Decals are Magic!



I’ve been in a decal state of mind lately. In part because I’m neck deep in the decal stage on my F-104, and in part because of some, let’s say heated discussion about the quality or lack thereof of certain decals.

Perhaps more than any other aspect of modeling, decals seem prone to disclaimers of your mileage may vary. Tamiya decals may work fine for one person, and terribly for another. One decal sheet may respond very well to Micro-Sol, while another’s decals shatter under the stuff. But try Solvaset or Mr. Mark Softer or some other option, and you get the opposite reaction. Some decals need very warm water to work, others don’t care, and still others fall apart in the increased temperatures. Even on the same decal sheet, major markings may perform wonderfully, while stencils may be prone to silvering despite all attempts at prevention.

This is because decals are magic.

Science vs. Magic

Some years ago, I attended a very interesting panel at CES. One of the panelists – I forget his name now – used science and magic to talk about experience design.

Science is simple. Intuitive. Repeatable with predictable results.

Magic is mysterious. It’s miraculous. And it’s not repeatable with predictable results.

Think about Microsoft Word (and especially the rougher state it was in in 2007/2008). You change the formatting of a paragraph and it randomly breaks something else. God help you if you had an image embedded in your document! Word would just do shit, and you’d have no idea what it did, or why, or how to fix it other than hitting Undo.

Decals are like that. They’re mysterious. They’re unpredictable. You never quite know what you’re going to get.

I mean…modeling is full of processes we have to go through. To use this paint effectively, you use this thinner or that thinner, you spray it around this pressure, and so on.

Except for decals. With decals, you can go through the steps. Smooth paint, smooth gloss coat. Use warm water. And they might still silver. They might still laugh at whatever decal solvent you use. Or they might have the opposite reaction and crack and shatter. Or…they may go down perfectly, snuggle into surface detail, and look painted on.

One time, your trusty Solvaset may save your ass. But on the next build, it may screw you by destroying a large and critical decal. Maybe Micro-Sol or Mr. Mark Softer or AK Decal Adapter will work better? Perhaps? Maybe the decals are just shit. Or maybe it’s too cold. Or…or…

Case in point. I’ve found that AK’s Decal Adapter works extremely well on Italeri’s F-104 decals. But Kevin over at Large Scale Planes found it largely disappointing in a review test. Why? Who the hell knows?

I have a feeling that there’s a lot of chemistry at work in decals that, if we could only have some visibility into it, would make the whole process more transparent. Knowing a decal has X and Y substances in it, okay, so for that you want to use decal solution Z. You get the idea.

Until then, decals will remain magic.



11 Comments Add yours

  1. AJ says:

    Amen. Much like cleaning up cat barf or standing in a long grocery line, I hate decals with the burning of a thousand thousand suns.

  2. Tim Wilding says:

    Great idea to have decal makers state what their decals are made from. Maybe they could even recommend what setting fluid to use, like paint makers do with thinners.

  3. I think your line about, “Some decals are just shit.” has the most truth in any of it. It seems that there are a wide range of techniques in producing decals. Some of those techniques have a longer shelf life for storage than do others. The best advice I’ve found is to stick with a manufacturer that you like. If you’ve got to try something new, create a paint mule alongside your model and test the new markings on the mule. Even then…..things happen.

  4. Kevin Futter says:

    I can’t say that I was necessarily ‘disappointed’ with the AK decal solution, only that it didn’t seem to perform any differently (‘better’, if you like) than the Microsol I normally reach for first. In real-world use subsequent to my testing, I actually found that it performed better than Microsol with Eagle Strike decals over tough areas…but not always. I definitely agree that working with decals is more art than science, though, and find it pretty frustrating myself most of the time myself these days. I loved decalling when I was a kid! And now I fear it.

  5. Shayne says:

    I have used some great decals, and yes I’ve had some shitful ones as well. I love my decals as doing predominantly race based cars without them the model won’t look right.

  6. Jim Ryan. says:

    Any decal that comes in a RODEN box is guaranteed to break your heart.
    Better with kids stickers.

  7. billweckel says:

    Decals are BLACK magic forged in the deepest furnaces of hell.

    You can’t even form useful conclusions about specific decal manufacturers—one year they may use printer A with paper B, the next they switch to printer B with paper C. Decals are like a drunken one-night stand; You never know what you’re in for. No amount of preparation is enough and you just stick it in and hope for the best.

    1. Vance says:


  8. billweckel says:

    I would add that, for this very reason, when possible and if you’re up for the extra work, buying masks or cutting your own is always going to be the safest route. I started doing this on the easy stuff like Japanese hinomarus. Going to try to work more of this into my builds as I rejoin the hobby after a long hiatus.

  9. Scooter says:

    Decals are my friend, decals are good, decals are the best part of modeling…you’ll never guess whos getting ready to apply the “things that shall not be named”.

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