback from them is always the same: "even though we advertise the resins and epoxies as having UV resistant additives, they still can't be expected to last for very long in a direct sunlight environment." So, what we've done since day one is shoot EVERYTHING with clear coat.

It's funny, because when I first got into this business, I had the idea that we'd be able to cover every square inch of a part with carbon fiber, without giving consideration to the physical limitations of working with what is essentially a cloth fabric. As we took on increasingly complex projects, we came to find that sometimes a little paint laid out in an elegant scheme leaves you with a greater visual texture and appeal than a giant glob of carbon condensed into a tiny space.

So, what we've been specializing in is creative uses of paint and carbon, mixed to give you a little more than the off-the-shelf variety parts you see, typically from overseas manufacturers. Here's an example of a 5th Gen Camaro engine cover we did for a client a few weeks ago. As you can see, we pulled the color of the car (Inferno Orange Metallic) onto the part and got creative with the carbon fiber application


Paint in progress:







After Paint and Clear Coat:







So, you can see how big a difference this can make. :)

Here are a few other laminate projects we've completed, to give you an idea as to how the finished projects can and should look.







 

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Wow! Thank you for the very clear and detailed explanation along with the great photos. :cool:
 
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Thank you. Very informative!
 
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Thank you very much. Learned a lot -- including not only how skilled you are, but that I will never be attempting to do any carbon fiber work myself.

And look forward to more learnin' later. As they say on YouTube, I am "subscribed."

Thank you!
 
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