Waterslide Decal Guide

What are Waterslide Decals?

Waterslide decals are printed designs on a (normally clear) film. The decals are pretreated with an adhesive that softens in water, allowing you to slide the decal film off of the backing paper and onto your model. Decals are a staple of plastic models and miniature wargaming figures. The are an easy way to provide really small details without trying to paint them by hand.

Decal Application:

A figure painted and ready
for decal application.
Tools Needed:
Shallow water dish
Hobby Knife
Brush-on Gloss Finish
Old, Small Paint Brush
Soft Tissues


I prefer to use a bottled gloss finish and an old brush at this stage.

1) Prepare The Figure
Decide where you plan on applying decals on your painted figure. Apply a gloss sealer to these areas. You can gloss coat the entire figure, but I prefer to use a brush-on clear gloss at this stage. Let the gloss coat dry completely before proceeding to the next step. The purpose of the gloss coat is to give a smooth base for the decal to rest on. If you have ever noticed the ring of trim film around the decals on many miniatures (including most of the GW studio figures and vehicles), this is called silvering. Silvering is caused by tiny pockets of air trapped underneath the decal. By applying the decal over the smooth gloss finish, there is very little room for air to get trapped and the silvering effect is avoided.

Before the gloss sealer is
applied to the shoulder.

After the sealer is applied.

2) Prepare The Decal
Using a sharp hobby knife, cut out the decal you wish to use. If you are using decals from a large single sheet of decal film (such as decals you print yourself), you will need to carefully trim as close to the decal graphic as possible to avoid excess trim film on your figure.

GW decals don't have a lot of excess trim film and can be easily cut from their card sheets.

While the decal is softening, I apply
a little water to the figure itself.

Use the tweezers to dip the decal in a shallow dish filled with warm water, and then let it sit for about one minute on a non-porous surface (such as your painting palette). While the decal is softening, I like to use the old brush to apply some water to the area where I am going to apply the decal so that the area is moist. After a minute has passed (or until the decal slides freely on the backing sheet), use the tweezers to lift the decal on the backing sheet. Make certain to grab only the backing sheet from the decal - the decal film will have become soft and squeezing it directly with the tweezers can easily result in tearing or some other form of mutilation.


A successfully applied decal.

3) Apply The Decal
Using the old paint brush, gently slide the decal off the backing sheet and onto the prepared area of your figure. Continue to use the brush to gently maneuver the decal until it is positioned to your satisfaction. Once the decal is properly placed, gently press down with a soft, damp tissue to absorb the excess moisture. If you discover you have made an error and need to reposition the decal, simply use the brush to apply more water to the area and gently lift at the edge of the decal with the brush until the decal is loosened, then repeat the instructions above on Applying the Decal.


The finished result.

4) Finish The Figure
Your decal is now applied, but you should let it sit overnight to thoroughly dry and set before doing anything more to the figure. If you think your decal requires some highlighting or shading to blend into the rest of your figure, you can paint directly over the decal once it has set. At this point, you can finish the figure as normal. I normally use a spray gloss coat followed by a spray flat finish on all of my figures. Not only does the gloss coat protect your figures better, but with thicker decals, it will also help smooth out the edges. Note that if you don't let the decal dry completely before sealing, then the decal might tear or the sealer over the decal could become cloudy. Good luck!



What are Micro-Set and Micro-Sol?
Micro-Set and Micro-Sol are solutions that aid in the application of decals. Micro-Set is an alcohol-based setting solution that softens the decal and cleans the application surface. Micro-Set helps a decal settle unto the application surface and improves adhesion.

Micro-Sol is a more solvent style solution (with an acetic acid base) that softens the decal significantly and allows it to sink into crevices and irregularities on more complex or non-smooth surfaces.

Micro-Set and Micro-Sol are made produced by Microscale Industries, but the nearly the same formulas (with nearly the same names) are also sold by Testors, Polly Scale, and other paint and model companies. There is another brand called Solvaset that has been highly recommended to me, but I have yet to try it myself.

I am having trouble applying decals to Space Marine Shoulder pads. Any suggestions?
With a large decal, you can cut a small slit in the decal so that the decal has some room to slide over itself and lay slightly more flat. Alternatively, you can use a decal setting solution to make the decal conform to the surface on which you are applying it.

What if my decals are old and won't stick?
If your decal is not adhering to the model surface, try applying a little Future Acrylic Floor Wax (see painting tools section) to the application surface, and immediately position the decal over the wet floor wax. This is a very effective solution, but once dry, the decal will be permanently placed and can't be repositioned by remoistening the decal. If this concerns you, you can also use a little bit of white glue (such as Elmer's) instead of the floor wax.

How do I print my own decals?
First, you must have access to a color laser or inkjet printer, and then you must obtain Custom Decal Paper depending on the type of printer you are planning on using (inkjet or laser). Some hobby stores carry the Decal Paper, or you can order online from Micro-Mark.

If you are using an inkjet printer, print your decals directly onto the Custom Decal Paper and then let them dry for a couple of hours minimum. Next, spray the decals very lightly with a matte clear sealer (again, I recommend Testors DullCote) to seal them and to prevent the immersion into the water from making the ink run. Again, allow the decals to dry, preferably overnight this time. The next day, simply apply them as normal decals. Custom printed decals are quite a bit thicker than most commercial decals, so using a setting solution such as Solvaset is highly recommended (indeed, it is almost a must).

If you are using a laser printer, follow the steps above except that you do not need to spray seal the laser printed decals, as they are already water proof.

One thing to remember about printing your own decals - most printers do not print white since it is assumed you will be printing on white paper. White areas of graphics are instead left blank. Most printers also depend on a white print surface for their colors to remain "true", so you may discover that your decals print darker than you intend. You can always paint the area where you intend to apply the decal white to correct for this, or you can by white Custom Decal Paper. The disadvantage of white Custom Decal Paper, is that it is even thicker than the clear Decal Paper, so application may be more troublesome.

All of this may sound difficult, but it is easier than you think. Give it a try and good luck!

All of these shoulder insignias were custom printed. Image courtesy of Mike Major.

Special thanks to Al Ernat and Mike Major for their assistance and suggestions.

If you have any further questions, please ask me, and I'll likely even include the answers in this tutorial! Have fun and good luck!