(Originally published at Salamander Dreams in June 2011.)
Earlier in the week I carved a stamp as part of our end-of-year teacher gifts.
It’s so easy and satisfying that I wanted to share the process. There are tutorials out there already, I know, but I carved my first stamp using the instructions in the book Print Workshop, and it was a fair bit of a hack job until I managed to translate the words into action, so I thought I’d post a picture of exactly how to hold those carving tools. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
Speedball Speedy Carve block (you can cut this into smaller pieces easily using a straight edge and x-acto knife); set of linoleum cutting tools (I bought mine at a local craft store using a 50% off coupon); pencil; paper; bone folder (optional, but it works best for burnishing your image onto the block)
The first thing you need is an image to turn into a stamp, obviously. You can use your own doodle or something you’ve printed out or photocopied, as long as available for personal use (I am so not getting into copyright here). I’m showing you an example of both. I prefer to turn my own doodles into stamps, because how fun is that? But for the teacher gifts, I wanted a stamp of the school logo, which looks like pretty basic clip art to me. I printed it out and went over all the black areas with pencil.
If it’s your own doodle, once you have something you’re happy with, go over the lines more darkly with your pencil. This is because next, you’re going to transfer those pencil lines to your carving block. (I cut mine into two-inch squares to make both of these stamps.)
Here’s my compass rose…
Lay your image face-down onto the block and burnish–that means to rub firmly–the entire area with the bone folder, or your fingernail if you don’t have one. When you peel off the paper, your image will be on your block, in reverse, which is exactly what you want, because your stamped image is going to be the reverse of what you carve.
…and a little salamander I doodled.
Now you’re ready to carve. Begin with the shallowest, narrowest tip for your tool–#1–and carefully carve around the outlines of your image. (For the salamander, I’m ignoring the interior lines–those were just there to help me draw, but they’re not getting carved out.) Hold the tool at a 45-degree angle and carve away from yourself. The tool is going to gently scoop the block away–I have to pause periodically and clear the peels out of the tool. Start shallow and gradually go deeper, and when you need to change direction, it’s easier to rotate the block and keep your hand steady.
I was doing this at night under daylight bulbs, hence the shadows. Also, I had to take the picture with my left hand, but you get the idea. Here’s another view.
You can see that this stamp has more detail than the salamander. The salamander is easy–I’m carving around it, because I want it to stamp as a solid. But the compass rose has some white areas and some dark areas in the interior–which do you carve? You carve out the white areas, because you want the dark areas to pick up ink. So I’m carefully carving away each of those open triangles so they don’t pick up any ink and the image prints correctly. (Ultimately, I carved a second version of this stamp–that’s the finished one at the top of the post–because I decided it made more sense to cut around the compass rose with an x-acto knife and then carve out the interior portions. Otherwise, I was losing my outline edge and it was just going to look like floating triangles!)
For the salamander, I used mostly the #1 tip–those bits between the legs and body are tight. Can you see where I carefully carved out the space between the front left leg and the body?
When it looks like I’m close to done, I start testing with some ink.
You can see all those lines I need to trim. Eventually I cut close around the salamander with the x-acto knife as well.
For bigger stamps, I might leave them as they are, but for these smaller stamps, I glued each of them to a cork. Cork, whether repurposed (if you’re a wine drinker or know someone who is) or bought, makes a nice handle.
Carving a stamp is just one of those processes that is much easier than you think–you mainly need patience and a steady hand–and results in something that seems so impressive, at least to me. I don’t know why I’d ever buy a stamp again when I can just make whatever I want at home.
Also, it’s easy enough to do around the needs of kids–doodle when you can, carve a bit here and there (just make sure to keep those lino-cutting tools out of reach–they’re sharp!), and you can fit a stamp into the nooks and crannies of the day, if you wanted to. There’s nothing toxic, so you can carve a stamp while your kids do their own creative thing nearby. While I carved the compass rose, my daughter decorated a sheet of paper with smiley face stickers. Just be prepared for lots of little pink shavings, so carve your stamp on some newspaper so you can fold it up and easily tip all the mess into the trash.
Happy stamping! Let me know if you give it a try, or if you have other tips to share.