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Using Decals and Waterslide Transfers

By Anthony Karl Erdelji

Decals, or water-slide transfers, are a great way to get perfect insignias, logos, lettering, or unit markings onto your models. They are simple to use provided you follow prepare the surface properly. The decals used in this article are from I-94 Enterprises on a Battlefront M5A1 Stuart tank.

Before applying the decal the surface of the model must be prepared. Brush the area that will receive the decal with some gloss varnish, or Future Floor Polish, and allow to dry. This gloss coat gives us a smooth surface to work with, preventing air bubbles from getting trapped under the decal. A glossy surface is the most important and easiest step towards good looking decals!

Begin by cutting out the decal. Always use a hobby knife and fresh blade to cut around the decal. Cut as close to the printed area of the decal as possible.
Fill any clean, shallow vessel with regular tap water. I use a small painting palette. (I know it doesn't look clean, but those are permanent stains that won't bother the decal. No, really!)

Using a pair of tweezers, hold the decal underwater for 10 seconds. Give it a little shake to remove any air bubbles.

Allow the decal to rest on some newspaper. The newspaper will absorb excess water and prevent the decal from floating off the paper prematurely. After about 30 seconds the decal will be ready for application. Test to see if it is ready by gently pushing the decal with a brush. If it moves from the paper, it's ready. If not, wait another 30 seconds.

Now is a good time to talk about expiration dates. Decals have a shelf life of about 3 years. After a few years the glue holding the decal onto the paper breaks down, fusing decal and paper together. The decal can still be salvaged, but it may require an extended soak. Perhaps up to 5 minutes or longer.


There are all sorts of decal solutions and "sets" on the market. Basically, they are weak acids that dissolve the plastic film of the decal, allowing it to better form to the contours of the surface and/or obscure the edges of the decal. However if the surface has been prepared properly, and assuming the area receiving the decal is flat, decal solutions are not necessary. I have used several different brands of decal set and have not noticed and difference between using them and plain water, in most situations. If you still want to try some out, I would suggest Mr. Mark Softer by Gunze Sangyo.

The area receiving the decal must be moist. Add a drop of water or decal solution to the surface of the model.

Use tweezers to position the decal on the model. Using your other hand and a brush, hold the decal in place and pull the paper away. Remember; pull the paper from the decal. Do not push the decal off the paper.

Once the decal is off the paper, use a brush to adjust it into the desired position. If you are having problems moving the decal add a bit more water. If you are still having difficulties pushing the decal into place with a brush, you can try pulling it into position using the tip of a sharp hobby knife. Needless to say, this takes a delicate touch to avoid tearing the decal.

With the decal in its proper position, wrap a cloth towel around a finger and gentle press on one side of the decal. Then roll your finger across to the other side of the decal. Do not rub! Rolling will prevent tearing and air bubbles form being trapped beneath the decal.

Applying more than one decal? Go back now and repeat the steps.

After the decal dries for about 15 minutes take a dry brush and clean the surface of any decal or paper debris. The final step is to seal the decal by applying a second coat of gloss varnish. Now you are done..... maybe.


We now have nice bright and clean decals on our model. However, anything bright and clean is the last thing that belongs on something like a tank. A decal can be weathered in two ways. The first method is to mix a tiny amount of brown ink into the final sealing layer of gloss varnish. This results in an even, uniform layer of "dirt" on the decal. I only use this option when I want the decal only dulled, not necessarily dirty.

A second option, which I think looks better on mucked up vehicles, is drybrushing and spot washes. This decal article was written in conjunction with another article on painting and weathering the tank featured here. If you want to learn more check out this article.

Difficult Applications

The hood of this M3 halftrack has two channels running through the decal. The decal was applied as normal, but before the final gloss coat take a sharp knife and carefully cut the decal down the length of the channel. Then apply the gloss varnish.
This application is a bit more difficult. The checkerboard-pattern decal had to be applied around the molded star on the shoulder. This was accomplished by making a template to cut the decal. Take a bit of clear plastic from a miniature blister package. Hold the plastic over the shoulder and use a felt-tip pen to trace the shape of the star, and then cut the shape out with a sharp hobby knife. Then use your template to cut the decal to the proper shape.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the dreaded Games Workshop Ultramarine decal. A round decal over a round surface, like a marine shoulder pad, is the most difficult type of application.  However by cutting a small wedge out of the decal we can turn a difficult job easy. Don't worry about the missing area. The two sides will match back up once the decal is curving around the shoulder pad.