How To Apply Decals on a Scale Model

As the scale model that you are assembling nears completion, there are some important decisions that you need to make. Will it take a polished look or something that’s weathered? Do you prefer keeping its original color or want to paint it yourself so it looks unique and artistic? Should you use the decals that came with the kit, put your own designs or just keep it clean and simple?

To those who want to stick with what the instructions say, using decals is the way to go. Decals are there to make your kit look like the real thing as it provides color, detail and an authentic look to your model. It’s an important design aspect in scale models of formula 1 cars and classic planes.

Putting decals on different parts of your scale model can be challenging that’s why we’ve put together this guide to help the process become easier.

The Essential Tools

Before sticking the decals on to your scale model, you’ll need to make sure that your workspace is clean from dust, sand and other small particles. Also, be sure to gather all the necessary tools and if you’re clueless what these tools are, here’s a list to guide you:

  • Decal sheets
  • Scale model where decals will be applied to
  • Paper towels
  • Hobby knife
  • A pair of sharp scissors (small size)
  • Lint-free cloth
  • Tweezers
  • 2 x Decal solution (1 for beneath the decal and 1 for application on top of the decal)
  • 2 x Small size paint brushes
  • Klear or varnish
  • Cutting Mat
  • Bowl of water
  • Dishwashing liquid and soap

Preparing the Surface for Decal Application

Before applying decals, you’ll need to make sure that the last paint job you applied has already dried then depending on your preference (whether you want a glossy or semi-glossy finish) you can apply Klear or varnish to it before applying the decals. If you decide to have a matte finish, you’ll need to prepare yourself for air packets building up underneath the decals and even poor contact points in other cases. Also, be sure that the varnish is dry before following the steps below in applying decals.

Types of Self-Adhesive Decals

Before proceeding to the step of applying the decals, you first need to know what kind of decals you actually have. There are two types of self-adhesive decals available, the sticker type and the wet type and each one differs in the process of application as explained below:

Sticker Type

Sticker type self-adhesive decals are those that are printed on vinyl with an adhesive backing. There are those that come pre-cut but in case the one you got isn’t, you’ll need to cut through the outline printed around each decal the have the backing peeled off before applying it onto the model that you’re working on

Wet Type

This self-adhesive decal type is not very common but there are kits that have it. It can easily be mistaken as a vinyl or water-slide decal but it’s different. The wet type self-adhesive decal has an adhesive layer at the back which needs to water to activate. When it’s wet, it can then be applied to the model and it’s capable of being controlled by sliding until it is in the right position. Once it is in position, excess water can then be wiped off so that the decal adhesive can permanently adhere to the model surface. Applying a small amount of washing liquid added to water can make sliding the decal to the right position a lot easier.

Applying Self-Adhesive Decals

First of all, you’ll need to select the right kind of decal that you want to apply to the scale model that you’re working on. A fresh hobby knife is going to be a handy tool for cutting lettering or artwork close to its edges as much as possible. Be sure to cut the excess vinyl to which the artwork is printed on. You may also use a nice pair of scissors but for the most complicated edges, a sharp hobby knife is much more suited to perform the task.

Wipe off any dirt like small dust particles or even fingerprints and make sure that the surface to which the decals will be applied on is dry. After the decal is cut perfectly and the backing is peeled off, carefully position it onto the surface where it should be applied then stick it in place. Do gentle presses on the decal to force out air bubbles. In case a bubble doesn’t go away, use a fine needle/pin or the sharp pointed tip of a knife to prick the bubble then carefully apply pressure on the bubble itself to let the air escape and get the decal in perfect place.

Check and make sure that you know the correct decal position before applying it onto your scale model since a mistake in positioning and orientation can be hard if not impossible to correct. Removing a decal may damage it or even peel off some paint from your scale model’s surface.

For surfaces that are curved on which decals need to conform to, applying enough heat using a hair dryer will work its magic. Once the decal is applied on the surface, you can heat the area using the hairdryer to help soften the decal and make pushing it to the surface a lot easier. It also makes removing bubbles more like a breeze.

Applying Water-Slide Decals

Water-slide decals are common in scale model kits. They’re also known as transfer decals and are made of the decal itself with an adhesive in its backing which is soluble in water. A backing paper is also used to protect the adhesive from being exposed to unwanted particles. When immersed in water, the backing paper slides off allowing you to easily apply the decal to the surface of your scale model. Here are some steps that you can follow in applying water-slide decals:

1. Carefully cut the first decal that you want to apply from the decal sheet.

2. Pick up the decal you’ve cut using a tweezer and place it on the surface of the water. You may notice that the decal would sink or curl but don’t panic as it is normal.

3. Pick up the decal from the bowl of water then place it on a paper towel to eliminate excess moisture.

4. Get a paint brush and use it to brush enough decal solution onto the surface where you want to stick the decal.

5. Use the brush in guiding the decal and peel off the backing paper then onto the decal solution on the surface where you want to stick it. The paintbrush will help to position the decal correctly. You can avoid damaging the decal by pulling off the backing paper instead of moving the decal a lot.

6. Once you’re contented with the decal’s placement, get a dry paper towel and dab it on top of the decal to take excess moisture away.

7. The steps above are already enough to keep the decal in place but if you feel like it needs to be secure, feel free to apply a second layer of decal solution on top of the decal itself using a different brush.

8. Let the decal dry and avoid touching it or moving it further to a different position.

9. To get the decal sealed in position, you can apply an additional thin layer of Klear or varnish then leave it to dry.

10. Do the same steps described above for all the other decals that you need to apply to your scale model.

11. After the decal dries and you noticed bubbles beneath it, you can use a fine pin or needle to prick the bubble and drain the air out of the packet. After doing so, you can paint decal solution on the decal itself then press down the bulging air packet using a wet paper towel.

Time for Some Finishing Touches

Once all the decals are applied correctly, your scale model should now look like it’s been painted with them. From this point, you can either apply some weathering methods or make it look glossy.

Decals are capable of improving your model’s overall appearance and if you follow the steps we’ve given above closely and correctly, you should have a great looking scale model as a finished product! Most model kits also come with their own decal application instructions that you can follow so you can know where particular once needs to be applied.

Have you tried applying decals on a scale model before? Did you use other techniques to place them in the right positions? Let us know in the comments section below.