Using the ALPS MD-1000 to print your own decals

 

Overview:

As previously discussed in several other model magazines, the ALPS MD-1000 is a powerful color printer that can be used to print your own custom decals. However, it’s not always as easy as we modelers would like, nor is it perfect.

As it comes from the factory, the ALPS MD-1000 is an excellent value in the world of CMYK printers. CMYK refers to the way colors are made by the printer. In this case it is an additive process using Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black. The ALPS printer overlays various values of these colors to produce the specific colors needed by a color graphic or photograph. The ALPS printer is also remarkable in its ability to print white, as well as true metallic silver and gold. Dollar for dollar, you would be hard pressed to find a better all purpose color printer for the money.

Software:

For self-created artwork, Corel Draw is the hands down winner in my opinion. It will draw simple shapes such as circles and rectangles, but it will also allow you to do complex manipulations of actual letter shapes. This is very helpful when you get more advanced and want to tweak the serifs on a particular font for example. It also has an intuitive interface, and the learning curve is not so steep as to intimidate the average or occasional user. The price tag for earlier versions is almost unbeatable, as little as $10 for version 3, and around $40 for version 6 (try www.ebay.com ). It does have some of the image manipulating power of PhotoShop, but this feature is somewhat lacking in the earlier versions. If you like the interface and plan to do a lot of artwork, go for the latest version: Corel Draw 9.

For scanned logos and artwork, there are several choices. Adobe PhotoShop is the industry standard for this kind of work, but it carries a hefty price tag and you must be dedicated if you want to learn all of its many features. For the beginner, Paint Shop Pro is recommended, mostly because you can "try before you buy". Shareware and demo versions are widely available on the internet (try www.shareware.com ), allowing the budding artist to test the waters without breaking the bank. Demo versions of Adobe products such as PhotoShop and Illustrator are available from www.adobe.com , but they are "crippled"; and that means they have no save or print features.

Adobe Illustrator has always been an excellent art program. In it you have the ability to manipulate scanned images, create original shapes, and overlay text. Once again though, this power comes with a hefty price tag. If you're serious about your decal work, it's a worthwhile investment to pick up this program. If you do a lot of image scanning with text overlays, it will work very smoothly in concert with PhotoShop. Average users might be intimidated by its sheer power and complexity.

Adobe PageMaker was a popular print program several years ago, and many users are still loyal to it, but it is beginning to show its age. While it handles text based work admirably, it just can't compete with the more powerful software available today. If you like it, keep it; otherwise you'd be better off with one of the other software suggestions presented here.

If you really think about it, it all boils down to what you're willing to spend, and which interface you prefer. Power comes with a price, but all the software mentioned here will get the job done with a little coaxing. I don’t recommend using your favorite word processing program due to its limited text handling abilities with things like kerning, it will only lead to frustration in the long run.

Most of these programs come with a large assortment of different lettering styles or fonts. You can also buy additional fonts on the internet or from office supply stores like Staples or Office Depot. They are usually quite inexpensive, sometimes as little as $15 for a CD-ROM of 250 fonts when they are on sale. By having a large stable of fonts, you will be able to come up with the specific style you are looking for. This is especially true if you are trying to match an existing railroad’s style of lettering (more on that later).

 

Design Tips:

They say imitation is the highest form of flattery, but in our case it is also the path to enhanced realism. You don’t have to be a graphic artist to design believable logos and road names, you just have to be observant. Do you have a favorite railroad, or is your pike modeled after a specific prototype? By using an actual prototype as a guide, you have added an air of realism to your model railroad’s image. While you may like an Arabic looking font, how many Oregon loggers would have used it in the forties? Check out your favorite books or railroad publications for inspiration, and let it go from there. After you get a few lettering sets under your belt, you might feel confident enough to design a new look for the East Broad Top in the 1990’s!

Printing:

Clear decal film is widely available from Microscale and Micro-Mark, as well as some other smaller manufacturers such as Bel Decal and Tango Papa. It is relatively inexpensive, and you can lay out a surprising amount of artwork on an 8"x11" sheet of decal paper. Always remember to leave a half inch border around your artwork to account for the printer's "no-print" zone on the edges. This zone is designed to allow the printer to hold the paper in perfect registration for the succession of CMYK inks.

The ALPS printer has several quirks that must be addressed to get maximum performance from it. One is a minor opacity problem, the other is its ability to print specific colors cleanly. These are not negatives per se, just issues that need to be addressed when laying out your artwork and printing your decals. Always keep the print guide that comes with the printer handy for easy reference. It is chock full of useful information and clear instructions for the various operations.

Opacity is generally a problem only when placing decals containing fine lines or lettering over very dark colored surfaces such as black. If you place this white lettering over a black car body, the lettering would take on a "faded" look. While this is not objectionable to some modelers, there is an easy way around it. In the ALPS print menu, check the "overlay" box. After printing one pass of white as a spot color, go back and print another pass of white. This double printing negates the opacity problem easily and cleanly. I would not recommend using the "white undercoat" setting from the print menu. The ALPS does not print this undercoat at its highest resolution, so there may be some softness on the edges. This would be noticeable in the smaller scales. I always opt for an undercoat layer of white applied as a spot color, not as an undercoat, even when printing top colors such as red or yellow.

Speaking of colors, while a good number of railroad lettering is plain white, more and more roads today are turning to color to spice up their public image. While the ALPS is considered a full color printer, it does have its limitations. Certain colors give the ALPS problems due to their color composition. It is not so much a problem with the printer, but more to do with how it overlays the CMYK colors. It uses a pattern of very fine dots or stripes to "blend" colors. While it is able to fool the eye from a few inches away in a photograph, it is simply unacceptable when it comes to a logo or road name on the side of a model.

Because of this color limitation, it pays to plan ahead when using the ALPS to make color lettering for your decals. It will do pure red and yellow quite nicely, but not certain "blended" colors like orange (yet). To print these colors, we must lay out our color progression to "build" the desired color. After printing a base coat of white, you would overlay one coat of magenta, followed by two coats of yellow to produce an excellent full bodies red (all colors applied as "spot colors"). To print yellow, you would follow the same steps, minus the magenta layer. The best solution for colors such as orange is the following: print a base layer of white, overlay with magenta, another layer of white, followed by one or more layers of yellow to reach the desired hue (all colors applied as "spot colors"). Yes, it can become a bit tedious, but I know of no other way to economically print a small number of decals.

There is also one caveat in regards to shipping and storing your decals. The ink used by the printer is somewhat fragile as compared to screen printed inks. The lettering can be rubbed off by rough or excessive handling. If you plan to ship a set or two to a friend, place the decals in clear plastic wrap or the glassine envelopes the post office has available for stamps. To combat this problem, Microscale makes a solution, Micro liquid decal film (Walthers #460-117), which is essentially a clear sealer for the purpose of restoring old or dried out decals. I highly recommend giving your home printed decals a thin coat of this solution. It does no harm to them, it does not make the film more visible, and it does not interfere with the usual setting solutions. All it does is protect them from being marred by handling. Once the decals are sealed on the model in the typical manner with Dullcote or some other clear finish, they are just as sturdy as any other type of decal, and require no special considerations.

Conclusion:

While no system is perfect, the ALPS comes very close. It allows the home computer user to quickly and easily make their own decals for personal or commercial use. It is inexpensive when compared to traditional screen printing, and it boasts far better resolution. You also have the luxury of printing the one or two sets you actually need, as opposed to a commercial printer’s typical 25 piece minimum. With prices for equipment and software coming down more and more every day, there’s no time like the present to jump on board!