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Dry Transfer Lettering

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  • Member since
    December 2006
  • From: Trieste, Italy
  • 225 posts
Dry Transfer Lettering
Posted by GN_Fan on Sunday, October 13, 2019 3:04 AM

Altho I'm pretty proficient at using decals, my skill in using dry transfers needs improvement.  I find it very difficult, if not impossible, to get letters lined up perfectly.  With decals, I can always tweek the position, but with dry transfers, you only get one shot, and that's hampered by the rest of the sheet which masks almost everything so you cannot see what you're doing.  I seem to do OK with individual signs and things, but trying to letter a passenger car one letter at a time is impossible for me.  

Is there a way to do this ??  I've even tried cutting individual letters out of a sheet, but the lettering always comes off in the process.  Any help is appreciated.

Alea Iacta Est -- The Die Is Cast
  • Member since
    August 2006
  • From: Nashville, TN area
  • 508 posts
Posted by hardcoalcase on Sunday, October 13, 2019 9:41 AM

I used Letterset dry transfers back in the 1970's to letter my locos and passenger cars; spelled-out my RR's name has 19 letters and 3 spaces, so it was a pretty laborous process.

The letter sheets I used were semi-translucent, similar to wax paper, so I was able to see well enough through the sheet to line up the letter row with the previously placed letters. 

As you noted that the sheets you are using pretty much hide the model surface, I'd suggest:

  • Using a strong desk lamp, perhaps one with a magnifiger lens, and/or
  • Use "marker letters" - place the 1st letter and then place another letter (any letter, preferably one you don't need) about half a sheet-width away.  Then cut a full letter row from the sheet, trimmed exactly at either the bottom or top of the letters.  You can align the letter row to the two marker letters to get a straight line.  As you progress through the RR name, you'll likely need to remove the 2nd marker with tape, and perhaps place another.

In the forseeable future, I'll need to letter a lot of cars, and hope to have a custom herald, so this pretty much says I'll be using custom decals, which may be a bit pricey.  


  • Member since
    July 2006
  • From: Chamberlain, ME
  • 4,946 posts
Posted by G Paine on Sunday, October 13, 2019 9:42 AM

If the car does not have some kind of line to use as a reference, you could put a piece of masking tape under the lettering to use as a reference

George In Midcoast Maine, 'bout halfway up the Rockland branch 

  • Member since
    January 2004
  • From: Canada, eh?
  • 10,499 posts
Posted by doctorwayne on Sunday, October 13, 2019 1:20 PM

Most of my locomotives and rolling stock, and especially the ones with freelanced roadnames were lettered with dry transfers. 
I used the large Lettraset sheets (10"x15"), but eventually had custom lettering made by C-D-S, and have gone through three 50 sheet orders, each order differing somewhat from the previous ones.

This was the first custom version, meant only for freight "house cars" (boxcars and reefers) with the only the herald and slogan.  The balance of the lettering was done with Lettraset alphabets and numerals, and dimensional data from C-D-S...

...while flatcars, gondolas and hoppers were done with Lettraset alphabets.

The second set included the large reporting marks and numbers, but eliminated the slogan (I had lots of the latter left, as it was only for house cars).

The third set, ordered when I backdated the layout to the late '30s, eliminated all of the large lettering and numerals, the large heralds, and the slogan...

...and when C-D-S closed shop, I ordered decals, in a similar style, from Rail Graphics.

Much of my rolling stock lettered for real railroads also used C-D-S sets, and the roads which they didn't cover were done with decals, usually from Champ or Microscale.

I always preferred the dry transfers, although it was easier to add the cars' end numbers and reporting marks by putting the dry transfer lettering onto clear decal paper, and applying it as one-piece decals.

I often used masking tape as a guide for straightness, but also marked it for word spacing and also for spacing of individual letters within the words (google "kerning" for more information on that).

If the images on the sheet of dry transfers are too close together, you're usually better off if you cut them into manageable segments, but you'll also need to keep those segments big enough to allow you to hold them in place while you're applying them to the model.

In some cases, it's advantageous to tape the sheet to the model, which will maintain its position while you transfer the images to the model.  You can then lift the portion on which you're working to see if all of the lettering has been transferred, using the taped-down portion as a hinge.

I've done 90 passenger and express cars, using C-D-S alphabet sets for this roadname...

...most of them "named" cars, done with a smaller font.  In addition, there are just over 300 home road freight cars that have been lettered with dry transfers, although many of them, over time, have been sold.



  • Member since
    June 2002
  • From: Pittsburgh, PA
  • 416 posts
Posted by ctyclsscs on Sunday, October 13, 2019 2:58 PM

I don't know how much this will help, but I'll give them anyway.

One important thing to remember if you put down some sort of tape for a guideline - round letters are almost always taller than the other letters. It's an optical illusion thing. If they were the same size, the rounded letters would look smaller next to square ones so they make them slightly taller. That means they have to extend slightly below any guidelines to look "right" because you have to center them vertically next to squared off letters. If you used tape as a guideline, you could apply all of the letters except the round ones and then go back and put them in after you removed the tape otherwise the letters would overlap the tape. To do that, you'd need to leave the right amount of space (see below).

I would use a small piece of tissue paper and trace the letters to make the words I wanted before I tried applying the lettering. That would give me a rough idea of how long the words would be and where to start putting down the lettering. It's sort of the same idea Dr Wayne said about using "marker letters" to make sure you don't run out of room or make the words off center. You just have to use the tissue paper tracing as a reference as you go along.


  • Member since
    March 2002
  • From: Milwaukee WI (Fox Point)
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Posted by dknelson on Sunday, October 13, 2019 6:14 PM

I've even tried cutting individual letters out of a sheet, but the lettering always comes off in the process.

That is my experience when the dry transfer sheet is an older one.  At some point the letters just flake off the sheet due to age.  Someone on these forums wrote that there is a wax on the letters that dries out over time.

An article in I think RailModel Journal showed how the author removed every letter from its dry transfer sheet (just as you would with decals) because they were going between vertical ribs on the modern boxcar and the big letters nearly filled the gap.  So that idea does work.  For long smooth surfaces you maybe don't have to remove each letter from the sheet -- just making the sheet smaller and less cumbersome seems to help with precision work.  And when I say "precision work" I mean my version of it: something that looks, oh, about half as good as Wayne's examples. 

Someday Dr. Wayne will post photos of something he thinks he did poorly just to beef up our [my] self esteem.

Dave Nelson

  • Member since
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  • From: west coast
  • 5,103 posts
Posted by rrebell on Thursday, October 17, 2019 10:33 AM

You could make up your own dry transfers by using light tac scotch tape. Pin it to a board sticky side up and put a small peice of paper at one end and then add your letters to the sticky lining up with the botom of the tape. Finish off with a peice of paper. You now have a custom dry transfer that is easy to line up. Bonus is whatever bit of sticky on top is left will hold tranfer in place till rubbing is done.

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