Friday, January 22, 2016

Decal artwork

There was a good deal of discussion recently on the Steam Era Freight Cars list (STMFC) on Yahoo! Groups concerning the decal offerings of a seller on eBay. In particular, there were musings about the various printing technologies (silk screening, Alps, and some of the other more recent printers capable of printing white inks [or facsimiles thereof], as well as the creation of the artwork itself.) I thought I would provide a little background information about how I create artwork for the decals I offer under the Speedwitch line, both for model kits and standalone decal sets.

At the outset, I must state that I am fanatical about the accuracy of lettering. It needs to do two things. First, it must capture the “look and feel” of the prototype it represents. While I know that many people in the hobby value many different things, to me lettering is part of what makes a prototypical car. Lettering was different across railroads and I don’t just mean the slogans and emblems. The three-inch and two-inch letters and numbers that make up the stencils for capacity and dimensional data were quite different from railroad to railroad. The vast majority of decal and rolling stock purveyors just pull up their standard serif or sans serif “fonts” to make this lettering. I get why they do it. It’s quick and easy. It just doesn’t work for me. The railroads’ characters were highly stylized; the decals should be, too. If a decal proprietor is cranking out half a dozen new decal sets per week, I just can’t see how they are getting this right. I do grasp that what I value may be valueless or far less important to others.

The second thing is that the lettering must fit. Before I started making decal artwork, I cannot tell you how many times that I got a model all ready for lettering only to discover that the stenciling in the kit decals spanned across a greater space than it did on the prototype or overlaid a tank band on a tank car, when it didn’t on the prototype. This is usually because the characters weren’t correct (see previous paragraph), making the spacing of the characters incorrect, making the problem cascade into one of incorrect fit of the lettering. Again, if there are a lot of sets coming out per week from a producer, I don’t see how this detail is being observed.
A fairly typical decal subject
With my rant out of the way, I’ll explain how I do it and why it takes longer (a lot longer). I work from very clear photos of the car side, from closeup photos of the actual lettering (I am fortunate to have lots of photos like this for a great many railroads), and, ideally, from actual railroad drawings of characters, emblems, medallions, etc. These are scanned at extremely high resolution (12800 pixels per inch, usually) and imported into Adobe Illustrator, after any cleanup and squaring up in Photoshop. Illustrator is a very powerful vector graphics tool for drawing.
A piece of the Pere Marquette single sheathed auto car scanned to be used as the basis for artwork
The actual drawing part of things involves creating each character from scratch, carefully “tracing” (electronically drawing) against the high resolution scans. After all of the necessary letters, numbers, emblems, etc., have been drawn, they are re-sized to scale, HO most frequently in my case. Most people would think that is the bulk of the work. That is just part one.
The "MA R" characters as drawn using the previous photo
All of the artwork must then be laid out against a scan of the model and fitted to represent the layout as stenciled on the prototype(s). This involves much careful spacing, followed by a lot of copying, pasting, and reorienting to create multiple groups of reporting marks, capacity data, and reweigh, repack, and brake test stencils. None of this is done by “typing”, but rather by moving the objects (characters) around to create the various data sets. It is extremely time consuming.
The completed model using the artwork created as described herein
Once a set is complete, it then must be laid out for printing in a way that maximizes the amount of lettering in the minimum space, while not overcrowding. Remember, empty real estate on a decal sheet equals lost money. Most frequently the artwork is laid out to incorporate multiple sets that are part of a large sheet. 

The next step is to send the artwork to the printer. All colors (except white and black) must be specified as a Pantone color for printing. I approve the artwork, quantities, and cost estimate, and then wait. The waiting game can be difficult as I want to see how everything looks as soon as I finish the artwork, but it takes weeks for the silk-screen decals to be printed. Upon receipt of the large sheets by me from the printer, I cut the sheet into the individual decal sets.

The last step is to create the instructions/data sheet. This is another area where I endeavor to separate myself from the pack by offering enough prototype reference material to allow the modeler to accurately letter their fine creation. 

On the horizon, I am testing some single print sheets that will allow me to print in much smaller quantities with much faster turnaround. The other good news: once I have the artwork created for a road, I can use that as a lever for future sets. Also, if the test is a success, I will be able to provide custom decal services for HO and other scales. Stay tuned!


  1. Ted,
    You say you scan at 12800 PPI. What scanner do you use>?

    1. Hi Scott,

      I have an Epson Perfection V500. When my then-current scanner dies, I usually just go the Epson web site and look at their refurbished models and pick one that meets my needs. This one was picked up about two years ago.


  2. I have one of those! I bought it new several yeas ago to digitize my slides and negatives from my film days. I also photograph landscapes and wildlife. I didn't realize it would scan that high of a resolution.


  3. Ted, when you're ready for it would you accept a custom decal job for WP steam era white lettering for box & stockcars, flatcars, cabooses, tankcars, gons and ballast cars and their dimensional data? A white WP herald would be welcome too!


Comments always welcome!