Do you want to apply decals to your miniatures or scale models? Decals add extra details to your wargaming miniatures. If you’re looking for realism, or a more immersive look for your Warhammer 40k vehicles, space marines, or historical wargaming pieces, decals can help. Many model kits come with water transfer decals, but they can be challenging to apply properly. Most decals are printed on waterslide decal paper and require some dedicated hobby skill and patience to use. This is especially true when you want to attach the decals without wrinkles or bubbles over uneven, curved surfaces.
There are many recommended ways to apply decals to models.
This article shows you how I apply decals on wargaming miniatures. Check out this simple tutorial for how to apply wet slide decals to space marines.
Here’s the process of applying a decal in 9 simple steps with some tips. You can apply the simple tips here for almost any decal application you may need for other models. It’s worth the effort!
Step 1 – Plan
The first step to applying decals to your models is to plan.
Yes, plan out what decals you want AND where you want them to go. If you’re looking for a more realistic look for your miniatures, then think carefully about what your decals are showing. Just as you plan out your paint color scheme, decide how many and what logos/icons/symbols you want on your models.
A key tip is not to use too many decals.
Every decal should do something, tell something about the context of where your model exists in the world they live in. If this is a historical miniature, decals may a simple country’s national flag or a complicated mural.
Also, you should know beforehand when you should apply the decal when you’re painting the model. Don’t finish painting a model and then decide it needs decals.
For a more realistic look, decals should also look “painted-on”. Decals should fit into the paint scheme, not pop-out of it. Following this guide will show you where in the painting process I decided to apply the decal.
Step 2 – Follow instructions
Many model kits come with water slide decals. And, if you’re going with a reputable model company like Games Workshop, these decals will also come with instructions in the package.
(Yeah, sure you can go online to find out how others do it…. that works, too)
When you look at the back of your decal sheet, you may find the printed instructions.
Looks easy, right? Take a look carefully.
There are subtle details you should consider. For example, how closely you cut out the decal on the sheet determines how big the actual “sticker” will be. The larger the decal, the more chance you have of it wrinkling or forming bubbles.
Step 3 – Cut out decals, carefully
In my case, I want to apply the Imperial Fist symbol on the shoulder pad of my Primaris Inceptor Space Marine.
With the right decal sheet, I found the decal symbol I was looking for.
And, looking at it, I find good news.
Notice how the decals are circular (meaning the sticky part is limited to a circle shape)?
This means that I don’t need to worry about cutting out the specific shape of the decal. All I need to do is cut them out from the main sheet. I don’t have to cut a specific shape.
Using a sharp hobby knife, I cut out the decals I wanted. I needed 3 decals for my Space Marine Inceptor unit. One for each model.
I closely examine each decal to make sure they are in good condition. They’ve been in storage for a while.
Step 4 – Prepare the model surface
At this point, you should have already painted your model. This includes the surface that you want to apply the decal on.
Some people like to varnish the model before applying decals.
A clear gloss coat can help even out any minor surface bumps that could interfere with your decal. But, adding a varnish on a small model at this point could also obscure surface detail.
I prefer not to varnish before applying decals. I want my decals to look “painted-on”. This adds realism in my eyes.
To make sure my decals adhere properly and molds itself to the surface of my miniature, I use a model decal solution.
A decal solution works by softening the decal. In fact, all decal softeners reduce the rigidity of decals so they conform to the surface and texture they rest on.
For best results, I follow Tamiya’s instructions for using the Mark Fit decal solution.
The bottle comes with a brush in the cap. I used the brush to apply decal solution on the bare painted shoulder pad. I brush on a liberal amount of the solution, but I make sure it doesn’t drip.
Allow the decal solution to dry.
Step 5 – Wet the paper decal
While this is happening, I place the cut-out decals in a pot of clean water.
I hold the decal using tweezers (always useful to have) so it doesn’t float away or sink to the bottom of the pot.
Keep an eye on the paper decal. If you walk away for too long, the decal may automatically slide off the paper and sink into your water pot. If that happens, it can be a pain to find the decal and retrieve it without damaging the decal.
After about 20-30 seconds, you can pull the soaked paper decal out of the water.
Place the decal on a flat surface and use a clean, small brush to carefully remove/slide the decal off from the paper backing.
Step 6 – Apply the decal
To apply the decal, first wet the model surface with water.
Or, in my case, I really want the decal to curve around the shoulder pad as much as possible. That means the decal needs to be soft.
I apply a liberal amount of the decal solution. Using a brush, I lay the decal onto the shoulder pad.
At this point, many of you may be frustrated because the decal won’t stay in place (it floats and slides), or wrinkles.
In the first case, if your decal is floating around, then all you need to do remove some moisture from the decal.
Dab the edge with a cotton swab or the corner of a piece of tissue paper.
Getting a decal to curve along a round surface, like a space marine shoulder pad is really common problem.
Are you frustrated by decals not sitting properly on your models?
Try these tips:
- If your decal is wrinkling too much (as mine did), locate a very sharp knife and slice into the decal along the wrinkle. The cut warped edges should sink back down into the decal solution on the model surface.
- The key here is to use a knife with a super sharp edge. This will allow you to press the knife edge into the decal to cut it. Don’t slice or saw. Just press into the decal to make the cut.
- Use a small brush to move the cut edges into place. Make sure the surface remains wet the entire time.
For larger decals, or surfaces that curve a lot, you can make multiple cuts into the decal. Remember to keep the surface moist so the decal doesn’t stick. You want to be able to slide the decal around the surface until you’re ready to seal it down.
Optional step: You can reapply decal solution over the top of the decal to soften it even further. Repeatedly adding decal softening solution can help you get the decal to conform neatly with your model’s surface. Of course, be careful. Some decal softeners can actually melt the plastic decal and surface underneath. Go slowly and work in steps.
Step 7 – Dry the decal
When you’re satisfied, dab the top of the decal with a cotton swab or tissue paper. Gently remove as much moisture as possible.
If you realize that the decal isn’t sitting in place the way you like, you can apply more decal solution or water on top. Give the decal some time to absorb that moisture and try and gently maneuver the decal into the right place.
Before moving onto the next step, it is important that the decal is fully dry.
Step 8 – Seal the decal
There are many ways to seal and protect the decal.
Some people use clear coat varnishes. Others use matte sealers.
For realism and that “painted-on” look for my decals I use a brush-on Testors Dullcote matte varnish.
To apply this brush-on matte varnish here’s what I do:
- Shake the bottle well to mix the varnish solution
- Use a cheap, soft synthetic brush and apply varnish onto the decal
- Make sure the varnish is evenly applied
- Don’t let the varnish pool
- Don’t brush too much to avoid streaks
For best results when you varnish your decal, work in thin layers. Apply a coat of matte varnish (soak up the excess), and let it dry completely. Add 2-3 more coats, waiting for each coat to dry before applying the next.
Some people use a hair dryer on the lowest power setting to speed up the process. I don’t recommend it at this step since you could accidentally blow the decal out of place.
Check out the example showing what decals look like before and after a few coats of varnish.
Step 9 – Finish painting your model
At this point, you can also do a few things to make the decal look more like it was painted on the model.
You can “chip” the decal, where you literally scratch the decal, exposing the paint underneath. Use a sharp needle, or the tip of your hobby knife. Alternatively, you can paint the chips and battle damage directly on top of the decal.
These small details can help tie-in your decal with the rest of your painted miniature.
If you’re using a wash (i.e., acrylic or oil wash) or shade, make sure you dab of the excess from around decal to make sure it doesn’t get “outlined” by the darker wash pooling in the recesses (formed by the decal edges).
When you’re finished, give the entire model an even coat of a matte spray varnish. This will even out the reflectiveness over the whole model.
Here are the 9 steps for how to apply a realistic-looking decal on your miniatures:
- Step 1 – Plan
- Step 2 – Follow instructions
- Step 3 – Cut out decals, carefully
- Step 4 – Prepare the model surface
- Step 5 – Wet the paper decal
- Step 6 – Apply the decal
- Step 7 – Dry the decal
- Step 8 – Seal the decal
- Step 9 – Finish painting your model
I hope this tutorial was helpful. These tips and steps for applying decals will be useful for a wide range of models. It will take practice and a healthy dose of patience to get decals to look right. But, once you get used to the workflow, I think the final result is worth the effort.
Decals add the extra detail that can bring more life to your miniatures.