by Kirbert

updated:  4/13/2011

A stamp and its image

Carving rubber stamps is a lot of fun.  And while improvement through practice is a key part of the process, it helps to get some guidance right at the outset.  This site should provide you with all the help you need to get started.

Two items of clarification:

Carving styles:  First, those who carve rubber stamps by hand generally fall into two camps:  Those who carve using a hobby knife and those who carve using a gouge.  Both types usually have both tools on hand, but there is a fundamental difference in mindset between the two styles.  A gouge carver creates the entire rubber stamp by cutting grooves, and only uses a hobby knife to get in tight corners where the gouge won't reach. 
A hobby knife carver creates the entire image by outlining the image with slits in the surface of the rubber and only uses a gouge to help remove pieces of rubber that have already been outlined with such slits.  The difference in carving styles influences everything about their process, including the selection of the image itself and the decision on how and what size to carve it.

The author of this site is a hobby knife carver, and the guidelines presented describe how to carve rubber stamps with a hobby knife.

I should probably add that there are other methods out there as well, including at least one web site describing how to carve rubber stamps with a Dremel power tool.  Here's a site describing how to make stamps out of paper.

Stamp mounting:  The second issue is about mounting the stamp.  The ready-made rubber stamps you can buy at a craft store consist of a wooden block to which is bonded a layer of rubber containing the image with a layer of soft foam in between.  The idea is that the stamper holds the wood while applying the rubber first to an ink pad and then to a piece of paper, hopefully laying on a firm flat surface.  The soft foam allows the force of the application to be distributed uniformly over the surface of the image.  The methods described on this site mimick this assembly.

There are others, though, who insist on a completely upside-down viewpoint on how stamps are mounted and used.  First off, the stamp is not applied to the paper; rather, the stamp is laid down face up, the ink is applied to it (either with an ink pad or with markers), and then the paper is laid over the stamp to make the image.  Some even use a roller, called a brayer, to apply the paper to the stamp.  There are a couple of advantages to this process; for one thing, the flat surface is not as important, you can do it on a notebook or even your leg and still expect to get a decent reproduction of the stamp image.  Second, it's easier to apply multiple colors to the rubber with markers using this method.  And it works better for exceedingly large images; there are people out there carving rubber stamps from an entire large sheet of Speedy Carve, which is 6" x 12"!

For those who prefer this method of stamping, often the stamp is left unmounted; just laying the bare back side of the rubber down works fine.  The rubber is highly susceptible to damage in this condition, though, especially if the carving on the face is very deep or the stamp is large, so many prefer to "mount" such stamps by gluing them to a single 1/4" layer of "fun foam".  Either way, one other advantage becomes apparent:  the finished stamp is lighter and more compact than the wood-mounted assembly, meaning it takes up less space inside a letterbox and costs less to ship by mail.

There is one notable disadvantage to the upside-down stamping style:  it results in an inferior stamped image.  It's easy to observe the difference for yourself:  carve an unmounted stamp and stamp it upside-down several times until you're sure you've got the best image you can.  Then mount the stamp on soft foam and wood and use it to stamp images right-side-up.  The difference will be immediately apparent:  Wood-and-foam-mounted stamps provide a consistently superior stamp image.

This site only covers the right-side-up style of mounting, with a soft foam layer and a wooden backing, at the present time.  Of course, there's not much more to be said about the upside-down method than what was just said, so if you choose to go that route you already know how.

On to learning how to carve wood-backed rubber stamps with a hobby knife.
  The following is a general outline of the steps involved, with links to discussions on each step: