Q&A - Rubber stamp carving tools, materials and techniques

I asked everyone on my Facebook page what they wanted to know about my work (here's the post; questions are in the comments) - stamp-making, printmaking and selling your work online.

I started my business "this is just to say" stamps back in May, 2010 - it's definitely been a learning process. From taking nice product pictures, managing listings to social media marketing and website-building (yes, I made my own website!), the most important lesson is that freelance means more freedom AND more responsibility.

In this post I will only be answering the questions about rubber stamp-making, but not about marketing and e-commerce - the latter I will get to in another post in the near future.

So, without further ado, these are the questions you guys sent me on Facebook, and my answers to them.

Xaviera, you make very nice stamps!

I have tried no less than 20 types of carving materials and have narrowed down to two I now use for most of my stamps: Speedball's Speedy Carve (the pink ones below; for most of my recent stamps I use this) and a two-layer carving block by Seed, a Japanese brand (the black one in the center; example is this stamp).

Speedy Carve comes in many different sizes and I usually get the 4" x 6" or the 6" x 12". Speedy Carve's new version (the darker pink one on top) feels a little more rubber-y than the old lighter pink version. The new one gives a bit more resistance when carved. I like the old one better - the difference is minimal though. Speedy Carve is widely available in craft stores and online. 

Seed's two-layer block is probably the most enjoyable rubber block to carve. The smooth texture makes it cut like butter, and the color contrast gives stamps an interesting touch.

Despite how well it carves, this block has two disadvantages. The first is that its fine texture means that it's not really as sturdy as Speedy Carve; if you are making a stamp with very fine lines or small dots, Speedy Carve will be a better choice. The other drawback is that it's only manufactured in Japan and shipping cost to anywhere else in the world could exceed the price of the blocks.

Because of its smooth surface and the plastic packaging, every Seed block is covered in a thin coat of fine powdery substance fresh out of the pack. I wipe mine with a damp kitchen tissue before transferring the image. Seed blocks' surface also takes pencil & acid paper transfer better than Speedy Carve, but it's easier to clean pencil residue from Speedy Carve blocks afterwards.

These blocks comes in many different colors and textures, including limited designer versions with special color combinations. My favorite is the black/white one and the cream/white one (top right on the second picture below) which have the densest texture in the collection. 

Image source: Voice Japan
So, Speedy Carve is still my go-to carving material when I make rubber stamps; I do like to keep some Seed blocks at hand which I use for mostly for small unmounted stamps.

I'm also constantly finding and trying out new carving materials! Here are some I just got in the mail from Blick Art Supplies (ignore the Seed block I forgot to put aside), including the crazy-/awesome-looking Blüm clear block. Most of the new materials I have used and the ones in the picture below are printmaking materials though, so it's rather difficult - if possible - to reach the rubber-stamp level of intricacy/details with them.

P. S. If you know of a carving material you'd like to recommend or would me to review or, please leave a message - I would love to know!

Now, onto the second question -

Thanks, Guchun, and welcome to stamp-carving! I'll go into some detail about carving tools now. I have more than 10 knives but I have some on exhibit in Nordic Design Collective's pop-up store, so I'll only talk about the four knives I primarily use now.

From left to right, they are: Essdee Small Plastic Linoleum Cutter, Speedball Linoleum Cutter, NT Cutter white D-401 P and NT Cutter A-300GRP.

Both Essdee and Speedball come with multiple blades, but I'm mostly using Essdee's big V-gouge and Speedball's #1 blade, which is a small V gouge. Speedball's Linoleum Cutter is quite nice for rubber stamp-making - you can pick from a whole range of different blades and keep them in the "belly" part of the handle. You can't do that with the red Essdee which really doesn't have any outstanding merit except for the fact it's really small and light to hold; it works well with my small hands.

I use the Essdee mainly to take out extra parts I don't want on a stamp, and Speedball to create thin lines and woodcut-like texture. The only thing you need to take into consideration is that Speedball's smallest V-gouge, #1, is more of a tiny U than a V, so if you want your carved lines to look sharper, there are Japanese knives out there that will work better. (I can share pictures when I get my set back from NDC.)

Here is a new stamp I made recently with almost only Speedball's #1 gouge, except for the text part where I used the NT scalpel. I find that small text easily break if you carve them with a gouge.

(Btw, I love animal stamp commissions! You can reach me at tyr@thisisjusttosay.co)

Among the couple of scalpels I own, this NT Cutter is my favorite. It comes in a variety of pastel colors - and white. You don't have to go out of your way to get a Japanese scalpel though; you'll most likely find a regular x-acto scalpel or something similar in your local craft store, and as long as you change the blade rather often and see to it that it's sharp, it'll work just as well. You'll also notice that some scalpel blades vary in lengths and the angle of the blade, but I think it's a matter of personal preference.

Then it's the NT Cutter A-300GRP, I cut bigger rubber pieces and trim off the extra part of stamps with this; you can substitute it with any snap-off light-duty utility knife.

Although I like all four knives very much, the brand or model matters less than how sharp your knives are. They'll make carving not only more enjoyable but also safer - same reason why chefs always stress the importance of sharp knives in the kitchen.

Here's a close-up of the four knives. 
As for the wood mount, I use all kinds of tree branch slices and unfinished wood pieces. For the wood branches, any wood with a dense texture and light-colored cross-section cut will take ink nicely - that is, if you want to print the stamp on the back of the mount (there are a lot of pictures here on my blog). I use everything including oak, tilia/linden, maple, birch, cherry, etc.. If you are using a type of wood for the first time, it's a good idea to take test print a little and see how your ink and wood work together - if the imprint will smudge or blot/spread along the wood grain.

If the surface of the wood is very smooth or you are really worried that it'll smudge, try spray a watercolor fixative on top. Make sure to do it in a well-ventilated area though.

I use 1cm tall wood slices that are dried and hand-sawn and hand-sanded. 
That should cover the carving materials and tools! Again, let me know if you'd like me to review anything, or if you have a question about anything I mentioned above. 

Now, onto the next question - 

Thanks, Laura! I've had a few questions about carving small details and texts and I would like to make a video tutorial/guide sometime. But there's one technique that you might find helpful - when carving small details like small dots or inside of a letter, instead of adjusting the angle of your knife, try turning the stamp with your non-carving hand instead. This way your knife doesn't have to move; you'll get nicer details and cleaner curves. 

Hey Alicia! Hope it's ok - I'll address e-commerce and marketing in my next blog post. As for your next question - I'm not sure what textured surface you have in mind, but here I've written a little about ink pads. I'm not sure what kind of textured surface you have in mind, but an archival ink is a good idea. I don't think how fast the ink dries necessarily has to do with how the final result is; but you'll certainly get very different results with regular ink vs. embossing so it's rather difficult to compare these two. 

Hi Joe! Like I told you on Facebook, I've almost never printed on fabric, but if you have a similar question, check out this post and the first - Captain Nemo's - comment. She mentioned Palette from Stewart´s Superior and attached a picture; you'll find it very helpful.

Update 2014/1/8: Allison on Facebook commented here about using acrylic fabric paint on rubber stamps.

So, that's about it! I want to say thank you to all of you who liked and commented on my Facebook page! I would love to share with you what I do and it really helps to know what you want to read about.

If you enjoyed reading this, feel free to share it buy clicking on the little buttons below; it'll help me write more like this! You can get in touch (tyr@thisisjusttosay.co) to ask questions, commission custom hand-carved rubber stamps, or just to say hello :)