Good decals can greatly enhance a model. They can take an ordinary model and make it interesting, and they can put the final jewel on a great model. This will be the first in a series of articles on decals. We plan to cover where to find decals, how to apply the various decal types, and even how to make your own. This first segment will cover where can you get decals for North American railroad models. Since I live in the United States and model US railroads, most of my decal experience in from there, so that’s where I’ll start. I hope to cover more international sources in the future, so if you, our readers, have any recommended suppliers I would love to hear about them.
If it’s decals from a LEGO set that you need you can always turn to Bricklink. But official LEGO decals are limited when building trains based on real life prototypes. When you need decals for a Union Pacific boxcar, or a New York Central diesel locomotive, where do you turn? Fortunately the scale model railroad hobby has numerous decal suppliers to fill our needs. But not all decals are made the same and not all decal suppliers cover the same subjects. This article is intended to be an overview of the more common sources of model RR decals in North America and what they offer.
Which scale should you use?
None of these decal manufactures make LEGO specific decals. These are all designed for the more traditional model RR scales, we’re just adapting them to our use. So it’s important to figure out which scale works best for you. There are many scales to choose from, but as most LEGO train builders build 6 wide to 8 wide models, the two model RR scales closest to our needs are S scale 1:64, and O scale 1:48. For those building 6 wide models, S scale decals are an almost perfect match. If you are an 8 wide builder, O scale decals are the size that will best suit your models.
Microscale is one of the largest decal producers in the US. They don’t currently offer any decals in S scale, but carry a wide range of O scale decals. Microscale decals are of the water slide type, and are typically pretty accurate to the real prototypes they represent. They are excellent quality and pretty easy to work with as water slide decals go. Many of the decal sets offered by Microscale will cover more than one model, and Microscale includes a very handy instruction sheet detailing proper placement.
Protocraft is a relatively new decal supplier, but their decal line has been steadily growing. Protocraft’s decals are also of the water slide type, and though most of their line is O scale, they do have a small selection of S scale decals available. Their decals are of excellent quality and accuracy, easy to work with, and Protocraft also includes a great reference sheet in their decal set’s showing placement and prototype info.
Highball Graphics is a water slide decal supplier specializing in New England and Canadian railroads. Their decals are available in O scale. Higball also produces decals for Industrialmodels in O scale which are available through Highball’s site. The decals are very accurate and of great quality. There is no reference sheet included so you need to be familiar with the prototype to know where decals should be placed on the model. The decals require a little more patience to work with than those from Microscale or Protocraft but they do produce excellent results.
C-D-S Lettering is a Canadian decal printer offering a range of North American RR decals in several scales, including O and S scales. C-D-S decals are of the dry transfer type and include a reference sheet showing decal placement on a model. Being the dry transfer type, these decals can be a little tricky to work with, but with patience they can produce good results. One of the best online sources for C-D-S Lettering decals is Ozark Miniatures.
Clover House is a supplier of dry transfer decals covering a wide range of North American railroads in several scales including O and S scales. I’ve not worked with applying any Clover House decals yet but they appear to be of good quality and include a small reference sheet for decal placement.
Walthers and Champ Decals
Both the Walthers and Champ decal lines are no longer being produced, but old stock can still be purchased at model train shows, through ebay, or from online sellers like P&D Hobby. These lines are both of the water slide type. The Walthers decals are pretty accurate, but some of the older Champ decals may have some errors. Generally though unless you are building a hyper accurate model, either line should work well. As these decal lines are no longer produced, the sets you buy will be from old stock. Depending on age and how they’ve been stored the decals can become brittle over time. I have had one set of older Champ decals break apart when being applied, so take care in working with them, and look closely at them before buying.
Other Decal Sources
Listed above are the sources that I have used so far for decals, but there are several more out there. Many railroad historical societies for example will offer decals custom produced for the railroads they cover. And there are many smaller niche producers. Here are some decal sources where you may be able to find what you need.
Walthers – Walthers no longer makes their own decals, but as the largest model RR distributor in the US they do carry a wide array of decals from other makers.
P&D Hobby – P&D Hobby is a good source for out of print decals like those from Champ
Dan’s Resin Casting – Decals in O and S scale
Tichy Train Group – O and S scale decals.
Allegheny Scale Models – Decals from several producers in O and S scale.
In a future article we hope to cover decal sources from outside North America. If you have a source you think we should know about please let us know. We will also be covering decal application, both water slide and dry transfer, and how you can make your own decals.