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Clip Art Tips
Creating your own custom decals or stickers isn’t as difficult as it might seem.

Custom Decals

Tips for creating your own decals as seen in the January 2004 issue of MR by John Socha-Leialoha

Creating your own custom decals isn’t as difficult as it might seem. You may need to master some new skills, but that isn’t different from any other aspect of the hobby that might be new to you.

The steps and decisions break down into obtaining artwork or photographs, adjusting the images, and printing. I’ll cover each aspect below.

The first step is to obtain high-quality artwork. You can either take the photographs yourself, or find artwork somewhere else that you can scan to use as a starting point. Scanning, if you go that route, is fairly easy to do, and many USB scanners are inexpensive and easy to use.

When choosing photographs, those taken directly from the side are easier to work with than those taken from an angle. You can use either type, but you’ll spend more time adjusting the photograph in an image-editing program if the photograph is taken from an angle. Additionally, some details, such as rivets, might be partially hidden when photographs aren’t directly side-on.
The quality of artwork might also be an issue; depending on the subject material and the scale you model. Obviously, O scale requires larger decals, and therefore more detail than N scale.

Taking Photographs
If you’ll be taking the photographs yourself there are several important things to keep in mind. IF at all possible, avoid taking photographs from an angle. This is especially important for cars that have pronounced ribs. A photograph taken directly from the side will show the rivets on both sides of the ribs.

If you can’t get far enough away to capture the entire object in one photograph, it’s better to take several photographs directly from the side. Take one photograph, then move sideways and take another. Make sure you keep the camera lens parallel to the surface you’re photographing, and at the same height.

Lighting and exposure are also very important. If one side is lit by sunlight and the other is in the shade, the color will be different between the two sides. You can correct this to some extent in Photoshop or other image editors, but it’s better to take the photographs around noon on a day with a light overcast so you minimize the shadows and color differences between the
two sides. Also try to use manual exposure (or Automatic Exposure Lock, often abbreviated AEL) so you get the same exposure for each photograph. If you have a digital camera, you should also use manual white balance so it doesn’t change the color balance from one photograph to the next.

Image Editing
Once you have a photograph in your computer, either from a digital camera or by scanning, the real work begins. You’ll need a good image-editing program, such as Photoshop Elements or Paintshop Pro. You’ve probably heard that Photoshop is expensive and difficult to learn. Photoshop Elements is a much less expensive sibling with plenty of capabilities for image editing (the price was less than $100 when I wrote this).

I’m going to talk about Photoshop Elements here since that’s the program I use. There are a number of things you can do to your images in the program; however, do not resize the image in your image-editing program. You’ll end up with better quality images if you leave the sizing to another program, such as Microsoft Word (more in this in a little while). I often find that my side-on photographs were actually taken at a slight angle, or I had the camera tilted slightly. You can correct this fairly easily using the different transform tools in Photoshop (available from the Image/Transform menu). The tool you’ll probably use the most is the perspective tool, which allows you to correct for photographs taken from an angle. You can do some fairly extreme corrections using this tool. However it won’t bring back details that are hidden, such as when a rib is the in way of some rivets.
If you can’t get a photograph that shows all the details (such as the ends of the cupola I did in the June 2003 issue), you can use Photoshop’s Stamp tool to fill in missing details. This takes some work, but with practice it works very well. It helps to zoom in on your work. Don’t worry too much about making everything perfect since imperfections might disappear once you print out your artwork.

Once you have your image adjusted, you’ll probably want to sharpen the image to bring out some of the details. Pull down the Filter menu, select Sharpen, and finally Unsharp Mask… Adjust the Amount slider to choose the amount of sharpening. I find that values between 50% and 100% usually work best for images from my 4M pixel digital camera.

You’ll also want to learn more about how to use layers in Photoshop, I very often add a Levels layer and a Brightness/Contrast layer so I can adjust the image without changing the original pixels. This makes it easy for me to go back later and change my mind about these settings. It’s difficult to explain how these layers work—experiment with them and you’ll get the idea.

Image Sizing and Layout
Once you have your images edited, you can “place” them onto a sheet of paper. It’s best to print a number of decals on a single sheet of paper (especially in the smaller scales like my favorite N scale). I use Microsoft Word for this step, but there are many other programs you can use, and you can even resize and print out of Photoshop if you want. Word allows me to size and position each image without losing any image quality.

To use Word, pull down the Insert menu, select Picture, and then From File… Select a file and click on the Insert button. Next click on the image in Word to select it. You’ll need to ensure the Drawing tool bar is visible. Then click on the Draw button in this toolbar and select Text Wrapping, and then In Front of Text. This will allow you to move the image anywhere on the page and resize it. You can set the size precisely by using the properties dialog box for an image. Click on the image to select it, right click, and select Format Picture... Then click on the Size tab and enter a new width and height (you might need to uncheck the Lock Aspect Ratio check box in order to set width and height independently.) Getting the decal sized right requires some trial-and-error.

Measure your model and set the dimensions of your image to this size. Once you’ve done this for each image, print a test sheet on regular paper. Cut the images out and place them on the model. Chances are they won’t be exactly the size you want. Figure out how much they’re off in size and adjust the size in Word. After a couple of tries, they should be just the right size.
Once you have your images sized right, you can move them around on the page to use the smallest area near the top of the
paper. Decal paper is expensive, so the idea is to have all your decals at the top so you can use the unfilled portion of the sheet later for other decals.

Types of Printers
If you’re doing rectangular decals, you have a lot of options for printing decals because you can print on white decal paper. However, if you’re trying to print white or light-colored letters on clear decal paper, there’s really only one option: An Alps MD-5000 printer. These printers aren’t available new in the US, but you can find used ones on eBay. I have an Alps printer and find I rarely use it because I find my inkjet printer produces better results from photographic material.

If you can use white decal paper (or you’re printing dark decals on clear paper), you can use color laser printers, color copiers, or color inkjet printers. I use an Epson C80 inkjet printer that is fairly inexpensive and reproduces very fine details.

Speaking of color inkjet printers, you can burn a CD and most places that make copies can print it onto decal paper you provide for a small fee. I’ve done this and the results are very good (but I usually prefer the instant gratification of printing the decals with my own inkjet printer). However, your best results will come from providing them with an Adobe PDF file. You can create these files using Adobe Acrobat, which will create a PDF file from a Word document (or almost any other document).

Types of Decal Paper
When choosing decal paper, first you need to decide what type of printer you’ll be using. You can buy decal paper for ink-jet printers, or for laser printers (and color copiers). Next you’ll need to decide if you can use white decal paper instead oft ransparent decal paper. You’ll need white decal paper in most cases where you’re using photographs as the source. For the bridge project, I used white inkjet decal paper, printed with an Epson inkjet printer.

Paper and Printer Settings
Since decal paper is expensive, I like to print drafts on less expensive paper. You want to find a paper that has properties close to the decal paper you’re using. A bright-white paper (with a brightness of 100 or above) works reasonably well. Or you could use some thin glossy paper that isn’t very expensive so you can run enough drafts so you’re happy with the printed results.

Decal paper is a glossy or semi-glossy paper. Most inkjet printers have various settings with labels like Premium Glossy Photo Paper, or Premium Semi gloss Photo Paper that are best for decal paper. The different paper settings control the amount of ink deposited on the paper (glossy paper absorbs much less ink than regular paper). You should use the same setting for your drafts as you’ll use for the final decals.

Once you’re happy with your drafts, it’s time to print the decals. I initially had a lot of problems with printing decals on an inkjet printer. The decals would come out of the printer looking great. But a short while later, they’d look terrible. I eventually realized that the ink was beading up on the paper. I discovered by trial and error that I could use a hair dryer set on low about 18 inches from the paper to help the ink dry faster.

It also helps to spray the fixative on the decal paper as soon as possible after printing the decals. The fixative is a special spray you’ll need to buy along with your inkjet decal paper to protect the ink. If you don’t spray your decals, they’ll smear very easily and the ink will dissolve when you soak the decals in water. Spraying the decals also helps keep the ink from beading up.

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