Want to apply a custom designed decal to a LEGO torso or other element? This tutorial takes you through the steps I use in order to do so. Everyone I know uses different variations of this method, so please feel free to share your methods as well. I use this method because it works for me. Experiment and find the best process for yourself.
Materials you will need:
- LEGO element
- Cotton swabs
- Old towel
- Small bowl
- Decal Setting Solution
- Decal Softening Solution
- Clear Coat
- Distilled water
- Scissors (or X-Acto knife)
- Hair Dryer
- Clean, dry surface
Step 1: Cut the decal out. When designing the decal you should leave a lightly colored area as the background so it is clear where you should be cutting.
Once you've cut the decal out, place it on the clean, dry surface. (I use a piece of cotton duck canvas because it doesn't create any lint and is easily dusted off.)
Step 2: Use the tweezers to dip the decal in the distilled water.
Remove the decal after it is submerged in the water for only a second.
Set the decal on the clean dry surface and allow the water to soak in for 30 seconds.
Step 3: Dip a cotton swab in the Decal Setting Solution. (I use Badger brand from Micro-Mark.com)
Apply the setting solution to the LEGO element and let it sit for about 10 seconds.
Dip a cotton swab in the distilled water and apply a couple of drops to the LEGO element as well right before applying the decal. This will ensure that you will be able to adjust the decal once it is applied. Using just the setting solution makes it difficult to slide around.
Step 4: Place the decal on your finger and hold it next to the surface of the LEGO element it will be applied to. Use your other hand to slide the decal onto the LEGO piece. Some people use a cotton swab to slide it into place.
Variant: If you need to line up an edge specifically, slide the decal off a bit and hold it over the element. Line up the edge of the decal with the edge of the element and hold the decal to the LEGO piece with your finger. With the decal held in place, slide the backing out from under the decal so it falls in place on the rest of the element.
Step 5: Use a dry cotton swab to roll out any air bubbles. You may need to hold the decal in place with a finger or additional cotton swab to ensure that you don't slide it out of place.
If the decal slides too much, hold it along the edges and rub with the cotton swab towards your fingers. This will stop the decal from sliding. If the decal only needs a slight adjustment, i.e. it is just barely hanging over the edge, you can lightly tap the opposite side with a cotton swab until it slides into place.
Allow the decal to set for about 2 minutes.
Step 6: Dip a cotton swab in the decal softening solution. (I use Badger brand from Micro-Mark.com)
Apply the softening solution to the decal, especially around round corners and edges. This step is necessary for applying face decals or adding decals to curved elements like canopies, or domes.
Keep applying softening solution until the decal wraps around the element without folding. You can add a coat every thirty seconds or so. Make sure you don't allow any solution to pool on the decal or it can cause bubbling. Remove any excess solution with a dry cotton swab. Once the decal is set and softened, let it dry for about 10 minutes.
Helpful Tip: When applying a decal to a surface that doesn't require much softening, you can apply setting solution to the surface instead and that will help it bond to the surface of the LEGO element. It is still good to use softening solution on an element like the one pictured because small pieces may still overlap the edges. Even the smallest overhang can cause flaking and chipping later on.
Helpful Tip: Keep the cotton swab you use for each solution across the open jar so as not to mix them up.
Step 7: Apply a clear coat. (I use Krylon acrylic gloss spray.) I do not recommend brushing clear coat on, I haven't had good luck with it. Hold the spray can about a foot (30 cm) away from the LEGO element and spray evenly. You should only apply a thin layer. Too much clear coat gums up the torso and makes it too thick.
Immediately apply low heat from the hair dryer to avoid bubbling in the clear coat. Apply the heat for 30 seconds. Don't apply the heat directly. Hold the element with one hand and wave the hair dryer back and forth over it. Holding the dryer directly over the torso will cause the clear coat to form a visible thick ridge along the edge of the element.
After 10 minutes, apply a second coat.
Let the element dry for a day before using, even though it is dry to the touch in just a few minutes. Allow it to set for a few days before shipping them in the mail. A clear coat that hasn't fully dried will cloud up when it reaches a high altitude. Even after the element is dry you must take care to store it or display it safely. It isn't printed the same way a LEGO element is and will chip and peel if not handled properly. Make sure to avoid keeping it in a bin with other LEGO elements. It should be able to withstand normal level of play, but remember the application process isn't perfect and you should do your best to preserve the custom element you've created.