Modelling [Applying Decals/Transfers]

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Modelling [Applying Decals/Transfers]

Post#1 » Dec 03 2007 12:34

How to Apply Decals/Transfers
Written by SCT

Hello folks,
I have been lurking in the shadows on here for some time now while I build up my Tau Cadre, I have posted in the odd thread, nothing ground breaking.

I hope to add to the tactica sections as time progresses, anyway enough rambling and on to the point of the post....

I hope it is of some use?

Shas'El Tael has posted some information here concerning use of his decals.

Decal Application

After reading a number of comments on various forums including ATT concerning the application of decals on miniatures I thought it may be useful to the ‘readership' to produce a small article on the subject. Whilst I'm new to the world of Tau, I have been building models for nearly three decades so have applied a few decals in this time!

This article would likely be more useful with accompanying images; hopefully I will add these at a later date. In the meantime I will try to make the text as clear as possible.

There are a huge number of decal manufactures; a quick search in your chosen search engine will root them out for you so there is no need to list any here.
With ‘historical' subjects it is not always possible to find decals of your chosen subject which results in the individual having to ‘mix and match' from the spares box to achieve the desired result. This applies equally to ‘non historical' subjects, you need not simply use the decals that came with the XV kit, experiment with what is available. For example squadron emblems or nose art etc from a historical aircraft kit may well be that finishing touch to that Baracuda you have painstakingly weathered to perfection!

Decals should be applied before any weathering stages, or highlighting is to be done. If they are applied last then they will look out of place. Stencilling/artwork etc. ages and become damaged on real equipment and should appear to be natural and not having been added after its ‘mud bath'!

The first point to note about decals is that they work best if they are applied to a flat glossy surface, either achieved by the use of gloss finish paint or a gloss varnished base. Not all models are flat cubes however and the problems of multiple contours, underlying surface detail and compound curves needs to be resolved.
These issues are addressed by the use of decal solutions; these soften the decal and assist with drawing the decal down onto the surface, more on these later.

Decals are printed inks applied to a backing sheet which itself is attached to the backing paper by a number of different adhesives, a common adhesive is Dextrose. Many manufactures apply further adhesives in addition to the dextrose layer, this however is not important for us to know. What is important to note is that when the decal is placed in water the dextrose starts to dissolve, the greater the water temperature the faster the dextrose will dissolve. The longer the dextrose is in the water the greater extent the dextrose will dilute possibly weakening the bond to the model once placed. As the decal (and adhesive) dries the adhesive reactivates adhering the decal to the model. This last comment means that the adhesive is independent to the printed decal meaning we can manipulate the decal and adhesive using solvents to achieve a greater bond to the model.

What do we need?

• Water
• Decals
• Model
• Hobby knife - younger readers or those who cannot be trusted with sharp pointy objects, have a responsible person assist you with this!
• Scissors, sharp - see comments above for sharp pointy objects.
• A couple of paintbrushes, the smaller the decal, the smaller the brush and a soft flat brush.

If you want to be truly professional..........

• Gloss varnish, a ‘flavour', of your choice.
• Forceps/tweezers, raid your sisters/mothers make-up boxes for a free pair!
• Decal Softening and Setting solutions.
• Brushes to apply the above solutions.
• Cotton buds - ‘Q tips' for our friends over the pond, or a lint free cloth - not the yellow duster from under the kitchen sink!

The common format of decal applications runs something like this -

• Hack decal out of sheet with blunt knife or scissors cracking the decal inks.
• Place into boiling water, decal separates faster and as such gets on the model quicker.
• Decal breaks into sections due to the first step.
• Fish decal out of boiling water with tatty brush or fingers - sustaining minor scald.
• Attempt to unravel the decal on the fingers as it has curled up with the intense heat.
• Manhandle decal onto model, realise it is reversed, the water has evaporated and the decal is in place.....the wrong place and askew.
• Sigh deeply..........leave it and move onto the next one!
• Apply matt coat- sometimes....
• Proudly use said model at the next game or tournament
• Friend or opponent asks why your model is covered in little shiny silver mirrors, lose points for painting, and mark him down on the Sportsman points for commenting on the shiny mirrors.


This is the main problem that ruins a good model when using a decal on a backing film. This does not occur with ‘rub down' decals, these decals however are primarily in the realms of the specialised historical market.
Silvering occurs when a decal is placed onto a matt surface that the decal cannot conform to. It is caused by pockets of air on a microscopic level becoming trapped underneath the carrier film producing a silvered or frosted effect. Every effort should be made to eradicate the air. This silvering will ruin any model upon which it sets its blight.
The solution is to paint the model in gloss paints or apply a gloss varnish to the model or the area where the decal is to be placed; this will assist with the decal conforming to the surface. A matt coat can then be applied over the model or decal if that is the finish required.

Decal alternative to the process above.

• If the model is painted with matt paints, apply a good coat of gloss varnish (several thin layers) to the area the decal is to be placed. You are trying to achieve a smooth glossy surface.

• Allow it to dry; don't test to see if it's dry with your fingers as you will inevitably leave a fingerprint in the varnish which is certainly not a smooth surface. When it is dry proceed with the next step.

• Cut the decal(s) from the sheet using a sharp pair of scissors or hobby knife; leave a small area of backing paper where you can hold the decal with the tweezers. This is easier with decals that have the carrier film spot printed before the decal inks are printed. If the entire sheet is a backing film with the decal inks printed on to it, leave a ‘tab' to hold, this tab however will be part of the decal you are going to apply. Lightly scoring through the carrier film and not the backing paper will allow the decal to slide free of the paper leaving the ‘tab & backing paper' in the grip of the tweezers.

• Place the decal in the lukewarm water, the cooler the water the longer it takes for the decal to separate, this intern provides an extended working time before the adhesive reactivates.

• After the required amount of time the manufacture suggests for immersion, lift out the decal and place it on to a sheet of newspaper or kitchen roll for a few seconds to absorb the excess water, gently push the decal with your brush, not finger to check it is free from the backing sheet. If not replace in the water for a few moments and repeat the step. Its worth noting that decals have a shelf life of 2-3 years and may require an extended soak to get them free from the backing sheet. This is likely not to be an issue with most folks on this forum, those that have been hoarding decals for a while learn about this the hard way!

• Don't place all the decals you intend to apply in the water as they will all be floating around and difficult to extract when you need them, one at a time.

If you are going to use a decal setting/softening solution follow the manufactures instructions, solutions are basically weak acids that dissolve the carrier films making them more pliable and soft. Some are applied to the model and then again onto the decal. The two types of solutions perform different actions on a decal, some manufacturers recommend using both during application of decals.

Softening Solutions soften the decal to allow it to conform to irregular shapes and background detail.
Setting Solutions assist with decal placement and ultimately improve the bond with the model; some also provide a softening action.

Continuing with the application....
• Apply the softening solution to the area where the decal is to be placed.

• Hold the decal in position with the tweezers and manoeuvre it from the backing sheet into position using a soft brush, pull the backing from the decal, not the decal from the backing as you run the risk of creasing the decal this way. Adjust the position as required using a wet brush. If the surface is held in the horizontal plane it will be generally easier to position the decal.

• Allow the decal to conform to the contour of the area - this may take a little time, apply further solution if required.

• Once you are satisfied with placement use a cotton bud (Q-tip) or lint free cloth to remove any excess solution to avoid any stains from the solution and let it dry. Roll the cotton bud or finger wrapped in the cloth from one side of the decal to the other to push the trapped air in one direction only.

• Any damage to the decal can be repaired using the appropriate coloured paint to disguise the damage once its dry.

• The final step should be to coat the decal with a coat of gloss varnish, this is carried out for several reasons, it will protect the decal against any weathering stages yet to follow, and it seals the edges of the decal preventing possible lifting of the decal and evens out the surface further hiding the clear film. Not everyone applies this top gloss coat, I do it to minimise any potential problems with the decal during weathering stages.

• A coat of matt varnish can be then applied to the model.

Some further advice to improve the look of your decals.

If a large decal crosses over a panel line, when the decal is dry use a sharp knife to cut the decal along the panel line, apply further solution to draw the decal into the panel line, allow to dry then apply the final gloss varnish. This way you achieve a decal that looks like it has been applied over and into the panel line and does not look as if it is standing proud of the line.

Models that have a raised detail which is not to be covered by a large decal (really needs a photo to demonstrate) i.e. the decal is to surround a raised detail are best approached by cutting a template from thin paper or very thin clear plastic (blister packaging) so you can trace around the detail, then transfer this to the decal sheet. Cut out the required shape and apply to the model.

Some general points to note concerning decal solutions

There are number of brands available on the market, I have not listed or named any as not all are equal, this also applies to decals. Solutions may not react well with your chosen decals; it is worthwhile to do a test before committing the ‘prize' decal to the model and solutions.
Some decals will actually ‘crinkle' with the application of solutions, this generally settles and the decal conforms to the surface if left alone, it can be assisted to conform with the gentle use of a soft brush.
Decals that have been treated with softening solutions become very soft and pliable, minimise handling to reduce the risk of tearing.

Problems and solutions.


Clear portions of the decal appear frosted or silvered because the decal has been applied to a matt surface and air is trapped beneath the decal and paint. This should not occur if the decal is applied to a gloss surface and a decal solution is applied. Solutions are not always required on a simple flat gloss surface.


If the decal solution is too strong is will excessively soften the decal causing it to 'crinkle/crease/wrinkle' and melt.
Dilute the decal solution, try another brand.


To the surrounding area where the decal is positioned or on the decal itself, caused by excess solution or adhesive from the decal.
Use a moist cotton bud, lint free cloth to remove the stain when the decal is dry.


Bubbles trapped beneath the decal can be released by pricking with a pint or sharp knife point - see the notes earlier concerning sharp pointy things. Apply further decal solution and use a wet brush to force the decal down onto the surface. This method can also be used to get the decal to conform to very intricate surface shapes and detail.

Ink runs.

Fairly rare these days with modern decal inks, more of an issue with decals produced on Inkjet & Laser printers. Ensure these home made decals are sealed with a decal film, if the inks still dissolve try an alternative brand or do not use the solutions.
There are many variations of the above method to apply decals; some involve such extreme measures as applying the decal into a still wet gloss varnish to attempt to eradicate the dreaded silvering! A search of the internet will root them out for you, however if you follow the basic steps listed above you will be able to achieve ‘silver mirror' free models to impress your opponents and friend alike........good luck :smile:

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