Printing and Application of Complex Waterslide Decals

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KenECoyote

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Hi!

Full disclosure up front that I don't have that much recent experience with waterslide decals; however, I grew up building a lot of models and have done some pretty complex decal jobs and recently handled a challenging one, so I'd like to share my experiences in hopes that others will also have success.

Also please be realistic with your abilities and whether it is a match to your ambitions... but always strive for better! :) 👍

I won't cover everything, but will try to document my steps. I may go back often to edit my posts too.

First (and sometimes hardest) is deciding on the scheme you want. For my recent build, a Radical Rocketry F-104 Starfighter, I thought it was an absolutely gorgeous jet and there were many versions of wild paint jobs available.
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I ended up wanting to do a few of them and the first was of a F104G "Jabo" from Germany commemorating the final flight before retirement of the planes from service.
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The easy button here for me was that I already had a model kit of that very jet! Having a model or just the decals alone actually allows you to scan and resize them to your rocket.
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If you don't have the decals for a particular scheme, try to find it online. Sometimes stores list and sell just the decals and you can get an image grab. I found some on eBay. If not or something very custom, you can just design it yourself on your computer.

EASY!: In this case I only used an inkjet printer and I simply made enlarged copies of the decals onto inkjet water slide decal paper I got off Amazon.

You'll often need both clear and white decal film. I just chose whatever ones seemed to have great feedback and a great price. I've tried Testors decal paper as well as a few others through the years and for me they all seemed similar. YMMV.

Note: it may take me a while to write this out and find all the pics, so apologies if I go back to update posts repeatedly.
 
So why would you need both clear as well as white decal paper?

Because your printer very likely can't print white. There are ways around it, but generally it's much easier to print on white decal paper and block out everything but the white.
 
Take a look at my example. For the black bird's face, if I printed the black bird onto clear decal paper, the white features would become the color of the background it's on, which would be yellow and for me that wasn't ideal.
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However, I'll definitely want the "Jabo G33" printed onto clear decal paper.

So this is the planning part that can take a lot of time, but will reward you with less mistakes and waste.
 
Let's make copies!

The decals were for a 1/48 scale kit of the F104. I simply measured out the model (excluding the pointy pitot tube on the nose since my rocket doesn't have that) and then compared that to the rocket measurement and figured out the percentage to enlarge it.

On this case, it came out to about 151%. I then simply first printed the enlarged copy onto plain paper (don't waste your decal paper here!).

I then cut out the plain paper copies and checked it on the rocket for fit.
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In my case, the fit was pretty good, but could be better since this isn't a perfect scale model rocket, so the fuselage isn't to scale. I played around and settled on 145% for a nice fit.

Of note is that if you don't mind and plan to keep the kit, you can adjust on the decal itself. I used a black Sharpie to fill in areas around the inlets and this allowed me more flexibility to trim the decal to fit as needed.
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If you don't want to mess up the decal, simply scan it and adjust it on your computer.
 
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My decals also had a slight problem for me. They had some square panels separate from the main decal because the kit itself allowed some body panels to be displayed open.
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Initially I thought I'd work around this, but in the end I figured I was committed and on the originals I carefully cut the squares out and very carefully wet them and applied them onto the missing sections on top of the other decals.

Here is the updated 145% copy printed onto decal paper (color photo setting).
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Looks good!
 
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Ken, what printer are you using, and how do you like it for this purpose? We don't have a color laser and color inkjets are a pain for many reasons, which is why our current inkjet is not being used. We have a Brother black and white laser we like very much, but of course that kinda limits the options for decals....
 
Ken, what printer are you using, and how do you like it for this purpose? We don't have a color laser and color inkjets are a pain for many reasons, which is why our current inkjet is not being used. We have a Brother black and white laser we like very much, but of course that kinda limits the options for decals....
I currently have an HP ENVY Photo 7855, however imho any inkjet printer that can print photos should be up to the task for a rocket that's going to be flown, since they're normally viewed from a foot or more away.
 
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Kudo's for documenting this.
Thanks, I very much appreciate the support!

My past model building experience helps here, but I feel a big part of my success is often just plain obsession with an idea and that drives me to think of ways to carry it out as well as to keep trying and being very patient and determined. :)
 
I did at one point, but I don't recall if I printed any decals with it. Laser printers require laser decal paper and I've heard that it doesn't print the decals as well as inkjets.

I use a color laser printer and I find it prints waterslide decals far better than my inkjet. Also
the decals do not require any kind of coating afterwards.
 
I use a color laser printer and I find it prints waterslide decals far better than my inkjet. Also
the decals do not require any kind of coating afterwards.
I've read otherwise while searching to see if there was another decal thread before I posted, however I've had both and as noted above I feel the inkjet is plenty good enough for rocket decals in which you plan to actually regularly fly the rocket.

Heck, they're photo quality printers! If you're after contest display quality, then you don't need my advice. ;)

However, I'll try to further address this later.

You did bring up a great segue into what I was about to bring up next...
 
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Coating the decals!

Inkjet Water slide decals usually require a clear coat over them to seal in the inkjet ink. Please read the directions that came with your decal paper!

I used to use the old recommendation of Krylon Crystal Clear (or something like that), but I was using Rustoleum paints and planned to clear coat after, so I tried Rustoleum Gloss Clear...basically the same clear I plan to cover the rocket with afterwards to avoid paint compatibility issues (often Krylon and Rustoleum don't play together and each can change formulas at different points).
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Last thing you want is problems at the final clear coat stage. Ugh.

The clear coat also gives the decals a but more stiffness to make application a bit easier and imho also serves to help prevent tearing and wrinkling.

Finally, you get to test the clear on the decals before applying rather than risk doing the entire job only to see them wrinkle or crack as you apply a clear over them at the end.
 
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On your mark and get ready...

Here I've set up an example of my decalling process.

Always get a new sharp blade ready!
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For this example, I first used a sharpie to fill in the missing spots (as noted earlier) since it's bugging me and feels good... like filling in a jigsaw piece or adult coloring books. :p
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Cut it out!

Now it's time to trim your decals out from the decal paper. Once again, use a new sharp blade and take your time! For inside corners, reposition the blade to start a new cut so that you're more often dragging the blade out of the corner and towards you, otherwise you may cut too far in and that can be a tearing point later.

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Edit add: In some cases, the edge if the white decal paper may be visible after application (especially on a dark background). One thing I tried was using the Sharpie to color in the edges. Personally I didn't notice much difference and I believe I didn't do it for the rest, but this is an option to try.

Taking a dip...

I've heard others recommend Microset, but a few drops of dishwashing liquid in water has worked fine for me all these years.

I do a quick dip into the soapy water for maybe 3 seconds and then I lay the decal out on a plastic plate to soak. For large decals, I'll drip more water on with my finger.

Alternatively for very small decals, I'll leave it on the plate dry and using my finger, drip a few drops onto the decal. This is so a lot of water doesn't dilute out the adhesive.
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The claw!
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It's OK if it curls! Don't try to flatten it otherwise it may tear. Wait until the decal loosens enough to slide.

Now I wait about 5 minutes or so and if the decals curl as with this example, I just rock it to make sure the part up in the air gets wet enough and doesn't dry.
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Next I'll check on the decal with very gentle nudging using my finger to see if it's sliding...
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It's ready!

Now I dip my finger into the soapy water and apply onto the area I want the decal to be applied to. Not too much and not too little. If the surface is too dry, the decal may grab on and get stuck out of position.
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Then I position the decal a slight bit off from where I want it (or right on... kind of depends) and slide it off the backing while also pulling the backing away.
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Adjust the position with a gossamer touch until you're happy, then dab with a paper towel (the less "linty" the better of course).
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Wait... what if oops?

So the decal has just set... what if it's not how you want it or it stuck down too quickly?

Well, just use your finger and dab more water around the edges. The idea is to try to get water in and under the edges and then it'll slide again!
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Now this only works as long as the adhesive is still wet enough under the decal that a bit more water will lift up the dry areas around the edges.
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If all else fails, I've read that you can use tape to lift up the decal and start over, but I've never tried that before. Luckily it's easy enough to print another set.
 
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I use a color laser printer and I find it prints waterslide decals far better than my inkjet. Also
the decals do not require any kind of coating afterwards.

I've read otherwise while searching to see if there was another decal thread before I posted, however I've had both and as noted above I feel the inkjet is plenty good enough for rocket decals in which you plan to actually regularly fly the rocket.

Heck, they're photo quality printers! If you're after contest display quality, then you don't need my advice. ;)

However, I'll try to address this further later.

You did bring up a great segue into what I was about to bring up next...
Some additional quick Googling...
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Further down on the same page...

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I'd like to add that results may vary due to so many factors, but the cool part of this is that you can always print more and per sheet it really doesn't cost that much. I was looking at a set of printed decals from a model site and they were $25!
 
A couple of additional points before I forget...
  • If the decals starts lifting after drying due to lack of adhesive, try cutting off a square piece of scrap decal paper, wetting, let it sit soaking, and when it's ready to slide, slide the entire decal off and use that or the backing to spread the new dissolved adhesive to the spot (you can even use your finger to wet the area with that glue water).
  • I've heard some mention that the clear coating of the decal paper adds thickness which isn't great visually, but I couldn't tell anything noticeable after application and especially after clear coating (can you from my pics above?). Heck, many of us use or have used vinyl stickers and those are porkers when it comes to thickness, but we usually admire those jobs.
Yeah, decals can sometimes be a sticky subject. 😆

Thanks everyone and best luck to you! I hope this was interesting and helpful! :)👍
 
I have done both laser and inkjet. Gamut wise I think the Inkjet wins. Density, the laser certainly seemed less 'transparent'. That said, I am happy to adapt what I want to do to my old HP7740 InkJet. Even inkjet clear and white vinyl. Plus I use cut vinyl using an old Stika. However small details in cut vinyl just don't 'cut it' (pun intended). I do not have a 'print and cut solution'. I'd love one, but they are a little pricy. Wonderful job on the F-104.

I just soak my decals in the tub... but I think I'll try taking them out as the OP does.

What I also find is I print generic patterns. Like dots, rounded rectangles, strips, roll patterns, X's, +'s, etc. Anything to keep from wasting the sheet. Then several light clear acrylic coats. I have decals I printed years ago, and I just used some a few days ago. They add a lot of 'character' to a rocket. Any rocket. The older ones take a lot longer to soak.

I think as the OP mentioned, it looks good or great. Then you fly it. And from then on, it looks great from 15 to 100' :clapping:
Again to the OP :eggnog:!!
 
Perhaps for most but not for me. Maybe my inkjet sucks or the generic ink I use in it does.
An aside...

Of note is that I've tossed a lot of printers (including a laserjet) because of getting tired of replacing the ink cartridges which were very expensive and/or would be dried out or "expired" (WTH).

The newer ones can even tell when you're not using an authentic cartridge and won't work. 🤬

So after tossing a drawer full of old or nonworking cartridges, my wife told me to buy a new printer and asked me to look into ink subscription.

I was skeptical, but let me tell you that it is one of the best things we've done in regards to printer refills.

We got an HP inkjet and signed up for a $3.99 monthly plan where we get ink instantly (printer has wifi and monitors usage, mailing you new ones just before you need them) and we're allowed 50 pages a month (fine for us) and we can carry over some of that which isn't used.

No more buying cartridges, no more worries. We're both finally very happy. 😁
 
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