How To Use Carbon Fiber

Carbon Fiber Spoiler
Carbon Fiber Spoiler. Todd Johnson

If using carbon-fiber composites were easy, everything would incorporate it. Using carbon fiber takes as much science and mechanical skill as it does art and finesse.

The Basics

Whether you are working on a hobby project or trying to trick out your car, first think carefully about why you want to use carbon fiber. Although the composite is versatile, it can be expensive to work with and may not be the right material for the job.

Benefits of carbon fiber include:

  • It is extremely lightweight.
  • It is incredibly strong.
  • It has excellent mechanical properties.

However, it's also trendy, which means people may use it for the sake of using it. For example, if all you really want is a surface finish of a carbon-fiber weave, then save yourself the trouble and simply apply a carbon-fiber vinyl adhesive film. Plus, it's quite expensive compared to similar composites.

Carbon Fiber Vinyl Film

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, peel and stick.

Many distributors sell this film, which is dramatically inexpensive compared to actual carbon fiber. The carbon-fiber film has great UV resistance and does provide some impact resistance. This product has been used on products including cell phones and sports cars.

Laminating

If you have some experience laminating fiberglass, 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 layer could cover a thicker laminate of fiberglass.

However, if you're planning (for example) a structural component, then a more robust use of carbon fiber may be warranted.

If you are building a snowboard in your garage or designing an aircraft part using carbon fiber, doing some engineering planning before you begin can help you avoid manufacturing a part that will fail, and also prevent you from wasting expensive material. Use a composite material software program, many of which are free. The program knows the properties of the carbon fiber and applies this data to the laminate being designed.

Consult with a professional engineer when you're designing a critical part, the failure of which could cause harm to others.

Laminating carbon fiber is no different than fiberglass or other reinforcements. Practice with fiberglass, which is a fraction of the cost.

Pick your resin carefully. If it is a part intended for its appearance and 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 -- any resin used in surfboard manufacturing is usually water clear.

You're now prepared to laminate your carbon fiber composite.