Rubber Stamp Carving Tools

There are several tools you will need to carve rubber stamps, but note that you might not need all of these.  You'll need to read further to decide if you really need them all.

Before you start shopping, a word about coupons:  If you need to buy anything at Michael's, JoAnn Fabrics, Hobby Lobby, A. C. Moore or similar hobby and craft shops, you might want to look for coupons first.  All of these stores often put a 40% off coupon in the local Sunday paper, and sometimes even a 50% off coupon.  It's usually only good on one item, but if one item is all you need, it's a good deal.  You can, of course, buy all the items you need one at a time, one per week.  Or you can collect coupons from all your neighbors' newspapers.  Sometimes you can sign up for their special customer registration and they'll send you coupons by e-mail that you can print on your own computer.  Or you can visit their web site and look at this week's flyer and print out a coupon from there.  And, when you get around to buying something, be sure to check your receipt; it might contain another coupon, which presumably means you can turn right around and go back into the store and buy something else with it.

And sometimes these stores will accept each others' coupons.  Doesn't hurt to ask.


When you carve rubber stamps, seeing up close and tiny is important, especially if you're over 40 and your eyes don't work like they used to.  Buy a cheap pair of reading glasses, the strongest you can find, like +3.0 or +3.5 or whatever.  These are way too strong for reading; the only way you'll be able to focus is to hold things six inches from your nose.  That's just what you need!  This is a good idea even if you're young and your eyes still work up close, as it'll reduce eye strain.

If you didn't believe that last paragraph, I urge you to reconsider.  The use of strong magnification is arguably the most important tip on this site.  Don't despair if you put on a pair in the store and can't see across the room with them on; that's not what you'll be using them for.  Look at your fingertips instead.

Michael's offers such reading glasses dirt cheap, like $1 per pair -- and that's before your 40% off coupon.  You can also buy them at dollar stores.  There are lots of places that sell such reading glasses for less than $10, including just about any drug store.

If you must wear prescription glasses for astigmatism, you won't be able to see well using generic reading glasses, and you're probably not interested in buying a special pair of prescription glasses just for close work.  You will need to find another method of magnification that enables you to utilize your existing prescription glasses.  One idea is to buy a pair of clip-on lenses that attach to your prescription glasses.

Carson Magnifier in package


This Carson CF-10 was purchased at Michael's for less than $10 before the 40%-off coupon.  It flips up when you want to see something at a distance, and it comes with a cheesy protective case to keep it from getting dinged up in your case of carving tools.  It doesn't say what magnification it is on the package, but once open you'll see on the back of the lenses themselves that it's marked +2.25.

Another idea would be to purchase a magnifying visor.  This one has lights and a little pop-down lens for even more magnification -- but only on your right eye.

Magnifying visor
          (with light)

Or, you could buy one of those lamps with a magnifying glass in it.

Magnifying Lamp

You can also get a magnifying glass that mounts on a small stand that you can position over your work.

Oddly enough, it's actually plausible to use the reading glasses or clip-on lenses with a magnifying stand or lamp, for even more magnification.


You'll want lots of light.  I mean lots.  In fact, my preference is to carve outdoors in direct sunlight if the weather permits.  If you're working indoors, a strong desk lamp right over your work would be good; two lamps would be better!  The new "compact flourescent" lights designed to replace regular light bulbs are especially nice here because you can get a lot of light up close to your work without a lot of heat.

Some people prefer a "high intensity" light, a really bright incandescent bulb with clear glass.  The reason is that, besides providing a good amount of light, the light all coming from one point (rather than the entire tube surface of a flourescent, for example) highlights the surface detail of the item you're working on.  If you want to try this, a halogen bulb is recommended; they last much longer than regular bulbs and provide whiter light.


You'll need a hobby knife.  The traditional hobby knife is the X-Acto brand with a #11 blade...

X-Acto Knife

...but there are lots of other hobby knives out there.  One very workable model is the Testors Hobby Knife.

Testors Hobby Knife

Another excellent choice is the Excel hobby knife.  It's available at HobbyTown and comes with "HobbyTown" stamped on the handle -- but it doesn't say "Excel" on it anywhere.  It's also available at Hobby Lobby -- with Hobby Lobby stamped on the handle.  Wherever you get it, it's an excellent knife.  Excel claims that "the difference is in the edge", and true enough, their blades are really sharp.

There are also cheaper hobby knives available from places like dollar stores, Big Lots, etc. 
An X-Acto knife has an aluminum collet that clamps down onto the blade.  These cheap hobby knives often have plastic collets.  Some of these are better than others -- the difference being in how well the aluminum handle holds the plastic collet -- but in general you'd want to use these only for the actual carving, not for heavier tasks such as slicing a chunk off your block of carving rubber.  Really, the all-aluminum hobby knives only cost a couple of bucks; just get one.

There are also hobby knives in which the handle is hollow through its entire length, the collet is the entire length of the handle, and the tightening nut is on the back end rather than up front where you grip it.  These type are better for two reasons:  First, when you are applying a lot of force, trying to cut something tough, the joint where the parts come together isn't right under your thumb, it's at the other end.  The end you're pushing on is a straight tube, far less likely to bend or break under the stress.  Second, if you want to, you can recess a blade way down into the collet so just a tiny tip of it protrudes.

There are also hobby knives that are not pencil-shaped but rather come in an assortment of shapes.  There are handles that are rectangular in cross section, which may make it easier to keep the blade facing in the correct direction.  There are even hobby knives that fit around the index finger.

Regarding the blades themselves, the Excel and X-Acto #11 blades are stout and sturdy, being about .020" thick.  While excellent quality and great for many tasks, this makes them a bit too large and clumsy for detailed rubber stamp carving.  The blades in some of the cheaper sets are only about .015" thick which means they're thinner and more flexible than the X-Acto blade, which is beneficial here.  I believe the Testors blades are also thinner than the X-Acto.   If you already have an X-Acto knife, you might want to purchase a set of Testors blades and try them in it.

If you're a doctor, you can steal a surgical scalpel from work.  Interestingly, the most common surgical blade is also called a #11, although it's shaped slightly differently than the X-Acto #11.  Surprisingly, scalpel blades haven't proven especially good for rubber stamp carving.  The X-Acto #11 is probably better.

One other tidbit about hobby knives:  When you get to carving very tiny details, you'd think you want the smallest blade.  However, what you really want is the blade with the pointiest tip, which is not necessarily the same thing.  Here are some blades:

Razor Knife Blades

The one on the far left would be really lousy for carving rubber stamps.  The angle of the cutting edge forms such a blunt angle at the tip that you'll have trouble cutting any details.  It might work OK for making long, straight cuts.

Moving to the right we find increasingly better blades because the angle formed at the tip is more acute.  As a result, the very point -- which is the part you actually carve with -- is increasingly tiny and slender.

The second from right is a standard X-Acto #11.  The one on the far right is from a cheap set from Big Lots.
  It's easy to change direction mid-cut with such a blade, because you can easily turn the tip in the rubber.


Buy a Staedtler 1V gouge.  Period.  End of discussion.

Generally, to get a 1V you'll have to buy the entire Staedtler set of three gouges for about $20

Staedtler Carving

There's nothing interchangeable about the nibs, you're buying a set of complete tools.
  The cutting edges of these tools are U- or V-shaped, and the nib is gently curved to enable smoothly cutting out a groove with one pass.  The 1V is the one at the top in the picture, and with it you can easily remove a sliver of rubber the size of a human hair from the surface of a piece of rubber.  It's the tool used for 95% of the rubber stamp carving duties, with the others only used for removing great big chunks of rubber.

There is one way to buy the 1V by itself, and that's to buy from Webfoot at  That is reportedly the only place where you can buy the Staedtler 1V without buying the 2V and 5U as well.  Buy some Brilliance Dew Drop ink pads while you're there.  And don't lose the invoice that comes with your order; Webfoot applies a rubber stamp image to them, and you can log them as letterboxing finds on

Update 4/2012:  Webfoot reports that Staedtler has ceased manufacturing gouges.  If you have one, hang on to it!  They can be resharpened indefinitely.  If you don't have one yet, Webfoot still has a few, as she bought out the last of Staedtler's stock.

The Staedtler 1V is essential for detailed carving, but larger gouges are nice to have for other duties such as hacking big chunks of rubber out of a stamp.  You could just buy the whole Staedtler set.  But it'd probably be cheaper to just buy the single Staedtler 1V from and buy a
Speedball "CUTTER SET For Block Printing" for the other needs.  The Speedball set
includes a cutter handle and five interchangeable cutter blades.

Speedball Cutter Set
          in package

Speedball Cutter Set

The blades included in the package are #1, #2, #3, #5, and #6.  The #1 is the smallest, but it still makes a groove twice as wide as a Staedtler 1V.

The handle is a rounded plastic affair with a chuck on the end that securely clamps down onto the blade.  It's hollow and it's possible to pry the back end off and hide blades inside, although that doesn't appear to be the intention of the design.

Hobby Lobby now offers a blatant copy of the Speedball Cutter Set, with a handle that looks almost exactly the same except it's a different color and five nibs that are essentially identical.  This set sells for considerably less than the Speedball product.  As of this writing I have no reports on whether this kit is any good, but it certainly appears to be usable.

The bulbous handle that comes with these kits is well-suited for applying great force while digging a groove.  However, you're cutting rubber, and great force is not required.  Rather than constantly swapping nibs out on the single handle, many opt to purchase some Speedball "pen holders", which are often sold nearby on the same shelf as the cutter set for less than $2 each, and press one nib into each handle.  The bulbous handle is a good choice for holding the #5, which is a large U-shaped nib for scooping out big chunks; put all the other nibs into these slender pen holders.

Speedball Pen Holder w/ #1 gouge

You can also just buy a length of 1/4" wooden dowel and attach the nib with glue, wire and/or tape.  Get enough dowels to make handles for each nib, as you won't want to have to swap nibs on the same handle.

Some people opt to use no holder at all, just hold the nib itself between the thumb and forefinger.  This actually works better than you'd expect.

Speedball also offers a "Speedy-Stamp Stamp Making Kit" which includes a cutter handle, two cutter blades, a 4" x 6" piece of Speedy-Carve pink rubber, and a booklet of ideas and tips.

Speedball Stamp
          Making Kit

It looks like a good starter kit, but there are two downsides to it.  First, the cutter handle included is a cheap wooden handle rather than the nice plastic handle with the metal chuck shown above.  Second, the two cutter blades included are a #2 and a #4, not the most generally useful blades.

There are other brands of gouges available, including some rather expensive "woodcutting" tools, but none are any better than the Staedtler 1V for detail carving.

Nasco also offers sets of lino cutters, including wooden handles in either palm-grip or pen-shaped versions.  Those pen-shaped handles come in a box of 12 (Nasco is actually a classroom supply outfit), but they're still not too expensive.

Speedball also offers some supposedly safer lino cutters that look similar from a distance but you pull them across the rubber rather than push.  Hence, the sharp edge isn't right out front where you can hurt yourself with it, it's underneath and facing the holder.  I've never tried them myself, but reports indicate that they do work but not particularly well.

Having both the hobby knife and the set of gouges is best, obviously, but you can make do with just the hobby knife.  It's work, though, since you must make slice after slice side-by-side to remove rubber over a broad area.  It's just easier to have a couple of gouges on hand, even if you're a hobby knife carver.


For those who want more detail than they can get from off-the-shelf carving tools, there are three popular modifications of gouges:  Pinching, reversing, and miniaturization.  I personally developed the last idea, the miniaturization.


When you get to the point where you just can't figure out how you're supposed to carve any serious detail with those big, clunky hobby knives and gouges, you're ready for a set of carving needles.

Carving Needle Set

Carving Needle Tip

My own set of
          carving needles

Because it's not obvious, I'll describe how they are used:  Pretty much the same way as the hobby knife.  It doesn't look like a hobby knife; in fact, it looks more like a gouge.  It won't work at all as a gouge, though, it just digs in if you try.  You use it the same way you'd use a very tiny hobby knife.  Slice with one side of that tip; you've got two sides to work with.

Where do you buy carving needles?  Actually, you buy the components and assemble your own set.  The handle is what's known as a "pin vise" and can be purchased locally from Hobby Lobby or other hobby shops or from or you can do a web search for other sources.  You can select a single-ended pin vise:

Single-ended pin

(the knob end is removable, revealing a place to store the unused collet)

or a double-ended pin vise:

Double-ended pin vise

Offhand, I'd suggest the single-ended; there's only half the chance you'll accidentally stick yourself.  Of course, you could buy the double-ended pin vise and only install a needle in one end at a time.

There are cheaper versions than those shown.  The collets shown have four sizes of opening so they'll hold just about any size needle you want, and you can bury the needle quite a ways.  Cheaper pin vises have no removable collets but rather just a chuck formed in the end of the handle itself. With these, you're far more limited in what needles will fit -- too large won't go in, too small will fall out.  And the needles might bottom in the hole, requiring you to cut the needle shorter to get it to protrude the right amount.

The X-Acto hobby knife usually comes with a collet with only a single split for holding the blade, but the Excel hobby knife has two splits forming an X when you look at it end-on.  The Excel type will work as a pin vise, although they'll only hold a pretty small needle, about a 19 or 20 gauge.  Still, it's an attractive option because the hobby knife handle is lightweight aluminum, long and slender and comfortable to hold, while the regular pin vises are often steel, heavy, and somewhat short and clunky to hold.  Plus, if you choose an Excel hobby knife to begin with, you can try using it with either the blade or the needle and see how you like it.

Other types of hobby knives sometimes have a collet with a single split but there's also a pilot hole down the center of the split for holding something wire- or needle-shaped, but again you'll need to use exactly the right size needle with it.

The carving needles themselves are, in fact, standard hypodermic needles.  They come with razor sharp edges right out of the package, and are available in many sizes.  You'll need to cut the other end off, the end with a collar that attaches the needle to a syringe, in order to install it into the pin vise.  Some people get the wrong idea and try to carve with the needle holding it by the collar, and sometimes even still attached to a syringe.  This is like trying to write while holding a pencil by the eraser end.

To begin with, go to a feed store and ask about needles intended for horses.  You'll find some really big needles -- big enough to make you thank your lucky stars you're not a horse -- and these big needles are the most useful for carving rubber stamps.  You should be able to find 16 gauge, 18 gauge, and possibly 14 and 12 gauge needles.  Be sure to get long ones; the short needles are barely long enough to chuck up in a pin vise.  Here's what the needle looks like when you buy it:

16 gauge horse needle

This thing cost me 35¢.  Here's what it looks like when you open the package:

16 guage horse needle -- opened up

You'll need to cut the needle itself off that collar, and throw the rest away.

When you want smaller needles for really detailed work, go to your local pharmacy and ask for needles for human beings.  In general, they're not out where you can get at them, they're behind the pharmacy counter, but all you have to do is ask; no prescription required.  I just tell them what I want them for, to which they usually reply "Good idea!"

You'll be offered needles around 19 gauge to 25 gauge -- be sure to get the long ones again.  Often the needle comes attached to a syringe, but they're still only 30¢ each or so.  If you ask for a "larger" needle, the clerk will always presume you mean you want a larger syringe, more cc's.  You'll go back and forth a coupla times trying to get through that you want the needle itself larger and couldn't care less about the size of the syringe attached.

The latest thing in hypodermic needles are retractable needles.  You use them once, and the needle itself pops back inside the syringe so you can't stick yourself with it.  I haven't run across one of these myself yet, but hopefully since you won't be shooting up with it you can cut the needle off before it gets a chance to retract.  We might need to hope so, since reportedly these retractable needles will be increasingly popular thanks to liability concerns.


Better idea:  Skip the carving needles altogether and fabricate a "wire knife" instead.  It is my own invention, so I provide a description on how to make one.  A wire knife will handle whatever the carver is capable of carving; there will never be any call for anything smaller or more precise.  And it's easier to get used to using than carving needles.


You can actually create custom cutting tools if you're handy.  It's possible to grind a hobby knife blade into an entirely new shape and then grind a new edge on it and sharpen it up -- or you can cut only on the back edge or mounting tang, leaving the original cutting edge intact.  The obvious thing to start with is another cutting tool, but you can actually make cutters out of all sorts of things.  Rubber isn't difficult to cut, you don't need surgical steel to cut it.  Sometimes, when you need to create a particular type of cut -- especially if you need to make the same cut a lot of times -- the thing to do is to make a tool just for the job.

One common homemade tool is a tubular tool for cutting circles.  If you visit a serious hobby shop -- the type place with remote control airplanes and model trains -- you can buy a selection of brass tubing in 1/16" increments.  Chuck each tube into a drill or lathe and grind the inside edge only, forming a sharp edge at the outer surface.  Then flip the tube and grind the other end at the outside edge only, forming a sharp edge at the inner surface.  Use one end for making a white circle within a black area, and the other for making a black circle within a white area.  Only press the tube a millimeter or so into the rubber, and then come back and cut the rubber away with a gouge using the shallow cut as a guide.

For much smaller circles, substitute a selection of hypodermic needles of various sizes for the tubing.  Cut the sharp points and the mounting flanges off and throw them away, leaving just the tiny tubes, then sharpen them up as described above.

One other nifty tool to have:  a tip cleaner for an acetylene torch.  These can be purchased at any place that sells welding supplies for perhaps a dollar.  It's a little metal matchbook case containing a dozen or so tiny wires of different sizes for cleaning out the nozzles in a welding torch.  What you'll use them for is to poke holes in rubber.  By poking straight down into rubber, a plug the same diameter as the wire is pressed down into the rubber and doesn't come back up, leaving a tiny white dot in the black area of the image.  By choosing the different size wires, you can make a starry night sky in minutes.  Of course, you can accomplish the same function with any selection of various sizes of wire, the tip cleaner is just cheap and convenient.


You should sharpen your cutting tools occasionally, so you'll need sharpening tools.
  Go to a fine sporting goods or knife store and see what they have in sharpening stones.  Tell them you want a really fine one; the thing that looks like a gray chunk of concrete with a coarse side and a fine side will not work here, both sides are far too coarse.  With any luck at all, you'll be able to get a small, very fine "Arkansas" stone for just a few bucks.  If they have something ceramic you might check it out; ceramic is even finer than Arkansas stone.  Be sure to get something with a flat surface; you can't use rods or other shapes for sharpening stamp carving tools effectively.  If you get an Arkansas stone you should also get some honing oil; it's essential with an Arkansas stone.

Arkansas stone and honing oil

Alternatively, you can get a diamond hone.  Harbor Freight Tools offers several models, usually with multiple surfaces with different grits.  You'll be using the finer grits, 400 and 600, for this job.  Don't use honing oil with diamond hones, just use them dry; you can rub the metal dust right off them with your finger when done.  The problem with diamond hones is that they are covered with holes, which might work for knives but it just ruins their use for sharpening hobby knives and gouges.  Look for a diamond hone that has a flat area on the end beyond the holes that you can use.  You only need a couple of square inches.

Diamond hone

Some have also had success with a very fine sandpaper, 400 or 600 grit, taped down onto a very flat, hard surface such as a piece of plate glass.  While this works, you have to be careful to move the tools only in the pulling direction; trying to slide the tool in the wrong direction across the sandpaper may cause it to tear, or even if it doesn't tear in might bunch up a bit and dull your tool rather than sharpen it.

You can sharpen the
hobby knife blades just as you would hone a knife:  Hold the blade flat against the stone and tilt the back side up just enough so that the cutting edge contacts the surface of the stone.  Make about a dozen circular motions, then flip it over and repeat.  As you finish, make the last couple of strokes feather light and swap sides each stroke.  You won't believe how much better this'll make the blade cut -- even compared to a new blade.  You also won't believe how long it'll make a blade last.

You also should sharpen the gouges every now and then.  Sharpening gouges is more involved, so I have established an entire web page describing the process.

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