Applying Peel-and-Stick Decals

…or Technology’’s Replacement for the Sign Painter

by Sherwood Heggen

At a boat show recently, a boat owner was telling the story of how a judge mistook the gold leaf lettering on his boat for a stick on decal and consequently scored him lower. The judge was corrected to understand the name was done with gold leaf. The point of telling this is that if gold leaf can be mistaken for a vinyl peel and stick decal, let’s go for the easy to apply and inexpensive decal. However, I personally would have trouble endorsing the use of a decal in all cases, but you determine what would be correct for your boat.

In a previous Gadgets and Kinks, gold leaf lettering was the topic. The process does require a fair degree of skill, experience, and some equipment to get it done well.

So, why not bypass the learning curve for how to apply the gold leaf lettering and name for your boat and buy it ready made. There are many sign and graphics shops out there that are ready with all kinds of ideas for how the name should be positioned, its size, and font. It can be done in just about any color you want, including gold with borders or shadows. All that is left for you to do is put it on.

Oh, wait. Maybe we should talk about putting it on. It isn’t “falling-off-a-log” easy as it might seem. It does take a little understanding and preparation to get a well positioned and wrinkle/bubble free end result. Actually, on a 1 to 5 scale, 5 being the hardest, this ends up being a low 2.

The pictures that follow show application of the commercially available 3M peel-and-stick Chris Craft decals. You can request this same type of peel and stick decal from a sign and graphics shop with whatever words or letters you want. The decal is made up of 3 parts. The front part, or face paper, has a low tack adhesive on the backside that holds the vinyl letters in position. The second part is the vinyl letters that have an aggressive adhesive on the back. The third part is a slick-surfaced paper or similar material that protects the adhesive on the back of the vinyl letters. If you follow the instructions below, you should be able to get the decals applied successfully with a professional appearance. You will need a couple of items to assist in applying the decals. They are a roll of painter’s tape, a tape measure and small plastic Bondo spreader to press down the letters.

First, clean the surface well with soap and water or naphtha. You may elect to apply the decals over a final coat of varnish or a sanded surface ready for the final coat and varnish over the applied decal. Lay out a reference line or position marks to align the decal properly on its intended location on the hull. The first picture below shows how tape marks the line projected from the chrome strips to which the decals should align in this case.

Your boat might have some shape or lines that dictate the correct positioning of the license numbers or name.  Follow the suggestion of those lines for the placement of the decal or its appearance could be awkward and uncomfortable to the eye. Tape the decal in its final position with all the parts still intact. In other words, don’t peel anything off yet! Proceed methodically and patiently. You only have one shot at getting it done right! Once the adhesive on the back of the letters sticks to a surface, it is unlikely you can successfully remove it for repositioning without messing things up or even ruining the decal. Now, look at the next picture.

The decals are taped in their final position according to the reference line or position marks. The face paper is translucent to allow you to see the image beneath. The edges of the face paper do not always line up with the decal itself. Be sure to line up to the decal! After taping the decals in their final position, make a hinge with tape to allow you to lift the decal and peel off the protective covering from the backside. It is important to understand where the tape hinge should go. If you are applying a decal on a surface that is relatively flat, the tape hinge can go on the top or bottom side of the decal. The picture below shows a decal hinged at the top and lifted.

Preferred would be to hinge it at the bottom. This would make it less cumbersome when continuing with the process especially when applying a large decal. Either way works. If the surface is bowed, such as a transom, then put the hinge on the side or the flatter surface. Hinges do not work on a curved surface. Now, lift the decal away from the surface and peel off the protective backing. Don’t rush things here. If this is a large decal, you might want the assistance of a helper.

That person can hold excess material while you are paying attention to the details of getting the decal placed correctly. Carefully roll the decal in position, hinged side first. Use the Bondo spreader to lay the decal to the surface from the hinge side to the outer edge. Done well, the decal will lay flat to the surface. Rub the letters thoroughly with your fingers to firmly press them in place. Once satisfied the decal is attached to the surface, slowly peel away the face paper. The adhesive on the back of the decal is stronger than the adhesive holding the face paper, but even so, be on the watch for any part of the decal that might not be firmly attached and lifting with the face paper. If so, give it another good rubbing with your fingers and then continue to slowly remove the face paper. It should easily pull free from the decal and you will see the final results as shown in the last picture

 In the event a bubble of air is trapped under the decal, prick a hole in the bubble with a pin and press the air out with your finger. Also, rub around the edges with your finger one more time to be sure they are firmly attached that is a lot of describing for a simple process, but what looks simple to do might not be so simple until you know how.

Be proud of your restoration by doing each phase of the job well, which goes equally for the final step of license numbers and the name. A good-looking restoration can be made to look not so good with poorly done graphics.

If you have questions regarding the restoration of your boat, feel welcome to contact me. I will do my best to respond with an answer in whatever way I can. You can reach me at  or 715-294-2415.

In closing, I have to say in the interest of keeping a boat from the past, don’t destroy it; restore it. Now, get to work. Time and old boats are too precious to waste.