Introduction: Apply Big Decals Without Wrinkles or Bubbles

About: Tim Anderson is the author of the "Heirloom Technology" column in Make Magazine. He is co-founder of, manufacturers of "3D Printer" output devices. His detailed drawings of traditional Pacific I…

Here's how the pros put decals on.
Ever turn a nice decal into a wad of crap and wreck your paint job in the process?
Learn the true secrets here. The same methods work with bumperstickers, contact paper, etc.

Don, Dan, and Vincent bust out the masterful skills and put some major decals on the catamaran "Nalani".

They printed these decals on a huge inkjet printer/sign cutting machine made by Roland.
The decals come attached to some heavy shiny paper with some thinner cover paper over them.
So it's a sandwich with three layers, decal in the middle.

Step 1: Big Tape at Top

Leave the decal attached to the wax paper.
Face the decal with the tissue paper cover toward you.
Tape the decal at the top edge using the biggest masking tape you can find.
Don and Vincent are using foot wide masking tape. Don says "that tape is the hinge".

Step 2: Cut the Decal Into Sections

This decal has separate pieces and it's going onto a curved surface.
That's easier if you cut it into sections.
That way you can deal with one area at a time.
Don wields the big scissors.

Step 3: Final Cleaning

Dirt under the decal will cause damage in later steps.
Dan carefully wipes the surface with a wet cloth.

When it's clean enough it will gleam like in the second photo.

Step 4: The Soapy Water Secret

This is a major trick. Dan is spraying the surface with soapy water.

That way the decal doesn't stick in place immediately. They can reposition it if necessary.
It makes it possible to to squeegee out any wrinkles or bubbles.
The soap and water dries in a few minutes and the decal is firmly affixed.

Vincent says: "use 5 or 10% max liquid dish soap mixed with water, it doesn't really matter what kind of soap it is."

This method would also work with window tint gels.

Step 5: Peel Off the Heavy Paper

Lift up the decal using the masking tape at the top as a hinge.
Reach underneath and peel off the heavy paper that covers the adhesive side of the decal.
Be very careful now, keep the decal flat and straight and don't touch it to the surface yet.
Don't do this on a windy day or with people throwing crap at you.

Step 6: Smooth It On

While one person holds the decal flat and slightly away from the surface, the other smooths it on from top to bottom.

Step 7: Peel and Apply Method

You can also peel the heavy sheet off while applying the decal to the surface.
Don and Vincent demonstrate.

Step 8: Squeegee It Down

After rubbing it on by hand use a stiff squeegee to get the bubbles out.

Step 9: Peel Off the Cover Paper

Don demonstrates and says "Don't ever pull up on the cover paper. Always pull it off sideways at a sharp angle."

If the cover paper rips that's okay as long as the decal underneath isn't damaged.

Step 10: Final Squeegeeing

Vincent squeegees out the last tiny bubbles.
They spit soapy water when they exit the edge.
Don yells "hey!".
Vincent says "It's not bodily fluids" in his mix of all the world's accents.

Step 11: Oops!

One of the petals tore off the flower along with the cover paper.
Dan positions and applies it to line up with the rest of the flower using the same techniques we've seen earlier.

Step 12: Finished!

Nalani is Don's daughter, also the name of the boat.
He poses for a photo with the finished masterpiece to send to her.