Decorating a model using painted decal sheet

Over the years I have moved away from masking and airbrushing markings on my models and instead now mostly use painted decal sheet. An early article on the website here shows how I used to do it. So, why the change? Well, I see the following advantages:

  • Markings can be easily adjusted until they are in the perfect place
  • No risk of paint bleeding under the masking when airbrushing
  • No risk of the masking tape pulling off the tissue or paint underneath when removing
  • If it goes wrong, very easy to remove the decal and try again

    The main disadvantage compared to spraying is that you need a glossy surface to apply the decals to, so for a matt finished prototype you will need a final coat of matt varnish to dull everything down - this adds weight of course.

    As an example I have chosen this peanut scale Mitsubishi Raiden built from the Dave Diels short run kit. We will pick up the process after the model has been covered in green and white Esaki tissue, steam shrunk and finished with a single coat of 50/50 thinned non-shrink dope.

    Before detailing how the markings were applied, I'll briefly show the painting of the model. The aircraft chosen had a yellow nose so this had to be masked off first. I used Tamiya flexible masking tape for this due to the double curvature needed when wrapping it round the cowling. Thia was then backed up with a piece of notepaper with a hole cut out in the middle.

    Yellow paint covers very poorly, especially over a dark finish, so the first step was to airbrush a coat of white enamel.

    Once dry, the final top coat of yellow was sprayed on, as shown here. While the airbrush was loaded with yellow, a piece of white decal sheet was also sprayed in the same colour, building up the layers until the colour density matched the cowling.

    Here the nose masking has been removed showing a nice clean demarkation. You can see that masking of the canopy has started using strips of Tamiya masking tape.

    Prior to airbrushing the undersurfaces in light grey the edges on the fuselage were masked using Tamiya masking tape, backed up with pieces of paper. An alternative to the Tamiya tape is "Frog" delicate surface masking tape, which seems to be a very similar product and is available from most DIY stores.

    Here is the model after the Xtracolor gloss light grey has been airbrushed on and the masking removed from all the fuselage except from round the cowling.

    Next the fuselage undersurfaces were masked off, using Tamiya tape again. The edges of the wing don't need to be accurately masked as you will be spraying them only from above, but were covered with paper to catch any overspray.

    This photo shows the same stage but from above showing the canopy masking.

    The dark glossy Xtracolor Japanese Navy green has now been airbrushed on and all masking carefully removed. The gloss finish highlights all the model's imperfections, but don't worry about that. Now we can move on to the whole point of this guide - applying the markings themselves.

    My new favourite decal paper is manufactured by Sunnyscopa - it is thin and flexible, yet tough and doesn't tear easily. It is available in clear and white, with versions for laser printing and ink jet printing. Amazon currently sell it at around 10 for 10 A4 sheets. I can confirm that the laser printing film works very well with my HP printer - toner adhesion is very good and I haven't even had to apply a protective coating afterwards.

    Let's start with the white backing discs for the Hinomaru markings. Using an Olfa compass cutter, a circle of suitable size is cut into a piece of white decal paper. The cut needs only to be through the surface of the decal and just into the paper below - you don't have to cut right through to the cutting mat. I find a shallower cut is less likely to give an unsightly raised edge to the decal. The Sunnyscopa white decal paper has enough density that you don't need to paint it.

    Cut the disc roughly from the sheet and soak in water for about 20 seconds, then remove the outer decal film, leaving just the disc in the middle.

    Moisten the surface of the model where the decal is to be applied and slide the disc into position. When happy, pat with a cloth or piece of paper towel to remove excess water.

    The tissue will show some sagging at this point, but don't worry as it will tighten once dry

    To show this, here are all the white discs applied to the model and fully dry. You can also see that the model now has the black anti-glare panel painted on - this was masked with Tamiya tape and brush painted in Humbrol Matt Black.

    This close-up of the fuselage disc illustrates clearly how the decal sits down snugly over all the details (including the rear peg position) once dry.

    A sheet of clear decal was airbrushed with a dull red shade and used for the inner discs of the Hinomaru. The discs are cut out and applied in exactly the same way as the white ones, centering them carefully in the white discs.

    There will obviously be a tiny hole at the centre of the red disc from the compass point, but it is hardly noticable and can be easily touched up if required.

    The white discs on the lower surfaces are smaller than on top because they have no white outline.

    In order to avoid any trace of a white outer ring appearing, the red discs are cut very slightly larger than the white backing discs.

    The subject aircraft features a yellow fin tip and a copy of the model plan was used as a guide to cutting the correct shape from the yellow painted decal sheet. Using a sharp scalpel cut through the paper pattern and into the decal film.

    Here the decal has been soaked and the unwanted outer portion removed.

    The colour density of the yellow is excellent because of the white base colour of the decal sheet used. I was worried that you might be able to see the white decal showing at the cut edges, but this wasn't the case.

    The top edge of the fin needs to be touched up with a small brush once the decals are dry, firstly with white, as shown here, then with yellow.

    As well as the fin tip, the chosen scheme features yellow wing leading edge stripes and a panel each side behind the cowling. The shape for the leading edge stripes was developed using pieces of paper, before transfering to the decal sheet. Using a CAD or graphics program is helpful for this as you can develop the shape by tweaking it a little at a time. Once happy with the shape, it is simple to mirror it for the other side.

    To ensure perfect adhesion for the leading edge stripes I decided to brush on some thinned Formula 560 canopy glue to the wings before applying the decals.

    Here are the yellow stripes in position after they have dried.

    The artwork for the tail lettering was created in a CAD program and scaled to suit the model size. Kit decal sheets are very useful to help with this - you can scan them, import as a raster image and then trace over the chosen markings. Choosing as thin a line weight as possible makes it easier to accurately cut out the individual shapes. I printed four off to give some spares.

    The fin lettering is cut out and taped over a slightly larger piece of white decal sheet. Note the tape should be kept off the lines to be cut out and also that it serves to stick the decal sheet to the cutting mat.

    With a new scalpel blade in the handle, the individual charactors are cut out, using a steel rule for the longer straight lines. Cut through the paper and just into the surface of the white decal underneath. You don't need to cut right through the paper.

    In order to ensure good adhesion some thinned Formula 560 glue was brushed onto the fin before applyng the front two charactors.

    Here the numbers have been soaked and the outer excess decal film removed before application

    The numbers applied to the fin and carefully aligned. A bit of the thinned glue can be just seen under the "5" - this disappears when dry.

    The initial pattern for the fuselage band was scanned into a CAD program from a kit decal sheet, traced and scaled to match the model. It is easier to do the band in two halves.

    A pattern was cut out and tested on the model to see how straight it looked from the side. As a result of this, slight modifications were made to the shape in the CAD package and printed out again.

    Once satisfied, the drawing can be used as a pattern to cut the shape from white decal sheet.

    Here is the decal applied to the model. The Sunnyscopa film is flexible enough to allow some adjustment after application to get it looking as straight as possible when viewed from the side.

    This photo shows all the markings applied, though I notice I haven't yet touched up the top of the fin with yellow paint.

    The main gear doors on this model were also represented using decals. To do this, the part of the plan showing the doors was scanned and imported to a CAD program where the outlines were traced. Just do one and mirror it for the other side.

    Next do a test print onto a sheet of A4 paper as here. Before printing mark a corner of the paper in the printer tray - I do BR for bottom right.

    Take this print and tape a piece of clear decal film over where the image came out. You only need to tape one edge, and it has to be the edge that is heading into the printer (top of page in this picture).

    Print the file again from your computer and the image will come out in exactly the same place, but this time onto the decal sheet. I use an HP laser printer with the Sunnyscopa clear laser decal paper. Before applying the decal, cut around the edge leaving a gap of around a millimeter. You know the drill by now - don't cut right through the paper, just through the decal film, and remove the excess before applying.

    With the gear door decals being mostly clear film it is important to minimise silvering underneath. Applying to a gloss surface helps a lot but using a product like Humbrol Decalfix reduces the risk of silvering further. Simply brush it onto the model before applying the decal.

    The tissue gets pretty saggy at this stage, but don't panic.

    Everything tight and wrinkle-free when dry and no silvering visible.

    I now do all my control surface outlines using decals as I really struggle drawing inked outlines neatly and without scoring the tissue or even poking right through it. With decal you are guaranteed a constant width and you can reposition the lines as much as you want until they look just right. Plus, if you make a mess, you can simply pull them off and try again. Here is an A4 sheet of dark grey lines in two thicknesses laser printed onto Sunnyscope clear decal paper. This will last for ages!

    You may be able to see here that the strips have had a line scored with a sharp scalpel blade about 1 to 1.5 mm each side of the printed line before being cut from the sheet. After soaking the decal, the excess clear strips each side are removed before application to the model.

    For ailerons I usually start with the inboard edge, taking the measurement from the plan.

    When dry, the hinged edge can be added, leaving just a small piece at the outer edge to be added next.

    To help with getting the lines on straight, in this case the flap outline, a flat brush as shown here is very useful to help with positioning.

    The worst case for visible silvering is to place a decal over a very dark colour, so to help as much as possible on the upper wing surface I applied some thinned Formula 560 canopy glue to the model surface before application.

    After drying the clear film had completely disappeared.

    Underside view showing completed aileron and flap outlines.

    With the markings all done, the model just needs a final coat of matt varnish to tone everything down and give an even finish. Before doing this of course the canopy neeeds to be masked off again. The Raiden was sprayed with a light coat of Microscale Micro Flat varnish, but there are many other options. Since finishing the Raiden I have tried using a Tamiya matt varnish rattle can, and this worked so well that I think that this will now become my default varnish.

    Final addition is the canopy framing which was simply cut from decal sheet brush painted with the Japanes Navy green, followed by a brushed coat of matt varnish. Brush marks don't show on the thin strips cut for the canopy as they are so thin.

    Here is the finished model ready for test flights. I hope some of the techniques shown here will prove useful as an alternative to the usual masking methods. Drop me an email if you have any questions or comments.

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