How To: Apply Decals Like A Pro [VIDEO]

Mar 29, 2013 No Comments by

Applying decals is a finishing-touch that has nothing to do with function, but is still extremely important. Unlike many RC tasks, decal work is a “one and done” process which cannot be reversed, so it is important to apply decals correctly the first time. A well-decorated body not only looks good, but it can help racers get noticed at the track. Decals also allow hobbyists to pledge their allegiance to manufacturers and sponsors—a true display of RC pride. Over the years, many techniques have been developed for properly installing decals, and here are some of the most revered methods for applying decals correctly as well as some things to avoid.

Remove the overspray film
While they may be reluctant to admit it, almost everyone has made the mistake of applying decals on top of the body’s protective overspray film. After the body is painted and cut, check to make sure that the overspray film is removed. Failing to do so will result in the worst kind of “oh @#$%” moment that you can ever imagine.

Wipe-down the body
After the overspray film is removed, thoroughly wipe-off the exterior of the body with denatured alcohol on a clean, lint-free rag. This will remove finger prints, oils, and mold release residue. Removing these substances will allow the decals to adhere strongly to the body and prevent the edges from lifting over time.

Pre-cut the decals with an X-Acto
While some decal sheets are precut, many are not. Before thinking about decal placement, pre-cut the decal sheets with a new X-Acto blade. It is not necessary to cut completely through backing paper; simply drag the blade on the surface and penetrate the decal film itself. Get as close to the edges as possible to create a nice, clean look when the decals are applied.

Plan the placement
Before removing the decals from the sheet and applying them to the body, plan their placement. Remember, once the decals are set, they can rarely be peeled-off and applied again, so doing it right the first time is a necessity.

Use a dry erase marker
Using a dry erase marker to spot decal locations is very helpful. Mark the areas on the body where the decals are intended to be placed. This gives you a reference point and a good idea of how the decals will look once applied. Using a ruler and dry erase marker gives a good guideline to ensure that the decals are placed straight on the body.

Shoot for symmetry
As a general rule, decals should be placed symmetrically on the body. The body usually looks best when both sides get the same exact treatment. Doing so will provide a good visual balance and aesthetic consistency. On a properly decorated body, one side should mirror the other.

Make sense of the decals
Believe it or not, there are occasionally “wrong” ways in which to apply decals. Graphics like flames, splatters and drips should be placed in the correct direction—as if the vehicle is moving forward and the graphic is being pushed to the rear of the body. Some decals are designed to face a certain direction.

Don’t use your fingers
When handling a decal, never touch the sticky side with your finger. Instead, use a small flat head screw driver, X-Acto or tweezers on the decal. This method prevents oils from your hands from being introduced to the adhesive, giving the decal as much sticking-power as possible and adherence longevity.

Lay-down the decals
The big enemy of decals is air bubbles, which result when air is trapped under the decal when it is applied. To avoid air bubbles, lay-down the decals rather than setting them down flat. Starting at one edge or corner, lay down the decal while using your free hand to trail, and drag over the freshly laid section. This will expel the air and prevent it from getting trapped under the decal.

Avoid stretching them
Most decals are made of vinyl, which has elastic properties. While decals are flexible, they should never be stretched or pulled taught. Doing so will warp the design, lighten the colors and usually result in the decal pulling-free over time.

Use soap or window cleaner to avoid bubbles
A good trick for perfect decal placement is to spray the body with window cleaner or a soapy solution, then placing the decals. This will allow you to slide the decal into the desired position and iron-out any air bubbles in the process. The downside is that it takes a while to dry under the decal, and it is considerably messy.

Cut large decals into segments
The larger the decal, the more difficult it is to place, because there is a larger margin for error in the “laydown” process. For large decals—especially long thin ones—it is sometimes beneficial to cut the decal into smaller segments, making it easier to work with.

Bubble repair
Sometimes air bubbles simply cannot be avoided. When faced with an annoying air bubble, there are a couple of ways to remedy the situation. First, try to push the air bubble out from under the decal with your thumbs. If you can push the bubble to the edge, the air can escape. If the bubble simply won’t budge, try heating the decal with a hair dryer or heat gun. This softens the vinyl, loosens the adhesive and makes the air easier to push out. If all else fails, and a big pocket of air is hopelessly trapped under the decal, use the tip of an X-Acto to puncture the bubble, then smooth it out, expelling the air through the hole.

Beware of Body Cleaners
There are many different methods for cleaning the exterior of a body. Many people use a bit of nitro fuel, and the market is full of specific, oil-based body cleaners. Nitro fuel and many of these cleaners, however, can damage decals by removing coloring and lifting them if the edges are penetrated with the cleaner. When cleaning the body, try to stay away from the decals. If the decals themselves are dirty, use a solution of warm water and mild dish soap.

Removing Decals
Over time, you may opt to give the body a decal facelift. When removing old decals, avoid simply ripping them off of the body, as they may tear and leave behind an excessive amount of adhesive. The best approach to removing decals is to dig under a corner with your thumb nail and slowly peel-off the decal, holding as close to the body as possible. To remove excess adhesive, dab the sticky side of the decal itself on top of the adhesive repeatedly. In this process, “like sticks to like,” and the old decal actually pulls-off the old adhesive very effectively.

Final thoughts
Body work is delicate, and to make matters worse, you usually can’t redo a body adjustment; applying decals is no exception. RC bodies are extremely detailed, and properly installing the decals makes a huge visual difference. Crooked, air bubble-laden, haphazardly-placed decals are an eyesore and take away from the scale realism of RC. Applying decals is an acquired skill, but heading in with a strong knowledge base is a great first step in applying decals like a pro. – Michael Wortel

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About the author

Associate Editor Since receiving my first hobby-grade RC car as a holiday present from my father nearly 20 years ago, I've been fortunate enough to meet more people and experience more opportunities through the adventures I've had in the RC industry than I would've ever imagined. I've done it all - from working at a hobby shop, to being a factory sponsored racer, to working for some of the biggest brands in the industry. I've enjoyed each and every one of the dozens of kits I've built, hundreds of events I've attended, and thousands of laps that I've logged at race tracks around the world, and my passion is to share those experiences with other hobbyists so that they may find fulfillment in their own RC careers.
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