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How to apply decals

All you need are a few basic tools and a little patience
By Matthew Usher
In-Depth Techniques
Tamiya's Porsche 956 kit includes a great set of Canon decals from Cartograf. The project is great practice and makes a great-looking model, too.
Like learning to spray a good high-gloss coat of paint, working with decals is one of the most essential - and occasionally one of the most frustrating - techniques for car modelers. Almost every kind of car kit has at least a few decals in the box, and learning to apply them will help you turn out cleaner, more-realistic builds.

For this project I picked Tamiya's 1/24 scale Porsche 956 kit (No. 24309). The kit has been released several times since it appeared in the mid-1980s, and when this Canon-sponsored version appeared recently, I had to build it.

(My first real journalism job was as a news photographer, and the first professional camera I bought was a very used Canon F-1. It took some creative financing to bring it home, but I knew I was going to need tools I could depend on. That camera was built like a tank and never let me down, but since it's become a relic of the film era, it's been in retirement in a place of honor on the shelf for the last few years. I'll never get rid of it, though, and the Porsche would make a nice companion piece to display with it.)

A word about decal solutions: I used Microscale's Micro Sol and Micro Set for this project, but other setting solutions are available, too. If you're not sure how one will react with the decals you're using, test the solution on one of the decals you don't plan to use. The kit manufacturer's logo is usually included on the decal sheet, and it's ideal for testing solvents.

Here's how I applied the model's Canon scheme, along with some tips to help you along.
Like a good paint job, good-looking decals need properly-prepared bodywork as their foundation. I used fine-grit sanding sticks and a couple of polishing pads to remove some mold-separation lines. Although the kit includes a fully-detailed engine compartment, I decided to glue the front and rear sections of the body together.

After priming the model with flat-white primer, I applied a coat of Tamiya's Pure White (TS-26) from a spray can. Don't confuse Tamiya's Pure White with Racing White (TS-7). Although the caps look the same, Racing White is a darker, cream-colored paint.

Although most of the model's red markings would come from the decal sheet, some spots would need a little paint, like inside the NACA duct on the roof, and along the top edge of the fins on the rear bodywork.

To make sure the red paint I mixed would match the decals, I applied a little dot of it along the edge of the decal sheet. It's a good way to ensure a match before you start painting and decaling.

After airbrushing the red onto the bodywork, I painted the cockpit and headlight buckets flat black. It's almost impossible to remove masking tape from decals without damaging them, so it's best to do as much painting as you can before you start to decal.

You probably have most of these decaling tools on your workbench already. Microscale Micro Set and Micro Sol are decal-setting solutions; they help soften the decals and pull them down over curves and bumps. Their caps are identical, so it helps to mark them with a Sharpie so you don't accidentally swap them.

When I have to apply a lot of decals to a model, I usually formulate a plan of attack with a photocopy of the decal sheet. I can cut the copy up and figure out the best way to apply the markings without risking the actual decals. A black-and-white copy works just as well as a color one; I made this copy on my home computer's scanner/printer.

When it's time to start decaling, be careful about the water you use. I keep a gallon of distilled water under my workbench; it's inexpensive, and I know it doesn't have any impurities that might mar the finish after the water dries. For the same reasons, I use a clean disposable cup every time, too. Dip the decal in the water for a few seconds (usually no more than ten) and remove it carefully.

I place the wet decal on a section of paper towel that's dampened slightly with water. In a few moments, the decal will loosen from the backing. Now you can slide the decal from the backing paper into position on the model.

Things stay relatively easy when you're applying flat decals to flat, smooth surfaces. But what do you do when there are curves or panel lines? That's where the setting solutions come in.

Before applying this panel, I used a clean paint brush to apply a light coat of Micro Set to the model, where the decal would be landing. I slowly pulled the backing paper from under the decal and let the marking drop into place.

I used the paint brush to gently slide the panel into position. After blotting it lightly with a cotton swab, I brushed a coat of Micro Sol over the top of the decal; it really softens the markings and helps them pull down over irregularities. I remind myself to apply them in alphabetical order: "Set," then "Sol."

Sometimes solvents won't do the trick with one application. When I really need to beat down a decal, I'll apply multiple coats of Micro Sol (one at a time) and use a damp cotton swab to gently push the decal over the irregularity.

It's not uncommon for air bubbles to get caught under larger decals. When this happens, you can cut a hole in the decal and release the air, using a new No. 11 knife blade. After the bubble's released, you can apply a little setting solution to the spot, to help hide the hole.

When I've applied all the decals and let them dry thoroughly, there are usually a few spots of dried glue and setting solution left on the model. Before I add the final, easily-broken detail parts (such as the sideview mirrors) I clean the model with a soft piece of cloth moistened with warm water.

What about clear coats? Modelers always debate whether or not to add them over decals. Race cars are almost never have show-car finishes, and you can usually see where the paint stops and the sponsor stickers start. As a final touch, I added a light coat of car wax. It's just wax (without any abrasives) so it shined up the finish without hurting anything. A soft cotton cloth made it easy to apply evenly.

That's it! With its final parts added, the 956 is ready to park next to my trusty F-1. Porsche sold 956s to lots of privateer teams and there are lots of aftermarket decal sheets in a huge variety of schemes.


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