How to make waterslide transfers (decals)

Today we're going to focus on the process of making your own waterslide transfers (decals). The other day we looked at applying them to your models and now it's time to look at how you can create them for your own specific chapter or any other chapter that is not supported with official transfers.

You're going to need a few things
The list of supplies is not long, but it can be tricky to get everything.
Decal paper (clear and/or white background)
Decal paper fixative (depending on the paper you buy)
Access to a laser printer and/or inkjet printer
Some kind of computer drawing program

The first thing is getting an image
You can look all over the internet for designs, pre-made symbols and inspiration. They're all over the place. If you're not computer savvy, maybe a friend can help you get or draw what you need.
Once you know what image you want, you'll need that image the right size and color so it can be printed out at the highest quality you can get. Here's where the drawing program comes in. There are tons of them out there and you can use whatever you're comfortable with. You want to end up with a nice, clean image of your chapter symbol in the end. I use Photoshop, but that's because I have it for photo editing already.

White or clear decal paper, which kind do I need?
Before we go any further, let's look at the difference between clear and white background decal paper. Both options are out there and you'll need to pick the right kind of paper based on the colors you have in your chapter symbol. If you have white in your symbol (Ultramarines, a skull, Flesh Tearers, etc.) you'll need to use white paper. If you have no white in your symbol (Blood Angles, Black Templars, etc) you can use clear.

The reason this is important is that most printers do not print the color white so we need to use the white paper to get it (the color white). This may mean some modifications need to be made to your symbol in order to get a the best decal possible.

For example. Let's look at Dark Angles. They have a white sword and wings. To get this as a decal, we'll need to print it out on white paper. In order to get the white symbol, we'll need to make a small circle that's slightly larger than the symbol and fill it in with a dark green color similar to the one we have on our models. This way, we can print out the green circle with the wings inside it on the white paper and attach the whole thing to our model. Then we can use our actual green paint along the edges to blend in the green color of the decal as needed.

If we look at Dark Angel terminators on the other hand, their design is a broken red sword and wings... no white in there. We can print this symbol right onto clear decal paper and cut it out. It can go right onto the shoulderpads of our terminators.

What you can't do is simply print out a solid white symbol alone without adding the background color around it. Unless you have a printer that can print white ink (onto clear decal paper). Then you could do it. I don't know of any printers that print white ink, but I suspect they're out there somewhere. Maybe they're high end machines you might find at print shops.

There are two very different kinds of decal paper out there.
Laser decal paper and inkjet decal paper.
Depending on what kind of paper you buy, you may need a laser printer instead of a regular inkjet printer. I would look carefully as both kinds of paper are out there. The inkjet printer decal paper makes it easy to do this at home since most home printers are inkjet printers, but you'll need a spray fixative to seal the inks to the decal paper once you print it.
Laser printer decal paper may require you to go to a local printing store (as most home printers are not laser printers), but you won't need to do anything to the decal paper after it's been printed.

So where can you get decal paper?
You might be able to get it from your FLGS
You can order online from Testors or Bare Metal Foil Co.

I had to measure the freehand symbol for the right dimensions

Getting your image just the right size
Once you have your symbol, you need to make sure it is the correct size. The first thing I did was measure the freehand symbol I painted on my model. It's much smaller than I thought it was. I translated those measurements over to my drawing program so I had the right dimensions. This might also mean a few practice print outs on regular paper until you can print out your symbol the exact size it will be when it goes onto your model. Use cheap, regular paper for this until you get it perfect.

Once you have the size correct, duplicate your design so you have more than one on your page. Now you'll need to be careful how big of an area you cover doing this. Here's why... my decal paper is 8.5 inches wide by 5.5 inches tall. If I make my sheet of symbols bigger than that size, it will be cut off. Again, practice with the cheap paper until you get it right.

Enough for eight terminator squads

Once you have everything just right, you have two routes depending on the kind of paper you bought.

If you have inkjet decal paper and an inkjet printer... just print it out at home. Chances are that's the kind of printer you already have on your desk. Once it dries, seal it and you're done.

If you have laser decal paper... print out a really nice color copy of your page of symbols onto regular paper from your home printer (if it's an inkjet printer). It should be as high of a quality as you can get. That's what you'll take along with your laser decal paper to the printing store to make a copy of (your symbol page) onto the decal paper using one of their laser copiers there.

If for some reason you happen to have a laser printer at home, just print out your decals directly onto laser decal paper. If you have access to a laser printer (like say at work) you could email your image to yourself and try printing it out there... theoretically.

Using the right paper in the right machine
Trying to use laser decal paper in an inkjet printer will not work. The ink will not dry, so don't even waste your time. Make sure you know what kind of decal paper you are using beforehand. You need to match your printer type to the paper. Otherwise it's not going to work. Trust me on this one.

Put your new, custom decals on your models
Once you've printed out your new fancy decals, it's time to try them out. Adding them to your models should be a breeze since we've already covered that process here. Get them on your models, add your weathering and battle damage and marvel at the incredible detail they add to your minis.

I ended up going the inkjet decal paper route since I have a cheap inkjet printer at home. While it's a bit more work with having to fix the inks to the decal paper, I think the results are worth it. It's definitely something I'm going to look to do with all of my future models.

How the process went for me
I followed the process I outlined here to get my decals made. I found an image online, got it scaled to the correct size based off my own model measurements and printed it on the right kind of paper for my printer. In this case, is was inkjet decal paper. That meant I had to seal the ink once it dried. I used two kinds of sealer just to see the results... the recommended stuff from Testors on half of them and then some regular Matte Spray Finish on the other half. The decal I actually put on my model was sealed with the Testors sealer.

I gave my shoulderpad a quick coat of matte varnish (brush on) to smooth out the surface before applying the decal to it. I carefully cut out my decal as close as I could to the outer edges of the design and followed the directions for the Microsol/Set route and used that to apply it to the shoulderpad.

It took just one pass with the MicroSol to get the decal to conform to the shoulderpad perfectly. I think that's because I waited for a few minutes during the MicroSet stage and let that soften the decal up slightly as well.

A few coats of the matte varnish after everything was dry and what you see is what you get. I think it's a big step up from freehanding the design onto each shoulderpad. If for no other reason than consistency. As far as time goes for each shoulderpad though, I think the freehand might be quicker.

Either way, it was tons of fun to see if I could pull this off and actually make my own decal and get it onto my model without it looking horrible. I'd say this was a win.

Make sure to check out these posts as they might help:
How to apply decals to your models
Adding freehand, when you do it matters
7 things to remember when using decals

Ron, From the WarpIf you've got any questions about something in this post, shoot me a comment and I'll be glad to answer. Make sure to share your hobby tips and thoughts in the comments below!


  1. Hi Ron,
    Does this mean you'll be putting decals on all your Novamarines instead of going for the sculpted and cast route? I've been using your tutorials myself to make some Pre Heresy Death Guard shoulder pads, hopefully i'll have some pics to show you soon!

  2. This is great Ron, I didn't even know it was possible to to do, so thanks so much for sharing, I really hope to have a go at this one day

  3. Andy: Looking forward to seeing ths pics.
    I may go the decal route for the rank and file guys in my force. For character models, I want to sculpt individual shoulderpads.

    IDICBeer: It's much easier than I thought it would be and it adds so much more to a model.

  4. Great tutorial, Ron. I've read a couple of other how-to-make-decal articles on the web, but yours is by far the most informative and easiest understand. Thanks!

  5. I didn't even know you could this paper, will definately be looking into this. Need to find the paper though in the UK!

  6. Solid work Ron. I've contemplated doing this in the past, and just never invested the time or money into trying yet. You explained and outlined the process in this and the previous article on applying them so well, it's like I don't even have to do any homework :) Thank you :)

  7. Great work Ron. I don't have a lick of skillz in Photoshop (or GIMP) but have a lovely wife who does!
    This way I can do my own Craftworlds and have decals!

  8. I've been doing this for some time, and I have an LED printer at home.. I thought it woth mentioning if you have an LED printer.. you need to get the laser paper.

    and if you are using a laser or LED, make sure you use the right seeings or you will literally burn the decals

    oh, and if you can, use a vector drawing package rather than a bitmap, it will make your graphics more scalable (so, illustrator, not photoshop)

    Nice post Ron :)

  9. Clif Ganyard: Thanks!

    vandalworks: I just discovered the lasejet paper myself when doing this whole experiment. You can order both kinds of paper online. The links are in the post.

    Tim Toolen: It's easier than I thought it would be. If you have about $20 and access to an inkjet printer, you should be able to get just as good results.

    Fayte: Even a basic understanding of Photoshop should get you great results.

    Karitas: Good point, thanks for the tip in LED printers. As for the vector based artwork, I got around that by making my resolution 300dpi in Photoshop... and I drew them larger and shrunk them down so I didn't lose any image quality.

  10. Excellent and timely post, Ron! I'm still torn between hand painting and making transfers, seems like this may be the way to go.

    Regarding the spray sealant, how light/heavy an application did you use, and did you have to tape down the sheet to prevent curling?

    Inspiring stuff! I keep looking at the BoLS World Eater sheet and thinking about giving it a go. Your post prompted me to order up some of the paper, figure I ought to at least give it a try!

  11. Admiral: Glad you like it!

    Mordian7th: Wait a minute, I thought we went over this. You've got a great way already... transfers are easy though. As for the sealant in the end, it's a brush on and I do two slightly thinned coats or just enough to get rid of the sheen left by the decal paper itself.

  12. Hah! Yeah, I'll likely stick with painting the WE symbols as I've already started down that path. It's just you made doing your own transfers look so EASY! :)

    Keep up the great work!

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  14. Ron, great post as always!

    I don't like using the white decal paper because of the extra effort of getting a color match on the edges.

    Another option for white backgrounds "inside" the decal (using the clear decal paper) is to paint the white where you'll be putting the decal.

    You have to make sure your image is transparent where you want the white to be. Then, the white shows through the clear, and the edges are covered by the color of the decal.

    It can be a little finicky, but if you're going the printed decal route, it's a safe assumptions that you're going to be be doing a lot.

    Make a masking template to make that part of the process repeatable/fast as well. An airbrush makes this even faster/easier.

  15. Another good tutorial Ron! Thanks for including so much detail.

  16. Wow!

    The Retribution of Scyrah Myrmidons have big smooth shoulder pads, and dudes often try to freehand on them, which never looks quite right.

    This could be a wonderful answer for people wishing to break up that big slab of white ^^,

  17. Mordian7th: It is. The biggest thing is getting your artwork the right size.

    crazybaldhead: Good point. Painting the part of the model that the decal will be set on top of white beforehand can make it easier in some cases. I can see how a small template for that would make it much easier to do as well.

    Cornu Mortem: Thanks!

    Marshal Wilhelm: I just looked at the icon you're talking about and this would make a great solution to trying to paint that complex design.

  18. I talked a while back about making my own transfers for numbering my IG tanks. I'd worked out exactly what I needed to do and what I needed, but until now I've not actually seen anyone else who had gone to the trouble. It's good to know that it can (and does!) work! Do you have any points that we should watch out for... ?

  19. Just when I was wondering how people do their own decals I find this article and it covers it all, thanks!

  20. oink: I must have missed your comment there. Sorry about that, I hope my follow-up post covered them.

    You can call me Andy: It's easier than you think.

  21. I do have a Laserjet... YAY! I'm picking up supplies today, and I am drawing my Penitent Sons chapter logo tonight!!

  22. Hivetyrant36: Excellent, keep us posted on how it turns out.

  23. As a few others have said: Great tutorials. Easy to follow and plenty of information (without boring us to death with irrelevant nonsense). I really like your style.

    My question is a of a slightly different nature to the tutorial though. Your weathering and battle damage on the termies looks incredible. Is there a chance we could see a tutorial on how you did that?

  24. Conandoodle: Absolutely. I have the various techniques I used on this guy in the Archive section under Weathering and Battle Damage.

    But here's a look at the model himself: Novamarine terminator.

  25. 2 things quickly.

    1. Followed your guide. Decals went on flawlessly. Thanks.

    2. Your Novamarines look sexy. I like the damage. I read a few tutorials on your blog re weathering, pencil damage, etc. Was half hoping you had a one-pager outlining the order and styles you used. I'm trying the weathering powders but not really getting a similar effect.

    1. Excellent! Glad it worked well for you. Email me about the one-pager request. I may have what you're looking for.


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