An Image for your Rubber Stamp

For me, the biggest challenge of carving a rubber stamp is coming up with a stamp design.  When you first start out, you're usually looking for something that looks easy to carve, but as you gain confidence in your carving prowess you look for images that provide more of a challenge.  Finally, you look for images that are really pretty; it doesn't matter how impressive the carving job is if the image is ugly.

If you are making a personal "signature" rubber stamp for letterboxing, remember that some of the logbooks you'll be stamping into will be pretty small.  If your signature stamp is large, sooner or later you'll have to stamp just one edge or corner of it into a small logbook.  You might think about your design, and consider how you would use your stamp to stamp into a small logbook.  For example, if you include your trail name in the design, you'll probably want that to appear in the logbook, and that'll be easier if your name appears towards one side or one corner rather than right in the center.

There are two ways to obtain images suitable for carving into rubber stamps: draw them yourself, or find existing artwork of someone else's and adapt it for your use.


If you have any modicum of artistic talent, you should definitely try your hand at drawing images.  For some reason, being rendered in rubber seems to make relatively simple designs look good.  Things that look like mediocre scribblings in pencil on notebook paper can actually end up looking quite impressive as rubber stamp images.  If you're carving rubber stamps for letterboxing, you can also draw unique images to fit each location for your letterboxes.


I personally have all the artistic flair of a mechanical engineer.  Although I have drawn a few of my own designs for stamps, what I generally do is log on to the internet, go to, select "image search", and type in whatever keywords I want and see what it comes up with.  Make sure you "click to see full-size image".  Try to avoid using images that will obviously bring on copyright or trademark concerns.

You're looking for a design that involves solid blocks of a single color.  Narrow straight lines are difficult to carve (you have to cut away both sides, leaving a constant width if you want it to look right) and curved lines are even harder.  Note that sometimes you can cheat and carve a "negative", leaving the background solid and cutting away the design instead of the other way around.  That makes lines a little easier, since you're just cutting a narrow groove.

It is tempting to specify "black and white" images only for that Google image search.  I've found it's better to let it search for color images, though, for three reasons:  1) you often find images with multiple colors that you can readily alter to make a black-and-white design;  2) you sometimes find images that are just one color, but it's not black; and 3) you'd be amazed how many black-and-white images on the web are actually saved as color image files.

When you find an image you like, save it to your hard drive (right-click on the image itself, if you're using a PC).  You may then need to tweak the design some.  Using some sort of photo editing software, you may need to remove some features, draw stuff in, change several colors into one color (you only have one color to work with!), etc., etc.
  You might also opt to modify designs enough that they will scarcely be recognizable as based on someone else's original image.

Consider downloading Irfanview (free!).  Irfanview is a graphic viewing/editing package with lots of features including an editing toolbar.  It's also the best software to use to print your images when done, as it allows you to specify the size of the image and the location on the paper.

One quick modification is to mirror-image (horizontal flip) the original artwork.  However, note a couple of things to watch out for.  If there is any text in the image, obviously you don't want that mirror-imaged.  If you mirror-image a car, the steering wheel may end up on the wrong side, or it can end up driving on the wrong side of the road.  A person doing something with his hands may suddenly look like a lefty.

You can "Decrease Color Depth" and convert the image to a 2-color image.  Actually, what often works better is to reduce the color depth to 16 colors, and then use the "Fill With Color" feature to change the color of entire sections of the image at one time.  Besides allowing you to manually choose which areas will be black and which will be white, having 16 colors also allows you to use colors other than black and white as "placeholders".
  For example, you can convert a white area to red, convert an adjacent black area to white, then convert the red area to black.

Another thing you can do is to edit the palette.  In Irfanview you can selectively change each color in the original image to either black or white until you end up with the image you're looking for.  It's a good idea to decrease the color depth to 16 colors before doing this, otherwise you'll be having to edit 256 colors on that palette.  You might even opt to select a custom number of colors and type in 8 or thereabouts.

Eventually you probably will want to manually white out some stray marks and otherwise clean it up.  Of course, you can forget about that and just ignore the stray marks when carving the rubber if you prefer.

For some of these tasks, I actually prefer MS Paint over Irfanview.  I simply save my work in Irfanview and close it, then reopen the image in Paint and go from there.  Irfanview will do pretty much whatever you need to do, I just prefer the way MS Paint works for some tasks.

Besides the Google search, there are several other methods of obtaining images that have worked for me.  If you have a flatbed scanner, you can scan anything you can find -- either around the house, in your junk mail, or at the public library.

Note that things you can scan on a flatbed scanner include a lot more than printed images on paper.  You can often successfully scan solid objects.  Lay a key on it, or your watch, or perhaps a Christmas ornament.  The
pictures of the packages of
Speedy-Stamp on the materials page were made by laying them on a flatbed scanner.

Another idea is to carry around a digital camera, and when you see some artwork on a road sign or the side of a truck that would make a good rubber stamp, just take a picture of it.

Photo of crayfish on

Crayfish stamp image (US quarter for scale)

You can do this with a film camera if you have a scanner; just lay the print on the scanner.


It's also possible to convert an ordinary photograph into suitable art for making a rubber stamp.  The following are some ideas on how to do this.  Note that sometimes you have to open the file in one software package, do one step, then save and reopen it in a different software package to use some other feature.  If you start with a JPEG file, you might find that converting it into a GIF or a TIF is a good idea because it may be easier to manually edit with the software you have.  Converting it to a BMP file is usually recommended because repeatedly opening and saving a JPG results in a gradual deterioration of the image.

You can try increasing the contrast drastically, making everything either black or white.  If too much stuff is either black or white, start over and adjust the brightness first, then try boosting the contrast again.

Sometimes a software package gives you more options.  MicroSoft Photo Editor actually has a function called "stamp" which will automagically convert any photograph into something that might be carvable into a rubber stamp, but it may end up unrecognizable.  Sometimes it helps to do some fiddling with the photo before applying the stamp function, such as trimming away all the background stuff.  The good news: if you get this method to actually work, you'll end up with a really unique design; the finished image is often reminiscent of really stylized artwork.

1939 Chevrolet Coupe

1939 Chevrolet Coupe photo after MS Photo Editor
          "stamp" function

1939 Chevrolet Coupe stamp image (US quarter for


One idea that's worth pondering is the notion that the image prepared doesn't necessarily have to be the same as the final image intended for the stamp.  It could merely be a guideline of sorts, something that tells you where to carve.  One example: you might consider generating an image on the computer that shows just the outline of the final image.  In other words, it shows where to cut.  This requires a bit more thought when carving, because you must mentally note which areas are supposed to end up inked (and therefore the rubber is to remain) and which areas are not (and therefore the rubber gets cut away).  Printing the image on paper first and coloring it in may help clarify which areas should be cut away.

Irfanview has a feature called "edge detection".  You start with a photograph, hit the button, and it shows you a black screen with all the edges of the objects in the photo shown in white.  Then hit "negative" and you end up with a neat little black-line drawing of whatever was in the photo.  If you begin with a really clear photo image, you can be ready to print in seconds!  In most cases you'll still want to clean it up a little first, but it works really well.

Spitfire Photograph

Spitfire Outline

Spitfire Stamp Image (US quarter for scale)

Using this method, you may find it helpful to edit a photograph before applying the edge detection.  Let's say there's a feature in the photo that you can make out, but the computer barely notices it when doing the edge detection and therefore leaves you with a blank area or a faint smudge.  Before doing the edge detection, you can edit the photo by simply manually drawing lines right where you want them, as though you're outlining or highlighting the features.  Sure, the photo looks silly -- but n
ow when you do the edge detection step, it'll find bright, crisp edges -- the edges of the lines you drew.

Finally, there's the manual method of outlining.  Since this is the method I use almost exclusively, I will describe the process in excruciating detail.  First, select a suitable photograph; I recommend a very high resolution photograph, especially if the subject has lots of fine details.  For my airplane and car stamps, I usually insist on 1024x768 resolution as a minimum, and will use higher resolution yet if I can get it!  Also, make sure the photograph includes the entire image you want to use; you'd be amazed how many photos of airplanes have wingtips cropped off, or helicopters with the rotor tips missing.  You might be able to draw them in by hand, but it's usually easier to just find a better photo to work with. 

Using MS Paint or Irfanview, open the photograph; We'll use this nice photo of a Dassault jet as an example:

Original photo of
            Dassault-Dornier Alpha Jet

Next, crop the photo to just outside the area that you intend to feature in the stamp image -- in this case, we're looking at the jet itself and not at all that blue sky surrounding it.  In Irfanview, to crop you select the rectangular area you want -- you can adjust the edges after your initial selection -- then click "Edit" and "Crop selection."  Also, some areas of this jet are a bit dark and difficult to see, so adjust the gamma up a bit to help make the dark areas appear more clearly.  In Irfanview, this is done by clicking on "Image" then "Color Corrections" and sliding the gamma adjustment to the right.  The result looks like this:

Alpha Jet photo, cropped and

Looking pretty is not the objective here.  The idea is to make the details visible; if you'll look at the areas under the wing, you'll see how those areas are now much easier to see.  Note that, in Irfanview, you can select an area of the photo and then adjust the gamma within that area alone.  The result really looks weird, but it can make the details clear when some are in dark areas while others are in areas so light that they will disappear if you lighten the entire image.

Save the resulting image as a BMP file.  You probably don't want to overwrite your original image -- you might want to start over, or you may just want to save the original photo for your records.  A BMP file takes up a lot of space on your hard drive, but it doesn't lose resolution with repeated alteration and saving the way a JPG file will.  The example shown above is actually a JPG file, but that's merely to save time and bandwidth when viewing this web page.

You can perform this next step in Irfanview by clicking on "Edit" and "Show Paint dialog", but I personally close Irfanview at this point and reopen the image in MicroSoft Paint; it just works a bit quicker and smoother for me.  Note, though, that Paint has two significant shortcomings:  First off, you can only "undo" three steps.  That's just pathethic; 30 steps would have been more reasonable, and being able to undo all the way back to your last save would be ideal!  As it is, be sure to save often at points where you know you're happy with what you've done up to that point.  That way, should you realize you've really messed up your last ten steps, you can just close it and reopen, starting over at the last place you saved without wasting too much time.

The other shortcoming is that, while you can zoom in 2X, 6X or 8X in Paint, you cannot zoom out at all.  If the photograph is larger than your screen, you'll have to pan around on it.  This can occasionally prove problematic, such as when you want to draw a circle that is larger than your screen.  For me, these shortcomings are irritating but not so much that I quit using MS Paint.

Select the straight line drawing tool, and select a line width that is at least two pixels wide.  If the photo you're working on is really big -- bigger than your monitor, you're having to scroll around on it to see it all -- and you plan on printing the finished image as a 2" stamp, you may need to go to 3- or 4- pixel wide lines to avoid them completely disappearing when the image is reduced that much for printing.  Looking over the photo, choose a line color that doesn't appear in the photo as your color to draw with.  I chose dark blue for this one, but purple or green might have worked just as well.  Then draw lines over top of the photo.  To draw a curved line, merely follow the curve on the photo while making a series of very short straight lines with each line starting from the end of the previous one.  Save periodically, making sure to save as a BMP file; if you save as a JPG, you'll lose image quality with each save.  Remember that either MS Paint or Irfanview allow you to zoom in, making the outlining of detailed areas easy.  When done, your finished image should look sorta like this:

Alpha Jet outlined

Again, the above is actually a JPG file just to make this page load quickly.

You'll want to use discretion in your outlining.  Most photos will have details that you'll want to omit from the stamp.  Sometimes I'l be working with a photo of an airplane parked on the tarmac, but I want the image to show it in flight, so I'll omit outlining the landing gear and depict propellers moving rather than stationary.  I'll typically include all the physical details I can, but I'll usually omit paint markings -- except that I'll sometimes include military insignia.  Some details would do little more than clutter up an image; in general, if I think a stamp will look better without it, I'll omit it.

When you're done drawing lines all over the photo, save the BMP file and reopen it in Irfanview.  Select "Image" then "Decrease Color Depth" and tell it to decrease the number of colors to 16.  Then select "Image" then "Palette" and "Edit Palette" and double-click on each color and change it to white, except for your selected outlining color; change that one to black.  Save that resulting image as a TIF file, or a GIF file, or a BMP file, scarcely matters which.  The result looks like this:

Alpha Jet outline image

This is the image to transfer onto the rubber for carving.  However, you can easily get an idea what the finished stamp image will look like by using the "Fill with color" tool to click on areas you intend to leave black -- that is, you won't be removing rubber -- to create a simulated stamp image:

Alpha Jet simulated stamp

Now you  just need to get to it and transfer the outline to rubber and start cuttin'.  This is the actual stamp image for the Alpha Jet:

Finished Alpha Jet stamp image

This is a very time-consuming process; you're basically tracing the image digitally.  I'll spend an hour or more on the tracing alone, and I'm practiced at it.  But it allows you to ignore what you want to ignore and add stuff in if you want.  It also allows you to zoom in on the photo for detail work.  If you accidentally leave some lines out, it's easy enough to go back to the BMP file, add them in, and do the palette editing over again.


As long as the image is on the computer, you can choose to make your rubber stamp any size you'd like -- or whatever size fits the piece of rubber you have on hand.  I recommend starting with big designs, like 2" square or larger.  It's easier to make a big design look good.  It takes skill to make a 1" x 2" (eraser size) rubber stamp look impressive, and more skill yet with something really tiny.

Regardless of your carving skills, you'll always find that some images are too intricate and too detailed to be carved too small.  What may be less obvious is that some images can be made too large; some things that look really cute when they're tiny just don't look as good when they're made bigger.  It may be helpful to print the image out on paper in a few different sizes so you can look them over before you decide how large to make your rubber stamp.

Navigate to: