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Making Your Own Decals

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I thought I would start this thread, as I've had a few questions about how I make the decals for my airliner builds and this will hopefully explain the whole process from start to finish!


My main interest at the moment is the British Airways 'Utopia' livery. I started to create my own decals for these designs about a year ago, after buying some online which turned out to be both the wrong size and generally incorrect!


This was the one which started it all, from my 747-436 Tribute Build:




I should explain that I am not an expert my any means. There are mistakes and defects on most of my models, many of which can be seen the the above picture! However, I am improving slowly and will point out any known pitfalls along the way...


My objective at the end of this thread is to have a model 727, with a bespoke design on the fin. This may take a while, as the kit needs building too! The kit is from Airfix:




And the tail design will be the 'Scotland' tartan livery, shown on the bag below:




At this point I will admit that the design process for this particular model has the potential to go badly wrong for two reasons. Firstly, the tail on the 727 is very complex, with more curves than a normal fin due to the air intake for the centre engine... The second potential problem is the geometry of the intended design - the tartan artwork is all straight lines and right angles, so getting it to conform to the tail fin/engine intake/rear fuselage whilst not looking distorted will be a real challenge. If it becomes too much of a problem I will resort to a different design from the above selection - probably the 'Waves of the City' design at the top centre - this one will be much more forgiving!


The first step is to get the design into a digital format. I scanned the bag (at 600 dpi) and opened the design in Photoshop:




I played around with the colours, using reference photos from the internet. The blue is now darker and the green, red and yellow are more vibrant. If this was not done, the printed decal can look dull.


I needed to scan the 727 kit (also at 600 dpi for commonality), to create a template for the tail:




These two images were then combined. You will notice that the tail fin has been flipped over, as that better suited the diagonal lines on the tartan design:




As this livery is completely fictitious, I can have the latitude to amend the design as much as I like to try and create something that looks suitable and attractive, whilst being practical to apply to the model. This version was not my first attempt and it may get amended as the process continues!


Once happy, the excess pattern is removed, leaving the bit I need:




I'm already concerned about how easily (or not!) this will apply to the model! Which brings me nicely onto the next stage of the design process - making very rough paper copies to see how well they fit:




These are then dry fitted, using clips to hold them into place:




I can see four immediate issues, most of which are not a surprise...!


The areas marked in blue need to be extended, to allow them to wrap around the top of the fin and engine intake. There is a gap (marked with the red line), where the decals do not conform to the curvature of the model. The third issue is more of a problem regarding the practicality of applying the decals - the joint between the fin and the rear fuselage has a very complex design, with multiple colours and shapes. If the entire design was moved down slightly, this would make it easier to apply. Finally the design on the fuselage is not level; it is sloping down at the front...


The first issue is simple to fix, the others are more of a challenge!

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On 30/09/2021 at 16:52, Alex1978 said:

Superb.I will follow with interest

Thanks Alex - hope you find it useful!👍


The whole process is split into three stages:


1) Research and Design

2) Production

3) Application


Stage 1 takes the longest by far, especially for a complicated design!

Stage 2 is very quick and stage 3 varies depending on the model, but is usually relatively simple. I will cover these later stages more at the appropriate point; for now I am firmly at the first stage!


I did a bit more research last night, as although my design is fictitious I want to livery to look authentic. The tartan livery was used extensively by BA - here's an image showing the tail of a 747:




From this, you can see that:

  • The diagonal stripes closely follow the angle of the swept fin
  • The pattern is bold, with a just small section of the original design expanded to cover the whole fin
  • The colours can be confirmed (with the caveat that any online photos may have colour issues - these can be amended in Photoshop)
  • The stripes are definitely vertical and horizontal!

As I've mentioned on other threads, most BA Utopia design came in different variations, so it is common to find changes in the design between different aircraft. I found an image showing the tartan livery on a Comair 727. This design is unique, as it is the only 'Benyhone' fin to contain a yellow section - all the others had a combination of just reds, blues, green and white:




From the first image, I have made some changes to the colours used on the decal, using the 747 image for reference:




The dark blue is now lighter and the medium blue has less of a green hue. I used the second image as a 'reality check' for my design - is the scaling, alignment, etc. something that looks comparable to the real aircraft? Based on that, I shifted the design around until I had this:




Some of my earlier problems are hopefully now solved as well. The horizontal dashed stripe now starts the very base of the fin, rather than going across the joint between the fin and fuselage. Wrapping the decal around the top of the fin and engine intake should also be relatively straightforward. I've kept the vertical yellow stripe running down from the intake and the area this runs into will be ideal for 'chopping', to blend the design into the white fuselage - if you look at the 747 photo again you can see how the design disappears at the lower forward edge.


Once the excess design is removed you are left with version 2:




Another paper cutout is next, to see how this one looks!


Once I'm happy with the shape, the design then gets tidied up considerably - for example, removing the blue dots in the white dashed stripe. This bit can take a while...

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I'm going back to the beginning again with this design, as I'm just not happy with it. I think the fin needs a horizontal stripe element, to show more clearly that the image derives from tartan. At the moment it just looks like diagonal stripes!


Back to the Photoshop drawing board...

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I think I now have a design that will work, but I need to build the fuselage first, paint it white and then add the blue underside. This is to check the design looks sensible in relation to the white/blue demarcation line on the livery.


A quick detour to look at the build itself (only a brief look, as this is about the decals!)...


The windows were filled with milliput and plastic sprue was added to the belly, to make an attachment point for a stand. The undercarriage is pretty basic on this kit, so I'm building it wheels up.




Rather than plastering potential decal designs on this thread and cluttering it up completely, I will wait until the fuselage is painted then check if the current design works. If so, I'll post the pictures; if not I'll tweak it until it does look OK - at that point I'll continue with the thread and show the production and application stages.

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  • 1 month later...
  • 3 weeks later...

Time for a long overdue update!


I have played around with some potential designs by printing them out onto plain paper and then comparing these to the model to see if they look correct when in situ. If there was any aspect that looked odd, I simply tweaked the master design slightly until things looked correct. This is (hopefully!) the finalised version of the artwork, with the shape of the tail fin super-imposed:




The excess material around the fin was then discarded. The areas marked below in blue are sections that need to wrap around the model, so I deliberately did not trim too closely here. The area on the underside marked in orange has to wrap around the entire bottom of the fuselage, so I left plenty of material to work with:




The next job was to separate the decals into two sections - one for the fin and one to wrap around the rear fuselage. I added some tiny black dots using the super-imposed fin outline as a guide, so I knew where to cut the image. These dots can be seen below if you look closely. Once split into two sections I distorted the lower one slightly along the top to create a curve that would fit around the base of the fin - you can see the size of the gap between the sections is larger in the middle:




These were then printed out and offered up to the model. It looked generally good, but the curvature around the lower rear fuselage caused the decal to veer away from vertical stripes. My solution was to distort the design, to try to counteract this problem. This is very much a 'trial and error' process! I crossed my fingers and dragged the bottom of the design in the direction shown by the arrow. When printed (or viewed on a screen) it looks wrong, as the straight lines are curved. However, when wrapped around the model it should hopefully look OK. The corrective curvature at the rear on the cyan stripe is much more pronounced than the gentle curvature of the yellow stripe at the front:




At this stage it was time to print out the design and see if it worked! The fin was obviously more straight-forward, being relatively flat. The geometry and general fit looked good:




Then it was time to evaluate the more complicated fuselage section:




The back looks good, but there is a gap at the front near the top where the two decals meet:




A little more editing on Photoshop should rectify that. I'm now feeling more confident that this design will work, although it did throw every challenge it could my way!

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  • 1 month later...

Closing the gap was a simple matter of distorting the image slightly by stretching it up at the front. I then turned my attention to the general quality of the design. It looks pretty rough when you zoom right in, but not too bad when viewed normally - the last image on the above post is the current quality of the graphic; when zoomed in it looks like this: 




Obviously room for improvement, which will make the final decal look much sharper. Unfortunately this is a very labour intensive process, which is why things have slowed down! However, the work on this stage is now almost done - here's the same section after being tidied up:




In case you're curious, this is a magnified view of the section of decal which goes around the centre intake. I'm much happier with it now.


I still have a bit more to do, then another test print will be required to check that everything looks as intended. If so, decal printing will be next!

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  • 2 weeks later...

Before completing with the tail design I had to go off on a slight tangent and produce the decals for the windows. I need to have these in place to determine the exact fit of the tail artwork, as I don't want part of this design obscuring the rear windows.


After some research on the web counting fuselage windows and a lengthy session on Photoshop, I came up with this:




Obviously an early screenshot of my attempt - the window layout is correct, but the titles and "speedmarque" logo need resizing!


Although BA never operated the 727 in 'Utopia' colours, their South African subsiduary Comair did. However, the application of the livery varied considerably. The image below illustrates some of the differences apparent on the same aircraft type:


  • "British Airways" title alignment relative to the front passenger windows (the window placement and numbers also varied between aircraft, which doesn't help!)
  • "Speedmarque" logo application angle and position relative to the door, both in terms of height and forward/aft placement
  • Circular "One World" logo missing on the upper aircraft (should be to the right of the door)
  • Height of the "Comair" title placement on the nose beneath the windscreens



Based on the the lack of consistency demonstrated above, I'm using this as carte blanche to place the decals where I think they look best!


I applied some printouts in approximately the right areas, just to see how they look:




A few tweaks will be needed (such as using grey instead of black for the door outlines), but I think the general layout looks appropriate. Time to finish the tail art!

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I've made quite a bit of progress on this over the past couple of days.🙂


My main task was to complete the design for the 727 windows and doors. Until this was done and the rear window locations confirmed, I could not finalise the tail design.


Once finished I produced an A4 layout and carefully placed the decals on this to minimise waste - side windows, tail design, windscreens, thrust reverser panels, wing walkways and a few other odds and ends for other projects. The huge panels in the middle are corogard sections for a future 1/144 A380 model. They just fit onto an A4 sheet, with everything else slotted in around them!




This was then printed out, giving me my first chance to check the actual colours and general appearance - it looked good👍:




There's also a clue there for my next project if you look closely! More about that another time...😉


After a good dose of lacquer to seal the decals, the windows and windscreens were cut out ready for application:




It all went a little bit wrong at this point. It has been a while since I last applied a large decal and my technique was slightly lacking... I ruined both windscreens and also the windows on the left hand side. A reprint will be required to make replacements for those! However, by the time I did the right hand side my technique had improved and this was the result:




I was happy with that! I then cut out the tail design to try it out for general fit and appearance. These are only being used as test decals, as the artwork still needs yet more tidying up. However, I thought that before expending too much time and effort, I should check if the general concept is working... The fin decal went on first:




It is a bit ragged at the base, due to using a blunt scalpel... You need sharp instruments for this!


This is the top of the centre intake:




There is enough surplus material, but I will extend the blue stripes slightly, especially near to the fin - otherwise there will be a tiny red sliver of material and I don't want that...


Top of the fin:




Clearly not big enough, which came was a surprise - I will extend this area so the entire top of the fin is covered.


I then applied the lower decal:




Good alignment with the top decal and the stripes are horizontal! :yahoo:




I will need to tweak the area under the centre intake and add more material here too. I'm happy with the way the design fits around the rear windows, so that is a success. Out of interest, the silver ring on the intake was done using a chrome pen. Not quite so tidy as Alclad, but quite acceptable.


The area under the tail:




Again, an excess of material - easily trimmed off when applied for real. The general design here needs a bit more tidying up but it's close to completion.


The tartan decals have now been removed before they dried on too much. Modifications will be made as described above and then a final print will take place👍.

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On 01/02/2022 at 22:30, Alex1978 said:

Awesome.Top work👍

Cheers Alex. It's good to see it starting to come together. 🙂


I printed out another decal sheet this morning, primarily to get some new windows and windscreens for this model. Unfortunately it was too damp today to spray the lacquer sealant over the sheet, so the model hasn't progressed any further - yet. Hopefully the weather will enable me to get on with this tomorrow.


I'm going to shoot off on a slight tangent for a moment and look at another aspect of the design stage. As I mentioned yesterday, there is another kit waiting in the wings courtesy of @DMC. Dennis was disposing of a few kits last year and generously gave me two more complete 727 kits (a -100 and a -200), which had both been started to his usual excellent standard. I have decided to complete the -200 version in another 'Utopia' livery, as the hard work has already been done designing the templates for the tail and the doors/windows for the fuselage. The scheme I opted for was the South African design by the artist Emmly Masanabo - you may have seen her name between the corogard sections of the decal sheet printed yesterday and posted above.


This design was one of the original 'Utopia' liveries and was used relatively frequently. My starting point was a scan from a 747 fin - I just need to amend this to fit a 727! Here's the original artwork:




My first job was to extend the design to cover the area of the central intake:




Then, with the help of a picture of the artist's design, I started to fill in the gaps:




The tail fin shape was superimposed to check the general dimensions and layout; I can also see where excess material needs to be removed:




Then the lower section of the design (which will wrap around the fuselage) was added:




This was then merged with the top tail fin design:




And tweaked to follow the original artwork:




I also took the opportunity to tweak some of the colours - BA regularly did this with this design, presumably to make it more vibrant. I then had to split the design into upper and lower sections:




After which, it was time to layout the design ready for another print run:




It may look complicated, but this was actually quite a quick design to construct as the shapes are bold and large. The tiny segments on the tartan fin are still needing attention, but I'm procrastinating on that particular job!


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  • 2 weeks later...

I've been delayed a bit on this project, waiting for a dry day. However, this morning I managed to finally seal the decals using a can of aerosol lacquer. Once dried, I could then apply the rest of the window decals:




Work on the tartan tail fin design is also progressing slowly! The next update will talk about that in more detail...

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  • 1 month later...

It's been a while since my last update, but I've made a huge amount of progress in the last couple of days.🙂


Work on finalising the design was finally completed and the decals laid out for printing on an A4 sheet:




Getting the tartan stripes tidied up took far longer than expected, as it was a fiddly job and I kept losing interest...! However, now they are done they look much crisper so should hopefully be worth the effort👍.


Up until now this thread has really only looked at the design stage of the process. As this has now concluded :yahoo:, it's time to consider the production and application stages in more detail.


The above sheet was simply printed onto decal paper, using the best settings the printer could achieve. Once the ink was dry I sprayed the sheet with Halford's lacquer to seal the ink, otherwise this will run when when the decal gets soaked in water. I find a few light coats of lacquer works best, allowing time to dry between each coat. Don't scrimp with this stage, a good coat of lacquer is very important.


Once this was done the decals were cut out and I soaked them in lukewarm water for about a minute. Different brands of decal paper may have different instructions with variations in temperature and soaking time - I just did what the packet instructed!


The decals were cut slightly over-sized, to allow surplus material to wrap around the edges of the fin and centre intake. The first one was applied to the side of the fin after brushing Micro Set onto the paint:




Getting the decal to conform to the area around the base of the centre intake was a little awkward:




Once in place, the surplus material at the top of the fin was trimmed away using a sharp blade to prevent tearing:




This process was repeated along the centreline of the centre air intake (with a slight wobble...):




The fin design on the left side was then added and aligned as carefully as possible, then trimmed as before:




It's not perfect, but it's the best I could manage! Micro Sol was added to bed the decals down and everything was left to dry. It was then time to add the fuselage graphics:




A good application of Micro Set aids in the positioning, as I try to line up the diagonal stripes:




The other side was added and the excess decal trimmed away:




Slightly tidier on the underside, but the airframe curves are less complicated down there!


Time for a little touching up... My son has some coloured Sharpie pens:




These were used on areas where the decal coverage was lacking, such as around the top of the fin. Once done, the whole area gets sealed and the end result looks good:




And the other side:




Looking back at this project, I am quite pleased with how it worked out - it is a complicated design and the fuselage has multiple curves, adding to the problem. It's not perfect, but when viewed from about a foot away it looks very acceptable and was a good learning curve for me. I have two more 727's waiting in the wings (with less intricate designs planned!), so they should look tidier than this once finished. Hopefully I will have a nice little trio of Boeing tri-jets when they are all done!

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WOW...thats something nice.

Top work,esp. considering the many curves on the 727s tail.

Cant wait to see the finished model...


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This is awesome! If you ever want vector versions of scanned images or bespoke vector graphics (that are not based on pixels, so can edit the colours / shapes seperately or scale up and down without losing quality, would print out much crisper too) send me a PM, I'm a graphic designer by trade and I think it would save you a lot of headache! Happy to help a fellow artist! 😋

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Very nice work. I have made a few home made decals for various projects over the years, although nothing as ambitious as those. You are right about the lacquer coats, it is a fine balance between too thick or too thin a coat. I have found that a first coat should be thin as otherwise the decal may run. It is hugely satisfying when it works. 

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  • 1 month later...
On 21/03/2022 at 21:58, Alex1978 said:

WOW...thats something nice.

Top work,esp. considering the many curves on the 727s tail.

Cant wait to see the finished model...


Thank Alex. Work has resumed...! 😁


On 29/03/2022 at 16:44, Erabe said:

This is awesome! If you ever want vector versions of scanned images or bespoke vector graphics (that are not based on pixels, so can edit the colours / shapes seperately or scale up and down without losing quality, would print out much crisper too) send me a PM, I'm a graphic designer by trade and I think it would save you a lot of headache! Happy to help a fellow artist! 😋

Thanks very much for the offer but I've only just got to grips with Photoshop - vector graphics might be a step too far at the moment! 😁


On 29/03/2022 at 19:28, Mr T said:

Very nice work. I have made a few home made decals for various projects over the years, although nothing as ambitious as those. You are right about the lacquer coats, it is a fine balance between too thick or too thin a coat. I have found that a first coat should be thin as otherwise the decal may run. It is hugely satisfying when it works. 

Thank you! I agree, the satisfaction from making these designs work is high.🙂


Talking of design, here is the livery for the third model (apologies for the poor quality):




This design represents Egypt and is one of two versions used by BA. The other version will appear in a later build!


The design is a single element, repeated and tessellated together. Here's the basic building block for the design:




One tidied up and the colours corrected, I joined them together into this formation:




As with all my 'what if' designs this one might be tweaked a bit, but this is essentially how I envisage it will look once completed.



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Mad, but brilliant 👏👏👏😂 the 72 looks superb dressed in tartan, a missed opportunity for BA I think! 


By the way, I'm back on the 787 now, will be TRI/TRE at Boeing in LGW. Dream(liner) come true! 

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On 14/05/2022 at 07:08, Alan P said:

Mad, but brilliant 👏👏👏😂 the 72 looks superb dressed in tartan, a missed opportunity for BA I think! 

Cheers Alan.👍 Comair did have one in a BA tartan livery, but not the same design as this one! I agree that it suits the aircraft rather well.


On 14/05/2022 at 07:08, Alan P said:

By the way, I'm back on the 787 now, will be TRI/TRE at Boeing in LGW. Dream(liner) come true! 

Congratulations! My sim check is next week... but at LHR!


On 17/05/2022 at 16:32, Paulaero said:

That's amazing home made decal manufacture mate.


I have made some for a series of cars I built so I know what your up against  but a 727 - seriously you could have done an A320 to keep the tail simple  !!!



Thanks Paul - I was after a challenge and I certainly got one! I'm also designing some tail fins for the A380 and ironically they're the most difficult of all to get right so they fit correctly. I think I'll stick with 747 designs after this, as I've got those down to a fine art now! 😁


I now have all three models (almost) ready for decals:




The -100 series 727 needs to have the tailplane painted first; on the -200 kits this can be attached afterwards, which is much simpler when decal application begins. Here's the shorter model, with the 'Egypt' design printed on plain paper to check for size and general fit:




This was then split into three sections for the final decal - the main fin and the section on the fuselage (shown below, complete with concave curve to fit around the base of the fin) and a final piece to go above the integral tailplane (which is not shown on this picture):




Once this was done to my satisfaction, all three sections were laid out on an A4 design ready for printing:




There is also a set of 747 fins in the 'Romania' livery and a few other bits I needed for other models - I like to maximise my usage of the decal paper!


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