The many benefits of genuine carbon fiber greatly enticed vehicle enthusiasts. It featured in performance vehicles because of its lightweight. This gave it the automatic ‘performance’ tag that made it irresistible. It was also a beauty because of the woven pattern of the carbon fiber. But there was one constrain. It was expensive. About 10 years ago, a pound of carbon fiber was $150.
The price made innovativeness a necessity. Car enthusiasts and other people who were fascinated by carbon fiber came up with ways to imitate real carbon fiber. Thus, replicas and imitations came to be. While some replication processes yield replicas that greatly resemble genuine carbon, nothing can match the appearance of real carbon fiber, including, the 3D effect of the twill weave. Nonetheless, both types are bound to give your car an aesthetic boost.
Our online accessories store caters to everyone’s needs. Whether you want genuine carbon fiber or its replica. We sell both. But as you can and will see, we point out which is which. We brand the real carbon fiber as ‘genuine/real carbon fiber’ and the replicas as ‘carbon fiber style or carbon fiber effect.’
In this article, we delve deeper and inform you of the differences between the real carbon fiber and the imitations. We also describe the process of making each of them. Our goal is to ensure that you stay informed so that you know what to check for when buying. We also hope that with this information, you’ll not fall for cons, coz there are many of them out there.
Genuine or Real Carbon Fiber
Real carbon fiber isn’t naturally occurring. It is a synthetic material made from organic polymers. It’s manufactured using two distinct methods, the traditional layup technique and forging. These methods result in the two main types of genuine carbon fiber available in the market.
Traditional Layup Method:
The beauty of the carbon fiber materials emanates from their woven patterns. These patterns are accentuated by the traditional layup method of manufacturing. The manufacturing process starts with weaving tows in a process that results in carbon fiber fabrics. You should note that a single tow consists of thousands of carbon fiber filaments or strands, which subsequently dictate how the resultant material will be called.
For instance, the highest quality carbon fiber we have on our online store is the 3k Japan Toray carbon fiber. The term 3k implies that the material’s fabric was made using tows that contained 3000 carbon fiber strands. There are other categories of tows, including 6k, 12k, and 15k.
Carbon fiber materials derive their strength from the fact that the filaments are combined together in tiny spaces and then woven. As such, the more the strands, the higher the strength. The tows are woven into fabrics which have distinct patterns. The most common weave patterns are plain, twill, and harness satin weaves with the other less conventional designs being spread tow, fish weave, and custom weaves, among others.
1. Plain weave: It resembles a chessboard.
2. Twill weave: It’s the most common and features a diagonal pattern.
3. Harness satin weave
The preferred fabric, based on the desired pattern, is then impregnated with resins forming what we refer to as carbon fiber prepregs. This initial use of resins gives a protective covering to the woven carbon fiber. However, the resin is usually unevenly distributed at this stage.
The next step in the traditional layup manufacturing process is the formation of molds. The use of molds makes this method the simpler of the two real carbon fiber manufacturing methods. This implies that you can use it to create a carbon fiber component at home.
The mold should be created such that it’s in the shape of what you want to make. For instance, if you want a side mirror cover, have a mold is in your side mirror’s exact shape and size. Accuracy is important. Once you’re satisfied with how the mold looks, you’ll then lay the prepreg into the mold and remove all the air, creating a vacuum. Thereafter you’ll channel resin into the mold, ensuring that it’s evenly distributed throughout the mold.
The traditional layup process is manual and results in long-lasting and robust parts. It’s also the most popular method given that a majority of the carbon fiber products available in the market feature the patterns discussed above.Forging Method:
This is a more technical method but is somewhat similar to the traditional layup technique because it still uses molds. It involves using a machine to force a paste mixture of epoxy resin and cut carbon fibers through a small opening.
The forging method is advantageous because it results in the creation of more complex products that wouldn’t have been made using the traditional way. It’s also environmentally friendly since it uses recycled carbon fiber fabrics.
The only downside is the fact that forged carbon fiber materials are weaker compared to those created using the first technique. As such, it’s not advisable to use forged carbon fiber in instances where maximum strength is a requirement.
In both the traditional and forging methods, the mold is then heated for several hours at temperatures between 250 and 350 °F (121 and 177 °C) and allowed to cool to enable the resin to cure. However, the temperature at cooling shouldn’t be allowed to drop below 60°F (16°C) since the resin won’t cure properly.
It’s vital to point out that the amount of resin used impacts the appearance of the carbon fiber materials, regardless of the manufacturing process used. It gives the carbon fiber a glossy finish; the more the resin, the glossier the appearance. As such, even after curing, you should spray several additional layers of resin and then sand the topmost layer. The last step is wiping the surface using polish.
Imitation Carbon Fiber
You can imitate carbon fiber in two main ways, namely using a sticker and hydro dipping. The stickers are available on Amazon and AliExpress, but they do a shoddy job at attempting to replicate real carbon fiber as this Youtuber established. This makes hydro dipping the more preferred option. But how do you hydro dip?
The process starts with buying a carbon fiber hydrographic film from online stores such as liquid concepts and water transfer printing. These stores offer many patterns from which you can choose. Once the film, which comes in a roll, has been delivered, follow the following steps:
1. Cut the film to correspond with the size of the part you want to coat. You should stick a 3M tape to both edges of the film, to ensure that you cut along a straight line. The tape also holds everything together and will prevent the formation of creases which trap air making the dipping process more difficult.
2. Carefully lay the film on the water. Lay it such that the sticky side is facing downwards.
3. Remove air bubbles wherever possible by either blowing by mouth or using an air compressor. You should, however, be careful with the latter.
4. Enclose the floating film using spacers. The spacers keep the film from moving as you dip your product.
5. Wait for 60 seconds and then spray the film using a hydrographic activator. You should spread the activator evenly on the surface of the film, ensuring that it covers the entire surface. The activator promotes adhesion of the film to the component.
6. You should position the component at an angle and dip it slowly downwards. You should take care to ensure that you minimize instances whereby some sections of the product trap air. The trapped air will prevent adhesion.
7. Once it’s completely submerged, swirl it in the water for a few seconds and then retrieve it by pulling upwards.
8. Once the product dries up, top the coat with a shiny lacquer spray.
The photos above are courtesy of Liquid Concepts on YouTube, and you can use the link to follow the process more keenly.
To make the imitations more realistic, you could spray the coated product with a layer of thick resin. This makes it shinier and, therefore, mimics real carbon fiber.
When the imitation process is done well, it’s hard for an untrained eye to distinguish, at a glance, replicas from real carbon fiber. However, on closer inspection, you’ll notice that genuine carbon fiber has a 3D effect of the twill weave. The difference as seen in figure 10 is loud.