DECALS- A Disease

decal box

Are you inflicted with a disease that causes you to buy decals for a yet undefined project? You aren’t along. I suffer from the same behavior. I have boxes of decals kept safely in my bedroom closet preserving my collection. Looking at the stack of boxes the other day caused me to think that I won’t live long enough to build all those models. What is worse, Protocraft just posted a bunch of new decals.

Collecting decals may also be caused by a reaction to the hobby business practice of limited runs.  Buy it now or forever wish you had.   Couple that with the disappearing supplier problem and you have the natural ingredients for hording.

The bright side of my problem is that those boxes of decals provide lots of modeling opportunities in the future.   Decals are an essential piece in the puzzle of scratch building a model or modifying a kit.  Relating back to the last blog about old books and how none of the models were lettered.  I don’t know if there were decals available in 1941 or that the author didn’t bother painting and lettering the models.  It doubtful that I would undertake building a freight car today without having the decals in-hand.   I suspect others feel the same way.  Years ago, I would piece together lettering from multiple sources.  Old Champ decals were printed on a press and had issues with subpar image quality.  Using these decals with silk screened lettering really stood out on a model.  The difference in intensity of the white ink was hard to look at.

While the fortunes of decal and detail parts sources is up and down in recent years, it appears that Protocraft has filled a large void in the freight car requirement.    Walthers, Champ Decals and Greg Komar have exited the field.   Microscale has essentially ended production of O scale decal sets with few exceptions.  These firms have found a limited demand for decals today.   While the founder of Champ died, his daughters weren’t able to find a buyer for the line at an acceptable price.

For the most part, the older decal sets suffered from stock fonts not matched to actual car lettering.   Railroad lettering was a unique art and rarely did railroads use the same character style from another road.   Rick Leach has told me that each new project requires that most of the lettering be redrawn to photos.  It is a slow process of tracing the lettering using a program like Adobe Illustrator.   The old suppliers probably traced the heralds but used standard printers type for the dimension data and car numbers.   RL Design and Protocraft rely heavily upon photographs to ensure that the lettering is correct.  The amazing thing is the stuff actually fits the model assume the model is accurately built.

There are a few other suppliers like San Juan Decal Company, Clover House, Jerry Glow and Rails Unlimited to name a few.   RL Design is trimming down their extensive line of decals.  Recently, RL licensed some of their artwork to Protocraft to speed up production of new Southern Pacific decals sets.   The first sets will be released this fall.

Custom decal making is even more limited a field of suppliers as I have found out recently.   There is one source that I have overlooked is Kadee.  Yes, the coupler people do print custom decals matching to PMS color charts.   I have no idea what their capabilities are but their prices don’t seem bad.   Rail Graphics is probably the best standard colors in terms of quality, speed and cost.   Chooch Enterprises used them for a number of their kits.    I am continuing to work with Highball Graphics to see if the right shade of yellow can be produced for some Soo Line diesels.  There are limitations in the range of colors that the Kodak printer can produce.

4 thoughts on “DECALS- A Disease

  1. Decals in 1940 when the article referred to in the last blog was published were even harder to come by than now. And I will admit to also having boxes of decals for future projects (that may never get built), but I don’t think that is a disease — just experience with O scale model building.
    And then there are the sets of freight car trucks, wheel sets, detail parts, etc. for future use. Just prudent planning — I tell the spouse.


  2. Gene,

    Several comments to this and your diesel decals postings.

    Within recent years, I have been involved in aquiring limited run decals, as well as having several custom run sets done through various providers. I will share several observations, as we learned through responses to our inquiries, as well as samples and/ or finished work. I have no personal connection to any decal provider, but do insist on quality. Not suprisingly, there are many custom decals made, or purchased, then left to sit in some type of storage container. The number of actual people that use the products they purchase is alarmingly low. On to the decals…

    Artwork is the key to start a good decal project. If you have true CAMERA READY artwork, then just about anyone can print this into a finished decal. Well…Not so. The method and equipment used to do the actual printing may not be able to print your smaller lettering. We found out the hard way that advertised services do not generally meet the quality we were after. KaDee has excellent information on their web page that describes the five different decal manufacturing methods, as well as how to set up artwork.

    Of note is almost all custom decal sets from numerous historical societies and even custom decal sellers are ultimately done through Rail Graphics, as Ron has demonstarted the highest quality in both the decal product, as well as ability to last many years without falling apart. As mentioned, using his line of fonts does limit the lettering style if you choose to let him do the artwork.

    We went to KaDee for a couple of projects and they would not do the artwork we needed, due to multiple colors and registration concerns. Thniking about it after the fact, we would have had them print each color seperately and we would have just applied each color as a decal, resulting in the finished heralds. Doing a set in a smaller scale with KaDee yielded finished decals that are about 150% more expensive than the O Scale product from another provider.

    Rail Graphics provided us with exactly what we needed, with the exception being the ultra small stencils, such as what would be on brake equipment and trucks. We used artwork prepared from actual railroad drawings, which was a win-win for us. For the smaller stencils, I look to other manufacturers that do print this small data and continue to purchase their sets when I can. Of note is I figured out to start using 1/87th scale decals, utilizing the car data to create stancils I needed for the brake systems and trucks. Again, we need to look beyond 1/48th scale, as some of the smaller scale decals can be used.

    Your Soo diesel sets are another possibility, but I have found his sets to have issues. First, to reach the correct color, the actual print decal has very tiny red dots in an effort to lighten or darken a yellow to the correct level on the color spectrum. A couple of modelers told me that can’t be seen from a distance, but if I can see it with the naked eye, then real up-close inspections of a finished model will yield the same. The second problem I identified was the edges of the decal print were not true. The edges were grainy, almost like a bunch of dots laid along a line. Both the color issues and the trueness of the edges are products of the printing method. Trying to keep an open mind, I tried different sets over the years, only to be pretty disappointed every time. I still made use of the sets, as the cost per set meant I was not about to discard them.

    Lastly, MicroScale decals. They do custom decals, but you must have everything ready to go. They print. Their market share of railroad decals is a spit in the bucket compared to military and other modelers, plus other business ventures. I wanted to produce 1/48th scale decals of a set they make available in the smaller scales, as they had perfect decals nade from excellent artwork. First, they have a 250 sheet minimum, which is a full page of decal material. If your artwork takes up two pages, then you effectively will yield a 125 count set. I was taken aback by the fact that they wanted to charge me for custom artwork, even though they already have the artwork in their system; they print them in HO and N scale. Add to that set up charges. Needless to say, this would have been a project valued at close to a thousand dollars.

    • Thank you for sharing your experiences on my blog.
      I have spoken to Ron Roberts at Rail Graphics. He is more than capable to printing the Soo decal as long as it is done in his stock colors. His yellows are way off.

      I have not seen any examples of Kadee decals so they are an unknown.

      Several years ago Rick Leach and I had a custom run of Northern Pacific diesel decals done. We spent some time evaluating suppliers including Kadee. San Juan Decals was selected to do the job. They had demonstrated the ability to print fine images and maintain registration for multicolor printing.
      It turned out that the ink color was the most challenging issue. The NP imitation gold took multiple passes with the ink supplier to match the prototype paint chip over black paint. San Juan hung in there and continued to work with us until it was right.
      San Juan Decals was sold to gentleman in Minnesota. He continues to print excellent decals but is not capable of maintaining registration for multi pass printing.


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