If you want some waterslide decals, or transfers, printed to your own designs, then this is what you need to know.
Perhaps you need some of the following:
White lettering or numbering details
Coloured logos on a clear carrier film
Chrome metallic nameplates with no carrier film
Low volume custom designs printed from just £10
These things are impossible to do with ordinary home Inkjet or Laser type printers with their typically transparent flat colours and white media. What it takes is a printer that can print white where it's needed, along with any metallic colours required. Such special printers work quite differently and require special handling techniques to get the best out of them. Mass production uses traditional screen-printing, which can be slow, expensive and usually coarse resolution. Instead we use ALPS/OKI printers which are ideal for fast turn around low volume productions with high resolution. This article aims to help you to prepare images that are ready for us to print. Don't forget you can always ask us to quote for design work as well.
ALPS Corporation in Japan manufactured various "Micro Dry" printers, the technology of which was adopted by Citizen, OKI, Kodak and others to be re-branded. The printers are still unique in being able to print with both white and true metallic inks, as well as more usual colours. They are used predominantly by decal makers wanting a white base coat for decal application on dark surfaces, printing on a clear carrier film media. The foil printing mode is often used for greetings cards and other presentation uses, typically picking out the lettering. There are other applications, with for example heat-transfers for mugs and T-shirts using dye sublimation printing, but those uses are not related to waterslide decals.
For decal makers, the ALPS MD-5000, or almost identical OKI DP-5000, were the most flexible models made, production of which seems to have stopped in 2001. The OKI DP-7000 supported the most colours but was a MAC-only unit. The last model produced, the ALPS MD-5500, continued to be marketed in Japan until the middle of 2010, although it was supplied with only Japanese drivers. All of the models appear occassionally for sale on eBay and Yahoo auction sites from private sellers. Outside of Japan, the special long-printing OKI DP-5000S appears on sale, typically from German florist shops who used it to print on ribbons. Because the heavy metal print heads are attached with thin plastic mountings, they very often smash in the post, particularly when the required head-packing pieces have not been used for shipping. The head will wear out naturally, and can also become easily damaged with only light use if abasive dust gets under the head. Once the head is damaged, a printer is usually fit only for the rubbish. It's easy to waste many hundreds of pounds trying to get one of these machines in working order!
If you need a lot of decals, more than 30 A4 sheets say, then you might want to consider trying to buy an OKI DP-5000 or ALPS MD-5000 printer to print things yourself, as that could work out cheaper for you. We sometimes have repaired printers for sale here - please Contact Us to enquire. To easily drive one of the printers we can sell you a refurbished IBM T23 laptop, configured ready to print with the recommended tools and set up that we use:
For 5000 series printer owners, Dye Sublimation, or Photographic printing, a mode not used for waterslide decal making, requires a special set of ink Dye Sub ribbons and needs to be enabled with both a hardware and software upgrade. We sell alternative Dye-Sub upgrade keys.
Preparing Your Files
Each model of ALPS/OKI printer was capable of printing images with up to 600 pixels per inch - the true "dpi". Claims of higher resolutions for certain models were based on the ability to print smaller dots of the four main colours (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow & blacK - CMYK) within an image pixel - i.e. 4x 600dpi of ink. Where higher resolution images are printed in the best photographic printing mode, ideally multiples of 600dpi such as 1200dpi or 2400dpi, the smaller dots within the true dpi will provide some edge smoothing. The smallest readable text that can be printed is about 0.25mm, or 6 pixels, tall. The drivers work best with Red-Green-Blue (RGB) encoded images - printing from the CMYK colour pallet can produce unpredictable results. For example: CMYK 0,0,0,100 for black may translate as RGB 56,53,54 which is a dark grey that results in a dot dither mix printing.
Your designs can safely use A4 or US Letter portait formats. Printing a full page as two halves (e.g. A5 size), laying out the images in the top half of a full sheet, will ensure better layer alignment where multiple passes are required. Note that printing is done from left to right across the shorter width of a sheet. We mostly print on a special "Long Legal" (216x355 mm) clear film carrier - larger than either "Letter" 8.5x11 inches or A4 210x297 mm. Sometimes we use uncoated gum-only A4 media. We also have one of the special long-printing printers which can use our stock of the longest obtainable decal media to be used with a media size of 210x650mm.
The printers have wide un-printable margins - you need to leave at least 1.5cm blank space all round on whatever paper size is configured - however the top margin area can be used for comments that will not appear in the printing, as long as they are within 1.2cm from the top of the layout, for example as to which ink colours are to be used to print the page. Please use only portrait orientation.
Vector graphics or bitmaps can be handled in various program formats. The simplest common format is a PDF file, which can be generated from any number of applications - you will probably need to use only RGB 0,0,0 black in a PDF file format, with a separate page required for each colour of ink to be printed. You might use Corel Draw CDR files - we can handle up to version 12, so from a later version it can be safer to publish to a PDF - be sure to "convert to curves" all text that we might not have the font file for. We also have Microsoft Office Profressional 2003 for the Publisher tool. If you are dealing with just simple text, Microsoft Word DOC files could be used, providing we have the fonts used in the file. Turn off any "anti-aliasing" or edge smoothing features to avoid fuzzy edges. Bitmap images should be prepared to a multiple of 600dpi, 23.64 pixels to the millimeter, as loss-less BMP files, or possibly GIF or PNG formats with careful checking of the colour palette used. Do not use JPEG/JPG or other picture file formats with compression that results in non-white backgrounds and edges. Images will need to be placed within a page so that they align where multiple page layers are required. For the preparation of our own art work we use Serif PagePlus, perfect for lettering, simple vector art and the placement of bitmaps, it makes repeating a design easy and it can also edit PDF files - we use version 11 mostly, but also have the free edition and the X8 version for Windows 8. Serif replaced PagePlus with a new Affinity Publisher product, we do not have that and the native file format would not work for decal printing - you might be able to generate suitable PDF files from the full new application.
Matching Real Subjects
When we design art work, we usually start with a 600dpi scan of a model. Photographs of the real subject will also need to be gathered. The real photos are scaled and manipluated against the model scan to give a real image in proportion to the model (along with any errors that may have) - matching key body features like the overall height and width, length of a box section, etc..
With the Serif PagePlus application that we use most often to prepare print masters, there are numerous parameters to import bitmaps and manipulate text as vector graphics. Text can be placed over a scaled picture of the real required thing and made to fit precisely in many cases - where it is a standard font type. Otherwise, images can be created separately by tracing in a bitmap editor to give any other pixel-pefect requirements.
For example, taking eight real life shots of different Freightliner Class 66 engines, we scaled them to a scan of a G-scale (1:29th) model, matching the headlight cluster box width to the known model measurement of 18mm. Then with cyan coloured text placed over the real numbers, established the particulars of the font used by trial and error manipulations. In this case, the real life numbers must be 100cm tall, using font "Swiss 721 SWA", 14.4pt, 125% of the standard width, with everything else at default settings. Thus any numbers can be formed for the nose ends, these are then placed on a clean page as required and copied to further pages for layers to be printed in different coloured inks. The cab sides use different sizes and the procedure must be repeated there.
The whole process of applying ink layers in spot colour separation overlays, printing repeatedly over the same sheet with different colours on each pass, is alien to most ordinary printer users familiar with one step all-colour printing. Printing white undercoats for translucent colours or multiple over-printing layers for variable densities of different types of white inks may be new concepts. If you want to have decals printed on an ALPS/OKI printer, you will need to understand how to prepare suitable images and page layers, making allowance for the features of the process.
The special inks do not age or fade and are fully waterproof, but they are easily scratched and need careful handling. Sometimes one ink colour will not stick over another when printing, making certain combinations of layers impossible to print. For a simple example, it is not recommended or necessary to print white underneath metallic or black inks. You may therefore want to include additional items in your designs to allow for possible printing or handling problems.
Particular image colours can be used to trigger the use of certain special coloured ribbons. Overlays of the pure ribbon colours can produce only a limited range of colours - anything else must be dithered. You will need to control the RGB colour values in your designs and will probably want to avoid photographic images containing colours that have to be dither mixed - like the print in newspapers or magazines, an effect that is not very desirable for tiny decal printing.
We have produced colour charts to show all possible combinations of the inks we have, including metallics and white overlays. While you can of course just Contact Us to ask about how to produce particular colours with your designs, you might find having a colour chart handy where you want to try and match several specific model colours:
Image Colour Codes
The table gives a summary of the main colour codes you might use in your designs. Please stick to RGB coding.Check that art work exported to PDF files uses only RGB coding for each colour, not CMYK or greyscale pallets.
For reference, CMYK coding values are noted in blue as they translate from the RGB equivalents,
note how these differ from the common CMYK pallet values in red for those colour names:
May Translate To CMYK (n/100%)
DO NOT USE CMYK Pallet
0, 255, 255
0, 100, 100
51, 0, 15, 0
100, 0, 0, 0
255, 255, 0
100, 100, 0
9, 0, 87, 0
0, 0, 100, 0
255, 0, 255
100, 0, 100
29, 82, 0, 0
0, 100, 0, 0
0, 0, 0
0, 0, 0
75, 68, 67, 90
0, 0, 0, 100
230, 230, 230
90, 90, 90
9, 7, 7, 0
10, 10, 10, 0
189, 193, 197
74, 76, 77
27, 19, 18, 0
26, 24, 23, 0
225, 160, 0
88, 63, 0
15, 40, 100, 0
12, 37, 100, 0
163, 36, 115
64, 14, 45
41, 99, 29, 6
36, 86, 55, 0
0, 176, 201
0, 69, 79
75, 14, 22, 0
100, 31, 21, 0
189, 193, 197
74, 76, 77
27, 19, 18, 0
26, 24, 23, 0
225, 160, 0
88, 63, 0
15, 40, 100, 0
12, 37, 100, 0
All special colours are usually printed by themselves in spot-colour layers. For example:
White as a base layer by itself
Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and blacK colours together
Metallic Gold, Metallic Silver, Metallic Magenta and Metallic Cyan can be printed together with CMYK colours or in a layer of their own
Metallic Gold Foil and Silver Foil also with ordinary CMYK colours or on their own, but not with the other metallic colours, not suitable for large areas of printing
Basic red, green and blue colours are obtained from automatic overlays of the Cyan, Magenta and Yellow ribbons. For example, where the design uses RGB (n/255) 0,0,255, Cyan and then Magenta will be printed to give a blue which is slightly purple in hue.
In addition, there are further original ribbon colours that we can use as if they were one of the above main ribbons. We use the 5000-series printers and to be able to use a ribbon that was designed for another printer model, we must change the bar-code label on the ribbon to make the printer think it's using one of its supported colours. To use these colours, separate layer pages are definitely required:
Spot Red, Spot Green and Spot Blue, from the OKI DP-7000, can be printed together
Process Orange separately as a layer on its own, a Kodak printer ribbon
Process Green separately again, also a Kodak colour
Opaque White as an overcoat layer by itself, from the OKI DP-7000.
In 2017 Japanese ALPS/OKI printer repair agent "Elephant's Rocket" began developing a new range of ink colours. Each of the new inks must be printed as a colour on it's own, from a dedicated page of art work. For best ink adhesion we change the supplied Black bar code label to allow the printer to use VPhoto Primer mode. These inks are not suitable for large areas of printing as the ink flakes off from the ribbon and sticks where you don't want it to be printing!
Real Ribbon Colour
Use Image Colour
True-blue - not purple-blue like a Cyan & Magenta overlay
Process Green (Hexachrome)
Blue-green - best printed as if Vphoto Primer
Process Orange (Hexachrome)
Mid-orange - best printed as if Vphoto Primer
Any New ER Ink
There are currently 14 colour options - for overcoats best printed as if Vphoto Primer
Pale grey as for ordinary White
Less opaque than ordinary White - for overcoats printed as if Vphoto Primer
The actual VPhoto Primer ribbon is a clear wax designed to coat rough paper before normal printing. It uses the highest print head heat setting, ensuring that the wax resin melts on to the media. The real ribbon can be used to produce certain complex overlays of colours that do not normally stick - warm yellows and dark red maroon shades require such special layer mixes. The Freightliner green shade in the above example required five separate print layer pages: "Metallic Gold", "VPhoto Primer", "White", "Spot Green" (as Yellow) and finally "Cyan".
When printing in White ink or Vphoto Primer mode for special Process ink colours or the new ER inks, anything in the art work that is not pure white RGB 255,255,255 will print in the ink being used. If compression, anti-aliasing or other smoothing has been used, it will result in unwanted areas of printing where the intended background is not pure white.
If you have prepared a suitable print master ready to be printed on an ALPS/OKI type printer, you can send it to us using the button above. At the same time you will need to confirm your requirements in a note with details of what colours are required, what type of media, etc.. Click on the button below to see details of an example project, with PDF print master explained in detail.
As a rough guide, if there are no complications, for the equivalent of a full sheet (A4 or US Letter) of decals we might charge as follows. Smaller part-sheets would be printed with a proportional charge based on the fraction of a sheet consumed, down to a minimum charge of £10:
Number/Type Of Colours
Any other single colour requiring White undercoat
A single pass of ordinary White only
Dense White with an overcoat of Opaque White
Standard multi-colour designs with White undercoating
Normal and Spot-colour prints with White undercoating
Designs that include ordinary Metallic colours
Designs involving some chrome-like Metallic Foil printing
Process colours, ER Inks or complex multi-layer colour mixes
Long media decals - more than double the size, double the prices above
£40 - £100
Please note that our fees are designed to cover only the printing costs of media and equipment, plus some handling time. We cannot guarantee that your designs will print as you intended - there may be, for example, problems relating to ink adherance with colour layers, or unforeseen issues with your designs. Just as with our own design work, it may be necessary to revise a print master and run it again at your additional cost.
We are able to quote separately for design work or decal production from start to finish, where we do guarantee the results. However, our time for custom projects, especially those not related to UK model railways, is limited and of course costly. We prefer to help you prepare you own designs ready to be printed. You will retain all copyrights and control of your own designs and are responsible for getting license to use logos or trademarks from any other sources.
When we have received a print master that we consider is ready to print, we will send you a special payment link. That will add the custom job as an item in your PayPal shopping cart. You can order any other standard items from out web site at the same time before checking out. Custom printing orders are despatched as with other items, typically less than a week for U.K. orders.
The definitive independent article by Rob de Bie contains details of all the ALPS/OKI printer models and inks, together with a tutorial on producing decal art-work: