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!