Decals – Clear Coats, Insurance, and Thick Carrier Film

A few years ago, I wrote about how Decals are Magic, and I still stand by that sentiment. Due to the variety of printers and substances and setting solutions, there is something in the way of alchemy about them. Some setting solutions work great on some decals, but not on others, and so on.

But revisiting that post in light of the #Flankoff disaster (a disaster of my own making for seeing early warning signs and pressing ahead anyway), I think there are a few additional points worth making…

You don’t need a gloss coat to apply decals…

It’s taken as gospel by a wide swath of the modeling community that you absolutely need a gloss coat to apply decals. That otherwise you will get the dreaded silvering. This is not true at all. It’s entirely possible to lay decals down over flat paint, and it’s entirely possible to get silvering even when a gloss coat is in place.

The key isn’t a gloss coat, it’s a smooth surface. With the lacquers that are increasingly in use today – Mr. Paint, Gunze Mr. Color and so on, if you’re doing it right, you should have a nice, smooth, semi-gloss surface to work with anyway. So a clear gloss coat is not necessary.

…but a clear coat may be good for preventing other complications

The thing about insurance is that you don’t need it until you need it. And by then it’s generally too late.

While a clear coat is not in any way mandatory for applying decals, going without opens you up to some interesting potential problems.

I’ve gone without clear coats on two different jets, and both times I’ve regretted doing so. Not because of silvering, but because of other shit that happened, that probably wouldn’t have happened if I’d had a clear in place beforehand.

First up, my Tamiya F-14A Tomcat.

My issues with this kit where minimal. The combination of Furball and Afterburner decals performed wonderfully for the most part.

But I ran into problems in a few places with my decal setting solution degrading the paint. Making the whole area a bit “sloshy”. This didn’t happen everywhere, though, and my best guess, based on comparing what was different about the areas, is that the solution wasn’t degrading the Mr. Paint, but the Badger Stynylrez I’d used as a primer on some areas of the airframe.

After a quick coat of Tamiya X-22, the issue went away entirely.

Second, the Great Wall Hobby Su-35 of #Flankoff fame.

Now. These decals had a whole other problem – thickness – that we’ll get to in a minute.

But. After the decals were down, I sprayed a coat of Gunze C181 semi-gloss clear. And then went to work trying (in vain) to sand the decal film back. And…what already stood out, stood out more.

This one is a bit of a mystery. But at a guess…lacquer clears can very, very subtly fuck with the colors they’re applied over. I’ve had it go completely bad a time or two, with clear coats almost eating away at the top layers of paint, but it’s been years. Still, a bit of, I don’t know, shifting seems to happen. And that shifting isn’t going to occur UNDER A DECAL. When you take that, and add some sanding effort over what’s ultimately some very thin layers of paint, I’m not totally surprised in retrospect.

Would applying a clear before the decals have prevented this shift? Maybe. It’s hard to be sure without a 1:1 control of these decals, this paint, etc.

But I did run into a similar conundrum with the Trumpeter Dauntless I built a while back. Trumpeter’s representation of the Hamilton Standard prop logos was laughable, so I stole some from one of Tamiya’s Corsairs. Knowing that Tamiya has a penchant for thick decals, and that I’d likely have to sand, I gave the prop a very durable gloss coat, applied the decals, gave it another heavy gloss coat, and got to sanding. With no discoloring of the carrier film.

Another example I’ve faced recently…on my Patriot. Where the decal setting solutions fucked with the paint.

Taken together…while yeah, a clear coat isn’t required for decals…I’ve had enough complications pop up around the decals that I’m going to go back to clear coating as a measure of insurance.

Thick decals vex the shit out of me

There are decals that are good and decals that are…less good. But as long as they’re thin, I can usually work with them.

With the Great Wall Su-35, though, I encountered something I haven’t faced in years. Thick decals. The last time I faced anything like it was with a Tamiya Fw 190A-3, where successive layers of clear coat did nothing to hide the visible ridges of the carrier film.

Well, that’s not quite true. There were the decals I printed for the F-14 using Testors decal paper.

Despite taking care to keep the top sealing layer of decal film thin, I didn’t realize that the backing film on the Testors shit was so thick. Fortunately I found another sheet with the right VF-24 markings and was able to rip and replace these without too much trouble.

With the Su-35, though, it wasn’t a case of a decal or two. It was dozens of them. All over the airframe. All of them thick.

Now…two of the three things that fucked the Su-35 are my fault. After cocking my head at the decals, I KEPT APPLYING MORE OF THEM. And after I hoped a clear coat would fix what might be just a sheen difference, and it didn’t, I KEPT SPRAYING.

If I hadn’t done those two things, removing the decals would have been easy enough with X-20A and elbow grease. Then I could have gone aftermarket and carried on.

But those two moments of stupid don’t change the face that the Great Wall decals are thick.

I’m quite confident in my ability to work with decals, to get them sucked into surface detail and have them not silver and all that jazz. Even understanding that there’s some alchemy in which setting solutions work with which decals.

But I have yet to find a safe method of dealing with thick carrier film. There’s the flood it with clear, sand it back option, but that’s only really doable on flat expanses like a prop face, and not what I’d consider a good solution for an aircraft with dozens of little stencils that would need that treatment all over it.

I guess for now the best solution is…if you find the decals are thick, STOP USING THEM and grab some alternates.

8 Comments Add yours

  1. markb911 says:

    Good stuff, Matt! I have enjoyed reading your blog over the last year and a half. At some point I read somewhere that your pre-decal clearcoat of coice was X-22 and a light misting of Mr. Leveling Thinner. Is that correct and still what you’re using?

  2. Howard Barrett says:

    I stopped gloss coating years ago, preferring a light 12000 micromesh wet polish after every coat of paint just to smooth up the surface and then applying the decals followed by using Tamiya X20A as my decal solution. Sounds scary but tends to work very well. Well, up until recently on an Eduard kit. The main decals (Cartograf) were absolutely fine but the stencils printed by Eduard themselves were horrible and silvered to fuck no matter what I did. I tried a method suggested to me where you use a light coat of White spirit and rub it over the decal, you know you’re at your limit when you feel it go sticky. Anymore than that and that decal is fucked! I suggest a test or two on a scrap kit for practice!
    Anyway, as usual great article Doogs, keep it up!

  3. Shayne says:

    Excellent post and some great points made…

  4. Hobby Dude - Flash, Sprue and Sniffin Glue says:

    Good Read, you just outlined why I have a shoebox full of decals I did not use. Way Too thick or I find with a little measurement the decal is 5-10% bigger or smaller than it should be. I have tried most brands of set, softener and extra softener. I have also mixed up my own with white vinegar and distilled water. There is a difference between a setting solution and softeners, the setting products float the decal and have very little ability to soften where the softener is more solvent based usually with vinegar. I have found thick ones can be workable by soaking in a softener and not trying to soften while on the model. I might be mistaken that it is physically thinner but at least the edges will feather better to be hidden. Looking at a decal under magnification you can sometimes see the clear coat over the decal sheet has a bit of built-up edge on the edge of each individual decal image. In some cases, I found cutting the decal out inboard of that built up coating yields a thinner edge, some I just cut right up to the color itself. Soaking longer in the solvent can make them a real PITA to handle but by mistake, I discovered something that can help. I had dropped a decal in my solution and discovered I was not ready for it so I had to pull it out and let it dry, still on its original paper backing. Later when I went to use and wet it again this time in just some distilled water it acted like it was thinner and did lay down better than other ones from the same sheet only dunked once and easier to place it as well. At least after this, the clear coating and edges were less evident than the others. Like I say I can’t prove it in every case but on some thick ones, soaking it for a bit in a solvent solution eroded away a bit of the clear layer over the ink.

  5. 日本 再起 ▶ Stand UP for Japan ▶ May 1 says:

    A very dangerous but surefire way (at least in my experience- there are absolutes, so I’m told) to thin out decal film? Apply the the thinnest coat of ISP over them. Good luck with that – takes a bit of skill and a wing and a prayer – but it’s worked for me on couple of projects. Discovered by mistake (don’t ask) but yeah, dangerous but magic.

    1. 日本 再起 ▶ Stand UP for Japan ▶ May 1 says:

      *no absolutes

      1. 日本 再起 ▶ Stand UP for Japan ▶ May 1 says:

        *IPA – Isopropyl Alcohol (damn spellcheck)

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