Jan 6, 2015

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 :)


  1. Thank you for this post, it has been very useful! Some of these materials are not available in Mexico, but this is still helpful.
    I started carving stamps recently and I'm amazed by the detail you are able to achieve in a stamp. I would love to know how to use the scalpel for details, since I only know how to use the gouge. Do you insert it diagonally?
    I'm looking forward to that video tutorial. Thanks a lot!
    Here's some of my work: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10153473309792178&set=pb.834857177.-2207520000.1420654609.&type=3&src=https%3A%2F%2Fscontent-b-dfw.xx.fbcdn.net%2Fhphotos-xpa1%2Ft31.0-8%2F10838098_10153473309792178_2489664218574621785_o.jpg&smallsrc=https%3A%2F%2Fscontent-b-dfw.xx.fbcdn.net%2Fhphotos-xpa1%2Fv%2Ft1.0-9%2F10325210_10153473309792178_2489664218574621785_n.jpg%3Foh%3D216ba20f206d01ffa07d5994ee06d97d%26oe%3D55433384&size=2048%2C1536

    1. Hey Elizabeth, you make great stamps! Yes, you insert a scalpel diagonally, the same way you would carve a pumpkin. I'm hoping to make some video guides when I figure out how. Good luck!

  2. Thank you for the post and for mention my Facebook comment, Tyr!!! Just a little thing: I´m a "she", not a "he", hahahaa!!!! I know my Facebook nickname can be confusing, sorry!
    I love your work. And you´re very generous to share all your knowledge, thank you!!!
    Pilar (Capitan Nemo)

    1. Aha, sorry! I just changed it :) I'm happy you found the post helpful! Ciao:D

  3. Thank you for your post and FB page! I love all your works... But I have a question, here in Italy is very difficoult to find a shop (I mean physical and not on-line) that sells speedball speedy carve blocks, i found only adigraf, like this https://www.facebook.com/myrubberstamp/photos/pb.450220588347072.-2207520000.1421047802./745423182160143/?type=3&theater
    What do you think about this material? is it impossible to carve little details and stamp portrait whit adigraf? Thank you for share your experience.

    1. Hey there! Yes I have used Adigraf for bigger prints, but I do not recommend them for smaller stamps. They material feels very stretch and you will have a hard time getting details right. On the other hand, it works pretty well for bigger prints because it is easier to carve than linoleum.

      If you prefer buying from physical stores, try some regular erasers! As long as it's got dense texture and doesn't become brittle when carved, it'll work for stamps :)

    2. Thank you Tyr!!!! I will practice with erasers, adigraf drove me crazy :O I'm waiting for video tutorials on your FB page! You're the best ;)

  4. Hi. Love your post on materials. I have a couple of suggestions. I started carving stamps a while back, and found out that Dick Blick carries linoleum blocks in small sizes, about 2x3 inches. These are perfect for stamp carving, but they don't work the way conventional stamps do. You have to ink the surface of the stamp, then put your paper over the stamp and rub with a bone folder or the back of a spoon, more like a full-sized block print. For rubber materials, I like Speedy Carve and Staedtler's Mastercarve. There is also a rubber stamp material that can be cut in an electronic die cutter like the Cricut or Silhouette. Blick's also has a store brand linoluem cutting set that is much cheaper than the Speedball and comes with 6 blades instead of 5.

    1. Thanks for your reply! Yes, I often work with linoleum, but usually for relief printing on a bigger scale. Linoleum is too hard to be used as a stamp - unless, like you said, if you burnish it a little.

      I tried Mastercarve and find it too soft and prone to break. It would be alright for personal projects, but sturdier material like Speedy carve work best for stamps that I make to sell :)

      I did not know about the electronic die cutter but will definitely look it up. I'm very happy with the Pfeil tools though - I wrote them in another post. If you do a search you should be able to find it.

      Good day!

  5. Hi may I know where can I get those material from? In Malaysia is very hard to get those materials

  6. Electric cutter suppliers in Singapore. VIEW MORE - Electric cutter

  7. Hi! Found your blog because I'm trying to get back into letterboxing and stamp carving after a long hiatus (during which time I guess Staedtler stopped making Carving tools). I saw that you mentioned certain japanese brands may make fine/small gouge tools. I'm kinda running into some roadblocks. I picked up a Power Grip 1.5 V gouge and it's just not small enough. Do you have any recommendations or brand names for finer tip V-gouge tools?