Decals Matter, Yo


For October’s Sprue Cutters Union, The Combat Workshop asks:

Whether it’s a part of the assembly process, a finishing technique, or a particular tool, what do you think are the essential aspects you cannot afford to cut corners on during a build?

Holy shit! I could go on and on about various imperatives and areas where I just won’t skimp. But then I’d be rambling on, and on, and on. Instead, I’m going to restrict my focus to one specific area that people may not expect.


Why Decals?

The best kit, the most beautiful paintwork, the crispest details can be ruined by shitty decals.

Back a few years ago, I built Tamiya’s 1/48 Fw 190A-3. As kits go it’s good, if a bit simplistic compared to newer options. I took it on as a quick build to break in the then-new bench, as I’d just moved and gotten everything set up.

Everything was going more or less fine until the decals…

I got lazy and used Tamiya’s kit decals, and they were just awful. They refused to settle, and the carrier film was so thick that the borders are visible even under clear coats.

I mean, look at that. That’s after aggressive setting solution application, pushing the damn thing down with a q-tip, you name it. In my attempts to get it to lay down over that damn hinge detail, it tore. Which is why you only see finished photos of the starboard side.

That Fw 190 has long since become a paint mule.

At the Austin contest this past weekend, I saw a lot of builds mired by shitty decals or decal work. There was a helicopter that looked like it had the decals applied over a flat coat, and then the builder just called it a day. There were others where the decals stretched, tarp-like, across panel lines. Or where, like my 190, they were so thick that the edges were plainly visible.

Good Decals

So, how do you go about ensuring that you’re using good decals? Actual build reviews can count for a lot here, as can industry reputation. Yeah there’s always that one person who had no problems whatsoever with Tamiya’s decals, but the consensus opinion is that decals are Tamiya’s biggest weakness (though there are a few limited edition boxings that include Cartograf-printed sheets of fantastic quality).

Academy was known for terrible decals for a long time, and they’ve done something about it. Over the last two or so years, all of their new releases have been putting a lot of emphasis on decal quality, up to and including putting a big “Printed by Cartograf” on the box.

A good rule of thumb might be – don’t trust kit decals unless you have a reason to do so. But as decals become a point of competition, I expect this to become less of a factor. Hopefully one day, going aftermarket will strictly be a matter of choice, not quality.

Speaking of aftermarket decals, they are generally good…but quality varies and again it’s best to go off reputation and your own experiences. I’ve had, for example, fantastic experiences with Furball Aero-Design, KitsWorld and Barracuda.

So yeah. Good decals. They can make a world of difference.

15 Comments Add yours

  1. Bill W says:

    Great post,,,, and it is true.
    A set of crap decals can ruin a great build.

  2. Great post.
    I concur with your comments wholeheartedly. I recently built a kit that was really nice… except for the decals. It was like they were printed on the stuff that Scotch brand tape is made out of.
    I have had great experience with Cartograph and am going to be using Barracuda set soon.

  3. Joel says:

    I’m willing to bet that all of us when we came back to scale modeling we used kit decals, and were pretty happy with the results. As we became better and more experienced builders, our expectations increased, and thick kit decals no longer would cut it. AM offerings are almost mandatory for my builds these days unless the decals are made by Cartograf, or the kit decals are of a better quality.

    Specifically, Eduard’s decals have really gotten a lot better, which is a good thing, as not all of their kits have AM decals options. I’ve been holding off on their 1/48 scale P-39 duel limited Edition because I’m leery of their decals.


  4. Haggis says:

    I rarely use them now preferring to spray the markings on however stencils are a problem. I’m about to use HGW’s on a Spitfire IX, it’ll be interesting to see how they work.

    1. Doogs says:

      Yeah I was going to touch masks in this post, but decided that’s a whole other issue – and even on the builds where I’m using masks, at least a few decals come into play.

      Used HGW’s wet transfers on my G-10 last fall – you’ll love them.

  5. Michael JN says:

    Yep – agree. Why does each of the latest 1/32 Tamiya kits surpass the previous one in quality yet the decal quality appears to remain static ie. sub-standard? I’ve read recent OOB build review for the Mosquito, assuming kit decals used – but no adverse comments.

  6. I used to love decals as a kid. Now I hate them because they really can mess up the whole kit. I use die-cut masks instead if possible. Looking forward for the next article. Great job on this one Matt.

    1. Joel says:

      A properly prepared glossy surface, and thin, well registered decals, shouldn’t give anyone decaling issues. It’s actually one of, it not, my favorite part of the build.

  7. I’m trying to get better with decals since they are such a prominent part of a kit….especially with aircraft. My proficiency with setting solutions is inconsistent but is getting better.

  8. kendzhub says:

    Great post Doogs.

    I think that most of the kits producers do not produce the decals on their own, but rely on subcontractors. If one entrusts a part of the project to a subcontractor, a good supervision or use of reputable suppliers with stable quality is essential. Even such great brands like Tamiya may face a problem, when something goes wrong with a quality management outside the factory. Or if the quality is managed by accountants, nothing to them specifically.

    In my opinion, the worst are the decals, which are brittle and rigid at the same time (ICM). Or those that can roll up and nothing in the world (at least within my poor skills) can unbend them (Techmod). But always our perseverance can work wonders.


  9. Marc D. (Ulvdemon) says:

    Great post. My first time dealing with aftermarket decals left me with a great experience… until I got to the stencil portion of the build. While the quality was top notch, my inability to see such tiny detail and determine where each one went was so frustrating, I left it off. Aftermarket decals regarding my sci-fi builds went better.
    A least finding out that you are not the only one suffering from kit supplied decals means you are not suffering alone. đŸ™‚

  10. Tim says:

    I’ve dabbled with using masks on a past build and have just ordered up a set of Maketar masks (after being pointed in their direction by Doogs) for a Hurricane build.
    My concerns with decals are when it comes to insignia,particularly RAF roundels. Even if you do your best paint weathering effort the whole lot can be undone by the pristine look of what appear to be freshly painted roundels/stars+bars/ crosses etc. that decals present.
    Spraying them on does give you the chance to dabble with tonal variation etc.
    Otherwise,the guidance in Doogs article holds strong, go Cartograph or read up other modellers reviews to get a consensus of the safest bets in decals.
    One final thought, I have been pushed ‘into the unknown’ that is, used a little known decal provider because I was desperate for a particular set of markings.

    1. Joel says:

      The shiny/new look to most decals is easily addressed after a gloss clear coat to seal them. I just over spray them with a very light coat of a dusty gray or earth color. It not only tones down the stark colors of the decals, but really helps to blend them in as though they were painted on, and should weather just like the rest of the paint.

  11. AJ says:

    Great post. 110% agree. I’ve taken to using my airbrush and stencils for most of my decal work.

  12. Jim Ryan says:

    I won’t even go near RODEN anymore..Their decals must be among the worst in the world.

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