Since I've just finished a fairly big two-part series on decals and making/adding them to your models, I thought I might review the things I learned in doing this experiment for folks who are looking to get into decals on their own models.
Decals should not be scary
First things first, decals should not scare anyone away with the amount of work involved or because you "don't know how to apply them the right way." Given my limited experience with decals, I'm going to continue to use the MicroSet and MicroSol method for applying my decals. It's not a ton of work and it gets them on there so they really hug the surface of the model.
Some things to remember:
1. Give the MicroSet a few minutes to work on the decal before you wipe any excess away. It too will help soften the decal so it conforms to the surface of the model better. I waited 3 minutes before wiping the excess off and found the decal considerably softer. And that was before I applied any MicroSol to soften it further.
2. Patience is key. Like anything else, you shouldn't be in a rush to do this. You could do decals on an entire squad of Marines in one batch so that by the time you get done with the last one, the first one is dry enough to go back and keep working on.
3. Prep your surface before applying the decal. It might not seem like much, but I think it helps to give the surface a quick coat of varnish (gloss or flat) in order to smooth out the surface slightly.
UPDATE: It was mentioned in the comments that you really should you gloss in order to get a smooth surface to place your decal on. That was echoed by another comment and I think it's worth mentioning in the post now as probably the best thing to do. Use a thin gloss coat over the area you will be placing your decal.
4. MicroSol will work if you give it time. This goes in line with not rushing to get it all done. If it doesn't work in the first pass, let it dry completely and repeat. This should do it. Once I started waiting, I found I only needed one pass with the MicroSol. And you can always use your paintbrush and apply a little downward pressure to the decal to help it conform to the surface underneath.
5. Protect your decal once it's on your model. A quick pass with a bottle varnish should help it stay in place and keep it protected. You don't want to ruin your work at this point.
You can see after reading those few things, it's nothing difficult really. A few passes with a series of varnishes or chemicals and the patience to wait and let each one do its job. Decals shouldn't scare you.
Making your own vs buying them
I'm a big fan of making mine. Particularly since the Novamarines are not supported with official decals just yet. I went the inkjet decal paper route since that's the kind of printer I have at home as well.
Some things to consider:
6. Inkjet decals require the ink to be sealed in place. I had absolutely no trouble with this step although I have read some folks have had some problems with ink bleeding. I waited and let everything dry for at least a day before moving onto the next step when I was making my decals. I went with the Testors paper and sealer products.
7.Laser decal paper requires no additional sealing of the inks, but may introduce a second generation copy if you have to print it (your decal page) on your home computer and then take that to a printing store to make a copy. You'll want to have the best copy you can get if you go this route.
All in all, decals are a great addition to models
If I add everything up, I think I'm out around $20 for everything to do this. That includes the MicroSet, MicroSol and the decal paper. I already had the bottle varnish to use. Even adding that, I'm not over $20. Now I have the ability to make exactly what I need for my Novamarine force now. Both in terms of size and shape. And I've got the process down for getting them on the model correctly.
I'm going to call this one a big win for me. I started out applying decals using just water and living with the few wrinkles I did end up with that couldn't be removed with relief cuts. Now, they look painted on and they've got much more detail than I could paint freehand.
Is it going to replace freehand? No, that's still something I will use on models when it's the better method. Most of my one-off models will still see freehand since I don't want to use entire sheets of decal paper for one or two decals. As far as an army though, decals are going to take up a big portion of what was freehand work before. They aren't any great time savers for me, but their detail and consistency is what I like most of all.
Make sure to check out these posts as they might help:
How to make your own decals (waterslide transfers)
How to apply decals (waterslide transfers)