Decals For LEGO Trains: The Vinyl Option

In my first article in my series on decals for LEGO® trains, I covered some popular model RR manufacturer’s who make decals suitable for use with LEGO trains. This time I want to highlight one of the options for making your own custom decals for LEGO trains, vinyl decals. This is a newer option that I’ve come across but it offers some great possibilities.

The story of how Maci’s Monograms got side tracked into LEGO decals.

This all started some time ago when I came across a post on Facebook about some decals that LOLUG – Lincoln/Omaha LEGO User Group had made using cut vinyl. My friend and fellow train builder Nate Flood is a member of LOLUG and he quickly brought me up to speed on them. As it turns out, Nate’s daughter Maci is the one who produced the decals, and she has started her own business for the purpose.

When you order vinyl decals from Maci’s Monograms, you get the decals, a nice printed instruction sheet showing you how to apply them, and a little thank you note. It makes for a great presentation when you open the package. Locomotive NOT included.

Nate Flood’s 14 year old daughter Maci Flood started doing vinyl decals for her friends, making shirts, hair bows, etc. They had used the Silhouette Cameo for crafts and scrapbooking prior to helping her friends out. Meanwhile, Nate was not happy using water slide decal paper or the white backed sticker paper. One of the problems he was running into was of not being able to print white lettering. Home printers typically can not print white. So to do white letters, you have to use a white decal paper and print a background color to match what ever you are going to put the decal on. But matching LEGO colors with a home printer is frustratingly difficult. Maci said “I can do better than those.” LOLUG had a unique logo, so Nate asked if she could do that, and soon she started pumping out swag for the LUG – car window decals, lug logo on shirts, cups, tablets. And, of course, decals for their models.

Nate Floods vintage Texaco gas station really comes to life with some of Maci’s vinyl decals.

Maci has started her own business doing monogramed items. Her website is Maci’s Monograms, and she also has a Facebook page. I asked her to print some decals for one of my steam locomotive models, a Central New Jersey RR 4-6-4. I had been struggling to come up with decals for this engine for a while. None of the model RR manufacturers have the decals I needed. And printing my own at home on sticker paper was not an option since I needed them in gold, not something your normal home printer is capable of. Maci was able to make me a set of decals that are perfect for what I needed.

Getting your own vinyl decals made.

So what do yo need if you want to order decals from Maci? A picture of what you want is a good start. A logo in vector format like Adobe Illustrator works great, but a high quality jpg or other file format can work. Any font you might be using will also be necessary, Rail Fonts is a great place to get RR specific fonts. You will also need the exact size of the lettering, and color you want. Keep in mind that these are cut decals from a single sheet of vinyl. The process is ideally suited to doing decals in one solid color. Multiple colors are possible with layering but you are limited. If you want to put a photo on a box car, this is not the type of decal for you. But if you need a single color logo like the Liberty on my CNJ engine in this article, it’s an excellent option. There are numerous colors available, and you can even get metallic options, like gold and silver.

The decal set for my CNJ engine that Maci made would cost about $12. Color and size will of course vary the price, but $12 is really comparable in price to a set of water slide decals from a model railroad manufacturer, if you can find a set for what you need. So it’s a really fair price for a custom set of decals. If you are really serious about the vinyl route, you can buy your own machine and do them your self. The Silhouette Cameo Electronic Cutting Machine is a good place to start. Expect to spend around $300 to get everything you need to get up and running.

Applying Vinyl Decals
The decal set for my CNJ 4-6-4

Maci includes a pretty good instruction sheet on applying the decals but I’ll go over the process here and add some tips that I’ve come up with. When you get your decals, they will be sandwiched between a white backing paper and translucent transfer paper. The first thing you need to do is remove the white backing layer. You’ll need something flat that you can use to rub the decal. This is necessary to get the decal to stick to the transfer paper as you pull off the backing layer. I found that a brick separator works pretty well for this, but something like a credit card can also be used.

A brick separator is good for tubing the decal to make sure it sticks to the transfer paper as you pull off the backing layer.

All the parts of the vinyl decal are individually cut, so essentially each letter and each shape is it’s own separate decal. The translucent transfer paper is used to keep all these individual pieces properly aligned when you are applying the decal. So it’s important to make sure all the pieces stay on the transfer paper when you peel of the backing paper. Rubbing the front of the decal will help in this. Rub firmly but do not apply to much pressure or you may distort the transfer paper and affect the decal. Then, slowly peel off the white baking paper. I’ve found that it’s better to peel the backer layer in a curling motion than try to pull everything off via pulling the transfer layer. Work slowly, sometimes a decal with a lot of small pieces will require going back and rubbing a little more to get everything to come of with the transfer paper. Just be patient, it’s hard to mess up as long as you work slow and methodically.

Pulling the what backing layer in a curling motion seems to be the best method for removing the backer.
The decal has been successfully removed from the backing layer and is now ready to transfer to your model.

Once you have successfully removed the decal from the backing layer and it is on the transfer layer, you are ready to apply it to the model. Make sure the surface of the model where you want to place the decal is clean and dry. Carefully place the decal where you want it. A pair of tweezers, or the tip of an X-acto knife can be helpful for holding smaller decals. Once the decal is down, it may be hard to remove, so make sure you work slow and careful to get the alignment right the first time. It you do make a small mistake, you may be able to use the blade of a hobby knife to peel back the vinyl decal and move it.

The tip of a hobby knife can be used to hold and place smaller decals.

Once the decal is in place where you want it, you are almost done. Press the decal into place, your finger or a flat tool like the tip of a brick separator works well for this. The decal should now be firmly stuck to your model and the translucent transfer paper can be peeled off. And that’s it, your vinyl decal is done.

Rub the decal again to make sure it’s firmly stuck to the model, and then peel of the transfer paper.

For small decals in tight areas, it may be best to disassemble your model to get better access to the area where the decal will go. Also, if your decal will span an area where the model will be opened from time to time (like for battery access), you’ll need to cut the decal at the joint. This can be done once the decal is in place using a sharp hobby knife.

For my CNJ locomotive, I partially disassembled the model to get better access to the back for applying these decals.

Overall I’m very happy with the final results. Decals for this engine have been a thorny issue for me. I couldn’t print what I needed, nor could I find commercial decals to suit my needs. These vinyl decals from Maci came out great. They were sharp, easy to work with, I could get them in the proper gold color, and they look awesome! I will definitely be returning for some more projects in the future.

My little Central New Jersey locomotive finally has the decals it deserves.

And you may be wondering if you can see more of this little engine. Well now that I finally have it decaled, I will be taking some proper photographs in the future. So stay tuned.

Small lettering in a tight space, but the decals came out great.
The front number board is nice and crisp.
LOLUG is currently raising funds to buy a trailer. So they built a model trailer to use as a donation container at shows. Maci made the vinyl LOLUG decal on the trailer sides.

 

My next article on decals will cover how to apply water slide decals. They can be intimidating but hopefully we’ll be able to give you some tips to get comfortable with them.

 

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