Sunday, July 1, 2012

Painting Miniatures Declassified - Decals

Welcome back!  This installment is all about applying decals to your models.  This installment also has a video you can here ==> (DECALS VIDEO).

But let me get into a little more detail on the process in this post.  The first you need several items to do this.

- A set of Decals
- A gloss varnished model
- A dish of water
- Fine cut scissors/sharp hobby knife
- Detail Paint brush (maybe 2)
- Gloss varnish
- Decal Set Solution
- Patience (lots of patience)

You can get a set of decals in several ways.  First is you can use the ones that come with the model kit.  Battlefront's decals are very nice and seperate cleanly. Secondly, you could buy a set of decals from a third party (Dom's Decals, Plastic Soldier Company, Model Dads, I94) are all great and offer some great variants that can make your model stand out. If you want to REALLY make your model unique, you could make your own decals.  This third option is a little more complicated than the "normal" decals, but you can make the decals exactly how you want and not be limited to the "standard" sets.

To make your own decals you need 3 things.  First you need an idea of what you want to print ;-)... Ok, ok, ok...You need a Printer, decal paper that you printer supports and finally Decal Bonder. I have an inkjet printer and use Testors Inkjet Printer Compatible Decal Paper.  Most home computers and printers do not print in white, so decal paper comes in 2 types for us common folk...either clear or white.  This is very important and your first decision is made here.  If you dont need any white in your decal use the clear paper.  The clear allows you to have a little clear"edge" around your design like a storebought decal and are much easier to cutout as a result.  If you need to have white in your decal thing gets a little more complicated.  You could use clear paper, but you need to make sure your design is set to print as "clear" and you paint a white patch on the model where you will apply the decal.  This can be complicated as you have to make sure the white paint is covered by the colored portions of the decals.  This area needs to gloss varnished as well before you apply the decal (more on that in a bit).  A lot of the decals you will make will need to use white though and here you need to use the white decal paper.  This gives you another decision you need to make as you design your decal.  Do you want to leave a little color border around the white or do you want to outline the white in black and cut the decal right to the white edge. 

Both have their own issues... cutting close to the white is easy on simple designs (i.e. German Balken Kreuezs) but is nigh impossible (or time efficient) on complex designs like lettering (vehicle names or registration numbers) or US Stars in a circle.  The trick here is making sure the background/edge color around the white in your design matches the color where it will be placed on the model.  Trial and error here and best to use normal paper until you get that color match.  You need to get as close as possible to the shade, but you can touch up paint around it to better blend it in.  Also, when you print, use the highest qaulity print setting on your printer and the software you are using.  Otherwise you will get the "jaggies" where the edges aren't smooth around the lettering or borders.

So...your design is made and all your colors match.  Now you just print your design on the  paper... ensuring you print on the correct side of the decal paper (follow printer and paper guidelines).  Next step is to let the decal dry COMPLETELY.  The paper is a little shiny and,  especially on an inkjet printer, the ink will smear if not allowed to dry completely.  I try to let them dry over night before I go to the next step, so 5-6 hours at least.  Once the printing is dry, you spray on the Decal Bonder over the printed sheet.  This provides the clear "plastic" top layer of the decal. The ink we printed earlier binds to this layer and stays with it when it seperates from the paper backing.  The trick here is to spray "JUST enough" and not "TOO much".  If you dont spray enough, the ink could run or the decal could tear easier.  If you spray too much, the decal is thicker and wont fit into detailed areas very easily.  Now, let the sprayed decal sheet dry thoroughly.  I usually let it sit over night (say 5-6 hours).  One trick I do when I make my decals is to print in the morning; let it dry; spray it with the sealent after dinner; let it dry overnight; and then apply the decals the next morning.  You can also make them in advance.  The key here is to not let the printed sit around too long with sealent being applied.  Until the sealent is applied, the decal could be smeared.  Once the sealent is applied and dried, you now have several months you can store the decal before use.  haven,t gone beyond 6 months with a homemade decal being stored at room temperature after being sprayed with sealent so the ultimate length of time is unknown.  I have been able to use Battlefront Decals that were sitting at room temperature/humidity for almost 2 years with no ill effects.  I just had to soak them a little longer in water for the paper to seperate. 

So, now you have your decal sheet in hand.  The process from here on out is the same whether the decal is from Battlefront, 3rd party or homemade (although homemade does have one extra step).  Now you want to make sure the model is gloss a minimum the area where the decal will go should be gloss varnished.  Decals adhere best to a smooth surface and gloss varnish provides a very smooth surface for which the decal can adhere. Let the gloss varnish dry completely before applying any decals! 

Now you get to apply skills you learned in Kindergarten or Pre-school.  You get to use scissors (No running now!)!  I recommend some really sharp scissors that can be manuvered easily.  Scrapbooking scissors work like a charm here.  Hobby Knifes/Exacto Knifes can be used too, but you can leave "pressure" marks on the decal where you place the knife down to start a cut.  When you cut the decal out you want to leave an "edge" around the decal.  On "Professional" decals, you can see the actual edge of the decal.  For these your want to leave a paper edge around the actual decal.  For homemade decals on clear paper, your edge is a little sliver of "clear" around the actual design.  For homemade decals on white paper, your edge is typically the color background you used that matches the color of the model.  If you used a black outline as an edge and dont want the black to show, you need to cut carefully to the inside edge ofthe black...which can be VERY tricky.  I tend to only cut the decals I need for a specific model at one time and once those decals are applied I move to cutting out/applying decals to the next model. It is easier to organize the decals while they are on the sheet as opposed to wrangling down a bunch of loose decals....some of which can be small.  Nothing worse than cutting everything out and have to stop mid-process and run the risk of those decals getting blown/moved around and all jumbled up....or even lost!  If they stay on the sheet till you need them this doesn't happen.

Next...get you a little dish and put some water inside.  I find a saucer works very well.  The sides angle to the top and this helps me move the decal around easier.  The water used is nothing fancy.  I use filtered tap water...some will recommend distilled water.  All depends on where you live as to what you can get away with...the fewer impurities in the water the better.  Place the decals you cut out into the water.  I like to place them face up...helps me see the next step better.  You leave the decal in the water until it slides off the paper backing EASILY.  If you rush the process you could tear the decal.  Some decals need longer in the water than others.  I find it best to use a size "0"  paintbrush with 1/2 inch long bristles.  This allows you to under big decals and keep them from curling as well as lifting up the little decals.  For very small decal decals a smaller detail brush is better.  The key is to have the entire width of the decal fit on the brush...not just a corner.  Use the bristles to slide the decal off the paper. The bristle are soft enough so cant apply too much pressure and tear the decal.  Just don't press so hard where the ferrel (the metal part on the brush holding the bristles) hits the will tear the decal this way.  
While the decal soaks, you have a couple of minutes to prep the surface.  Remember...we shouldn't even be at this step if the surface doesn't have a gloss surface.  To prepare the surface for the decal, take a little of the Decal Set Solution and apply a light coat where the decal will go.  This gives you a liquid base to place the decal and will allow it to slide around into place.  Nothing worse than putting the decal down and you can't slide it into place.  If thi does happen though, apply a little more Decal Set,especially around the edges of the decal...this should be enough to get it floating.  Sometimes water is enough to do this as well.  The setting solution also helps the decal "melt" into any detail on the model.  Again, practice makes perfect in knowing when you have enough decal set down as a base.

Once you have the decal set down, it is time to get the decal and place it into place on the model.  A great tool for this is the trusty "10/0" or GW "Detail"  paintbrush.  Give the brush a good point and start to slide the decal from its paper backing.  If it slides onto the bottom of the dish just try to lift a corner and get it to float.  Now, it is just a matter of lifting the decal from the water and placing it on the model.  You want it to be a little wet still, but again...not TOO wet.  Dab any excess water off with a paper towel.  If it rolls or curls or gets out of shape, just place it back into the water and gently work it back into shape.  As I said you need patience for this.  Once you get it on your brush, slide the decal into position on the model.  As you position it, make sure you get rid of any airbubbles.  Once it is in place, you can GENTLY dab any excess water away with another brush, paper towel, cotton cloth, etc...  Once that decal is in place, repeat the process with the next decal.

Once you have the decals in place you are ready to "work" the decal into the detail of the model.  German tanks with Zimmerit are the worst case, but you can still apply decals there.  Take some more decal set and apply it to the top of the decal.  GENTLY use the tip of a soft paintbrush and dab the decal into the detail.  How thick the decal is determines how long it will take to work the decal into the detail....also how much decal set you will need.  Somethimes you might need a second coat of Decal Set (or third)  Here is where not putting TOO much Decal Bonder on your homemade decals is important.  Care really needs to be taken here as if there is any point where you will rip a decal...this is it.  Between the decal set softening the decal to the paintbrush dab (stabbing) the decal...the rip-o-meter has moved into the red zone for sure.  Sometimes, I will put a drop of decal set on top of the decal and let it sit for a few seconds then work it in.  This is one of those techniques that require a lot of practice to master.

Once the decal is worked into place and dry (allow a few hours at least). It is time to seal it with gloss varnish.  Put a coat of gloss varnish over the top of the decal and over the edges.  This SHOULD prevent any air getting under the edge and cause the decal to lift off the model and cauese it to have a silver background.  All the steps we took to this point are our best attempts to minimize this silvering. 

The decals should be firmly set and worked into any detail at this point..."but SonBae they're glossy!"  No worries.  Just hit them one time with some Flat Matte and you are good to go...the shine will be gone.  And if you hit them with a Flat Matte finish now, you are in a perfect position to have you first requirement to apply pigments!

That's all there is to it. Hope this helps and as allways, let me know if you do something a little different...I am always looking to expand my skill set.

Happy Painting!....or should I say Happy Decaling!


  1. Very thorough and well explained tutorial. I think I learned a new trick or two from this one. I will say that I had a couple of issues with the BF supplied decals, with 5 balkenkreuzs disintegrating/ripping in the last panzer box set. In addition to this the remaining balkenkreuzs were offline and I had to paint to correct them. That being said they were from an old box so processes and time would have been a major factor. Not to highjack this topic or anything, but have you ever used Micro Sol/dedicated decal softener? I know that decal set does soften the decal, however I have found that Micro Sol was perfect for getting a decal to conform to zimmerit. Give it a trial next time you need get apply a decal to an irregular surface. Once again, great tutorial. Cheers

  2. I had not much idea about decals painting process technically speaking like what variations we can use for painting different kinds of decals. What i knew that decals are being printed by the machines.