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There are many decal options available for model railroaders. Whether you want to simply change a number, letter an entire car, or even design your own, decals are a great way to customize a model. Commercial decals are available for most major railroads in many scales. You can also make your own decals on a computer.
In addition to the decal sheet itself, all that is required are some basic modeling tools. Before beginning, it helps to start with a clean car. Gently wash the model in soapy water to remove any finger prints, oils and dust. A gloss surface also accepts decals better than a flat finish. You can spray a clear gloss finish over the car prior to decaling, taking car to mask windows or other parts you don't want to cover. If you are starting with a factory painted model, this step is probably not necessary.
Next gather the tools and materials you'll need to apply the decals:
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- Small saucer or dish with water. (Distilled water works best.)
- Decal setting solution
- Hobby knife
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Cutting Out the Decals
Most decals come printed on a large sheet. One set of decals may be enough to do several models. You may not need all of the decals on the sheet for your current project. Save any left-overs in a dry place for future use. You never know when you might need another number, stripe or safety slogan.
Remove the decals you'll need for the project. It may be helpful to remove them as you need them. Some decals, espescially white letters and numbers, can be hard to see until they are applied.
Looking closely at the decal, you will see a thin "film" that extends around the decal. Trim this film as close to the lettering as possible, being careful not to cut the lettering. Use a sharp hobby knife.Continue to 3 of 5 below.
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Place the decal in a shallow saucer of distilled water. Tap water may work, but espescially if you have hard water, minerals or chemicals in the water could make it harder to apply the decal.
Allow the decal to soak for a few seconds. The water will soften the adhesive between the decal and the backing. When it is ready, the decal should slide easily off of the backing. If you soak the decal for too long, the adhesive may wash off. Especially when working with larger decals, it is best to do only one at a time.
When ready, the decal can be removed from the water with tweezers. You can test the decal to see if it will slide between your fingers.
Slide the decal just slightly off of the backing so you can grip the backing only in one corner with the tweezers.Continue to 4 of 5 below.
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Positioning and Setting the Decal
With the decal just barely off of the backing, position the loose edge on the model. Hold the decal against the model with a pin or hobby knife and slowly pull the rest of the backing away with the tweezers.
It may be easiest to start with smaller decals on smooth surfaces until you get the hang of it. You will have a few seconds to position the decal exactly as you want it, but only a few seconds.
Larger decals may develop air bubbles or wrinkles. You must take care of this as quickly as possible while the decal is still plyable. Use a small pin to pop air bubbles. You can usually straighten small wrinkles while the decal is wet, but be careful not to tear the thin film.
Espescially when working over uneven surfaces like rivets or simulated wood grain, it may be difficult to get the decal to settle over all the bumps and cracks. This is easier if you use a decal setting solution. These are made by most of the decal manufacturers. The solution softens the decal and allows it to settle into every nook and cranny. You can also apply a little after popping air bubbles or fixing a wrinkle or tear to help the decal repair itself.
If there is excess water or solution around the decal, you can carefully blot it. Blot around the decal with a tissue, pulling the water away. Avoid touching the decal itself.Continue to 5 of 5 below.
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Completing the Decal
You're almost done! With all of the decals in position, you can now finish the car.
These final steps are not absolutely necessary, but will greatly increase the life of your decal job. The decal itself is very fragile and can be easily scratched or torn even after it has set on the car side.
To protect the decal, apply an even finish coat to the entire car. If you haven't already, mask any windows or other areas you don't want sprayed. Begin with a gloss coat. By sandwiching the decal between two glossy coats, the decal film around the lettering will be much less visible. You can apply this finish out of a spray can or with an airbrush. An airbrush will generally produce better results with less of a "speckled" appearance.
If you want a car that looks fresh from the paint booth, you can end here. Most trains have a more weathered appearance however. The first step to achieving this is to get rid of that glossy shine. Once the gloss coat is dry, apply a coat of clear flat finish to the model.
Why not just apply the flat finish? A flat finish directly over the decals will enhance the appearance of the decal film.
Most paints and weathering chalks will adhere better to a flat finish. Spray the model with a can or airbrush. Once dry, you can proceed with the weathering of your unique model.