Sunday, 23 November 2014

Tee Shirt Decals for 28mm Models

Introduction

A few weeks ago, during the 4 weeks of Zomtober, I showed some 28mm zombie and survivor models that had decorated tee shirts.  These attracted some interest; most/all viewers guessed correctly that they were made with decals (aka "waterslide transfers").

I promised faithfully back in October that I would write an article that described my experiences of making and using such decals, but real life conspired against me and the article was delayed and delayed.  Well, no longer: here it is!  Read on and learn about the highs, the lows and the in-betweens of decorating model figures in this manner...

The Real World

Often,  at least in the more temperate seasons, people have pictures or slogans printed on their clothing.  Sometimes this is common to all members of a group (a school band, a hen party, a wargames club), sometimes it's about memories ("I <heart> NY" or that faded tee shirt from the Bob Dylan concert from last century), often it's just a design that the wearer finds entertaining (<smiley face>, or "I'm with stupid-->").  It doesn't really matter; the point is that such logos are very common amongst modern civilians and should therefore be represented on our models of such if we are to claim any level of realism.  Also, they're fun!

Printing Decals at Home

Specialised decal paper is widely available for common home printers these days, but it is considerably more expensive than plain, white paper!  At the time of writing, I've seen A4 decal paper advertised at prices between £1 to £2 (GBP) per sheet.

Roughly speaking, each sheet consists of backing paper coated with a thin layer of water-soluble glue, which in turn is coated with the decal substrate itself (a bit like a thin film of varnish).  It's this substrate layer which receives the pattern from the printer and which ultimately becomes part of your model.

There are 2 decisions that need to be made before you buy paper for home decal-making: the type of printer and the colour of the decal paper:

Inkjet vs Laser Printer

Decal paper is specific to either inkjet or laser printers; do not use the wrong type!  At best, the decals just won't work well (and you'll have wasted some expensive paper), whilst at worst the lower-temperature glue on the inkjet paper could gum up a laser printer.

You'll need to use slightly different techniques for printing with inkjet or with laser printers.  Here's a very brief summary:
  • Inkjets: the ink in this type of printer is water soluble.  That means that you need to apply a fixative to the printed decals before they can be used.  Basically, once you've printed the designs you spray the paper with a special type of varnish or lacquer to seal it; this is an extra step in the production process that isn't needed for laser printers.
    Also note that the ink for inkjet printers is somewhat translucent.  You may need to print out using the settings for "transparencies" instead of paper; this will deposit more ink and should therefore give deeper colours.  However, I've had problems in the past with inkjet decal designs blurring.  This could be because I didn't let the ink dry thoroughly before applying the fixative, or it could be because the printer setting was wrong for the type of paper; I'm not sure.
  • Laser Printers: these fuse a coloured powder (the "toner") onto the surface of the substrate at high temperature.  There's no need for a separate fixative, but because the design is only a thin layer it can be vulnerable to scratches or cracking during handling.  Don't flex the decal paper!

White vs Transparent Paper

Home printers cannot print white!  There are a very few exceptions such as the fabled thermal-transfer "Alps" machines, but in reality few people have access to such a device.  This means that if your decal designs have white in them then you have one of 2 choices:
  • White Decal Paper: in this type of paper, the substrate is opaque and coloured white.  In theory, you can apply the decal over any background and the decal will keep its printed appearance.  However, it also means that you'll need to be very accurate in trimming around the pattern or else be prepared to paint over the white fringes once the decal has been applied.
  • Transparent Decal Paper: this has a transparent substrate, so the background colour will show through the decal.  For this reason, transparent decals should only really be applied over a white background - but at least you don't have to worry about trimming them quite as precisely!

Although I've used inkjet printers for decals in the past, my current setup is a colour laser printer (Lexmark C543dn).  I'm using transparent decal paper; it suits the designs I print a bit better, I think.

Tee Shirt Designs

A lot of tee shirt decals would fit on an A4 sheet of paper!
I scoured the internet for tee shirt designs; the most fruitful sources were some of the catalogues of "print your own" tee shirt companies.  Before anyone complains about copyright, I consider this to be "fair use".  After all, I'm hardly taking business away from such a company or bringing their business into disrepute.  However, if you weren't happy to gather such pictures then it wouldn't be too hard to design your own logos instead, especially the ones with just text or simpler graphics.

After collecting enough images (well, rather more than enough, really!), it was time to print them.  Initially I tried creating a single PowerPoint slide with all the images inserted into it.  This didn't really work, though.  When I printed it onto plain paper as a test, the resolution of the images in the PowerPoint slide was greatly reduced and all the nice designs were blurred and illegible.

Following that, I reverted to using a thumbnail generator package for printing.  We've had ThumbsPlus (by Cerious Software) for a long time now.  It works pretty well for this job, though I dare say that other similar applications are available as well.  Basically, I use the application to select all of the image files that I want to print, select a size and tell it to print thumbnails (i.e. reduced-size versions of the images)

I experimented for a while, printing out the thumbnails at different sizes using plain, cheap paper.  Eventually I decided that for the models I would be using (see below), a custom size of 7mm x 6mm worked the best.

Generally speaking, the simpler designs have come out better.  The complex patterns, or those logos with very small text, often look a bit blurred.

Obviously, you could fit a huge number of tee shirt decals for 28mm models onto a single sheet of A4 paper!  Even A5 or A6 sheets would have quite a lot of unused space after printing the 100+ designs above.  I'm really hoping that I can feed the unprinted part of the A4 decal sheet through the printer again on another occasion.  Otherwise I'm faced with either collecting vast numbers of designs for all of my various projects before printing anything, or of having a considerable amount of wasted decal paper!

Decorating a model: a walkthrough

Studio Miniatures plastic zombie model suitable for "tee shirt" decals
Firstly, choose your figure wisely!  Although this might sound a bit glib, it's not really.  I found that very few models were suitable for tee shirt decals.  Look out for the following problems:
  • Clothing that has been sculpted with too many folds and ridges (you really want as flat a surface as possible for the decal).
  • Limbs or equipment which obscure the front of the torso and thus make access difficult.  That might be less of an issue if you want to decorate the back of the tee shirt rather than the front, I suppose.

Out of all my "usual suspects" plastic kits (i.e. the Wargames Factory Survivors [Men and Women], the Wargame Factory Zombie Vixens and the Studio Miniatures plastic zombies), I found just one body that was easy to use for decals.  A couple of others could be used at a pinch by sanding smooth the folds of clothing on the torso, though even then the target site was anything but ideally flat.

I'm using transparent paper for my decals, so once I'd assembled and under-coated the model, I painted the target area with white.

The decal was then cut out, soaked and transferred to the model.  Note: it is very important to ensure that the decal is sticking down properly, around all the edges.  You might need to apply some of the softening agents that model aircraft builders have been using for decades, just to get the decal to follow the contours of the figure.  If any part of the decal isn't stuck down properly then paint can seep under it and spoil the design.  Look closely at the following pictures and you may be able to spot where I had trouble with this model!

Now, I painted in the rest of the tee shirt in a matching background colour.  This requires a steady hand whilst going around the decal, so as not to overlap the design too much.  I've also found problems in matching the colour where the tee shirt isn't a straightforward black, white, red or yellow.  That turquoise decal may look lovely, but make sure you can find or mix paint of the same colour for the rest of the garment!

I think that this zombie just stepped in some dog poo...
Finally, paint the rest of the model as desired.  I'd suggest that you do not use a wash over the decal area for 2 reasons:
  1. As stated above, if there are any gaps around the edge then the wash will seep under the decal and could ruin the effect.  It's difficult to recover from such a mistake, take it from me!
  2. The decal will be raised slightly when compared to the surrounding area.  A wash will outline this very clearly, especially if you have a pale background.  Since you want the design to look as if it's a part of the garment, it's not a good idea to draw attention to the decal's edges like that!

Conclusion

If you have access to a reasonable home printer then decals are quite easy to make.  Although the specialist decal paper is much more expensive than regular stuff, it's not prohibitively pricey.  Just make sure that you know exactly what you're going to print before you commit to the special paper (practice with plain paper first!)

Making the decals is one thing, but applying them to models is quite another.  It's easy enough if you're working with a largish flat surface, such as the side of a vehicle or the wing of an aircraft (as long as they don't have any rivets or raised panel lines!).  However, applying small decals to irregular surfaces - even slightly so - requires a certain level of skill at model-making.

As for smaller, more irregular areas than tee shirts, I suggest that these are best left to the most experienced, dedicated model makers.  If you're looking for an easy way to do Maori facial tattoos or Yakuza body tattoos then I don't think that decals are a simple answer!

Bottom line: the effects can be impressive, but these are not for the novice modeller.

29 comments:

  1. Thanks ever so much for this posting. Easily well worth the wait, and clearly something which took you a long time to put together. Your time doing this is very much appreciated. Definitely going to give it a go... the inkjet way. I'll let you know how I get on :-)

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    1. Glad you liked it, Blax. I'll look forward to hearing how you get on :-) .

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  2. Sooooo....Have you printed out some more? I would be interrested in buying a sheet or something like that.

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    1. Seconded! I'd be well up for paying for your services.

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    2. Well, I don't intend to set up shop and sell these to all and sundry! However, if the two of you would care to drop me an e-mail [hcduggan at gmail dot com] then we'll see what we can arrange.

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  3. That is seriously impressive, thank you so much for posting the tutorial.

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    1. Thanks, Michael. I hope it's useful to you!

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  4. Excellent tutorial.
    While I cannot see myself using this to produce cross-belts for my little 6mm men, I can imagine making markings for obscure (or fantasy) vehicles.
    Also various shield designs, Greeks, later Romans, heraldry....

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    1. Shield designs and heraldry are fairly well covered by some very good companies ("Veni Vidi Vici" and "Little Big Men" spring to mind), so making your own is really best for less well-supported subjects :-) .

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  5. Great Tutorial. You should set up shop!

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    1. Ah, I really don't think I have the time or interest to do this for money! But thanks for the vote of confidence anyway :-) .

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  6. That's a great tutorial, Hugh. Thanks for posting.

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    1. As before, I'm delighted that you liked it. Thanks, Bryan.

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  7. Thanks C6 that was a great tutorial, bookmarked for future reference.
    Some really good designs on your t-shirts dude!

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    1. Well, the tee shirt designs aren't my own work; they're harvested from the internet. But thanks for bookmarking the article anyway; I hope it's useful to you in the future.

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  8. This is a great tutorial thank you very much!

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    1. Thanks, Robert. High praise indeed!

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  9. Excellent tutorial, great ideas. I love the effects you can achieve with the transfers.

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    1. Transfers/decals are not the answer to all model-making issues, but they have their place [and work very well in the right situations :-) ].

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  10. Thanks for the walkthrough, it's nice to see the length you went through for it all to work. I have to admit I am not a fan of decals (must be childhood trauma from the models I built and decals never worked for me!), but they really look great on your models.
    The one in this post is well concealed. I used decals a lot on my FOW vehicles and I found out gloss varnish and decal softener both help with the application process.

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    1. I think you're right, Mathyoo: gloss varnish and decal softewner might help quite a lot!

      As I said above, decals aren't the answer to all problems, but they do some things very well.

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  11. Extremely impressive post, thanks for sharing. ^_^
    One thing is for sure, your zombies are the best dressed in the blogosphere.

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    1. Thanks, F.E.M. I like your comment about well-dressed zombies, though I'm not so sure that mine are the "best" in the blogosphere. There are some very talented people out there!

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  12. That is truly impressive work and a thorough walkthrough. There must be a myriad of used uses for these.

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    1. Thanks, Joe. Yes, indeed - I have so many things for which I could make decals! The problem for me is really the issue of only using a few square inches of decal paper at a time and thus wasting most of each sheet :-( ...

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  13. Took me a while to get round to reading all this. You have answered several of my questions about this process and I am sure re-reading will answer a few more. Excellent job I may well get round to doing this for myself now. A much better option than using "Transtext" Which does have it's uses as well. THANK YOU.

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    1. Glad you found it useful, but I have to admit being curious about the questions you imply are not answered?

      I hadn't heard of Transtext before. Sounds like it could be very useful in the right circumstances, though I'm thinking more about game aids rather than the models themselves.

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