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Polymer Clay Lesson Plan Three

Hand carved rubber stamps Lesson Plan: Rubber Stamp Carving
Copyright Carolyn Hasenfratz

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1. Introduction
2. Carving Materials
3. Tools
4. Ink
5. Paper
6. Sources of Images
7. Transferring the Image
8. Carving
9. Mounting the Carving
10. Printing
11. Cleaning and Storage
12. Resources

1. Introduction

Rubber stamping is a hugely popular activity that is enjoyed by people with and without formal art training. Rubber stamps have been in use for a long time for commercial purposes and in crafts, and have been used in fine art since the DADA era. They are easy to print and provide a quick way to make multiple copies. These qualities make rubber stamping attractive for smaller scale and ephemeral art forms such as greeting cards, pins, and mail art, although many artists create large scale art works with rubber stamps or use them as accents on larger pieces. You can buy rubber stamps in just about any design or motif you can imagine, or adapt stamps that were originally made for business use. Nothing beats the creative possibilites, however, of carving your own.

2. Carving Materials

You will find that the terms rubber stamp carving and eraser carving are almost interchangeable. That is because a lot of carvers got their start on actual erasers and many still use them. Most carvers eventually want to branch out to larger designs than are possible with erasers. Due to popular demand, a variety of companies now manufacture larger pieces of rubber material specifically for carvers.

The first kind of printmaking that I was exposed to was linoleum block carving in a relief printing class. While giving us an overview of a variety of printmaking techniques, the teacher mentioned that you could make little stamps out of erasers or rubber carving material. I made a note of that fact but didn't actually try it until a few years later when I was involved in Mail Art and was urged to try rubber stamping by another Mail Artist. Store-bought rubber stamps were too expensive for my student budget so I decided to try carving my own. My first experiments were with Pink Pearl and Art Gum erasers. They worked but not very well. The Pink Pearl was hard and not much fun to cut or print, and the Art Gum, while easy to cut (and nice smelling memories of grade school days!), was fragile and didn't stand up to heavy use.

Hand-carved rubber stamps

2.1 1989 My first carvings. Everybody has to start somewhere!

Through my contacts in the Mail Art network, I started learning about "white plastic erasers". They were probably referring to the highly favored Staedtler Mars, but those were also a bit pricey so I decided to try Magic Rub erasers instead. You can save money by buying them in large quantities from office supply stores. They are a relatively economical material for beginners to practice on and I like them enough to keep using them, although some carvers find them too soft and the presence of occasional air bubbles very annoying.

For designs that are too large to fit on erasers, there are a variety of materials that are made in larger sheets specifically for carving. They can be found in art catalogs and art stores with the printmaking supplies. Some examples are PZ Cut, Uncle Walter's Carving Block, NASCO Safety Cut, and others. Different artists will develop personal preferences for certain materials, so experiment with as many different kinds as you can to see which you prefer.

3. Tools

You can get started with a very simple tool kit. My favorite carving tool for detail work is an Exacto knife. To that you can add a v-gouge and a u-gouge for clearing out large areas.
V-gouge for rubber stamp carving
U-gouge for rubber stamp carving
3.1 V-gouge 3.2 U-gouge
V-gouges and u-gouges are used to carve some types of wood blocks, linoleum blocks, and rubber blocks and erasers. Sometimes they are sold as part of a set of interchangeable points with a handle. They can be found in art supply stores with the printmaking supplies.

Some carvers prefer other types of hobby knives try several kinds if you want. You can also use various found objects such as paper clips, nails or screws for poking holes in and making textures on the rubber.

To transfer your design to the rubber you'll need some tape, a soft pencil, a hard pencil, and tracing paper. You might want to use a ball-point pen for redrawing your design on the rubber so that the pencil doesn't smear while you are carving.

For larger carvings, you will find a brayer to be very handy. A brayer is a rubber roller that is used in printmaking. It's for applying the ink to the "block". They come in various degrees of hardness. The softer ones are the most useful, the hard ones have very specialized uses and aren't good for most tasks. Speedball makes several good ones. The inexpensive one with the orange handle and light colored rubber that has "give" to it when you squeeze it is a good versatile tool. A 4" to 6" one is probably as big as you would need unless you want to do really large prints.

If your carvings are large or on thin material, acrylic mounting blocks will be very useful as an aid in printing. You will get more even prints by temporarily stabilizing the stamp with a firm backing. Acrylic blocks can be purchased through rubber stamp suppliers, including my own Carolyn's Stamp Store. It's handy to have several sizes available. Attach the stamp to the block with double sided tape or a loop of one sided tape. The acrylic blocks also have the advantage of being clear, which allows you to see exactly where you are printing. It's possible to permanently mount your stamps on wood. That works pretty well although if you build up a large stamp collection you may find yourself rapidly running out of storage space!

An old spoon will come in handy for rubbing the backs of tracing paper while transferring images. This also makes a good tool for rubbing the backs of larger prints during the printing process. A baren is a special printmaking tool that accomplishes the same purpose but is larger and has a nice handle on it.

4. Ink

Vendors of rubber stamping and craft supplies will have a dazzling array of rubber stamping inks for you to choose from. The easiest to use are the dye based ink pads. These clean off of your stamp easily with mild soap and water. They tend to be somewhat transparent and are great for most kinds of paper. The dye-based inks are generally not lightfast, but there are brands such as Ancient Page that are. If you are concerned about the acid content and archival quality of the ink, Ancient Page is a good choice and there are other brands available where scrapbooking supplies are sold. Metallic inks, pigment inks, fabric inks, embossing inks, "discharge" ink, child-safe inks, permanent inks, chalk inks, glue ink pads and watermarking inks are also available.

It's a good idea to choose an ink pad for which you can buy re-inkers. That way if you get attached to a color you won't be frustrated when it runs out. As with most art techniques, you will learn to prefer certain materials as you experiment.

Look for a rubber stamp pad that is raised like this:

Raised Rubber Stamp Ink Pad

4.1 Raised stamp pad

You will find this type of ink pad more versatile than the kind where the stamp pad is level with the plastic edges of the the tray, as you can use it to ink carvings that are larger than the pad.

It's possible to create a custom blended or rainbow ink pad from your favorite re-inkers by purchasing an uninked pad or stamp pad foam or felt.

If you have a brayer, you might want to consider buying only re-inkers and not using stamp pads at all. Make a palette by rolling the ink out on a piece of freezer paper which has been taped down to your work surface. Small stamps can be touched to the inked freezer paper to pick up ink, then stamped. For larger stamps, pick ink up from the temporary freezer paper palette with the brayer and apply it to the stamp. When you're done stamping, you can use any ink remnants to color paper to stamp on later. Place paper down on your palette, cover everything with a piece of scrap paper, then roll with your brayer, rub with a baren, or with any handy tool you have. Lift the paper and you'll often end up very interesting backgrounds to use in future projects. You can even do some monoprinting by drawing, stamping, and experimenting with different ways of making marks in the ink.

Traditional printmaking inks can also be used with your rubber carvings. You will need a palette and palette knife for mixing these inks and a brayer to spread them evenly on your block. The water-based type is easier to work with and clean up. If you use the oil-based variety you will need solvents for clean-up. Be sure to educate yourself about all the appropriate safety precautions regarding the oil based inks, solvents, and used rags. They can be very dangerous if not handled properly.

You might want to experiment with fabric paint and even acrylic paint. Early on I tried applying acrylic paint to a large printing block with a brayer and printing with that. The results were dismal the acrylic paint dried too quickly and either produced a horribly spotty print or stuck the paper right to the block. However, I've had very good results applying acrylic paint to small stamps with a sponge brush, while periodically spritzing my well of paint with a little water to keep it wet. Bold "primitive" stamps work best with this method because the sponge texture finds it's way into your design and creates some variations that can be very attractive. You must take care not to let the acrylic paint dry on the stamp.

5. Paper

Paper crafts are popular these days. If you browse though the offerings of art, craft, rubber stamping, scrapbooking, and even office suppliers you will be thrilled with the variety of colors and textures available. Use inexpensive papers for practice or small projects. Handmade paper works very well with rubber stamps. For major projects where permanence is important you can buy heavy-duty archival printmaking papers from art suppliers. For rubber stamping, matte surface papers are generally preferable to slick papers because some kinds of inks will not dry completely on a glossy surface. Some special effects do work best on glossy papers, so try some when you are ready to try some more advanced stamping techniques.

6. Sources of Images

Your own drawings Most artists are in the habit of keeping a sketchbook handy at all times yours may already be filled with sketches you'd like to carve. If not, start one! When you get an idea or the urge to draw, record it at the first opportunity. Some of the ideas you'll be able to use later, some not, but don't worry. The act of sketching or writing them down tends to insure that a steady supply of new ideas will always be popping up into your head at least that is what my personal experience has taught me!

Rubber stamps are ideal for creating repeating patterns don't feel that you have to start out with Leonardo-esque representational drawings right away. For example, while on walks I frequently sketch interesting patterns that I see on architectural tiles or symbols painted on the street by utility workers. I've carved grafitti, mock postal symbols, and doodles I did while talking on the phone.

Phone Doodles

6.1 Phone doodles

Your own photos It's perfectly ethical to create drawings and carvings from your own photos, but not from someone else's unless you have permission. The nature of carving requires that you analyze an image and break it down into extremes of light and dark. You'll challenge yourself and grow the most if you do this with your eye and draw from looking directly at the photo without the aid of any machines.

You can save some time and aggravation, however, by using a copier or a computer to increase the contrast in the image and simplify it to reveal it's light and dark extremes. I used a computer to aid me in producing this design from one of my photos:

Photo of Jesus Statue

Jesus rubber stamp

6.2 Original photo

6.3 Finished stamp

Collage In my Mail Art and Zine publishing days, I did a lot of collages that were intended for photocopying in black and white. Since tonal areas reproduce poorly on a copier, I maintained a separate collage paper collection of black and white images with strong value contrast line art, text, and the like specifically for this purpose. These kinds of collages are also ideal for carving. Take a look at this example:

6.4 Original collage

6.5 Finished stamp

Clip Art and Fonts - Clip art books have been around for a long time and many carvers use those as a source for images. You can buy clip art CDs for your computer and many software programs are packaged with a nice supply of clip art. You can also have endless fun on the internet hunting down free fonts as a source of designs. Be careful though that gets addictive! You might find yourself with 900+ fonts installed on your computer with no end in sight. Believe me, I know what that's like! In the drawing program of your choice, make yourself a template that is the exact size of the carving block you will be using. Do your arranging and sizing on the computer, then print out an image that is ready to transfer and carve.

Be sure to read the fine print on all clip art books, cds, font web sites, and read-me files to make sure that you are allowed to use the images as you intend. For example, you may be permitted to use only a certain number of images from a source in a project, or use an image only for non-commercial purposes. One nice thing about creating your own designs is that you can use them any way that you please.

6.6 From clip art book

6.7 From clip art CD

6.8 From letter font

6.9 From dingbat font

Combine Sources Here are some samples of stamps I've designed using elements from different sources:

6.10 Image developed with dingbat font image of cup plus pencil drawing

6.11 Drawing plus computer-generated text

6.12 Dingbat font plus computer-generated text


7. Transferring the Image

Do you remember carbon paper? In a sense we'll be making our own with an ordinary graphite pencil and a piece of tracing paper. Tape a piece of tracing paper over your chosen image and redraw it on the tracing paper with a soft pencil. Then lay the tracing paper with the drawn-on side down on the rubber. If you need to, pin or tape the tracing paper in place so it doesn't slip and blur the image while you are transferring it. Retrace your drawing with the hard pencil. The pressure will transfer some of the graphite onto the rubber. If it's a large or detailed design, it might be too time consuming to trace every line. In that case try rubbing the tracing paper with a smooth hard object, such as the back of an old spoon.

When you lift the tracing paper, the image will be reproduced on the rubber in graphite. You will notice that the image is reversed left to right from your original. That is what you want, because when you make a print from the carved block it will be reversed again which should bring it back around to it's original orientation. On some images the reversal doesn't matter, but on others, such as designs including text, it is critical. So any time you want to carve text, ask yourself before you make the first cut does it look backwards on the rubber? If not, stop and redo your transfer, or the text will be backwards on the final print!

You might want to go over the graphite with a ball-point pen so that you don't accidentally rub the design off while you are carving. If you're going to print light colors, do some tests to make sure the ball-point pen residue isn't showing up on your design. This unfortunate effect seems to go away with use.

I should mention that it is perfectly okay to draw your design right on the rubber and skip the transfer step. Just remember that what you carve will end up backwards on the final print.


8. Carving

Your goal in carving is to cut away anything you don't want printed and leave what you do want printed. At the same time, you want to make your cuts at an angle so that the cut edges are not vertical. They should slope away from the printing surface like the first example here:

8.1 This is a cross section representing a correctly carved block.

8.2 This block will not last as long as the first example.

8.3 Trouble. This is called undercutting and the stamp is likely to fall apart.

I start my carvings by outlining the printable areas with an Exacto knife. Then I clean out the large areas with a v-gouge or u-gouge. The advantage of beginning with the Exacto knife is that I can carve tinier details than I am able to with a v-gouge. The disadvantage of the Exacto knife is that I have to make two cuts to remove a strip of rubber while the v-gouge could accomplish the same thing with one cut. The extra control is worth it to me.

8.5 Cutting curved lines with two cuts.

8.4 Cutting straight lines.

8.6 A partially carved stamp.

Practice with different kinds of tools and you will work out your own preferred carving method in time.

These knives are very sharp - caution is needed. Cut away from yourself if the knife slips you want to make sure there are no body parts in front of it. There is a tool called a bench hook that will hold your block for you so you don't have to use your hand to steady the block. And don't force the cutting tool. Rubber/plastic is pretty easy to carve compared to other printmaking materials. You shouldn't have to press extremely hard to get a good cut. Try a sharper knife or a softer cutting material if you are having problems. Children should not use these tools unsupervised, and please be careful how you store the blades. I've cut myself before while rummaging around in a toolbox that contained a blade that was not covered ouch!

As you're carving, keep your stamp pad handy so you can periodically test how your carving is progressing. Use a light color if you are going to print light colors with the stamp. If you make test prints as you go, you will be less likely to cut away too much. You can always carve more, but you can't put the rubber back. At least not easily!

When the stamp is finished, you can clean it by putting a bit of hand soap in your palm and scrubbing the stamp gently in it. Then rinse it clean, pat it dry, and you are ready to print!


9. Mounting the Carving

Small thick stamps will not need to be mounted, so often you can skip this step. If the stamp is large or on thin rubber, it may not print properly unless you mount the stamp on a stiff backing. An easy temporary way is to take a clear acrylic block, make one or more loops with Scotch tape or use double-sided tape, and tape the stamp to the block. As I mentioned before, you can permanently mount the stamp if you prefer.


10. Printing

Printing can be as simple as picking up a stamp, pressing it on an ink pad, and then pressing it on some paper. What do you do if the stamp is bigger than the pad? You can lay the block down carved side up and repeatedly press the ink pad around on the carving while moving it until the whole stamp is inked. Another way is to pick ink off of the raised pad with a brayer and apply that to your stamp.

A common problem when you first start printing is that the print comes out uneven and spotty. The problem might be that your stamp does not have enough ink on it. New stamps sometimes need more ink at first to make a good print. Your stamp pad might need re-inking. Or perhaps the surface underneath your paper is not smooth. It's also difficult to print on a surface that is very hard. Try placing a short stack of old newspapers or a mouse pad under your printing paper. This will give your table top a little bit of "give" which might make a difference in your print. Or perhaps the stamp is not getting even pressure from your hand on all parts of the stamp. Practice pressing on all areas of the stamp, paying particular care to the middle, while being careful not to move the stamp or slide it during printing.

If your print is somewhat large (postcard size and up is large for a rubber carving) your spoon or baren will help you make a more even print. Lay the block down inked side up and lay the paper on top of the block, then rub the back with the spoon or baren. You must be careful not to move the paper while rubbing. If you want to check and see if the print is dark enough, hold the paper in place with one hand and lift one corner of the print with the other. As long as you are careful not to move the paper out of position, you can lay the corner back down and keep rubbing until you are satisfied with the print.

If you are using dye based rubber stamp ink, here is another trick. Lightly mist the stamp with a spray bottle of water. It spreads out the ink a bit and gives it a slight watercolor look which can be pleasing. You can experiment with different amounts of water to see which you like best. More water = a more extreme watercolor effect. I like this look with bold stamps.


11. Cleaning and Storage

Some rubber stamp inks will come off your stamp with only water and mild soap. For more stubborn inks, I have lately been using Simple Green. I put a sponge in an old styrafoam food tray, wet the sponge, and spray some Simple Green on it. Then I mash the stamp into the sponge to make foam, rinse it off, and let it dry face down on a paper towel or rag.

Any stains that the Simple Green doesn't take care of might come off if there is a cleaning solution made specifically for the kind of ink you are trying to clean up. If you use a special stamp cleaning solution, follow the directions on the bottle and observe all safety precautions associated with it. If there are any stains you can't get off, they probably won't affect any future prints you do, with the possible exception of printing light colors. No matter how you clean your stamps, there often seems to a little bit of dark ink that gets into your light ink when you switch from dark to light. So when you do that, do some test prints to let the dark bits wear off before you make an important print.

Some types of rubber and plastic will react with other plastics, so if you store your stamps in plastic containers, be sure to line them with paper. I also try not to stack the stamps on top of each other because occasionally the softener in the plastic makes them stick to each other. I like to use the inexpensive plastic drawer organizers that you can buy in the hardware department. They are stackable so I can keep adding more as I carve more stamps.



Web Sites

Tool and Material Checklist (*denotes essential item)

A selection of my rubber stamps for sale that originated as carvings:

Goldfish Rubber Stamp
Imaginary Sea Creature Unmounted
Imaginary Sea Creature
Mexican Pattern Mounted
Mexican Pattern
Petroglyph Person Medium Unmounted
Petroglyph Person
Horse Border Unmounted
Horse Border
Tribal Frame Unmounted
Tribal Frame
Tribal Border Strip Unmounted
Tribal Border
Benevolent Sun Unmounted
Benevolent Sun

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Speedball Lino Cutter Assortment
Speedball Lino Cutter Assortment

Speedball 4 Inch (10,16cm) Rubber Brayer
Speedball 4 Inch (10,16cm) Rubber Brayer

Speedball Speedy-Carve, 3 x 4 Inches

Speedball Speedy-Carve, 4x6 Inches

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