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John Canfield writes:

Some of the messages (on this page) may be older but you probably know that ALPS printers are no longer sold new so a used one might be the only option.  Beware of ebay however, because I bought two different ones and neither worked, probably due to improper packing in shipment which screws up the print head.  One of the issues is that you have to pack
them EXACTLY like they came from the factory with a special styrofoam insert that protects the traveling print head from being jarred in shipment.  Both people, however, refunded my money!

I don't know of anyone in the US who repairs them.  ALPS has a tech service center in CA and I talked to those guys a few times.  They have units for sale at $275 (I think original retail was about $349) that have been refurbished in Japan but the only kicker is that you have to send them a bad one in order to get one.  I suppose if someone could find a junker they could ship it to them and get a like-new one at a pretty decent price.  One of the other issues is the cartridges and how long they may still be available now that the printers are no longer sold.  One guy I know in the Outer Banks of NC does some
part-time commercial model car decal business using an ALPS and he is buying all the cartridges he can get his hands on, fearing that someday the supply may "dry up".

In lieu of the ALPS to get white lettering,  I have used  another trick with Microsoft Power Point.  Power Point will let you "back fill" a document entirely with color.  So if, for example, you want to have white lettering on a Pullman
Green background, you can layout the lettering on Power Point and designate to print "white" (which, of course, a printer will not do).  Next, you fill in the background color with as close a match to Pullman Green as you can find - Power
Point has a pretty good variety of various shadings of color that will come reasonably close.  Then, to get the white lettering on the green background, your print it onto white decal paper and voila, where the "clear" white letters don't actually print, the white from the decal paper will show through and form the white lettering.  Before applying the decal, if the color of the backfillcolor is not exactly the same as the surface onto which it is being applied, just trim as close as possible to the lettering before applying the decal.  Normally, the slight difference in color won't even be noticable if the decal is
trimmed pretty close to the lettering itself.  In any event, in just about every case some sort of weathering may be applied over it so the difference in color will virtually disappear.

I have successfully used this on many model cars but have only recently got back
into train stuff again but I presume it will work on trains equally as well.
Not an ALPS, but a pretty reasonable alternative.

As for a little tip, I have often used the dry transfers burnished onto decal paper to make small decals for tight areas.  After doing so, however, you need to (1) go over them with the a dull object with the "backing sheet" overlaid, as usual, but also (2) spray with a fixative such as Grumbacher Fixative.  If you don't, you face the possibility (as I sadly learned) of all your meticulous work in doing the individual letters  just flooooooat awaaaaaay when you put the decal paper in water and the water gets between the letters and the decal paper. The fixative holds the lettering in place real well.

Some new ideas that look to make custom decal printing that much easier for the rest of us.  Has anyone tried the new inkjet decal paper?

Creating decals with a computer and transferring them to decal film is not at all new, but we believe we have hit on a new wrinkle. We recently made decals for an outside braced hopper car where we had to make sure the letters fit between the ribs. Rather than measuring and drawing the car side the old fashioned way, we merely placed the car on a flatbed scanner and scanner an exact size drawing into the computer in a matter of seconds. We found that painting the black plastic with a coat of white poster paint (which washes off easily) made it much easier to read. Placing the car graphic and the lettering on different layers in the drawing program facilitates manipulation.

A scanner may still seem like an exotic piece of equipment, but we've seen flatbed scanners suitable for hobby use for as little as $135. This may seem an extravagance for the occasional freight car, but scanners have many uses. They can become copy machines and faxes with the addition of software, are useful for resizing model billboards, and are a godsend if you ever have to retype text. Once any tool is purchased, uses are found for it.

MZ writes:

I've seen a lot of (discussion) about white lettering on decals. Anybody tried making the field color on the decal with the printer? Dry transfer letters could be used over the decal. All the hobby stores carry them in various sizes (they even come in wood grain!). I don't make my own decals but I would try this before buying a new printer!

The dry transfers are a good idea and this would make an easier way to apply them, but we're still faced with the tedious job of working letter by letter and it would be difficult to create logos or multicolor signs this way. Buying a printer would be expensive for just this purpose, but sooner or later you'll be buying a new printer anyway.

DI Writes:

Reference is made to photocopying on a blank decal film. Great idea! (This) will allow me to make some custom decals for my model railroad But where can I obtain some? I haven't found any in hobby shops in the Vancouver B C Canada area.

It is quite difficult to find decal film in stores, but Walthers manufacturers it and this can be ordered by you or a dealer. They have two sizes: 4X6 (#934-706820) and 8.5X11 (#934-706821) I recommend the larger size since this fits comfortable into copy machines. According to Walthers web page available as a link from TTTrains, these are both currently in stock.

Several tips: Depending on the copier (the better ones at office supply and copy centers seem to be quite permanent) it may be necessary to fix the copy to the film with a light spray of Dullcote.

I've only had success printing dark colors onto a light background, the toners being too translucent for the reverse. If you discover a way to print light letters onto a dark surface, I would love to hear about it.

Laser printers should work as well as a copy machine since they both utilize the same technology.

The paper will only go through a copier once, since the heats curls it enough so that it will not pass through a second time. It's worth while to fill up a whole sheet with the decals you want. If you can't use them all, they make excellent gifts and are good to trade with other modelers.

News from Walter Wohleking!

With all the graphics programs available, the computer has long seemed a natural for creating custom model railroad decals and transfers. One thing has stood in the way, however, of using a personal computer and printer for that purpose: printers treat white as the absence of color, and thus, without going through silk screens or some similar process, no way existed of printing white letters onto the transfer medium. Until now, that is. Alps Electric of 3553 North First Street, San Jose CA 95134 (800-825-2577) recently began delivering their PC/Mac compatible MD 1000 color printer, which will print white at resolutions up to 1200 dpi x 600dpi. According to Alps, early releases of the printer have been used by model railroaders to produce decals. Among others, PC Connection in Marlow, New Hampshire sells the printer for $350. An interface module is required for connection to a MacIntosh. I received my MD-1000 a few days ago and, while I'm still waiting for a white ink cartridge and decal film to attempt my first set of transfers, the results in black on plain paper are impressive. I'll have a further report after I've done the real deed.

As you know, color printers generally regard white as the absence of color which is fine for the majority of print jobs done on white paper. Someone I spoke to at one of the companies that produce after market cartridges for computer printers said that they had experimented with white ink, but that the titanium dioxide pigment clogged the ink jet nozzles more than the water soluble pigments that are normally used. The Alps MD-1000, however, uses cartridges that carry the pigment on what looks like a semi-transparent ribbon. I believe heat is involved some way in freeing the pigment from the ribbon, and the ink, which is waterproof, goes on dry, almost like laser printer toner. GOLD & SILVER CARTRIDGES ARE ALSO AVAILABLE.

. I don't yet have any white ink cartridges. PC Connections doesn't stock them yet and Alps, which does, recommends that I wait until the UPS strike is over to keep shipping costs within reason. The black, yellow, magenta and cyan cartridges are about $6.00 each, with the white and metallic cartridges costing about $8.00 a pop. I've also got to get some decal stock before I can do anything. The little I've managed to use the printer has nonetheless impressed me. It will print at resolutions of 300 dpi x 300 dpi, 600 x 600 and 1200 x 600. It is relatively slow, but that should matter little for doing decals, unless mass production is on the user's mind. I (would like) to offer to produce custom decals economically for other model rails that don't want to buy the printer. I still have to figure out non recurring and recurring pricing, but I'm thinking about $15.00 a 7 x 9 sheet. Please e-mail me at if you are interested/

Thank you, Walter- this may just be the way to make one-off decals. When we save some pennies, we'll be looking at the Alps printer. Alps uses a new dry ink process.

LS writes

I have some very nice, old, custom-made dry transfers. However, they have lost their "tackiness" and won't adhere to a model. Is there any way to fix this?

We've never heard of this problem before (maybe the manufacturer will replace them?) but here are a few possibilities.

Spray the back of the transfer with Dullcote, this may just activate the glue.

Spray the model with Dullcote- this may give the model surface a better "tooth" for adhering the transfer.

If the decals will adhere to the model at all, try setting them with either an overspray of Dullcote (what else) or (better I think) a coat of Polly Scale flat finish gently applied with a brush. We've suggested Dullcote since it works wonders on old, cracked decals and may do the same with transfers. We'll put this on the web page to se if there are any answers to this from readers.

Please let us know if these, or some other solution works out. 

The Great Falls Model Railroad Club presents : The Art of Applying Decals By Joe Czapiga

Success in applying thin film decals to models requires on thing - practice. If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Patience and persistence will allow you to produce models that look as good, if not better than the models shown in your favorite magazines. Every modeler has different method of applying decals successfully. The methods I use were mostly developed by trial and error coupled with tons of questions at every hobby shop I've gone to. They may work for you and they may not. You just have to keep trying.

As to the myth that you won't be able to produce a great looking model until you have 20 years of experience, forget it. I have always loved trains, but I have only been a modeling for about three years. One year ago I decided to try custom painting and decaling. With less than a year of experience I was winning awards for my work. Being focused, just like anything else, is the key to success.

If you have never tried to apply thin film decals before, your first experience will probably be one of impatience and frustration. These decals are very delicate and can be ruined quite easily. For your first project, I recommend practicing with a simple decal job which does not require strict alignment for a good result. Usually, rolling stock such as box cars (smooth sided), covered hoppers, etc. have pretty simple paint schemes. Many are only one or two colors. Stay away from thin, long, longitudinal lines on the long hood of a locomotive such as the GATX units you see on the St. Lawrence & Atlantic in Auburn, ME. Even the most experienced modeler can have difficulties applying these successfully.

Applying decals also requires some special tools. These special tools are probably already in your hobby tool box but you might not think they would be used to apply decals. Here is a list of tools & supplies I have within arms reach when I apply decals to a model:1) A shallow bowl filled about 1/2 way with luke warm water. 2) Scissors (preferably small to medium size). 3) Hobby knife. 4) 2 Small detailing paint brushes. 5) Solvaset (or a decal setting fluid). 6) Bath tissue or Kleenex (NOT paper towels). 7) 2 No.2 Pencils with an eraser. 8) Cross locking tweezers. 9) Decals. 10) Prototype photos (if you have any). 11) Pin

Once you have all these items together you're ready to apply decals. Decals stick the best to glossy finishes. They will stick to dull finishes, but are much harder to work with on this type of surface. The decals don't slide into place as easily making it essential to place them exactly where they need to be with little or no adjustment. Because of this it may be more difficult to remove any air bubbles under the decal. First time decalers should choose a model with a glossy finish. Glossy paint or clear gloss coat work equally well. Do not try to apply decals to an unpainted model. The surface is too smooth and the decals will not adhere to it. If you want to apply decals to an unpainted surface, spray a gloss coat on it first.

The first thing to do is to get all your tools listed above and your model and set them up on a clean flat surface with good lighting. Make sure you have plenty of room to spread out your tools so they can be easily reached if you need them quickly. Make sure you wash your hands thoroughly before you start. The oils from your fingers can leave fingerprints on the paint and prevent the decals from adhering properly. I sometimes wear surgical gloves or cotton gloves to apply decals.

Next, choose a decal you would like to apply. At this step it is a good idea to understand what type of decal you are about to apply. I am familiar of two different types; Type One is printed on plain decal paper, and Type Two has each individual decal printed on decal film which is then applied to the paper backing. With Type One decals you must trim as close as possible to the design of the decal you are going to apply, otherwise the excess may become visible when it dries on the model. Type Two decals can be cut as close or as far away from the design as you like. Which ever type you have, cut the selected decal from the sheet and place it on the model where you would like it to be. Lining things up and visualizing what you want to do before you put the decal in the water is very important. Once you put the decal in the water, things can get difficult.

Third, you will want to wet the area where the decal will sit with some of the warm water. Use your paint brush for this. Wetting this area will help reduce air bubbles under the decal and help you maneuver the decal into place. When you become more experienced at applying decals, you may use the Solvaset to wet the area instead of water. There is an advantage and a disadvantage to using Solvaset instead of water. Using water allows you unlimited time in adjusting and lining up your decal where you would like it, but does not eliminate air bubbles under the decal (it only helps to minimize). Using Solvaset eliminates air bubbles almost entirely, BUT, and I stress BUT, you only have about 20 seconds (maximum) before the Solvaset softens the decal making it almost impossible to maneuver. You may try diluting the Solvaset (i.e. 75% solution - 25% water). Although I have not tried it myself, I have heard of others having luck doing this.

Now you may take your decal and place it in the water. I usually hold the decal with cross- locking tweezers as I place it in the water. Sometimes it is difficult to retrieve a decal, especially if it is small, from the bowl of water if you just toss it in. After about 15-30 seconds you should be able to move the decal around on the paper backing. If not put it back in the water for about 10 seconds more. Once you can move it, place the decal and paper backing (do not remove the decal from the backing yet) on your index finger. Remove the cross-lock tweezers, slide the decal just a tiny bit to the opposite side of the hand your tweezers are in, and re-apply the tweezers to the backing paper ONLY. Now you have the backing paper and a decal which is free to slide in any direction you would like.

Position the model so you can place the edge of the decal on the model. Then hold that edge to the model with your paint brush and slide the decal paper backing away. Try to keep the decal as close to the model as possible while pulling the backing paper.

Once you have removed the backing paper, use your paint brush to position the decal. Pushing on the edges of the decal is most effective. You may also use the eraser of a No.2 Pencil to move the decal around. REMEMBER, if you used Solvaset instead of water to wet your surface, you MUST work fast. Position the decal where you would like it to be. Try to push out any air bubbles under the decal by rolling the bristles of the paint brush to the outer edge of the decal. After all of the air bubbles have been removed, very gently brush on Solvaset sparingly while not moving the position of the decal. Be sure to cover the whole decal especially around the edges. The Solvaset usually works its way under the decal pretty good.

At this point you should put the model down and let this decal dry. If you are confident enough you may apply more decals, but remember the decal you just applied is very fragile. If you touch it before it dries you will probably ruin it. Usually I will let them dry about an hour before I apply another decal unless I know I can do it without disturbing the one I just applied.

Sometimes the Solvaset makes the decal appear as if it is wrinkling up. This is normal. The decal will set flat on the model when it dries. When the decal does wrinkle, keep an eye on it. If it appears the wrinkle is not coming out on its own you may have to get those wrinkles out. Before you attempt to move the decal, carefully brush on some warm water (no more than a 1/2 drop or so). Carefully use your paint brush to drag the decal from the outer edges away from the center of the wrinkled area. The decal's position on the model should not be compromised by this. You should only have to move part of the decal a distance equal to the thickness of the wrinkle.

After the decal dries, inspect it for air bubbles that you missed the first time. If there are any, make a tiny hole in the decal with a pin and brush on some Solvaset making sure it gets in the hole and under the decal. The Solvaset will soften the decal again and make it set to the surface of the model. Since the decal is soft and wet again you should allow it to dry. Drying times may vary. I recommend at least an hour or so.

Finally, I recommend a gloss or dull coat be applied by air brush or spray can to the model after all the decals have been applied and have dried. This will help "hide" the decal edges and make your model look realistic. It will also protect the decal. After you have practiced these methods a few times and develop some of your own, you will be able to produce models of superior quality. Remember patience and persistence will always prevail. Happy modeling.


Joe Czapiga is a Transportation Planner for the Lewiston/Auburn Comprehensive Transportation Study in Auburn, ME. He is also a member of the Great Falls Model Railroad Club. He lives with his wife, Gretchen, his two dogs, Winnie and Elmo, and his two cats, Zot and Guilford at Danville Junction, ME. In his spare time he enjoys rail fanning, walking, and custom painting models. If you would like to have a model custom painted, he can be reached at:

P.O. Box 147 Danville Junction, ME 04223 (207)-777-3345

Thanks, Joe, for sharing your extensive knowledge of decals and finishing with Tttrain's net surfers.

When applying large decals to a surface, air bubbles may be removed by pricking them with a pin AFTER the first coat as decal solvent has dried. Apply a second coat of solvent to settle the decals.

When applying decals to a wood sided car, slit the decal at the scribed lines with a sharp hobby knife AFTER the first coat of decal solvent has dried. Apply a second coat of solvent to settle the decals.

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