Decals vs Hand Painting

Model Finishing Today:
Deciding Whether To Use Decals
or Utilize Hand Painting


While my first preference will always be to collect models which are completely original and in displayable condition, it is very difficult to find the models I’m looking for, especially with my narrow interest in the DC-8. This year marks the actual DC-8’s 50th year of service and there are over 100 DC-8s still in active service with airlines today which is an amazing feat! However, finding original models in displayable condition is becoming ever more difficult, especially metal ones which were discontinued in the late 1960s/early 1970s. Thus, sometimes I resort to either restoring or refinishing a model which isn’t, in my opinion, in good enough condition to be displayed.


When I began collecting models in 1973 there was only one method utilized in finishing models – the use of paint on the larger surfaces, then applying decals for the finer details and then finally sealing this all off with a clear coat of lacquer. Today, there is another option which can be utilized to create some beautiful models – the use of hand painting which is usually done in the Philippines. Most collectors I know prefer the paint and decal method which has been used so successfully over the years. The problem today is that it is nearly impossible to find decals, in usable condition, for the older jetliners and prop liners and for airlines which may have ceased operation 20, 30 or 40 years ago. During my years of collecting I have been fortunate enough to collect decals for many of the DC-8s which are in my collection. However, there were still many airline decals that I was missing and wanted for the DC-8. Since the cost of having decals made today is prohibitive, especially for the 1/50 scale models which sometimes need decals that are 40+ inches, or 100+ cm, in length, I decided to try having 1 model hand painted in the Philippines to see if it could look anything nearly as nice as a decaled model. Thus, in 1997 I sent 1 unfinished DC-8 Douglas Factory Polished Aluminum Blank* to the Philippines to be hand painted in Eastern Airlines "Hockey Stick" scheme – a scheme which I had wanted for many years but could not find a set of decals for. The company who did this hand painting for me was Airborne Replicas, which is co-owned by a Northwest Airlines pilot based in Anchorage, Alaska. Along with this DC-8 blank I sent several excellent quality color photos and drawings specifying the details I wanted hand painted on the blank. For example, I wanted a specific registration number on the model and specified which one it was and exactly where it should be painted. Also, I wanted the window and door arrangements to match exactly to that of the Eastern DC-8-61 so I highlighted this for them as well. Approximately four months later Don at Airborne brought the Eastern DC-8-61 back to me fully painted and I was astounded that they could paint so many details in an accurate manner. This test really confirmed to me that hand painting was the way to go when you don’t have a good, detailed set of decals in good condition to be used. Since that first Eastern DC-8-61 model was completed for me I have used Airborne Replicas exclusively for any models to be hand painted. Because I have seen some Really Bad mahogany models come out of the Philippines I can only recommend to fellow collectors to use Airborne Replicas if they are going to have a model hand painted. FYI, I am not connected with Airborne Replicas in any way, I do not receive anything for my recommendation, and I am recommending them solely on their workmanship and nothing else.

*- A "blank" is the basic model form, which is made from metal, resin, plastic, fiberglass or wood, and has not been finished off in any airline scheme.


I think that decals will be the preferred method of large scale model finishing because an excellent, professional decal maker can put very accurate details (including airline & airplane manufacturer logos) down to very small sizes, colors are exact, lines are straight, circles are perfect, all designs in the decals are in proportion to the actual aircraft and this is all done consistently from one decal to another. That being said, the decals are only as exact and detailed as the airline, model maker and decal maker want them to be and although most decal makers are professionals there are still a few makers out there whose work isn’t so great. Also, a drawback of some decals is that some details that a model collector will consider important will either be wrong or be missing. Some examples of these missing or incorrect details are the registration number, airline’s ship number, cargo doors missing, the cockpit & passenger window and/or door arrangements may not be correct and/or be over or undersized. The trend today seems to be "less is better" when it comes to details we collectors like. The airlines and model makers (Pac Min is an excellent example) favor those models which are very shiny (with several coats of clear lacquer) and attractive to look at (i.e. to catch the customer’s eye) and -not- cluttered with those details which we model collectors love. Still, all things considered, I like to use decals whenever possible as long as their condition is good, they are reasonably accurate and have at least some of the details I am looking for in a finished model.


The biggest advantage to hand painting is that it can be done at a very reasonable cost with excellent results when you don’t have a usable set of decals to work with. Another advantage is that the hand painter can include or exclude any details you want on the model. You can have them include an accurate registration number and/or company ship number, cargo door outlines, landing gear door outlines, the airline’s aircraft name (e.g. Mainliner Donald W. Douglas on a United DC-8), and just about anything else that you want which a set of decals may be missing, different, or incorrect. Hand painting is definitely preferable, in my opinion, when you have a set of decals but they are old and/or yellowed and thus may not adhere to the model correctly or look bad when applied to the model. The obvious disadvantage to hand painting is that it is very hard for any person, no matter how talented, to match the precision of a good set of decals. However, in my experiences with Airborne Replicas they come pretty close and in some cases I think their work is actually better than that of a decaled model. If you look in the top left and right corners of this page, there is a Eastern DC-8-61 at 1/50 Scale and a National "Sunking" DC-8-21 at 1/50 Scale. Both of these were hand painted. The Eastern Scheme was hand painted on a bare aluminum model which they did entirely from pictures and drawings of an actual EA DC-8-61. The National DC-8-21 was done a little differently. This model was originally in this National Scheme and much of the scheme or remnants of the scheme were still on the model. Thus, in this case the painter had an outline of the original scheme to work with, in addition to pictures and drawings I sent to help them to help in painting the model. In both cases they did an outstanding job. If you would like to look at either of these models now just click on one of the pictures above (then hit your back button to return to this page when you are done). One other note on hand painting – if you are going to have a model hand painted then be sure to send the painter as many detailed pictures, drawings, copies of logos, etc. that you have to assist them in their job. The more details you can send – the better the results you will get back – I can’t stress point enough!

I hope this information has been helpful in understanding how I approach model collecting, restoring, refinishing, etc.
If you have any questions or suggestions please email me at: