I have so many rubber stamps that I could stack them together with mortar and build a good-size house. Way before I discovered mixed-media art I was stamping cards and envelopes, and using stamps to decorate paper for book covers, and add designs to fabric. But stamp carving booted me into a whole new realm of happiness.
Stamp carving has a very short learning curve, and is one of the most meditative creative pursuits. You can sit and carve stamps for hours, watching TV or listening to music or a podcast, be in the zone, and feel like you’ve accomplished something major—because you have. The stamps you create are not only unique, but the images and what you create with them truly represent your artistry. Hand-carved stamps will also last you a good, long, time, and you’ll always find new uses for them.
If you’ve never carved stamps before, rest assured you don’t need any special skills—you don’t even have to know how to draw. The carving part takes a little practice, but a few helpful tips will shortcut your path to success.
The tools and supplies needed are minimal and fairly inexpensive: a carving block (I like the Speedball Speedy-Carve blocks), a linoleum cutter handle with a chuck, a set of linoleum cutter blades, a craft knife, cutting mat, scrap paper, ink pads or water-based markers, and some baby wipes. Having two cutter handles allows you to switch between different blades quickly, instead of having to switch out blades in one handle. Cutter handles with a simple chuck system are easy to use–simply insert a blade and tighten it down.
Any type of design will work for stamp carving, but if you’re just beginning, I recommend starting with a simple shape, like a solid heart, leaf, or flower. The three-layer technique I’ll show you isn’t difficult, but practice first with some basic designs to get the feel of the blade and the block. I drew my image (a flower) onto copy paper with a dark graphite pencil. You can also use copyright-free images, either tracing or re-drawing them.
Here’s the best part—to transfer the image to the block, simply place the drawing, right-side down, onto the block, and rub until the image appears (I used the end of the pencil). Lift up the paper to make sure your image is transferring, trying not to move it—you may want to tape a corner down before rubbing. If you want the image more defined, trace over the lines on the block with permanent marker.
It’s as easy as that! Here’s my design on the block. After transferring the image I cut around it with a craft knife so I’d have a smaller piece to work with.
When I carve, I almost always start with the small U-gouge, which creates a very thin line. I run it along the outside of my design first, creating an outline, then go around again, widening the line. You don’t have to dig deeply into the block—just put a little pressure on the blade to remove some of the rubber.
Remember, everything you carve away will not print, and everything left behind will print. Also, the transferred image will be backward on the block, but oriented correctly when you stamp the image.
For the flower, I wanted a fairly thick outline for each petal, and have some lines inside the petals. As you can see, I didn’t follow the outline exactly–you can try to match your image, or take a little artistic license.
After carving more around the outline, I created a border for the petals that was about 1/8″ wide. When you carve, go slowly. This isn’t a race, and you’ll be more pleased with the results if you don’t rush. Also, one of the most important things to remember is to always carve away from yourself. Never angle the blade toward your hand—it can easily slip or skip across the block and cut you—the blades are quite sharp. When making curved lines, keep the blade steady and turn the block, but—let’s say it together—always angle the blade away from you. Two more helpful tips: Have a good light source, and don’t carve when you’re hangry. Get that blood sugar nice and level.
After carving the border I carved the inside of the flower, leaving those lines in the petals. To carve away larger areas I switched to the bigger U-gouge, which removes more rubber. Then it was time for a test—this is an important step in stamp carving, allowing you to check your progress and see what still needs to be carved and cleaned up. Before inking the stamp, brush off any tiny pieces of rubber, or give it a cleaning with a baby wipe and dry it.
You can see here how I’ve got the basic shape, but a lot of carving lines still remain. I like to leave a few extra lines, and how many you leave is completely up to you; some people like to leave a lot to emphasize the hand-carved look.
Here’s the stamp and the stamped image after an initial cleanup:
A little more cleaning:
And here’s the final image. As you can see, it’s far from perfect, but I really like it. I also cut around the flower with a craft knife to make it easier to stamp. I could have stopped here and been as happy as a clam with a stamp. However, I’ve been seeing this trend in commercial stamps of layered stamping—stamping parts of an image in different colors to achieve a dimensional look—and I wanted to give it a try.
I went back to my original drawing and drew around the inside of each petal, then carved just the petals.
For one last layer I drew a smaller portion of the petals, and carved that.
I needed some leaves, and carved a base layer and an overlay. I also wanted a little detail stamp, so I carved some dots from a piece of rubber I had cut away.
I like that the flower and leaves don’t exactly line up, so the images will always look slightly different. But to make sure I stamp all three layers as accurately as possible, I made a small dot at the top of each stamp as a reminder.
Here’s how the stamp looks on a page in my art journal; I added a simple label that I also carved (the letters are purchased stamps):
Like any stamp, this one’s quite versatile. Here’s the image stamped in navy blue permanent ink, and colored with watercolor:
I painted the stamp with watercolor, stamped it, then used a water brush to spread some of the color around:
And here, I stamped the petals with pigment ink, then removed some of the ink with the dot stencil to get a polka dot pattern.
You’ll probably get on a roll when you start stamp carving, as I did. I decided to make a quarter repeat stamp, which is a quarter of an image that can be repeated to make various combinations of designs. I did this quickly, and frankly, I wasn’t super happy with the results and almost tossed it.
But…when I repeated the image clockwise three more times and added some doodles with a black pen, I was suddenly head over heels.
Repeating the stamp in the same direction gave me this cool pattern, which I stamped in acrylic paint over a painted background in my art journal. Don’t get discouraged if every attempt doesn’t turn out exactly how you expect it to. Give your stamps a chance, and see how they work best in various patterns and with different mediums.
By the way, you can care for your stamps the same way as you do commercial rubber stamps: Keep them away from heat and light, and clean them with stamp cleaner or alcohol-free baby wipes. If you stamp with acrylic paint, wash them immediately afterward so the paint doesn’t dry on the rubber. Hand-carved stamps can be mounted as cling stamps for acrylic blocks, or on wood blocks, if you prefer.
I imagine you want to get going on some carving, so here are a few more things to check out from the North Light Shop before you head out on your stamp carving adventures!