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.

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), soak 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.  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.

The other 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.

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.  The best solution seems to be to simply find another printer to work with.  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, 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.

The trick with inkjet printers is print the image onto something that the ink cannot soak into.  Clear plastic sheets fit that bill, but unfortunately the ink smears around so badly on plastic that it's difficult to get a good transfer.  The solution: parchment.  What is parchment?  It's a type of paper that you can get in a great big roll at your local grocery store for about three bucks.  It's alongside the aluminum foil and wax paper; it's used in cooking somehow.

The first problem is that parchment comes in a 15" wide roll which won't fit through your inkjet printer.  So, you're going to need to cut a piece down to a more workable size.  Second problem is that it comes off the roll with a nasty curl to it; you'll have to pull it across the edge of a table or something to convince it to lay flat.  It is possible to purchase parchment in flat sheets rather than a roll, but they're more difficult to find.

Finally, once you get a piece of parchment cut to size, it's so thin and wispy that it might not feed through your printer reliably.  So, instead of cutting out a piece that's 8-1/2" x 11", cut out a piece that's a bit smaller and tape it down to a regular piece of paper.  That should run through the printer with no trouble.  You might choose to tape the parchment down to a piece of clear plastic instead, for reasons that will become clear below.

Don't just load your parchment into the printer and hit "print"; you'll be sorry.  Open up your image in
Irfanview -- don't try to fiddle with whatever software you're presently using, just go ahead and download Irfanview, it's free.  Once the image is open, click on "Image" and "Decrease Color Depth..." and click on the button for 2 colors and click OK.  You image is now black and white, regardless of what it was before.  Now click on "Image" and "Palette" and "Edit Palette".  You will be presented with two color boxes, black and white.  Double-click on the black one.  You'll be faced with a display of colors for editing.  At the far right is a vertical scale with black at the bottom and white at the top and shades of gray in between.  There's a little arrow pointing at the black.  Click-and-hold on the little arrow and slide it halfway up the scale and release it there.  Click on OK twice.  Your image is now gray and white.  Now hit print!  And when you're done printing, there's no reason to save this altered image; you can just as easily go through these steps again if you ever need to print it again.

Some suggest taking the easy way and 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.

Immediately "stamp" the rubber onto the parchment and the image will transfer onto the rubber.  You can do this either upside down or right side up.  If you taped your parchment to a sheet of clear plastic, you can lay the rubber down face-up and lay the parchment down on it and see through the plastic and parchment well enough to line it up.
  It also helps to set the other end of the parchment on something the same thickness as the stamp so it lays flat as you press it.  You'll need to apply pressure uniformly, so use a block or something to press the parchment onto the rubber; a cold iron works great.

Lining it up when stamping right side up is more challenging.  Draw some guidelines on a sheet of white paper, perhaps the outline of the blank.  Lay the parchment with the image printed on it over this piece of paper, line up the image so it's properly positioned within the guidelines and hold the sheets in position with a clipboard.
  Carefully line up your stamp blank over the image on the clear plastic sheet and stamp it.  Again, having the parchment taped to a clear plastic sheet rather than a piece of paper will make it easier to see your guidelines.

If it gets messed up
, clean all the ink off of both the parchment 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 the 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.  The parchment can be reused many times, and of course you have a whole roll of it.  You can keep trying over and over until you get it right.

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 hand 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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