Saturday, 4 July 2009

A Crafty Way to Design Waterslide Decals

Creating decals for modelling has never been easier, thanks to the widespread availability in recent years of DIY decal papers that allow you to create, print and apply decals to just about any typical modelling surface. For the purposes of this exercise, I’ll be working on an articulated lorry to be finished in the livery of Geo Adams (Pork Products), partly because the livery is straightforward to apply and the end result looks striking – and secondly because I like pork pies.

The donor vehicle was a Mercedes Actros with a box trailer that I picked up from Contikits at an exhibition, similar to this vehicle shown below. Although 1:87 scale, these Herpa vehicles are very well detailed and look the part on a layout once they’ve been anglicised.

Getting Started

The first step is to dismantle the vehicle – slowly and carefully are the watchwords here, as the detailing parts are rather fragile. Once in bits, time for a respray. I did the whole lot in Halfords grey primer, followed by the cab and trailer body in three thin coats of Halfords white primer. A single coat of Halfords gloss glacier white finishes these areas off. The chassis, cab front valence and wheels on Adams lorries are navy blue, so back to Halfords for an appropriate colour from their car paint range, and I applied three thin coats to the relevant areas. Finally, the cab and trailer bodies were sprayed with Halfords gloss lacquer varnish – this is very shiny, but don’t worry – it’s only there to make application of the transfers a bit easier. It’s not really necessary; on some models I’ve skipped this stage without any problems, provided the base colour is glossy. If you are using a matt surface, then a layer of gloss varnish is definitely recommended otherwise decal application will be a lot more difficult. More of that later. Incidentally, I prefer to use Halfords paints for basic colours simply because they’re a fraction of the price of anything with ‘modelling’ written on the tin, plus they’re widely available and have a lovely smooth finish.

Getting Creative

With the body and chassis component parts all sprayed up, leave them to dry and harden while you get a coffee and settle down at your computer for the design bit. Firstly, the materials; starting with decal paper. There are many, many companies out there selling such products, and I’ve tried dozens of them. Almost all are unsuitable for fine detail modelling, as the ink has a tendency to bleed during printing and looks horrendous when finished. They are invariably sold in packs of ten sheets, which becomes an expensive way of trying something out – spending money unnecessarily makes me weak at the knees and faint. Fortunately, a creative friend put me onto Crafty Computer Papers a few years ago, and I’ve never looked back. They do a wide range of modelling materials – for this project I’m using inkjet waterslide decal paper that you can see here.

The really nice thing about Crafty Computer Papers is that they will sell you their products by the sheet, rather than forcing you to buy a pack of ten. Currently, a sheet of A4 is £1.55, so at that price it’s well worth taking a punt to see if you like it – and you can get an awful lot of decals onto a sheet of A4. Unless I’m working on a very large project, I cut my sheet of A4 into two sheets of A5 as this avoids waste, as well as leaving an extra sheet for future projects. There are two types of this paper available – clear and white. Clear paper is suited to a white or very pale background, whilst white paper can go on a dark background. In this instance, I’m using clear, as the surface of the lorry body is white. This is significant – inkjet printers (apart from some super-duper versions at super-duper prices) cannot print white, therefore, when the printer ‘sees’ white on a design, it is actually leaving the area blank, so that the background colour of the model appears through the gaps.

The design for the actual decals may be created in the desktop publishing programme of your choice. Dimensions for models are crucial, otherwise the decal will be the wrong size – so double check your measurements. I speak from experience, yet still make silly mistakes from time to time. After all that time and effort, it is very frustrating to make an avoidable mistake. Size really does matter, take it from me, my girlfriend knows what’s she talking about (for once). I always work in millimetres for this reason (we’re back on modelling now, I hasten to add). Here is a screen-grab of a sheet of A5 decals I’m working on.

There are two full sets of lorry decals for Adams, plus two sets of transfers for another project I was working on at the time to fill in the sheet – I’m a tight wad, and like to fill the sheet up! Each lorry set comprises the large side panels, rear doors – onto which I included the ‘Long Vehicle’ reflective signs. On a separate sheet I printed the smaller logos for the cab doors, along with many other small signs for different projects – at the time I had several models on the go at once, hence splitting them up over various sheets.

Printing & Varnishing

So, the designs are complete; time for printing. Always handle the paper very carefully and by the edges – avoid getting grease from fingerprints onto the glossy surface, as these will spoil your print. Printer settings vary depending upon what you’re printing, but I generally find that best results are obtained from using an ordinary paper setting that you’d use for a letter, for example. I also thoroughly recommend taking an ordinary sheet of everyday paper first, and print your design onto this. Cut out all the elements and place on your model to check for size and fit. This simple step will save you a lot of heartache (and money – my pulse rate goes through the roof if I waste a sheet. I think I have a problem) - if your measurements are out, trust me!

Once printed, you should now have a sheet of crisp transfers. Some examples are shown here:

These should be left to dry for at least a couple of hours; I prefer to leave them overnight to really let the ink dry thoroughly. The next stage is the trickiest one, and can make or break your decals. The decals need to be sealed in to create the actual transfers themselves, and this is done by spraying the sheet with an acrylic clear spray varnish – also available from Crafty in a 400 mm can for £8.99. The tricky part is that the coat of varnish needs to be thin, in order to create a smooth transfer with an almost invisible trace of carrier film – but if there isn’t enough varnish on the transfer, then the ink will lift in the water. My preferred technique is to spray a thin coat, then leave for 15 minutes – and repeat this procedure two or three times. Once complete, it must left for a couple of hours, but I prefer to leave them overnight again, just to make sure. This is one of those occasions when practise is the only way to learn and develop a technique. Once again, my girlfriend will vouch for this. Maybe.

Application to Model

If all goes well, you now have a complete set of decals on your sheet. Time now for some preparation before applying the decals to the model. You need to have ready on your workbench the following:

The relevant parts of the model
Scalpel with a fresh, sharp blade and scissors for small decals
Tweezers (borrow from ‘er indoors and don’t forget to put them back)
Paper tissue
Decal applicator and decal setter (optional)
Soft paintbrush
Small flat bladed screwdriver (trust me on this one)
A small bowl of shallow, luke warm water
A sewing pin
A mug of coffee (optional but recommended)

Cut the decals from the sheet and line up on the workbench. I recommend cutting around the decal as closely as possible to the design, to avoid unsightly carrier film being visible. They should be carefully cut out with a sharp scalpel blade (health and safety warning: do not stab yourself with the scalpel, because the blood will ruin your decals.) However, in the case of the ‘Pork Pioneers’ text and the Adams logo on this particular model, I cut out a neat rectangle the height of the body, and placed the whole transfer onto the trailer. Provided that the varnish has been applied evenly and sparingly, the carrier film will all but disappear once in situ. Take the first decal and place in the water – around 30 seconds will do. While the decal is floating, paint some decal applicator onto the surface of the model. (This step is optional. Decal applicator and decal setter help to soften the decal and ensure that they adhere to the model). I got my decal applicator and setter from Shawplan a couple of years ago, but I’m not sure if they are still doing them. I was planning to stock up before Graham retired (sadly missed on the circuit) but I understood that there were supply issues and he would not be getting any more in. I am not sure if the current owners of the business are planning to stock it in the future).

Take the screwdriver, and use it to scoop up the smaller decals from below. Go slowly and gently, or the screwdriver will simply chase the decal around the bowl, rather like the end of a Benny Hill show. This is entertaining once; after that it gets a little tedious. Large decals may be picked up by hand, carefully, and handling only by the edges. Ensure that the backing paper does not float off during this process! You can get away with a small decal, such as a cab logo, coming off, as you can retrieve the decal with the screwdriver blade. A large decal, however, will curl up and become unusable. Carry the decal over to the model, and then gently slide the transfer off the backing paper and onto the model. The decal applicator will help you to slide the transfer into position – small transfers can be notoriously difficult to position and square up, so use the pin for some fine control, while gently dabbing with the tissue paper to absorb the water that has been carried onto the model. With a large bodyside decal, such as the trailer, it is better to start in the centre, and push the water and trapped air bubbles out. Work slowly and gently at all times – the transfer is very delicate at this stage and could easily break. Once you are happy with the positioning of the decal, move onto the next one, and keep going slowly and carefully until the model is complete. Even on a simple project like this one I reckon it takes about an hour to get all the decals in place, but I must stress that ‘slowly but surely’ is the way to go for optimum results.

The finished components may be placed to one side to dry thoroughly and allow the decals to take to the model. Usually, I will leave the parts overnight again, just to make sure. I would then recommend sealing in the decals with a topcoat of varnish as this is essential if the item – say a piece of rolling stock – is going to be handled frequently. The varnish can be another coat of Halfords gloss lacquer, which provides an excellent sealant. Once this is dry, a final coat of varnish may be applied – this can be gloss, satin or matt depending upon the finish required. In the case of the Adams lorry, I applied two coats of satin varnish and skipped the lacquer stage, as this is a display model and not likely to be handled frequently.

Finishing Off

The final step is, of course, reassembly. During this process, the cab interior may be detailed and converted to UK right-hand drive if not supplied as such (and very few models are). This, however, is part of a vehicle detailing article that I will be tackling in the future.

So here, as they say, is one I prepared earlier - a completed Geo. Adams Pork Products lorry – all that is left is to bring on the pies!


  1. Very interesting article...I knew making your own decals was possible, but shied away from the inevitable costly waste during the learning curve. Thanks for the post. Also the tip about where to get hold of the truck models.

  2. Great, glad it's been useful, thanks. I forgot to say that Ebay is also a good source for vehicles - I like to get them from Contikits as they have an interesting range of long discontinued stock (they bought complete ranges from retailers who went bust). Also, they are very pleasant people to deal with. Most of their show and swapmeet appearances are in the NE and Yorkshire.


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