Custom decals for a 1860 Keystone Palace Horse Car



For your

Cars, Engines and Structures




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a clinic by

Bob Van Cleef






You have a model.  It might be a structure, locomotive or it may be a car.  You put a lot of time into its construction and agonized over the paint job.  Now it is time for the finishing touch. Decals make any model look better    


Of course, If you can find what you are looking for it will be more economical and time saving if you can find and buy what you want.  This is usually not a problem for modern era models but it can be a problem for older and rarer models like the horse car above. 

Now there are specialists who can exactly match many of the old time fonts but it is both time-consuming and expensive, and if you want, more than one set the cost can become prohibitive.   This is where printing you own can save you time, money and give you exactly the design you want.



  Actually, there are several types of decals but the two that we are most interested in are the “water slide” and “rub-on.” The Water slide, so named because it slides off the paper hen soaked in water, is the most popular decal especially in modeling and starts with a paper backing or carrier that forms the base.  On top of this, there is a thin binding or release layer of water-soluble glue that will hold the decal to the surface to which it is applied. A thin transparent layer forms the decal proper.  The only thing remaining is for you to apply your own artwork via inkjet or laser printer.



“Rub-on” decals are similar to “water slide” but come in two slightly different versions.  Both versions have the same paper base and a transparent film upon which the artwork is applied.  Both also have a binding and tack layer.   In the first version there is a tack layer is on top as shown.  The artwork is applied in reverse and pressure is applied from the paper side to apply the decal.  In the second version one additional transparent is added over the tack area.  This layer must be peeled back (along with the tack layer, artwork and film) and applied to the surface to be decorated.  



Decal papers are commonly used for Dry-slide and Rub-on decals but can also be used to photo-etch photo-sensitive printed circuit boards

Vellum papers can be used for transparent for windows or to create nighttime interior scenes in buildings.  Print people etc. on vellum and backlight with white LED.  Vellum can also be used for signs and billboards

Acetate - Both clear or tinted can be used to create stained glass and clear store front windows.  Just print whatever lettering you want to use.

Foils – Can be used to Create mirrors and a large number of special effects



Adhesive backed papers come in thicknesses ranging from simple paper to 1/8” pasteboard.  The thinner papers are suitable for covering the solid walls (or roofs) of a model while the thicker papers can be used for the walls themselves.  You can even create whole towns from built-up the thicker papers.  Simple print pictures of individual buildings, then stack the cut-outs several layers deep for an impressive backdrop


Printed Stone Walls   






Coupons before cutting


Cut Mark  


Making your own decals is not that expensive all things considered.  The cost of a blank sheet ranges from about $0.50 to $2.00 depending on the paper type and the quantity you buy.  Printer ink is negligible unless you are creating brick walls or other patterns that fill the page with ink.  I figure a set of decals for a car costs from $0.20 to $0.50 including waste and scraps.


Most papers come in the standard 8-1/2” x 11‘’ letter size sheets.  One way to cut the expenses involved in printing decals is to cut the sheets down to the size of a standard 3” x 5” index card. This task can be made easier through the use of the same graphics program used to create the decals to create various templates to guide the cutting of the sheets. Just print a “+” at the corner of each card to guide your cutting.




Another trick is to print a “traveler” on the back side of the paper.  This helps to show which side of the paper is the back and which side contains the decal film.  It also helps to keep track of what has been done where steps such as spraying varnish may not be obvious visually.  Another benefit is that it helps keep track of drying times and test what materials to use for best results.   I also have a supply of plain paper “coupons” cut to the same size to use for testing until I am satisfied with the results. 



Decal Traveler Ticket

Completed Decals ready for use or storage
printed on Laserjet or inkjet printer
model railroad project for the North River railroad  


Decals, according to most manufacturers, are a perishable item and have a shelf life of around 90 days.  There may be some truth to this statement but I have decals that are over 30 years old and still quite usable.  The trick is to follow the other instructions carefully and faithfully.  Store all decals flat and at a constant humidity.  Keep away from sunlight and at room temperature.  Another reason for cutting the larger sheets into smaller sizes is that it is easier to store both printed and unused sheets in plastic bags.  This reduces sorting and handling supplies and prevents contamination from dirt and finger oils. One source for bags and tags is Rings ‘N Things.



 I use two programs to develop my designs.  The first is Corel Draw for manipulating images and creating artwork.  The second is the MS desktop publisher where the images, fonts and other components are assembled into the decal artwork.  Both programs are fairly inexpensive and have plenty of power to do the job.  This sheet shows complete decal sets for (2) cars.  Note the “+” marks used as cutting guides. You should include car numbers and reporting marks in your design and do not forget the car ends.



Decal Overland Oil B


  Sample of various Railroad Fonts



You might want to look at a few special fonts for help in your overall design. Fonts can range from special lettering to various images you may want to use such as logos, reporting marks and special symbols.  When purchasing fonts you should realize there are two different categories.  The first and most common are the raster fonts.  These are less expensive and you can control the exact size in points.  The point is a newspaper term and equals 1/72 inch.  The other category is the vector fonts.  These are more expensive and more detailed so can be resized easily without loosing any detail



    If you use small images for your artwork or highly detailed raster fonts, you may have problems getting crisp images on the printer.  One way to get around this is to make your decal image two or four times larger than you plan to use, then scale the printer down by a half or quarter.  This can dramatically improve the resulting image.



Both inkjet and laser printers make great decals.  Just make sure you match the paper to the printer you use.  This DOES make a difference.  Inkjets use wet ink and are a bit less expensive to keep in supplies.  Lasers use a dry powder that is heated and fused to the paper.  They are a bit more expensive but work equally well with the proper paper and the right settings


Either way you will probably find that the printer should be set for photos instead of plain paper.  Make these settings on the decal paper, not the plain paper coupons and record the printer’s paper type, quality, ink volume drying time and whatever other options are available for later use.  Some printers allow you to set a dwelling time between the printing of each page to allow the ink to dry and prevent smudging.  Glossy finishes like decals should be set for a small volume of ink and a long dwelling time.  Work carefully and do NOT touch the front surface of the paper at any time.  Keep your work area dust-free and allow two to three days time for the ink to completely dry.


One problem you may encounter is paper size.  Most but not all printers will handle a 3x5 paper size.  Here you can use another template.   Print a 3x5 rectangle on an 8-1/2 x 11 sheet, then tape the coupon within this rectangle and feed it through the printer.  You probably only have to tape it on the leading edge and let if feed through.




   The decal, once dry, is now ready for finishing.  Some sort of top coat or fixative is required to seal the ink from running in water or smudging.  Some manufacturers have their own product however the most common product recommended is either Krylon Crystal Clear or Matte Finish available at A. C. Moore and other craft stores. Spray the first coat sparingly then when dry spray another heavier coat and let dry again thoroughly.  Certain types of Rub-on decals will also require a tack layer



Krylon Clear


It is now time to turn our attention to the model itself.  Paint but do not weather the model and let dry for at least a week before decaling.  DO NOT TOUCH the surface to be decaled.  Oils on skin can be surprisingly potent in preventing decals from sticking You may touch a surface next to area where decal is to be applied.  Use a brush to “scrub” the surface clean.  If this is your first time you might consider practicing on a simple sheet of wood or scribed siding.


Begin by trimming the decal as close to the artwork as possible.  Use only a minimal amount of water when applying water-slide decals.  Excess water can warp the surface and wash away the glue in the binding layer that holds the decal to the surface.  It will also clog the pores that give the glue purchase to cling to. 


Decals will tend to curl a bit as they soak up the water.  This is normal with new decals and more pronounced with those that are older.  Never force the decal to flatten out as this can crack the file supporting the artwork and make the decal unusable.  Wait for about a minute or until the glue dissolves enough to be moved the work the film gradually so that it extends past the paper backing.



Drag the overlapping edge of the decal along the surface where it is to be applied to deposit a single drop of water.  Then hold the overlapping edge against the surface and withdraw the paper from underneath.  Carefully coax the decal into position using a knife, pin or some sharp object and blot dry with a piece of tissue. Start from the center and work out.  Puncture the film and squeeze any air bubbles trapped beneath the film. 



Once the decal is in place you can add a solvent such as Solvaset to partially dissolve the film so that it can snuggle into any cracks and crevices.  Do this once and once only at this time as any further action will likely cause the film to wrinkle and distort.






   Check the decal carefully.  Once the solvent has dried you can cut the decal along the scribing and cracks of a car side and apply another layer of solvent.  As before, brush the solvent on once then refrain from further touching until the solvent as dried.  I you do this right you may still have a tell-tale shine around the decal where the film shines through from under the artwork but it should be minimal  Note that the bluntness or sharpness of the knife used to scribe the decal will have a great effect as to how the film wraps around the corner of the scribing 



         Rub-on decals do not have the same shiny film as water slide decals but are more fragile and can be a bit trickier to apply.   Use a blunted point to apply pressure to the center of the decal.  Some use a blunt pencil or the stylus used on a PDA.  Another weapon of choice can be the type of orange-stick a manicurist used to clean under fingernails.  Hold the decal against the surface and start rubbing the center with the point.  Work in increasingly larger circles and you should be able to see when the artwork separates from the backing.   Keep holding the backing against the surface until the artwork has been completely separated and is adhering to the surface.  Again, use some kind of varnish to protect the decal. 






The surface may now be weathered if desired.


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Model Railroading is fun in Connecticut.
Bob Van Cleef, MMR

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