Wonderfest 2002 "How-To Demos"

Making Your Own Decals

A Supplement to the Wonderfest Decal Making Demo

By Jay Chladek

Email: JMChladek@aol.com


June 9, 2002

When it comes to detailing models, probably the one thing that is the most sought after is the ability to make custom decals. Plenty of companies offer aftermarket decal sheets for military subjects, but several different sheets might be needed to acquire a certain set of markings that a modeler desires, and that’s assuming that such markings even exist in the first place. There are several techniques that a modeler can use to make custom decals and not all of them involve a computer, even though a PC or MAC with the correct software can be a very versatile tool.


Selection of Materials

Of course, the first thing a modeler needs is blank decal paper. Several companies offer decal paper sheets and the prices range from a few cents a sheet to a few dollars. Companies that sell clear and/or colored decal paper include Micromark, Detail Master, SIG Aircraft, Superscale and Microscale as well as numerous others. Many of the companies offer their sheets pre-cut into standard letter sized paper to allow for easier use in copiers and computer printers, while other companies offer either smaller sheets or, in the case of SIG, very large sheets that can be cut down into multiple sheets. Unlike pre-printed decals, a sheet of decal paper has a clear top coat on it, so it is essentially one giant clear decal in which the images are printed on. Pre-printed decals typically have a spot coat of clear over each image to allow the images to separate from each other when soaked without the need for excess trimming of clear film.


The other necessary item is a form of clear sealer to seal in the inks onto the decal sheet after painting or printing. Microscale and Superscale offer clear liquid decal film in small bottles, which can be brushed on. Gloss Lacquer clear coats can also be used, such as Model Master clear gloss spray. Micromark also offers a clear spray for their inkjet decal printing system (discussed below).


Low Tech Decal Making (painting on markings)

Of course, the easiest solution that anyone can do is to paint on a design, using enamel paints. Once the paint is dry, the design needs to be sealed in with the clear coat, then it’s a matter of applying the marking like a normal decal. The drawback is that unless some sort of stencil is used, multiple markings probably won’t be consistent with each other. But, this method can be used to perhaps make a complex design, yet provide the safety of not having to commit it to the model until the image looks good.


Printing with a Photocopier

Most photocopy shops in the country have copiers that are capable of printing on to plain paper. Decal paper will potentially work in them, although it is a little thicker. The first thing to keep in mind is that unless you have access to a plain paper photocopier yourself, you are at the mercy of the owners and managers of that copier and some of them may not want you to print decals on their system. Also, make sure to be aware of and respect copyright laws. In addition, Sci-Fi U, Wonderfest and myself are personally NOT RESPONSIBLE for any damage done to copy equipment when used for making decals. This supplement is intended to advise rather then provide a sure way to print decals. When in doubt, run some tests. When going to a copier place, give them what image you want copied and then tell them that you want the copy on the glossy side of the paper. Copiers at larger places can print in black, red and sometimes light blue. Laser copiers can print in additional colors, but the color reproduction may not be the best and don’t expect that the markings will look exactly like what you are trying to copy. When a copier prints successfully, the markings are usually durable enough to handle, but they will still need a couple coats of clear to make them useable as decals.


If the artwork you are trying to reproduce has black borders and you want to do color markings, then make two copies of the black line artwork. You paint your colors over one set (use enamel paints only), then seal them in. Apply that image first, then place the clear line image over the top. When dry, you’ll have a crisp looking color artwork. DO NOT run painted decal film through a photocopier, as the heat will cause the paint to melt and ruin the print heads. Run only untreated decal film and paint over the markings afterwards. Some spray coats can be kept light enough to show the black outlines through the paint.


Making Decals with a Computer and Printer

The most ideal way to do decals is on a printer, but not all printers can do decals and one needs the right software to do it properly. The lower tech solutions work best for one-time markings. But, a computer can revolutionize the process if you plan to do several different markings. The downside is that this equipment and software will cost money. But it is still the best way to do decals in my experience.


I recommend at least one or two different types of programs to do markings. The first is a digital image-editing program, such as Adobe Photoshop. Many companies currently offer programs similar to Photoshop but with fewer features and for less money. Other companies offer these programs as standard equipment with scanners. This type of program is necessary to help size up the original artwork that you plan to use as a template for your decal image and in many cases can be used to layout artwork for direct printout. However, the images produced are made up of a series of pixels and the artwork needs to be of very high image resolution to get the crispness that a decal demands. But, for reproduction of something like a photo to use as nose art on a model, this type of program works best.


I typically do most of my decal design work with a raster graphics based program. Raster graphics are “resolution independent”, meaning that they can be printed very large or very small without a loss of detail or crispness and the markings won’t look pixilated if blown up to a very large size. The images are made up by shapes rather then pixels. It can be a little tricky to learn how to do this as a novice. But when the techniques are mastered, you can produce pretty much any marking you could ever want. Some popular raster programs out there include Adobe Illustrator, Macromedia Freehand and Corel Draw. These programs can be expensive, but they are the most useful for decal printing.


Inkjet Printers

One of the biggest drawbacks to printing decals from a computer is that decal papers typically aren’t compatible with Inkjet printers, which are the most common type of printers used. The inks used in Inkjets are water-soluble and the ink tends to bead up on glossy decal paper. That changed for the better when Micromark introduced an inkjet decal printing system. The system consists of a decal paper that will work with the inks and a clear sealer spray. The materials are somewhat expensive compared to other decal options, but they will work well for most uses. A couple other companies also provide similar products for use with Inkjet printers and the quality should be comparable.


But, there are some drawbacks. Even after the printed markings have been clear coated, the inks are still water soluble. So, don’t cut into the inked part of the image or the inks will run. Cut the clear film areas only. Also, printed inks for paper (except black) are transparent, since they are intended for printing on white paper. So, color markings that are printed on decal paper will look transparent if not applied to a light colored model. White decal paper can be used in place of clear paper, but the images will have to be trimmed very close to the inked area unless you want a white border. This could result in a higher risk of cutting the ink pockets and causing runs. Still, these inkjet decal systems put decal printing in the range of most PC users.


The ALPS printer

The printers that are the most ideal for making decals right now are the ALPS 1000 and 5000 series of printers. They don’t use liquid inks, but instead use cartridges that contain a waxy type ribbon material. The “ink” is waterproof and won’t bead up on decal paper, since it isn’t wet to begin with. Unfortunately, ALPS is no longer selling printers, but they are still making them for another printer company selling them European market. Used and rebuilt ALPS printers can still be found with a little luck. The ALPS cartridges are still being made for at least the next 5 years, so ALPS users should not have trouble locating them. Many online supply companies stock ALPS cartridges. Hopefully another company will offer a similar printer before the cartridges get discontinued.


The printer uses “four color process” (CMYK) to print its colors, and this is what the printing industry uses. “CMYK” stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black and these are the colors of the cartridges. CMYK is used for printed items, as opposed to RGB, which is used for images that appear on computer monitors. Most image programs can output CMYK format files, resulting in very good color matches to printed color samples. Only standard yellow shades seem to look a bit off, when compared with commercial decal making methods.


The ALPS printer also has the added versatility of being able to print spot colors such as metallic gold, silver and white. The spot color white cartridge is the most important feature of the ALPS printer as all color markings can be backed with a white layer to make them opaque enough for use on dark colored finishes, just like professionally printed decals. Typically, when printing decals, two passes of spot color white are needed to provide an opaque enough layer and not have any base color from the model show through.


When printing with an ALPS, you want to select the “overlay” function, which doesn’t eject the paper. This will have to be checked on each individual print pass. The decal artwork should preferably be set up with separate layers for the CMYK colors and any separate spot colors. Most raster programs will allow you to show or hide layers as needed, so that only the layer you want prints at a certain time. I also recommend running tests on normal paper before committing to printing images on decal paper, as decal paper is more precious. I typically run print tests on colored paper to see the registration of all colors, including white. When loading the decal paper, it is also a good idea to click manual feed, so that the paper loads in correctly before printing begins.


If you are going to print a spot color like white, select “single spot color” and load the appropriate cartridge into the printer if you haven’t done so. But, if the correct cartridge isn’t loaded, the printer will not print if it doesn’t detect the correct cartridge in its tray. The final thing to check is to make sure that the print resolution is set for “600 dpi” (dots per inch) or higher (5000 model only), or your decals may end up looking more pixilated then desired. Then, go back through the lists of stuff you had to change to make sure you are ready and then hit “print”. When the print pass is done, go ahead and repeat these steps to print the color markings over the white backup layer.


Helpful Hints on Decal Prep and Use

ALPS printed decals work like normal kit decals, but they will be thinner and other precautions should be taken to ensure success. First, make sure to do multiple images in case you screw up a marking during printing or application. When clear coating the decals after printing, use a gloss clear spray, such as Testors Model Master Clear Gloss Lacquer. Flat sprays can be used, but if the model has to be gloss coated after decal application, the flat markings will soak up the gloss like a sponge and not turn glossy.


For most large images, two spray coats are enough to make the markings durable, but smaller markings surrounded by lots of clear film might still be too fragile to use. In this case, I apply a layer of Microscale Liquid Decal Film over the top with either an artists brush or a large foam applicator brush that can typically be found at most craft stores. When applying the liquid decal film, I recommend waiting at least 24 hours for the lacquer coat to cure first, since the solvents in the liquid film can sometimes soften the clear lacquer and the decal images themselves. In addition to sealing in the markings, the extra layer helps to keep the small decals from folding over on itself as easily. Larger decals with a lot of inks don’t have this problem as the inks already make the decal thicker and less prone to folding over or wrinkling.


Once the decals are dry, they are ready for use like normal kit decals. They are still thinner then most kit decals though, so keep rough handling to a minimum. Microsol and Microset work just fine on ALPS printed markings. Solvaset might be too strong, so when in doubt, test a marking first. When finished, you will have markings that look essentially as good as commercial printed decals and versatility of markings created by you.

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Copyright © 2014 by Anthony I. Wootson Sr. & Jay Chladek. No material may be reproduced without permission. Unauthorized duplication is prohibited.