Applying An Image To The Stamp Blank

Before you can carve an image onto your rubber stamp, you need to imprint a copy of that image onto the surface of the rubber to use as a guide.  And it needs to be mirror-imaged as you look at the rubber, so that it comes out correct when stamped.

There are several ways to put the image onto the rubber.  The most obvious, perhaps, is to simply draw it on the rubber in the first place.  This will work, but only with the most simplistic of image designs.  Even those pretty good with a pencil are likely to find drawing backwards on a rubber surface to be less than ideal.  It seems everybody gets text backwards sooner or later using this method.

The next idea is only slightly more complicated, but it works ever so much better.  Draw your image on paper with a No. 2 pencil, then lay the paper face down on the rubber and rub the back side.  This will transfer enough of the graphite to the rubber to make a clear image for carving.  Among other advantages, you're drawing oriented correctly, not mirror-imaged, because the rubber ends up with the necessary mirror-image orientation after rubbing.

And another idea follows logically from that one: using any image on paper, just carefully trace over that image with a No. 2 pencil, then transfer it onto the rubber.  This method opens up a world of opportunities, since pretty much any image you can find can be traced with a pencil and then rubbed onto rubber. 

In the specific example of images found in a newspaper, there's no need to trace.  Newspaper ink will transfer onto the rubber just fine, just lay it down and rub.

If you're dealing with a digital image on a computer, you can edit it and scale it to whatever size is needed before printing and tracing.  The option of making an image whatever size you wish may alone be enough to warrant scanning the image and then printing it rather than working with the original.  The fact that you can mess up a couple of times and just print the image out over and over again is also handy.

Once you have the image on the computer in digital format, it seems a waste to have to trace the printed image with a low-tech No. 2 pencil just to be able to transfer it.  And the quality of the image transferred to the rubber is dependent on how good you are at tracing, but it will inherently never be as accurate and detailed as the original.  The computer is doing an excellent job of applying the ink in exactly the right places; wouldn't it be a better idea to figure out how to get it to apply that ink to the rubber without the manual tracing?

It turns out to be quite possible, and works well.  However, whether you're working with an inkjet printer or a laser printer makes a world of difference here.  The methods of transferring the image that work with one will not work with the other.  So, read whichever section of the following applies to you, and remember never to mix them up:


A laser printer works by depositing a very fine black plastic powder (toner) onto paper and then heating it enough to cause the plastic to melt into the paper.  The classic "Xerox machine" works exactly the same way.  Hence, for our purposes, a print made from a copier is the same thing as a print from a laser printer.

There are two general ways to get the toner from the paper onto the surface of the rubber: solvents and heat.

Solvent transfers:  The most common solvent used here is acetone, which dissolves plastic like gangbusters.  Acetone is available in small, expensive bottles as nail polish remover -- but there are apparently different strengths available, and sometimes it's hard to tell if you're getting pure acetone or watered-down acetone.  A better idea is to buy pure acetone, which you can find any place that sells paint including Lowe's and Home Depot.  It's available in a gallon can for less than $20, and there are smaller cans available as well.

Note that acetone -- as well as most other solvents that'll have any effect on laser printer ink -- is a serious chemical.  It has a very powerful odor -- it smells like airplane glue, and for good reason, it's the main ingredient in airplane glue -- and isn't particularly healthy to be inhaling, so always use in a well-ventilated area.  It's also as flammable as gasoline, so don't smoke or do anything similarly stupid around the stuff.  And finally, it's a solvent; don't let it get on anything you don't want dissolved.

One transfer method is to simply lay the paper with the printed image face down on the rubber and soak the paper with a bit of acetone, and the toner will quickly dissolve and be deposited onto the rubber.  The acetone will also dissolve the rubber if applied too liberally or left too long, so be careful.  An excellent method is to tear a small piece of cotton cloth from an old T-shirt (nothing synthetic -- acetone will dissolve synthetic fabrics), dampen it with the acetone, lay it down on the back of the paper, and press it with a cold iron for five seconds or so.  Don't use any heat on the iron; that'll just make the acetone evaporate before it can effect the transfer.

After exposure to acetone, some people complain that the rubber becomes sticky, but if you just set it aside for a while the acetone will evaporate back out of the rubber and all will be well.  Some also suggest rinsing the rubber with water, since acetone is miscible in water and will be rinsed away.

Some have used solvents other than acetone.  One option is xylene from a "blender pen", available at crafts stores.  Carburetor cleaner has also been suggested; you want the stinky stuff, not the "low odor" versions.  Still others use Citra Solv.

Many have claimed tremendous success with wintergreen oil, which is sold at some pharmacies as well as some natural foods stores. It is atrociously expensive, several dollars per ounce, but it is used very sparingly by merely wiping some onto the rubber itself and then laying the printed image down on it and burnishing the back side of the paper.  There are reportedly natural and synthetic wintergreen oils, with the natural being better for transfers -- and, of course, the more expensive of the two.  The nice thing about wintergreen oil:  While it's very effective at transferring the ink, it will not dissolve the rubber, which may be one reason it produces such clear transfers.  Whether or not you can stand the smell is a matter of taste, but it definitely smells better than acetone.  One downside:  While the acetone evaporates quickly and is gone, the wintergreen oil will keep on stinking for a long time, so it's advisable to use it outdoors or in a well-ventilated area as well.

Iron transfers:  Another laser printer transfer method involves laying the paper with the printed image on the rubber and pressing the back side with a hot iron.  The toner is designed to melt; you're just remelting it.  Obviously you want to be careful not to melt the rubber.  A medium setting on the iron is good, and apply it for perhaps ten seconds.  Try peeling up one corner of the paper and see if it's working; if not, lay it back down and apply the iron some more.  Do not try to use any solvents with this method, as solvents and heat do not work well together.

Rubbing:  Finally, some people manage to transfer images from laser printers by printing on parchment or something else that the toner doesn't stick particularly well to, then laying the parchment on the rubber and rubbing the back side with a coin or some such.  Parchment can be purchased at a grocery store; it's used in cooking.  It's available on a roll or in flat sheets; the flat sheets are less curly to work with.  Parchment will often jam in a printer because it's too slippery to drive through properly; to print, it's suggested that you cut out a piece and tape it down to regular paper and run that through the printer.

Selecting a usable laser printer:  One problem with these laser printer transfer methods is that they work better with some toners than others; in general, the older toners (for older printers and copiers) work well, the newer toners for full-color machines not so well.  This is because the newer toners are designed not only to melt but to "set"; once melted they don't easily melt again.  With these toners, a hot iron simply won't work; you'd have to get it hot enough to melt the rubber itself, and then the paper sticks to the rubber and you have a mess to clean up.  The solvents don't seem to work well, either.

If your laser printer doesn't work well for transfers, one solution may be to buy new toner for it -- cheap aftermarket toner rather than the brand name stuff sold by the printer company.  There are numerous places online to buy no-name toner, and these are far more likely to transfer well than the good stuff. is one such supplier.

Another solution is to simply find another printer to work with.  Atlasquest has a chart listing various laser printer models and toners with comments by users on transfer success.

If your laser printer doesn't transfer well (or you have an inkjet printer) but you want to try to get these transfer methods to work for you, just run your printed image through a Xerox machine and use the copy.  It's usually not too difficult to find a copier that uses the old-style toner that can be remelted with an iron.  The coin-operated one down at the local grocery store usually works great. 


Inkjet printers work completely differently than laser printers.  There is no heat involved; rather, a tiny nozzle spurts little droplets of ink onto the paper.  The ink is truly ink, not plastic powder as with the laser printers.  Once inkjet ink soaks into paper and dries, it doesn't want to come back out.
  Heat has zero effect on it, and solvents are of limited use.  Reportedly carburetor cleaner might work.  Acetone definitely does not.  The label on a package of Speedy-Carve says a warm iron will work, but it won't.

I have worked out a (hopefully foolproof) step-by-step process for transferring an image from an inkjet printer to rubber, as follows:

Step 1: If you don't have Irfanview, get it:

It's free, there's no reason not to.

Step 2: Load a sheet of something that ink won't soak into into your inkjet printer. Items known to work include:

Step 3: Bring up your image in Irfanview, click on Image, then Decrease Color Depth. Select "2 colors (black/white)".  Click OK. This will make your image black and white -- not grayscale, but actually black and white.  If your image was B&W to begin with, the option of Decrease Color Depth won't even appear for you.

Step 4: Click on Image, then Palette, then Edit Palette. You should see a large window with two boxes in the upper left corner: One black and one white. Double-click on the black one. It'll bring up a selection of colors to choose from. Click on the blue, which is near the center of the array of colors. Click OK.  Click another OK. Your image is now blue and white.

Step 5: Click on Image, then Color Corrections... You'll be looking at several sliders. The one at the top left is Brightness; move that slider to the right until the little box next to it reads around 140. Hit OK. Your image is now light blue and white.

Step 6: Click on File, then Print. Select the size you'd like the image and how far down and right you'd like it from the upper left corner of your printed sheet. Hit Print.

Step 7: Lay the rubber face up on something soft, like a layer of foam. As soon as the page comes out of the printer, lay it face down on the rubber and press it with a cold iron or something else suitably flat. Press for perhaps ten seconds.  It may help to have a book the same thickness as the stamp to lay the other half of the page on while pressing.

I would suggest you not save the light blue image at this point.  Rather, keep your original image on your hard drive, and go through the steps above each time you need a transfer -- which, with any luck at all, will be only once.

Why blue?  Because inkjets have a similar problem to laser printers in that some transfer well and some don't.  Specifically, the Canon PIXMA inkjet printers have 5 ink cartridges, two of which are black -- one dye ink and one pigment ink.  Left to print in black, a print from a PIXMA printer will not transfer.  Switching to blue, though, it transfers just fine.  If you have another type of inkjet, notably one with only one black ink cartridge, perhaps printing in black ink will transfer just as well as blue.  If so, just omit step 4 above.  You still need to do step 5.

And again, believe it or not, cheap aftermarket ink may transfer better than the brand name stuff.  When replacing ink cartridges, you'd be well advised to buy the knockoff ink from or some other such supplier.

The reason for that 140 setting is that, left at a regular setting, an inkjet printer will pile far too much ink onto a sheet that doesn't absorb the ink.  When you lay it on the rubber and press, it'll just squeeze out into a gloppy mess.  By making the image lighter you convince the printer to apply only a light layer of ink, just enough to transfer to the rubber without smearing.  The 140 brightness setting works well with images that consist entirely of narrow lines. If your image has broad colored areas, you might need to go higher than 140, say perhaps 175 or so, to prevent making an unholy mess.
  Experiment to find what works best for you.

Some have suggested just printing in "draft" mode.  This works, but it loses detail; besides being lighter, a draft print is also lower resolution.  I recommend using the method above; even if you can't carve well enough to make use of the better resolution now, you'll never get better if you don't give yourself the chance.

Note that a transparent or translucent material, such as the mylar, is a better choice than an opaque material such as the parchment or the stick-on label sheet, because it helps to be able to see through it when lining up the image over the stamp when transferring.  If using parchment, you might consider taping the parchment to a clear plastic sheet rather than to regular paper.

If it gets messed up
, clean all the ink off of both the sheet and the rubber and try it again.  To get the ink off the rubber, just use a household spray cleaner and a paper towel.  You can usually get most of the ink off of parchment by simply wiping it with a dry paper towel, but if some ink won't come off just use a regular pencil eraser to remove it.  Parchment can be reused several times, although eventually it loses its slipperiness and the ink starts sticking to it.
  If you used mylar, you can clean the ink off the mylar with household spray cleaner and reuse it indefinitely; you'll only need one sheet for a lifetime. The other items may last more than once, but you'll probably need to replace them periodically.

If you have trouble getting all the ink off the rubber between attempts, put a little acetone on a paper towel and wipe it.  This will take all the ink off instantly, but note that the acetone will also dissolve the rubber itself if you leave it in contact for any length of time.  Just wiped quickly, though, this solvent action is a good thing; it dissolves only the surface of the rubber and then evaporates quickly whereupon the rubber surface solidifies again, leaving the surface perfectly smooth and ready for work.

One downside of inkjet transfers is that the ink may never fully dry on the surface of the rubber, and then gets smeared while you're trying to carve.  Smearing is a disaster, since you've already started carving and will never get a new transfer to line up right.  It's important to support your arm on a clipboard positioned over the work so you don't have to touch it while carving.  Some also advocate inking up the stamp with a very light color ink, such as yellow, and then stamping it onto a paper towel or some such to remove the excess ink.  Once the yellow ink dries on the rubber, it helps "lock" the inkjet ink in place.  It also helps you see where you've carved.

Perhaps a better solution is to A) make sure your images are only outlines rather than solid black areas; even if the stamp image is to end up with a solid black area, just draw and transfer the outline of it and carve accordingly.  And B) use Speedy-Carve pink stuff.  Inkjet ink seems to anchor itself pretty well to Speedy-Carve, better than some other types of carving material.  This author uses this method and doesn't have issues with smearing.

Whichever transfer method you use, applying a piece of paper with a straight-up image to the surface of the rubber will leave a mirror-image print on the rubber -- which, after you cut it out, will make a non-mirror-image print when you stamp it.  So, print the same way you want the final image to appear; the reversing onto the rubber takes care of itself.

If you are using the outline idea for your image,
you might consider hand-coloring in the image on the rubber with a marker to make it more apparent which areas need to be cut away when carving.

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