How To Carbon Fiber

How to: Carbon Fiber, the ultimate guide for learning how to use carbon fiber.

Carbon Fiber Spoiler
Carbon Fiber Spoiler. Todd Johnson

If using carbon fiber composites were easy, everything would incorporate it. The fact of the matter is, using carbon fiber takes as much science and mechanical skill as it does art and finesse.

How to Carbon Fiber: The Basics

Whether you are working on a hobby project, or trying to trick out your car, first figure out why you want to use carbon fiber. You can save a great deal of money and time if you first figure out why you want carbon fiber.

Being around composites, one sees all the various reasons why people decide to use carbon fiber, these include:

  • Carbon fiber looks cool
  • It is extremely lightweight
  • Carbon fiber is incredibly strong
  • Carbon fiber is the new black
  • It is a nice conversation piece
  • It is stylish and hip
  • Carbon fiber has excellent mechanical properties

If one can figure why they really want to use carbon fiber, then the how to use carbon fiber will come naturally. For example, if all that is really desired is a surface finish of a carbon fiber weave, then save yourself the trouble and simply apply a carbon fiber vinyl adhesive film.

How to Carbon Fiber: CF Vinyl Film

The giant company 3M makes an excellent vinyl film that comes in rolls or sheets. It has the look and texture of actual carbon fiber. However, the adhesive backed film is as easy to apply as a sticker. Simply cut it to size, peal, and stick.

There are numerous distributors who sell this film, and it is dramatically inexpensive in comparison to actual carbon fiber.

The carbon fiber film has great UV resistance and does provide some impact resistance. This product has been used on everything from cell phones to sports cars.

However, it may look like carbon fiber, and everyone might think it is actual graphite composites, but, you will still know the truth that it is not.

How to Carbon Fiber: Laminating

If you are a bit more ambitious, and perhaps you have some experience laminating fiberglass, why not learn how to laminate carbon fiber. First, again ask yourself what the purpose the carbon fiber is going to serve. If it is purely for aesthetics, then a single layer of an inexpensive carbon fiber would probably do the trick. This could cover a thicker laminate of fiberglass. However, if it is for a structural component, perhaps you should first put some engineering effort into it.

If you are building a snowboard in your garage, or designing an aircraft part using carbon fiber, doing some engineering work upfront can prevent manufacturing a part that will fail, and also prevent you from using unnecessary expensive material.

There are numerous composite material software programs can be used, many of which are free. Personally, I use Vectorlam by Vectroply. Their might be a better or easier program out there, but this is currently the best free program out there that I am aware of.

The program knows the properties of the carbon fiber and applies this to the laminate being designed. Obviously if you are designing a component that a failure might put someone in danger, then an expert engineer should be consulted.

Learning how to laminate carbon fiber is no different then fiberglass or other reinforcements. If it is your first attempt, it is worth while to practice with fiberglass, as it is a fraction of the cost.

Pick your resin carefully as well. If it is an aesthetic part free of gel coat, use a high-quality polyester or epoxy resin. Most epoxies and polyester resins will have a yellowish or brownish tint. A clear resin will be your best choice, and any resin used in surfboard manufacturing is usually water clear.

Finally, you are prepared to laminate your carbon fiber composite. Follow the guide to how to laminate composites, and you should be set.