Rubber Stamp Materials

There are several materials you will need to make a rubber stamp:

 
RUBBER

You need rubber, and it has to be solid rubber, not foam. 
The two most common sources are erasers and rubber specifically intended for stamp carving.  Some people use gasket material for plumbing fixtures which is dirt cheap at Home Depot, but it's very hard to work with and not recommended for the beginner.

The rubber needs to be flat on top and bottom, so a new eraser is called for.  It helps to pick the right eraser, since many are crumbly or otherwise poorly suited.
  You'll find that light, solid colors are important; dark colors or elaborate patterns make it harder to see the image you've inked onto the surface to guide your carving.

You may be tempted to just run right out and buy some erasers and get started.  Resist that temptation and buy some rubber intended for carving instead.  The rubber texture and quality truly is better for this task, it removes the size limitations that erasers impose, and the cost per square inch is about the same as erasers and sometimes less.

I'll describe the materials I'd recommend first, followed by the materials I would not recommend.  The latter list is far longer.

MATERIALS TO CONSIDER:

If you have
a Michael's, a Hobby Lobby or an A. C. Moore nearby, you can buy Speedball Speedy-Carve, which is 1/4" thick and pink .  Letterboxers commonly refer to it as "the pink stuff", and it is universally regarded as excellent for rubber stamp carving.  This carver considers it the best stuff currently available.  Speedy-Carve comes in a 4" x 6" block in a clear cellophane wrapper...

Speedy-Carve

...and sometimes that clear cellophane-wrapped rubber is in a bag that can hang on a pegboard.

Speedy-Carve in a bag


(the label on the cellophane is still there, it's just on the back side)

Note that none of these hobby/craft stores seem to think Speedy-Carve should be sold alongside the rubber stamps.  It's found in the artist supplies, which in a Michael's is waaay over on the opposite side of the store from the rubber stamps.

Speedy-Carve used to be called Speedy-Stamp.  No idea why they changed the name.


Speedy-Carve is also available in a larger block, 6" x 12", and a gigantic square, 11.75" x 11.75".  One big piece is better than little pieces for a couple of reasons:  first, obviously the day you want to carve a stamp that's bigger than 4" x 6" square, you're going to need to find a big piece.  But even if all you carve are regular size stamps, you can cut more of them from a large single sheet with less waste. 

A warning about Speedy-Carve.  For making a rubber stamp, the carving surface of the rubber must be perfectly flat; any spot that's not flat will cause problems.  There is a defect found in virtually all Speedy-Carve blocks:  the last 1/8" at each end of the 4" x 6" block is unusable because it tapers off.
  It probably has something to do with how they mold the rubber at the factory.  You can put a straightedge on it to check it out:

End of Speedy-Stamp
          Block

You don't want to be trying to make a stamp out of that area of the rubber; trust me on this.  Sometimes you can use the other side, but usually both sides have the same problem.  Just cut 1/8" off each end and throw it away as soon as you open the package.  So, the 4" x 6" block is really 4" x 5-3/4" or 23 sq. in. of usable rubber.

The 6" x 12" blocks of Speedy-Carve are evidently taken from the same run of 6" wide material, just cutting off a 4" chunk or a 12" chunk.  Either way, it's the ends of the 6" dimension that have this taper that should be sliced of
f.

At this point, I once went on to recommend MasterCarve, PZ Kut orange, PZ Kut white, and some cheap white erasers from a Dollar Tree store.  However, none of these products are available any more.  There are rumors that, after a hiatus, MasterCarve may be available once again, but I still find Speedy-Carve preferable.

Fortunately, there now is a replacement for PZ Kut available from
Stampeaz .  It's not the same as either of the original PZ Kut products, but reports are that it's pretty good stuff.

Considering the cost of gasoline these days, forget driving around town and just order some good stuff online.  Stampeaz is a highly recommended online supplier, being run by a letterboxer, and offers both the Speedball pink stuff and OZ Kut at excellent prices.


MATERIALS TO AVOID:

Besides the pink Speedy-Carve, Speedball also makes Speedy-Cut which is 3/8" thick and tan in color and costs about half what Speedy-Carve costs.  Don't buy Speedy-Cut!  Sure, it's cheap, but carving rubber stamps is supposed to be enjoyable, not drudgery.  And after you've spent a couple of hours carving, durability will be far more important to you than the few cents saved on the rubber.  Speedy-Cut is miserable to carve, and once carved it doesn't hold up well.  I have found stamps made of Speedy-Cut in letterboxes that were crumbling and falling apart, and one had even hardened into something that could be mistaken for rock.  In fact, I've even seen Speedy-Cut broken into pieces in the package on the shelf in the store.

Speedball has another material called Speedy-Cut Easy, and it's a pretty blue color.  Some hypothesize that so many people were advising to avoid the tan-colored stuff that they changed the color.  The blue stuff is still Speedy-Cut, and it's still awful.

If you find a Utrecht art supply store, they carry something called Easy Cut, which appears to be the same thing as Speedball Speedy-Cut -- interesting, since Utrecht carries Speedball branded products.  Avoid this stuff for the same reasons as the Speedy-Cut.


If you visit a Hobby Lobby store, you'll find they offer a material called Moo Carve.  The story is that the manufacturer that was making MasterCarve for Staedtler decided to offer their own knockoff.  Despite being the same size block as MasterCarve and having a label that looks remarkably similar at first glance, it is not the same as MasterCarve; it's horrible stuff, don't waste your money on it.

Hobby Lobby also offers
Jack Richeson Easy-to-Cut Lino that's grey and only about 1/8" thick.  Horrible stuff, avoid it.

Among mail-order products, there's E-Z-Cut from Blick (3/8" thick, white), which I have never used but others have reported satisfaction with.  Note that Blick also offers something called Soft-Kut (1/4" thick, gray).  I have tried Soft-Kut; it is horrible stuff to try to carve rubber stamps with.  You're
constantly fighting with the knife trying to get it to move through the rubber.

Don't purchase any linoleum products such as
Nasco Softoleum.  Linoleum is apparently usable for some sort of block printing but certainly not for carving a rubber stamp.  Linoleum is not suitable for rubber stamp carving at all.

There's a product from Japan called Gomuban which is a thin layer of black rubber with a dark blue coating on one side and a dark green coating on the other.  It has the texture of a refrigerator magnet.  It's not particularly good for carving, but the worst part is that the surfaces are so dark that it's very difficult to transfer an image onto it and be able to see it to carve.


Some people have found something called a "Big Mistakes" eraser, basically a gag eraser that's huge.  They are commonly found in dollar stores.  There are actually several different types of Big Mistakes eraser; here's one:

Big Mistakes Eraser

This eraser itself is only about 1/4" thick.  Even though it only cost $1, I would never buy another one of these.  For one thing, even though it's rectangular, it's not well-formed -- there isn't a truly flat side on it!  I ended up cutting some of the worst areas away, and then doing an acetone scrub (
see the Rubber Stamp Blank page) to create a flat surface for carving.  The color is darker than I'd like, making it difficult to see an image while carving.  The rubber feels gritty, almost like there's sand in it.  It's rather tough to cut.  And it seems to crack easily if bent.  After carving one stamp with a piece of one end, I just threw the rest of the eraser away in disgust.  But for all this, I have to admit that the stamp I made came out OK and seems to be holding up well.

Here's another Big Mistakes eraser:

Big Mistakes Eraser -- Pink Pearl Type

This eraser didn't come in a package per se, it was just wrapped in cellophane with a white label on the back side.  $1 in a Dollar Tree store.  The overall dimensions are 5-3/4" x 1-15/16" x 11/16" thick.  This eraser is kinda thick for rubber stamp use.  It seems to weigh about a pound.  But at least the surfaces are reasonably flat to begin with.

A couple of interesting things about this eraser:  For one thing, ironing didn't transfer an image.  No idea why; exactly the same process transfers images to other types of rubber, but not to this eraser.  Also, scrubbing the surface with acetone doesn't work well; while it smoothes the surface of other types of rubber, it just caused this stuff to break away in chunks leaving a cratered surface.

The worst part, though, is that this eraser lacks any semblance of toughness.  You can rub as lightly as you can with your thumb and you'll be rolling off little strands of rubber.  I would never carve a stamp from this stuff; after about a half dozen stampings it'll need to be recarved.  This entire eraser got thrown away.


Besides the "Big Mistakes" gag eraser, there are lots of other erasers out there with a wide range of characteristics.  One challenge is finding erasers large enough for anything but the smallest stamps, but if a small stamp is what you have in mind you can always try a Pink Pearl or whatever else you find.  The Dollar Tree sells some ginormous stamps with illustrations of robots or elephants or whatever on them, and they're not totally horrible to carve.  They're still nowhere near as good as Speedball Speedy-Carve, though, so if you ever hope to actually enjoy carving I recommend you just buy that.


FOAM

You'll need soft, squishy foam rubber between 1/8" and 1/4" thick.  Old mouse pads work well.  Another possible source of foam is kitchen cabinet liner material; you can buy enough to make a zillion rubber stamps for just a couple of bucks.  You need to be sure to find some good quality foam, because cheap foam can rot and fall apart with age.

Don't use "Fun Foam", which can be found at Walmart or dollar stores in sheets or in the form of "doorhangers".  You want a foam that will squish when you apply a reasonable stamping force on it.  The Fun Foam is too rigid for this application; when stamping, the rubber itself is likely to squish more than the foam.

The foam this carver prefers is foam insulating tape intended for wrapping pipes.
  Both Lowe's and Home Depot carry such foam tape.  This stuff is black, 1/8" thick, 2" wide, and you can buy a 30-foot roll for a few bucks -- enough to make zillions of rubber stamps with some left over to perhaps wrap some pipes.  It's peel-and-stick on one side, saving you one application of glue.  If 2" isn't wide enough for your stamp, you could simply apply two pieces side-by-side.

In general, the bigger the stamp, the thicker the foam needs to be.  The foam is there to ensure that a stamper applying reasonable pressure will cause the entire surface of the rubber to be pushed into contact with the paper.  Presuming the stamping conditions aren't absolutely perfect -- the paper laid on a perfectly flat desk -- the foam needs to be soft enough and thick enough to get the job done.  Thin foam is usually adequate for stamps under 1" square, but if your stamp is 4" square it'll work better with thicker foam.  If all you have is thin foam, there's no rule that says you can't use two layers.



WOOD

You'll need a stiff, hard backing, which will serve to distribute stamping pressure across the face of the stamp as well as provide a handle for the stamper to grab it with.  The simplest idea:  Go down to Lowe's or Home Depot and buy oak strips 1/4" thick in varying widths, perhaps 1-1/2", 2", and 3".  Cut pieces off these boards to make blocks suitable for backing stamps.  You might want to purchase a miter box or miter saw to make the saw cuts nice and straight; a miter box is cheap, less than $5, but a miter saw is better.  If you get a nice miter saw, you can use it to cut the block both ways to the exact dimensions needed rather than being limited to the board widths.

Yeah, I said oak.  Really, any hardwood will do, but not softwoods such as pine.  When you're trying to cut the small blocks of wood you need for this job you'll find that pine splits and splinters so much that you'll be throwing half of it out and the pieces you end up using won't look very good.  Pine can also warp and split later, making it difficult to get a good image from the stamp.  Just go ahead and buy hardwood boards; the cost difference is minimal for the tiny amount of wood you'll be using.

If you have access to scrap pieces of hardwood, you can use thicker pieces; it just makes the stamp a bit more bulky.  Good quality wood paneling (for wall covering) is often made of three layers of wood bonded together to form a sandwich about 1/4" thick, and one small leftover piece from a redecorating project is enough to make dozens of
rubber stamps.  Sometimes the boxes that cigars come in are made of really fine plywood, three or five layers in less than a quarter inch of thickness.  I've even used blades from a ceiling fan; sometimes the fan comes with five blades and you only use four.  You can use metal if you have something suitable.  I happen to have a stock of 1/4" thick hard plastic which works well.  But one thing to remember:  Don't use anything cheap or flimsy.  Good quality hardwood can get thoroughly soaked in a leaky letterbox and come out just fine, while poor quality plywood will come apart at the seams or split or warp or whatnot.

If you want to be even more creative, the hard backing is an opportunity to do something really nice and pretty.  You can use some really nice wood, walnut or cherry.  Or you can use some inlaid wood or some marquetry.  Sometimes you can find some old object made of nice wood that has some pretty design but is damaged or otherwise ready for the trash, and you can cut pieces out of it to use with your
rubber stamps.  Clean them up, apply a new coat of polyurethane, whatever.  You could pay a trophy store to laser-cut a design in a piece of fine walnut for you -- perhaps the same design as the stamp itself!  Letterboxers don't usually go to this level of effort for a rubber stamp that ends up in a Tupperware container in the woods (and may turn up missing later on), but if you have other plans for your rubber stamp
it's something to consider.


GLUE

For bonding the rubber to the foam, you will need glue.  For that particular application, I recommend "headliner adhesive" which is available in a 16.75 oz. spray can from any auto parts store.  Yes, I said spray can; the stuff is intended to hold headliners up inside a car, so it comes in a spray can so you can quickly apply it to a large area.  We're applying it to a small area, which admittedly can be tricky.  Headliner adhesive is a type of contact cement, meaning you apply it to both surfaces and let it dry before putting the surfaces together.  If you've ever used contact cement before -- Weldwood is a common product that comes in a little glass bottle with a brush in the lid -- you already know what a pain the stuff can be.  The brush always ends up with bristles pointing in many different directions so it just makes a mess when you try to use it.  Then the glue invariably dries up in the jar before you've used half of it.  The glue in the spray can never dries up; it can sit on your shelf for years and it'll still be usable.  With a bit of care, you can spray a dollop right in the center of the area you want to apply it to and then spread it around with a Q-tip or a popsicle stick.  Plus, headliner adhesive is exceptionally high-quality contact cement because it must stand up to high temperatures when your car is parked in a sunny parking lot.  Regular contact cements will soften and come apart under such heat -- which means they also may soften and come apart if the sun happens to shine on your letterbox.

There are other types of glue that will work.  Some people use Gorilla Glue which is very durable, but you must be careful to apply a thin, even coat because it expands when it dries and will cause your rubber stamp to bulge up and not stamp right.  Others use various types of hobby glue, most of which will work.  I just think the headliner adhesive is the best stuff for this job.


Another interesting idea is double-sided carpet tape.  Home Depot sells a product called Rhino Grip for less than $10 for a 75-foot roll of 1-7/8" tape.  The way this stuff works is you stick it down then peel off the backing and throw it away.  What you're leaving is a sticky layer that doesn't seem to have any tape to it, just the sticky.  There are some fine reinforcing threads, that's all.  The headliner adhesive is cheaper to use, but this stuff has two significant advantages:  1)  It's far less messy; and 2) you can actually roll a bit of this tape (with the backing) around a dowel or something and carry it in a pack for repairing stamps and other things on the trail.


PARCHMENT


Parchment is a type of wrapping material used in cooking.  You can buy it by the roll in a grocery store; it's alongside the aluminum foil.  Sometimes it's available in flat pieces, and these are better; if you find them, buy them.  We'll be using parchment to transfer images from your computer printer to the surface of the rubber for carving.


ACETONE

Acetone is a solvent.  You'll find it's very handy during the rubber stamp making process, so it's a good idea to have some on hand.

Acetone is the primary ingredient in fingernail polish remover, so you might already have some on hand.  If not, you can purchase acetone at any place that sells paint, including Wal-Mart, Lowe's, and Home Depot, in metal cans up to one gallon.  It's not expensive, and once you have some on hand you'll probably find it useful for other projects as well.

Acetone is highly flammable, and it's also no fun to breathe, so take appropriate precautions when using.





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