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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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