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...

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.

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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.

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    19 Discussions


    Question 1 year ago on Step 4

    How do I know if this will work with my decal


    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    Hi Tim,
    Thank you so much for sharing. I wanted to ask you about the part :
    They printed these decals on a huge inkjet printer/sign cutting machine made by Roland How can I get my design pre-cut like this - which kind of stores do this, and how does the machine actually cut the middle layer only?


    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    I think they cut and pull off the stuff they don't want before sticking the cover paper on there. I've seen a vinyl cutter in action, the business I think is called a "drag knife" and it's just an exacto blade on a swivel. The backing is pretty hard to cut through, so you can actually do it pretty easily by hand with an exacto blade if the place you get the decals from doesn't offer the service. Can any readers recommend a service bureau?


    Reply 3 years ago

    i can do make decals if anyone needs work done i have the dragknife setup so i cant screenprint but i can do vinyl lettering and designs i can be contacted thru my facebook business page i have a few things ive done posted so if anyone is interested go to


    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    Thanks! I've been thinking of covering my laptop with contact paper, and this would really help with the air bubbles I was expecting to get.

    My husband has been asking me to put vinyl decals on his truck for a few weeks now, and I have been coming up with excuse after excuse to avoid it because I don't want to mess it up. The design is quite large so cutting it into sections sounds like a great idea! I can't believe I haven't thought of that before! Also, the tip about spraying it with soapy water is great! It will be nice to know that I can reposition it if necessary!


    8 years ago on Step 5

    windex also works great as well instead of soap water


    8 years ago on Introduction

    Oh, this is fabulous! I was wanting to put a white or silvery decal on the roof of my very hot black van. It is like an oven getting into the flippn thing in the summer. (Texas Gulf Coast gets real hot) I may look into making my own decals.


    10 years ago on Introduction

    Is Dan really praying? Check step 4, little typo I used the soap and water method to apply decals to R/C planes and boats - it gives you a little leeway because you can move the piece around before you squeegee out the solution below it. I never thought o using it on a decal this big though, good tip, I'll remember it next time I do something like this!

    1 reply

    11 years ago on Introduction

    Wish I'd read this before I tried to apply heat blocking film to a window. Now that was frustrating. Thanks.


    11 years ago on Introduction

    the soap... it doesn't affect the adhesive? How does it work???


    11 years ago on Introduction

    This is great! I've been planning to put some contact paper designs on my walls, my laptop and lots of other stuff.. and knowing me, I'd end up with hundreds of bubbles! Thanks for the tut.