Decaling Model Trains

Lionel, and others, have put out such a variety of models that it would seem the need to paint and decal your own today would no longer exist. But of course, we all want the one thing that hasn’t been made yet! Or maybe you want to create your own railroad name, or just put some different numbers on multiple cars for a better looking unit train. Fortunately, decals are still an easy option.


After repainting our gondola, the next step is applying new reporting marks and a road number with decals.

Most decals are applied in the same way, regardless of who makes them. The tools you’ll need are simple and inexpensive and the skills are not hard to master. If you’ve never decaled before, you may find it easier to start with smaller decals before trying a larger scheme.

Required Tools:

  • Hobby knife with sharp blade
  • Tweezers
  • Pin
  • Water (filtered)
  • Decal setting solution
  • Clear coat(s)
  • Paper towels

Depending on the task at hand, you may find a set of calipers and a small ruler are also helpful to ensure even spacing and straight lines. Like other projects, the best decal jobs usually come out of a clean, comfortable and well-lit workspace.

Getting Started


Begin by removing the decals from the sheet with a sharp knife. If you are doing a large project, it helps to only remove a few at a time.

Before you begin decaling, make sure you are starting with a clean model. Wipe everything down with a cloth or paper towel dampened with a little glass cleaner to remove dust, dirt and fingerprints.

It also helps to think the project through before starting. Knowing where you are going to place the decals before they are in the water is a big help! Also plan ahead to make sure you aren’t working over freshly laid decals while you work.


Soak each decal in a dish of clean water for a few seconds – different decals may require longer soaking times.

Use a sharp hobby knife to cut the decals from the sheet. Trim the decal as close to the printing as possible. The less “film” you have, the less you’ll have to hide.

Place the decal in a shallow dish of clean water. Filtered water does work better as it won’t have some of the added impurities found in tap water.

Allow the decal to soak for a few seconds. Different decals, sometimes even from the same manufacturer, tend to have different separation times. You may want to cut a practice decal (like the decal sheet number in the corner of the page) to test before starting a large project.


When the decal can slide freely from the backing, it is ready to apply. Just get the decal started with your fingers.

When ready, pluck the decal from the water with a pair of tweezers. Use your fingers to test the decal and slide the lettering just slightly off the backing. It should move very easily. Just move the decal enough to grip the bare backing with the tweezers to transfer it to the car.

Position the decal on the model as closely to its final location as possible. Using the back edge of the hobby knife, hold the decal down while pulling the backing out from underneath with the tweezers. The decal should slide freely onto the model and settle into place.


Position the decal as close to its final location as possible before removing the backing. A small set of tweezers is very handy.

You will have a little bit of time to move the decal into a final position. Use the back of the knife tip to gently nudge it into place. It sometimes helps to take a step back and look at the lettering overall, especially when working with long striping or lettering words one letter at a time. Pre marking the model with very light pencil marks is also a good idea.

If the decal is not setting properly, or if you are working around an uneven surface like rivets, vents, etc. a little bit of decal setting solution can be used. This will soften the decal and allow it to fit around these irregularities. Once the solution is applied, you can continue to make adjustments but you must be very careful as the decal will now tear extremely easily.


You can make adjustments to the decal once in place on the model using the back of the hobby knife.

It is not uncommon to get a few small air bubbles under the decal. Gently pop the bubbles by pressing with a pin, or the tip of the hobby knife. Then apply a little setting solution to get the decal back into shape.

You can gently blot the decal with a dry paper towel to absorb any excess water or setting solution. Again, be careful not to move or tear the decal in the process.


You can make the decal settle around rivets, seams and other bumps with the help of a little decal setting solution. This should also be used when popping air bubbles from under the decal.

After the decal has had time to thoroughly dry, it should be sealed for protection. The easiest way to do this is with a clear coat applied with an airbrush, or if necessary, a spray can. (The airbrush, with its finer spray, will yield much better results.) The best way to hide the edges of the decal film is to sandwich the decal between coats of gloss finish. Starting with a painted model, you probably already have a gloss finish underneath.


Seal and protect the finished decal with coats of gloss and flat clear coat. This will both protect the lettering and hide the film.

Use a clear gloss coat first to seal the decal. Then you can follow with a coat of flat finish over the entire model to kill the shine if you want to model a car without that showroom finish.

The techniques couldn’t be easier, but like everything, a little practice goes a long way. The art comes in knowing when the decals are ready, when they can be moved, and most importantly – when they are done!

The scrap gondola for our bone yard project is a great first-time decal job. With only a few letters to apply, you’ll be able to build your confidence and get the basics down. Plus, if you do mess up a little, it’s a scrap yard gondola! Sometimes perfect isn’t really what you’re after.

Take on a few more small and medium-sized projects like this and before long you’ll be ready to lay those Pennsy pinstripes down the side of a GG-1.

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