How to Store and Use Decals to Create Models Above Your Skill Level
Painting models, for everyone, is a skill that can be learned to a high degree of proficiency through informed practice and steady perseverance, even if mastery ever proves elusive. For every painter there are, however, essential icons, sigils, flag motifs, and other markings that are necessary to finish or improve a model but are too numerous, laborious, time-consuming, or just too difficult to create for yourself. Decals are the answer. Let’s have a look at decals and what they can do for you, and what you can do for them to get the most out of them.
A decal is simply an image printed on thin transparent paper that can be easily cut out and transferred to any smooth surface. The decals available are limited only by what a graphic artist can create and then print on a color laser printer. In other words, the range is infinite. All model kits come with matching decals these days and there are thousands of aftermarket options available. If done correctly these decals will look like the artist painted directly onto your models.
There are two types of decals: sticky and waterslide. The sticky ones go on just like a sticker, adhesive side down, but with a paper backing as well. You then soak the decal to get the backing layer off and you’re left with the image stuck to your model. This kind demands that you put the decal exactly where it is needed the first time around. Once it’s stuck it’s not coming off without damaging it. The difficulty of accurately placing the decal is compounded by the opaque backing paper on so you can’t really see through the decal to place it as you can with waterslide decals. Also, you can’t soften the decal to allow it to conform to small details or complex curves because it’s stuck firmly in place right away.
I always avoid sticky decals unless the art is not available as waterslide decals, like the ones below. The two on the left come with the Avro Arrow and Battlestar Galactica Viper Mk.II model kits. The one on the right is aftermarket from Battle Flag for the Fireforge Crusader Knights kits.
Waterslide decals are soaked in water until the image lifts off and can be ‘floated’ onto the desired surface and adjusted before dabbing all the moisture away to lock it down. These are easy to place accurately because you can see through them and are the most common. Here’s how to get the most out of both waterslide and sticky decals.
You need a few simple tools and products. I made the tool organizer pictured below specifically to keep decal tools and products where I can find them and comes after 40 years or more of making models. I keep everything I’ll ever need in one dedicated tray. You don’t need all this stuff or the same brand of stuff I’ve got but here are the key takeaways:
- Your work area needs to be clean. Decals really don’t like any of the products left over from model assembly (i.e. plastic dust, glue, and other bits of stuff). Don’t do your decals where you built the model unless you’ve cleaned up really well first.
- You need to be organized. Once you wet a decal and start moving it – especially after you add setting solution to soften the decal – you’d better have all the tools you need right there. They are fragile and you don’t have time to grope around looking for things like toothpicks, Q-Tips, and brushes once you start the process.
- Get a good pair of tweezers. I invested in Tamiya Decal Tweezers and highly recommend them but any flat, wide, and unserrated head will do. You should be able to just slide decals into place but sometimes you’ll need to pick them up to place them or rescue them if it’s all gone wrong. Good tweezers will allow you to do this without wrecking the decal in the process.
You need a safe and long-term method of storing decals. Anything that would compromise the finish or value of a postage stamp or coin will also degrade your decal. Fingerprints, heat and humidity, splashes of liquid, warping from uneven pressure, and direct light will take their toll. You need a storage solution that allows you to page through your ever-growing collection and left overs from previous projects without touching the decals themselves. Also, the decals need to be firmly held in place with even pressure by non-tarnishing and non-porous material. Where can we find this miraculous method of storage?
The humble stock book has long been used by stamp collectors to keep their collections in pristine condition and are the perfect solution for decals. They are inexpensive, keep sheets securely in place with even pressure, and are made of chemical and moisture free plastics that won’t react with either paper, glue, or ink. You can page through them at will without touching any of the contents.
You need an appropriate background colour for decal placement. The transparent parts of a decal will show the colour behind it and the inked parts will allow a hint of the underlying colour through. A bright red decal over a dark grey or brown will turn into a muddy, dull red. Likewise for other colours like yellow and blue. So, unless it doesn’t matter if a colour is dulled down – like dirty uniform insignia or numbers on a weather-beaten WWII tank – the background colour should be white or a light colour to make the decal colours pop.
The decal needs to be trimmed so you get all of the decal but as little surrounding material as possible. A few decals come already scored so the useful part of the decal separates from the surrounding material when you float it off. Others need to be cut out. The fastest and neatest way is to use a new number 11 blade in an Exacto style knife (like the one you keep just for this purpose in your decal tool tray). Often you can use a straight edge ruler and curved shapes to help so you’re not doing it all freehand. The picture shows a sheet with select shields cut out of it using a straight edge for a lot of the work.
Cutting on a really rigid surface is also useful. A piece of glass or flat ceramic tile work best but a stiff cutting board will also do the trick. Remember, you’re just trying to cut through the material around the edge of the decal. You don’t need to cut through the paper backing as well unless you’re pulling out decal from the middle of a sheet. I find the less pressure applied and hard cutting you do to the decal the better it will hold together when you start moving it around.
You need a perfectly smooth surface on which to apply the decal. Decals can be made to conform to bends on your model – such as a shield or edge of an airplane wing – and can even be made to fill in panel lines on cars and airplanes. It is key that the paint you’re applying the decal over is either glossy and smooth itself or has a gloss coat covering. Decals cannot fill in the hundreds of tiny air gaps in the surface of a matte finish paint. Those hundreds of tiny air bubbles will get trapped and create a ‘silvering’ or dull appearance under the whole decal – especially under the transparent bits – leaving an easily visible silver or grey appearance that looks really out-of-place.
The one stop shop for decal surface prep and finish is a light brush or airbrush coat of Future Floor Polish – or any other gloss varnish – where the decals are to go. Decals lay down beautifully on a well cured coat of Future gloss coat. You can then use another light coat of Future or gloss over the top to seal it all in. You can now go to town weathering and beating up your model. Your decals will remain in place and intact. Especially useful for wargame models that’ll get rough handling and get layered over with rust, soot, and dirt effects. Your final coat of satin or matte varnish will give the whole surface an even sheen and blend everything together so you’ll never know your decals weren’t painted on.
Sometimes, you’ll need to get the decal to ‘relax’ to conform to the shape underneath before the final gloss coat. There are a lot of decal softening and setting solutions available to make decals conform to panel lines and other indentations. Every line of model paints by all the big companies include these products. I’ve been using this set of Microset, Microsol, and Decal Film by Microscale for years and never had a problem. The stuff works with every decal, paint, and gloss and matte coat I’ve ever tried without wrecking the art, or the paint underneath or on top of it. After wetting the decal you use a brush with Microset to float the decal onto the target area. Adjust and dab away the moisture then put a coat of Microsol on top with another brush.
A couple of minutes later you can gently use the same brush or a Q-Tip to remove the excess. The decal will wrinkle slightly and then relax into every panel line and small indentation. It’ll then pull tight and you’ll swear it’s painted on. Let it dry and use a Q-Tip to gently wash the area with water, dry, and put on your top coat. Done!
Once you get good at applying decals you can make your own, the sky’s the limit. With easily available and simple to use graphics editors, and the entire internet to draw on for images, you can create just about anything. Below is a picture of laser printer decal paper and the final results. In this case I used the decals on blank dice and tokens to make my own die and fatigue tokens for my Saga Crusader faction. I was gifted Saracen dice before I got a chance to use the decals I made but you can see how easy it is to DIY your own dice, shields, and anything else you can imagine.
If you’re looking for a decal tutorial by an engineer who scratch builds everything himself you should check out Paul Budzik’s video here. Good site if you take your model making really, really seriously.
Here’s three of my favourite decal stores if you want to get an idea of the diversity of what’s out there.
Battleflag Wargames Transfers (waterslide) offers a wide range of decals and flags for everything from The Crusades to Ancient Japan to the American Civil War. In particular, they offer a wide variety of custom made sets that fit all the Fireforge Crusader era kits.
Jbot Decals (waterslide), based in London, Ontario, Canada has a now extensive range of decals for every type of aircraft, sci-fi vehicle, racecar, ships and submarines, military equipment, emergency vehicles, and trucks and busses. Most of these decals are available in a variety of scales. For example, they make seven sizes of decals to do the Millenium Falcon in every scale from 1/144 to the 60 inch long 1/18 version.
Little Big Men Studios (sticky transfers) have a complete collection of decals in multiple scales for every major manufacturer of wargames figures. If you simply must have every shield in your entire army be unique this is the place for you. If only they were waterslide… be warned, the price of variety and stuff you can’t get elsewhere is dealing with their adhesive decals. Apart from that, great fast service, beautiful colours and art, and reasonable prices and postage.
Happy modelling! Feel free to leave comments or questions below.