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.