Part 13: Making and Applying Decals

If you’ve been involved with RC cars for any time at all you can’t have failed to notice that a certain manufacturer clamped down on sellers of reproduction decals, and that this has meant there are only two purchase options now – buy genuine vintage decals that have suddenly become the most expensive part of most cars, or buy very poor quality “repro” items on eBay.

Fortunately, there is a third option: making your own.

The main thrust of this article is making your own decals, but there’s also a section on applying them at the end.


Before we move on, a few words on copyright, intellectual property, and “fair use”. One argument that’s been expounded to defend repro decal sellers is that it’s unreasonable to claim that your intellectual property is being infringed if you have no intention of exploiting it yourself. However, the number of re-release kits demonstrate that most, if not all of the IP relating to decals will be used at some point.

My untrained, personal, not affiliated with this site, etc, view is that reproducing sponsor logos for your own use – i.e. you do not make them for sale – is unlikely to cause you any problems, nor is reproducing other portions of decal sheets that a manufacturer can claim intellectual property on – again, provided they are for your own use. The idea of “fair use” is enshrined in law in many countries, and even where it isn’t, the concept should at least leave you in a defensible position.

That said, I’ve chickened out of naming that certain manufacturer here, and the example in this article is from a completely different company :D

What you’ll need:

  • A scan of the decals (or a set of decals & a scanner)
  • Software to refine & manipulate the image
  • A half decent colour printer • Media to print your reworked decals on
  • Clearcoat (aka lacquer)
  • And, in some cases, coloured self adhesive vinyl


More on each of those later.

What You Can’t Do

I’ve yet to find a way of printing white lettering on a clear background – this does mean some decals on some cars aren’t possible in the normal manner. You can go without, attempt to colour match the bodywork & fill in the gaps before printing, or larger graphics can be done with coloured vinyl.

Another alternative is to pick a colour that’s used elsewhere on the decals & substitute that.

Also, homemade decals – whatever media you print them on – don’t seem to handle curves as well as the genuine article.



Your first job is going to be securing a scan of the decals you want, the higher the resolution the better. I leave that up to you how you do that – but it this example, I peeled an existing set from a body, stuck them on to white card, and scanned that.

My printer/scanner is an Epson SX235W “all in one” unit – I’d thoroughly endorse it as it’s cheap, it does a decent job of scanning & printing, and non-OE cartridges are available.

I’d suggest you scan with a target size of “original”/“100%” (depending on how your software expresses the options) so the decals will print at the same size of original, and with a resolution of 600dpi – any more than that & the file size gets a bit too big for an average PC to manipulate with any reasonable speed.





The amount of redrawing you’ll have to do will depend on the quality of your scan, and the background colour – if it’s a colour other than white, remember that colour will be printed.

This isn’t intended as a tutorial on how to redraw your decals, as that will depend on the software you use. I use an old version of Paint Shop Pro as it does what I need, and was free with some or other bit of hardware – my favourite price ;)

In general, it’s mostly about re-defining the edges, removing any background colour, and touching up any damage. I don’t try to work on a whole sheet in one go, rather I snip a bit out, resize it by 400% (so “jaggies” become less of an issue), fiddle around with the image (generally with the Bezier line & airbrush tools), resize the image back (25%) & insert that in to one of two new images – one for decals to be printed on clear, one to be printed on white.

Note that it’s not necessary to redraw everything – many decals are a mirror image of another one (headlamps, tail lights & so on) – and many sponsor logos can be found via Google’s “Images” tab.




Media Types

Or, what to print your decals on...

Photo Stickers: Paper, with an adhesive back, and usually a satin or gloss coating on the face. Even if you clearcoat the face & the edges, their porosity means they’re not a got choice for a car that will get used, especially in damp or wet conditions. By their very nature they’re not available in clear. Fortunately, things have moved on in the last couple of years.

Waterslide Transfer Paper: I have tried this and it’s a good choice for small decals on scale models (where the paint tends to be matt or satin), but they don’t stick that well on glossy RC car bodies, and long stripes/ large decals are a problem as the thinness & flexibility tends to mean they can bend enough to crack off the clearcoat, and loose colour :(

White Inkjet Vinyl and Transparent PVC Film (self adhesive). Despite not being able to cope with curves quite as well as genuine decals, I’ve found these to be the best option for home printing. Mine came from (also selling on eBay); I can’t vouch for other brands. These are not particularly cheap at around 1 GBP per sheet, although they are cheaper if you buy in greater quantities.



This is quite straightforward – if you’ve scanned the decals yourself at “original” size you should be able to print them at 100% to get the right sizes, otherwise you’ll need to do test prints (draft setting on plain paper) & adjust the size before you commit to the more expensive media. I print at “photo” quality on a “plain paper” setting, as I’ve found selecting other media types in the printer settings can result in too much ink getting laid down, causing the ink to bleed.



This seals/waterproofs the inks, and also provides some UV protection so the colours won’t fade, at least not as fast... This is vital for waterslide media, and for vinyl/PVC if you are planning to apply them wet, or expose the car to any moisture in use.

Where you’ve printed colour decals on white, you also need to seal the edges of the decals – so this really means cutting them out before clearcoating. I stick mine to a bit of scrap cardboard with Blu Tac for easier handling.

Scissors seem to be the best way of cutting the decals out – using a scalpel can cause the ink-absorbing coating to flake off, meaning you lose colour from them edges before you’ve really started.



The Vinyl Option

A drawback of printing on clear inkjet vinyl is that light colours aren’t very dense. Sometimes it’s more appropriate to make your own decals using coloured self adhesive vinyl – for the car in the example here, the large ring graphics.

My method is to create a mirror image of the graphics you want to create, print that out, stick it to the back of the vinyl backing, then cut it (and the vinyl) out.



Applying Decals

The following pics apply to original decals and high quality reproduction decals ... remember those? :(

Anyway, the basic method is to apply them using water, soaped with washing up liquid. Really. The idea is that it gives you the ability to remove/reposition/adjust the position of the decals without risk of tearing or stretching them. I (and many others) have been evangelising this for some time – hopefully it’s getting wider acceptance now. It won’t change your life, but it will give you a better result, avoid finger prints in the adhesive, and cause less frustration.

You’ll need your decals cut out, a bowl of lightly soaped water, a craft knife for separating and initial handling of the peeled decal, and some lint free cloth – see pic 01, below. Note than you can probably get away with very posh kitchen towel roll, but TP is definitely out as it will leave fibres behind if you let it touch the adhesive backing.

Wet the area you want to apply the decal to (pic 02), and separate the backing from the decal with the craft knife. Your decal should now be stuck to the tip of your craft knife.

Pop the free part of the decal in your bowl of soapy water, you can now (carefully) handle the decal – even the sticky bit – to separate it from your craft knife to wet the rest of the decal: see pic 03. It doesn’t need any soaking time, BTW.

Carefully put the decal on the body, and adjust to the correct position – see pic 04. You can remove the decal & re-wet it if necessary.

Use your lint free cloth to rub the decal down, squeegeeing the water out from the centre to the edges – see pic 05.

Repeat for the rest of the decals – see pic 06. Check the decals after an hour or so, then the next day – decals can be awkward about sticking, especially on curves.



A few notes on applying other types of media:

  • Coloured Vinyl – same method as above
  • Inkjet Vinyl – assuming you’ve clear coated it, obviously ... this is less sticky than original decals, so wet the body with lightly soaped water, but don’t wet the decal.
  • Waterslide Transfers. Don’t use soap in the water, and don’t wet the body work. Waterslide media will need some soak time – 20 to 30 seconds is typical. Don’t leave it in the water any longer than you need to.


    Written by TB member Jonny Retro

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