Articles - Applying Decals
06/25/2017
Applying decals to a nearly finished model is a skill that needs to be learned through practice, I feel. When I was very young, I enjoyed building plastic kits of airplanes, cars, and boats. Carefully applying the parts following the instructions was fun. However, when the model was finished and the decals needed to applied, I got scared. I always found it difficult to do. That "fear" stayed with me until I switched to S-scale model railroading and I needed to build the engines and freight cars that I wanted. Applying decals is just about a "job requirement" in this scale. However, with some practice, reading experienced modelers' articles, and with some handy tools, it is not that difficult. There will be moments of fear, but a calm head will prevail. This article is a description of the way I do it; others may do it differently. As you gain experience, you will develop your own methods.

Preparation

External Reference:
The model needs to have a glossy surface. I use Testors Glosscote. I spray it lightly over the areas of the model to where the decals need to be applied. If you use a paint that leaves the surface glossy, you can, optionally, skip this step. If the surface is not glossy, the decals will be hard to move into their final position, and it may even tear them.
Applying Decals
The photo below shows the tools I use. I wear gloves whenever my hands need to come close to, or need to touch the model or the decals. You want to avoid getting the oils on your skin onto the model. I always start off with a fresh, new blade in my knife, regardless of how old the current blade it. Applying decals has a dramatic effect on the model, and you want to give yourself the best chance at succeeding. At the top of the photo, you see a sheet of glass. That is my cutting surface, for cutting out the decals. I use the smallest-bristle paint brush I have to apply the liquid and to gently move the decal around on the model. The lettering on today's decals is extremely delicate, so you want the most gentle of touches when handling them. I get a small dish from the kitchen, and fill it with the cleanest water. In my case we have a dedicated purified drinking water system in the house, so I use that. Any hair, debris, or chemicals in the water may stain the decal. I use a small pair of tweezers to get the decal to the water, and to remove it from the water and onto the model. If a decal is particularly stubborn, I may use it to move it around on the model, but most of the time I use the paint brush. A sheet of paper towel is needed to soak up the excesses of the liquids.
Applying Decals
External Reference:
And, finally, I love Walthers Solvaset as the setting solution. There are other solutions on the market, but I have never felt the need to try any of the others. Pick one that you like, and learn to work with it.
Applying Decals
With all the tools at the ready, you need to make sure that you have one or more references for where to place the individual decals. I always try to find a specific prototype photo matching the info available on the decal sheet (my PRR hopper book has been read through so many times now, that its pages are falling out!). Most of the time, the decal manufacturer will supply a sheet that indicates, typically, where the decals are to placed. Carefully review the decal sheet you bought, to make sure that the individual decals are indeed available, as compared to the prototype photos or diagrams. Here the modeled era may have an impact on which decal to use or where to place it. If you are going to do multiple cars, or the pre-arranged numbers on the decal sheet are already used by other cars you have, you will need to see if you come up with prototypically-correct numbers from the ones on the sheet to complete the car. It is better to verify that now, and then buy additional sheets, then to discover that while you are in the middle of applying decals.
Applying Decals
The final preparation step is to make sure the model's surface, where the decal is to be applied, is clean. I usually just blow on it, use an air spray can, or use a paint brush to gently clear all debris. Things such as air-conditioning or air currents through the house will deposit dust particles on the model, and you don't want to have those trapped under the decal.

Cutting Out the Decal

Cutting out the first decal from a fresh sheet is relatively easy. However, once you have removed a number of them, the sheet is no longer structurally-sound, you have to be extra careful. It takes three fingers to properly support the sheet while cutting the sheet. Make sure that none of your fingers are close to any of the lettering you plan on using. To make the cut, I put my knife at an angle. I angle it in, as in, leaning it over the decal. This puts a slight angle on the edge of the decal, which, supposedly, makes it harder to see that edge later on when it is on the model. I have always done it that way, so I presume it is true. When it all said and done, I very seldom can see the edges of the decals on my models.
Applying Decals
I cut all four sides of the decal, as close to the lettering or markings as possible. Needless to say, you want to stay clear of the content of the decal. However, making the extra space around the decal wider makes it harder to manipulate or to place it on the model (for example, when the model has ribs or detailing parts on the surface). Also, the larger the decal, the greater the chances are that you can see it on the finished model. Piecing individual numbers together to form the road number is a major task, so take your time.
Applying Decals
As I said, when you cut out the first decals, things are relatively easy. But, as you start to cut out decals in the middle or at the edges, sometimes you will need a small pair of scissors to cut the remaining blank space out separately. When cutting the decals, pay attention to where the pressure of the knife is going to sit and what direction it is going to go. Use your other hand to provide the necessary offset pressure, being careful to not put your fingers on any of the decal sheet's other lettering. You will have to plan each of the four cuts you are going to make before you start to cut. That way, you don't wind up making the last cut when the paper is very weak, or when your fingers have to be extremely close to the lettering (or the blade).
Applying Decals

Soaking

With the decal liberated from the sheet, it is now time to prepare it for application. I use the pair of tweezers to grab it in an area where there is no lettering, or if the decal is small enough, around its outside edges, and carefully place it in the dish with water. At first the decal will float on top of the water, and it will start to curl a bit. However, for most decal manufacturers' products, that is not enough to loosen it from the backing sheet. For some it is. You'll find out when you do your first decal (or use a practice piece, if this is the first time you are using this manufacturer's decals). I usually wind up having to use the tweezers to gently push the decal under the water's surface. That is why you want a shallow dish.
Applying Decals
Again, through experience with a particular manufacturer's decal, you will learn how long it takes before the decal can come loose from the backing sheet. For some it only takes a few seconds, and for some it can take a lot longer.
Applying Decals
Right before the decal appears to be ready, I dip the paint brush in the Walthers Solvaset and apply it to the area of the model where the decal is to go. If you do this too early, the solution will evaporate. Make sure the model's surface is horizontally flat. In the photo below, the Solvaset is hard to see, but it is there; I am getting ready to place the car's weigh data under the "LVAN" decal on this hopper.
Applying Decals
I then remove the decal from the water. If, when you are touching the decal it appears that it is about to float off of the backing sheet, don't panic. Simply carefully lift the decal vertically out of the water. Usually the tweezer is holding on to one side of the decal and the backing sheet, so that will hold them together. As soon as the water's surface is reached, the decal will settle back down on the decal sheet. If the decal completely comes off of the backing sheet, I will take a deep breathe, relax, and then gently work the decal to the edge of the water in the dish, and then try to slide the backing sheet under the decal. If you do this at the same time as trying to slide the backing sheet out of the water, the two will usually merge again. Taking the decal out of the water by itself will cause it to fold onto itself and become a big mess, so always try to use the backing sheet.

Applying the Decal

Now comes the most stressful part of the whole project: getting the decal onto the model's surface. Some articles I have read say to place the decal with its backing sheet on a paper towel to soak off much of the water, but I have not found that to be helpful. I place the decal directly onto the area of the model, into the Solvaset. This mixes the water and the Solvaset, thereby thinning the Solvaset a bit, which is helpful.
Applying Decals
I take the paint brush in my other hand (not shown in these photos because it would have blocked the camera's view) and use its bristles to gently tease the decal off of its backing sheet. This is generally not easy to do. You need to hold the other end of the decal with the tweezers, but you want to let that go just a hair, because otherwise it will be holding on the decal itself as well. If the decal absolutely refuses to move, place it back in the water for a while. It is easy to tear the decal if you are too forceful with it. Gently guide the decal onto the wet solution on the surface of the model. The water from the decal will cause the decal to float a bit. This is actually handy, because it makes moving it easier. Sometimes, if there is not enough liquid on the model, the decal may fold over onto the underside of the decal sheet. Another moment for panic, but relax. As soon as you start to move the decal sheet to the right of left (depending on if you are right-handed or left-handed, respectively), the decal will reappear and float back on the top of the solution on the model. Apply more solvaset or water to the model's surface can help in that situation. Your objective now is to remove the decal from the backing sheet. Don't worry about where on the model the decal sits. Just get to the point where you can get rid of the backing sheet. Make sure that it stays away from already-placed decals!
Applying Decals Applying Decals Applying Decals
Once the decal is completely off of the backing sheet, put it and the tweezers away. I take the paint brush in my dominant hand, and now manipulate the decal so that it is close to the position where it needs to be. Sometimes the solution on the model drifts away from the area where the decals needs to go, so use the paint brush to put some there. Generally, the decal is floating on the top of the solution, so I find that I can move the decal by putting the paint brush under the decal and encourage it to move in the direction that I want.
Applying Decals
I use a metal ruler on the model to help me guide the orientation of the decal so that it is straight. Use the photos of the prototype to determine the relative location of the decal (is it left-aligned? close to a significant detail on the model? etc.).
Applying Decals
When it is close to the location, it is time to get rid of all of that solution. I use a small section of paper towel that I rip from a larger sheet. You will notice that the paper towel has lots of individual fibers. Dip those into the solution, away from the decal. Try not to touch the decal's lettering with the paper towel, because it may move the decal. The liquid will magically migrate to the paper towel, settling the decal into the position on the model. If the decal moves on you, don't panic. Pull the paper towel piece away (throw it away, because it is too saturated to be used again), and carefully use the paint brush to gently move the decal back to where you want it. Now is the time to make any final adjustments as to where you want it. If there is still a lot of moisture around the decal, or if you have any other drops of water on the model, use paper towel pieces to soak those up now. The decal should not be bone-dry; just get the big globs.
Applying Decals
I put the paint brush on some paper towel, to soak up the moisture it has collected, so that it stays dry and clean.

The next step is very important: WALK AWAY FROM THE MODEL !!!
Applying Decals
Do not play with it. Only adjust it if it is really not in the correct position. The paper towel pieces only need to remove the gross amounts of water. Leave the rest of the water on the decal, and walk away from it. Although this is not a quick way of applying decals, I prefer to only do one decal at a time. If the next decal over is close to the one you just did, the water and Solvaset will have a tendency to want to wander over to the previous decal you just did. This will turn into a big mess. It is not worth it. Remember, this is a hobby, and you don't want to ruin the model that you have worked so hard on in these final steps. I go and do something else and let the decal dry completely. This usually takes 30 minutes or more.

Checking Progress

After the decal has dried, I generally find that there is some hazing of the decal (sorry about the photo being out of focus, but you can clearly see the hazing). There may also be some really tiny bubbles. If I wasn't careful during the moving of the decal, some of the decal may even not be perfectly seated on the model. All three of these scenarios can be handled by the Solvaset. I dip the paint brush into the Solvaset and apply a coating over the decal, or at least over the areas that exhibit any of these problems. If you do this before the decal has completely dried, the decal may move or tear. That is why I gave that statement before: walk away from the model and let the decal dry. When applying the Solvaset, simply lightly wipe one coating over the decal. Don't press down hard and don't apply more than one coating. It will take some time for it to start to react with the decals, but interacting with the decal too much may cause it to come loose again, move, tear, or the lettering to dissolve. Solvaset is a strong solution, so be careful with using it full-strength.
Applying Decals
Most of the time when I apply the Solvaset and, again, let that dry completely, the decal is in good shape and finished. However, sometimes I have to re-apply the Solvaset. Especially if the decal is placed over rivets or other surface unevennesses. The Solvaset essentially melts the decal and causes the lettering to just "drop" to the surface below it. Anyway, the point is, I apply the Solvaset and let it dry, as often as is necessary, until the decal looks good. Only then do I declare it finished, and only then do I move on to the next decal. It is time-consuming, but it is the only way I have found this step to yield the satisfactory results I seek.
Applying Decals

Completion

External Reference:
When applying decals to a freight car, for example, I do one side of the car at a time. I apply all the decals. When the last one has been applied and has thoroughly dried, I take the model to the garage and spray a thin layer of Testors Dullcote of just that one side only. If need be, I cut out a template out of paper or thin cardboard, leaving only the side of the car cut out, so as to avoid spraying Dullcote on the other glossy surfaces. The thing to remember is that too many layers of Dullcote will turn the surface into a glossy coat! I let that one side dry overnight before I turn the model over and start applying the decals on the opposite side.
Applying Decals
For the ends of the cars, I usually fabricate a vertical stand out of the foam (you see the foam under the model in my photos here), and then wrap the foam pieces with one or more rubber bands. That way the model is protected and I can carefully work on the ends, without having to worry about the model falling over and getting damaged.
Applying Decals