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How to Design, Print and Apply a Surfboard Decal

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Read Time: 10 min
Final product imageFinal product imageFinal product image
What You'll Be Creating
This tutorial was originally published in July 2009 as a Tuts+ Premium tutorial. It is now available free to view. Although this tutorial does not use the latest version of Adobe Photoshop, its techniques and process are still relevant.

In this tutorial, I'll demonstrate how to design and print your own surfboard decal, as well as how its application is integral to the surfboard's manufacturing process. Not only will you learn how to create a design that's both classic and contemporary, but also discover just what's possible using the latest technology in digital printing and materials tailored specifically for the surfboard industry.

You'll find the Illustrator file in a directory labeled "source" that came in the ZIP file that you downloaded. You may wish to look through it briefly before we begin. A preview of the final image is below.

Get inspired! Find more vector graphics on Envato Market.

A Brief History

In the 50s and 60s surfboard decals were the screen printed, water slide variety – if you've ever made a model kit, you know how temperamental they can be! Over the years, the print process evolved into screen printing direct onto rice or tissue paper – so when the decal is glassed on the board, the material absorbs the resin and becomes transparent. Screen printing, although expensive is still the ideal choice for incorporating opaque inks, such as white and also when large quantities of the same design are required.

Below I've illustrated some board logos, which over the years have set the standard by which all others are judged, even without typography their unique geometric shapes are recognized by surfers world wide. Most contemporary surfboard decals derive from these examples. Source: Mike@surfcrazy.

Nowadays you can have virtually any design glassed onto your surfboard as part of the manufacturing process; from a small logo, right up to a fully-blown, surfboard-length, color image, all for a relatively cheap price – and with the advent of UV inks, the decal preserves its vibrancy and color for the life of the board.

As my board was to be a retro, keel fin fish, with an overall yellow resin tint, I opted for a black-only logo – yellow and black always look cool! I also based the decal on the classic diamond shape, but also throwing in some contemporary type and some graphics inspired by Katsushika Hokusai.

Different stokes for different folks!

Anyone can walk into a surf shop and pick a board off the rack; but ordering a custom-made surfboard is a little more involved. I went through Dale Walker, a friend of mine (who incidentally asked me to redesign his Ectic brand – which sparked off the idea for this tutorial). After an initial discussion with Dale, he introduced me to Dave Farrow over at Many Returns Surfboards.

Dave was one of the pioneers of British surfing in the late 60s and started shaping boards in 1970. Dave, being an experienced shaper understands the thought process that goes into every board he makes, and tailors it accordingly to individual requirements. A combination of size, fin set ups and rail lines are all geared towards the surfers' experience, ability and the average wave conditions the board will be surfed in.

1. How to Design the Logo

Step 1

Lets get down to designing the logo. Create a new A4 portrait document 210mm wide by 297mm. With your Rulers visible (Command-R) zoom into the top-left corner and drag the rule origin point to the top-left edge of the artboard. Next, pull in two central guides – one 148.5mm from the top and another 105mm from the left. You'll find this easier by first unlocking your guides (Alt-Command-Semicolon), then use the Reference Point Locator to position them precisely. Now use the same keyboard command to lock them.

Step 2

Set your Fill to black with no Stroke, then select the Rectangle Tool (M) and click anywhere on your canvas. In the next dialogue box enter 70mm in both the Width and Height fields and hit OK. Now select the shape, hold down Shift and rotate 45 degrees.

Enable Smart Guides (Command-U) and position the shape's center, then name the layer "Diamond."

Step 3

Use the Direct Selection Tool (A) to set the left corner point's X-Value to 5mm. Now set the opposite corner point's X-Value to 205mm.

Step 4

With your shape selected go to Object > Envelope Distort > Make with Warp (Alt-Shift- Command-W). In the next dialogue box choose Fisheye from the Style menu, and set with a Bend value of -21% and hit OK.

Step 5

With the shape selected go to Object > Expand, then check both the Object and Fill boxes. Now use the Reference Point Locator to anchor the object as shown, and increase its height to 105mm.

Step 6

Go to Object > Path > Offset Path and enter -3mm in the Offset field. Give this inner shape a Fill of white and a Stroke of 0.

Step 7

With the inner shape selected, repeat the same Offset command, then give the new shape a Fill of white and a Stroke of black, set to 4pt using the default Align Stroke To Center option.

Step 8

Offset the new path by -2mm and give it a Fill of 65% black and Stroke of 0.

Step 9

Lock the "Diamond layer," then add a new layer labelled "Text." Now add the words "ECTIC" using this font, centered at 140pt on the new layer. I've used different amounts of kerning between the characters – In fact, the first three characters overlap fractionally.

See Step 6 in this tutorial for an in-depth explanation of kerning.

Step 10

With your type selected go to Type > Create Outlines (Shift-Command-O).

Next, select Make Compound Shape within the Pathfinder's fly-out menu, then hit the Expand button. You're now left with one simplified path – which will make the next few steps run smooth.

Step 11

Change the text to a Fill of white and a Stroke of 0, then Offset Path again by 1.8mm. Now set this shape to a Fill of black and Stroke of 0.

Step 12

Select both text paths and add a preset Arch Warp with a Horizontal setting of 16.

2. How to Make the Logo 3D

Step 1

Expand the text as you did in Step 5. Now depending on the original text placement, you may need to nudge it down a little. With both text paths selected go to Effect > 3D > Extrude & Bevel; now enter 16 in the top X axis, then set both the Y and Z to 0. Next, set the Extrude Depth to 115pt and ensure the Cap option is highlighted.

Step 2

Once you're happy go to Object > Expand Appearance. The 3D Extrude & Bevel has made the inner text off-white, so select their paths using the Direct Selection Tool – you may need to Shift-click to add non-joining text (such as the c) to the selection and fill with white.

With the paths still selected go to Select > Inverse, You should now have the black shadow areas selected, so Make Compound Shape and Expand. With the Compound Shape selected, hit Shift-Command-Left Bracket key to Send to Back.

Step 3

Now scale/squash and reposition the lettering within the diamond. After doing this you may wish to increase the black keyline around the lettering. First, use the Direct Selection Tool to select the outer black path, then add a 1mm Offset Path.

Next select the two outer paths and Make Compound Shape and then Expand.

Step 4

Create a rectangle, 60mm by 15mm with a Fill of black and a Stroke of 0. Now go to Filter > Stylize > Round Corners and enter a Radius of 7.5mm (half the height) to create a lozenge. Next, position the shape centrally as shown – don't worry about overlapping the lower parts of the white lettering, you'll fix that later. Elongate it by Shift-clicking the right-hand points (with the Direct Selection Tool) and nudge the right arrow on your keyboard several times. Now select the opposite points and nudge the same amount using the left arrow key.

3. How to Finish the Logo

Step 1

Add the web address within the lozenge. I used Helvetica Neue Black Condensed at just over 19pt.

Step 2

The outer black path around the main lettering needs some attention; first select it, then go to Object > Path > Simplify and use the settings shown.

Step 3

Use the Direct Selection Tool to pull up any overlapping points. Now delete and tidy up any remaining points as required.

Step 4

You now need to fill any holes within the lettering; use the Pen Tool (P) to roughly create a shape with a Fill of black and a Stroke of 0 as shown. Now select the shape as well as the outer lettering path and Make Compound Shape, then Expand, and then Send to Back.

Step 5

Lock both layers, then add a new one labelled "Waves" beneath the "Diamond." Download and open this free ornate pattern and Copy > Paste onto the new layer.

Use a combination of the Scissors Tool (C) and Direct Selection Tool to delete any unnecessary points such as the stalks.

Step 6

Now roughly cover the central area using the Pen Tool, setting the Fill to black and Stroke to 0 as shown. Next, select the black shape and Send to Back. You can now group both objects.

Step 7

You can now resize, rotate and position the wave graphic as shown.

Step 8

Select the grouped wave, then go to Object > Transform > Transform Each (Alt-Shift-Command-D), then in the next dialogue box enter the settings shown and hit Copy.

Step 9

Now use the Reference Point Locater to reposition the Y value of the top wave. Once you're happy with your logo, save it as a PDF and zip it over to your decal printer. I used this company who specialize in printing surfboard decals.

Also, remember to include any printing instructions such as quantities and size, etc. – I required two decals printed at 100%

4. How to Apply the Decal

Step 1

A couple of days later I received the decals in the mail. The material they're printed on is very flimsy – so they need to be handled with great care.

I dropped them around to Dave, who also showed me how things were progressing – he'd completed shaping the foam blank and the deck was masked-off, ready for glassing the bottom.

Step 2

After the board is given a laminate coat, the decals are carefully trimmed to the design, leaving a 5mm edge. Next, a small amount of clear resin is applied to underside of the board to hold the decal in position.

More resin is then poured over the decal and lightly spread using a squeegee to eliminate any air bubbles or creases. Note how the decal paper absorbs the resin and turns transparent.

Step 3

A protective patch of fiberglass cloth is now overlaid and more resin applied.

The cloth is now worked over with the squeegee again to ensure it's fully saturated. Next, the whole underside is covered with a clear resin hot coat, then the whole process is repeated on the deck.

Step 4

After sanding, pinstripes were added, then the fins glassed in. Next, the board is treated to a clear gloss coat, then after further sanding, it's buffed up using rubbing compounds for a showroom, high gloss finish. About a week later, I was stoked to see just how beautiful the finished board looked!

Here's some more shots.


I hope this tutorial has given you an insight into what's possible with surfboard decals. Remember, you needn't limit yourself to a single color like I did – why not design a psychedelic graphic the full length of your board!

Design and Apply a Surfboard DecalDesign and Apply a Surfboard DecalDesign and Apply a Surfboard Decal
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