Most scale models are based on military subjects and almost all military subjects have unit markings or symbols. A large number of civilian subjects also have noticable markings such as spacecraft and racing cars.
Getting these markings right can make a huge difference to the appearance of a finished model. There are several ways to apply markings to models. All have advantages and disadvantages and there is no single method that can be applied to every situation.
This tutorial describes the main methods in use by scale modellers.
These are by far the most popular solution for applying markings. This is largely due to the fact that almost every model kit will contain appropriate waterslide decals in the box so they are readily available and effectively cost nothing.
A water slide decal/transfer sheet consists of printed markings on a flexible transparent carrier film. This is attached to a backing paper with water soluble adhesive. Application consists of cutting out the decal that is needed; letting it soak in water for a few seconds and then sliding on to the model.
It sounds simple and sometimes it is. However, there are certain guidelines that have to be followed to get a good effect. A full guide about using this type of decals is given in the tutorial ‘Applying Waterslide Decals’ . There are three sources of these decals.
1. In the box
As already mentioned, almost all model kits will contain one or more sheets of waterslide decals and most modellers will be happy to use these. There are a few reasons why a modeller might seek an alternative:
- Many models can be made up into several variants and decals for each of these variants will normally be supplied. However, if the modeller wishes to make a variant not provided for by the kit manufacturer, then it will be necessary to find alternative markings.
- The quality of decals provided in the box can be variable. This is less of a problem in recent times with mainstream manufacturers, but some older kits may contain decals where the carrier film is thick or where the printing is poor quality. In these situations a modeller may wish to obtain a better quality alternative.
- If the model was produced a long time ago and spent several years on the shelves of a model shop, or in one of your cupboards waiting to be built, then the decals may have degraded in the box and have become yellowed.
- Sometimes the shape or surface texture of a model may make it very difficult to apply waterslide decals, so a different type of marking will need to be used. For example, successfully applying waterslide decals on to the ridged zimmerit armour of WWII German vehicles is particularly difficult.
- Some European countries prohibit the display of the Nazi swastika emblem in any form and you may purchase a model and find that these markings are missing and will need to be sourced separately.
- Although good quality waterslide decals can produce a very good finish and look almost painted on, there are some modellers who feel that ‘almost painted on’ is not good enough and will prefer to actually paint some markings for extra realism.
There are a number of companies that specialise in making waterslide decal sheets and although these can be expensive, the quality is often superb. These are particularly popular with aircraft modellers and it seems that almost every version of every military aircraft has a decal sheet made for it. These not only cover the external markings, but also instrument panels and internal fittings.
In addition to decal sheets for specific aircraft and vehicles, it is also possible to buy generic decal sheets such as various roundels for RAF aircraft, maps, road signs, etc. and some of these can be very useful for dioramas.
If the decals provided in the box do not meet your needs and you can not find what you want in the hundreds of aftermarket alternatives, then it is possible to make your own waterslide decals and there are at least two methods of doing this.
- It is possible to buy sheets of transparent carrier film on which the markings can either be hand drawn/painted, or printed with an inkjet printer. A protective layer of varnish is put over the top and when this has dried they are ready for use.
- A special liquid solution is brushed onto a printed surface in several layers that will dry into a flexible film. When lifted off the paper, the film will pick up some of the printing ink, so you end up with a thin flexible film with the markings that can be applied to a model using the solution as an adhesive. We have not tried this so cannot confirm how effective it is.
These are perhaps the second most popular method for applying markings. There are several companies making dry transfers specifically for modellers with the most well known company being ‘Archer’ . Markings are available for a wide variety of subjects in colour and monochrome. There is also a wide range of dry transfers not specifically made for modellers and available from stationery shops, but these are normally limited to text and numbers.
Dry transfers are usually printed on to the reverse of a transparent sheet and have a backing paper to protect them until they are ready to use. Applying them is simple to describe but can be quite tricky in practice. The protective paper is removed, the transfer is positioned and then the front of the carrier sheet is rubbed gently with a hard object such as a pencil. The transfer will adhere to the model surface and the carrier sheet can be gently peeled away. To ensure that the transfer is adhered well it should then be rubbed again using the protective backing paper.
The tricky bit can be holding the transfer in the correct position while it is being rubbed on, especially if the model surface is curved or there are raised details close by. A protective coat of matt/flat varnish is normally sprayed on top of the transfers to make sure they stay in place and this is particularly important if it is planned to apply washes, filters or dry brushing after the transfers have been applied.
In addition to markings, dry transfers are also available to simulate surface details such as rivets and panel lines. In these cases, the transfers are applied before the coats of paint. The transfers are thicker than normal and are sufficiently thick to be visible as surface texture after painting.
Airbrush and stencil
Another option for markings is to airbrush them on to the model using a stencil (paint mask) to form the shape of the marking. After all, this is often the method used to apply markings to the real thing. Stencils can be home-made out of thin card, or plastic card cut carefully with a sharp pointed craft knife. Using home-made stencils is only practical for large simple markings such as large numbers or the stars applied to WWII US military vehicles.
Some stencils are produced by model manufacturers with companies like Eduard making stencils from metal photo-etched frets. These can be quite detailed and rival the complexity found with conventional decals.
This method is mostly only suitable for single colour markings. It is possible to use it for multi-colour markings, but this makes a fairly difficult process even harder and more time consuming.
Using an airbrush with masking tape is also useful for some markings such as applying the zebra stripes to aircraft wings used by Allied aircraft involved in the D-Day landings of WWII.
Handpainted or drawn
The idea of hand painting markings on to a model may appear to be a ridiculous suggestion. Trying to replicate most markings and graphics would require a skill that is beyond most modellers. There is also the problem that this method is fairly unforgiving and mistakes would be difficult to correct.
However, there are instances where unit markings were applied roughly in the field by the soldiers that operated the vehicles. There are many pictures of Soviet armoured vehicles in WWII where the markings have been clearly applied by hand with very little care and this sort of thing does lend itself to replication by hand painting. Sometimes, the slightly uneven result acheived with hand painting can be more realistic than using decals. For example, the zebra stripes applied to the wings of allied aircraft prior to D-Day were sometimes applied in a hurry and had uneven lines. Yet models of such aircraft almost always show neat crisp lines that have been acheived with either decals or masking tape.
If you are planning to do any hand painting of markings, then it is advisable to practice first on a test model, or paper.