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Confessions of a Stamp Manufacturer

Stampers often ask why mounteds are so much more expensive than unmounteds. It really doesn't look much like a block of wood with a stamped image on it should be all that much trouble, right? What an illusion! The next time you pick up one of those lovely blocks of wood, admiring the sleekness of it, the richness of the beautifully stamped image, the clean lines of the warm wood, the delicious feel of the block in your hand, please consider what some stamp manufacturer went through to provide you with all that pleasure!

As I researched how to make rubber stamps, I figured my greatest problem would be finding someone who would be able to help me get into the rubber the kind of fine lines required by the etchings I chose. I quickly decided that I was not going to buy a vulcanizing machine and start mixing my own rubber (O.K., there are some stamp manufactureres out there who probably don't consider what I do the real thing). After all, I was coming into this from a design background and my primary interest was in how to get these fine old etchings into a rubber stamp and still have the stamped images look like etchings. I found the vulcanizer without a hitch, much to my surprise. The wooden block manufacturer with relatively easy to locate. What I hadn't planned on was being stopped dead in my tracks by the indexing (what the stamp manufacturing business calls putting the picture on the wood block) .

I knew that certain kinds of inks worked well with my stamps and others did not. Pigmented inks -- inks with some substance to them -- do not. Well, let's face it, indexing ink has substance to it. This is not your friendly neighborhood archival ink. This is, well, INK. Nice, black, goey stuff designed to dry in a whiff.

Sure, I expected to have to practice a bit, but I wasn't prepared for the trauma of trying to get a very thin coat of instantly drying permanent ink on a low-etch stamp and keeping it from drying before I could smuck it onto the naked wood block. The thin coat of ink brayered onto my stamp dried so quickly my rubber stamp stuck to the block I was trying to stamp on. Like glue. I mean, I had to pry the thing off, and you can imagine what the image looked like after jamming a putty knife between the rubber stamp and the block of wood.

On the other hand, if I got enough ink on the stamp to keep it from drying before I could slap the stamp onto the pristine block, the stamp slid around on the wood surface no matter how carefully I tried to hold the stamp still. Finally, standing knee-deep in a stack of grotesquely blackened and smeared wooden blocks, on the 95th attempt at a useable image, I actually pulled it off. The index image was perfect! I was about to dance a jig of joy when I discovered the nice black fingerprint on the edge of my masterpiece.

I've heard stories about how some stamp manufacturors sand off the bad images and try again. I don't have an industrial grade sander, so getting the top eighth inch of wood off a block isn't an option for me. This ink soaks in. It needs to for creating that nice, longlasting, durable stamped image we all know and love. And anyway, there's a limit to how many times you can sand a block down before you're left with a shim.

So, the next time you admire that nicely mounted and indexed stamp in the store, remember that three or more wooden blocks likely bit the dust for the one your are holding in your hand.

As I struggled with the ink on wood technique, eventually the ugly image of printed labels began to scamper through my thoughts, although it could have been caused by inhaling all that solvent for the indexing ink I sloshed so liberally on the blocks to try to clean them up enough to try to stamp on them one more time. In a saner moment, accepting defeat, I finally started to admit that printed labels were the only way to go for these suckers.

I could have purchased rolls of labels for my stamps, but of course I didn't need a roll of 600 labels for each of my nine images. More and more, it became obvious that laser-printed labels were about my only option. These, of course, come in nice laser printer sized sheets. All I had to do was create a template to fit as many as possible on one sheet. Piece of cake.


First of all, even when you painfully construct a template and center your images in the centers of the squares carefully designed to fit your wood block perfectly, you gotta remember that laser printers don't always suck in the paper evenly. So a few will be so crooked you can't even use them, probably because the printer ate the edges in a misfeed. Laser printers also have a tendency to pitch a fit now and then and splatter blobs of toner here and there, espcially when you are printing graphics. Soon you are slipping and sliding around on a pile of discarded plastic label sheets.

Oh, and remember that laser printers work by heating what you're running through them enough to cook the toner into a nice, solid material. This heat, naturally, curls the plastic you're feeding through the machine, so you have to grab it out of the printer before it rolls into a nice approximation of a mailing tube and smack a book down on it to flatten the page enough to cut it before it cools too much to unroll.

Now, the template. There's no way to eyeball where to cut up this sheet of label material, so you have to put lines on it, either printed or drawn. But nary a trace of these lines can be left on the label or it will show on the block just as clearly as a red flag. Not even a sliver of a line can be left on the edge of these labels. So there I am trying to cut up a sheet of paper into squares in such a way that the lines I am cutting on disappear. Trust me. Cutting on the lines doesn't make them disappear, it only shares the tell-tale shadows between two blocks instead of one. So you have to cut the lines twice -- once just inside the label line so there is no 5 o'clock shadow, and once just outside the label line so there is no tell-tale shadow of a line on the adjoining block label.

Even with great cutting mastery, you can easily miss your target, leaving the telltale line showing. Then you get to try to shave off the 1/64 th strip of sticky-on-one-side material with the paper cutter. Or scissors. Ever try to get a sliver of sticky paper off of your fingers and into the trash with one hand? You get the picture.

O.K. Your hours of effort have finally paid off in a clean laser-printed label so you're problems are over.


If the label is as much as a 64th of an inch wider than the block, it will show. If it's as much as a 64th of an inch narrower than the block, it will show too. There are two edges here that require this insane kind of tolerance. At least if the label is narrower, the exposed 64th of an inch of plastic label won't slice your finger as you pick up the block. Of course, you may have already sliced your finger trying to shave off the sliver along the edge of the wood block with an Exacto knife, carefully avoiding wood splinters under the fingernail.

Then, of course, you have to deal with getting the label to stick on the curvy sides of the block. We've all been in stamp stores where the labels have rebelled and stuck straight out as soon as they hit the display shelf. So of course, you put a little glue on them to hold the edges down. However, we all know the end of the label must fall exactly in the finger depression of the block's side. If it doesn't, and extends up over the second hill of the hand grip, it will refuse to lay down nicely on the curve. Even with glue. What you get is yet another exposed plastic label edge to slice up your fingers. Only this time the edge is on a curved wood surface you can't slice with the knife blade. You have to dig the knife point into the plastic material with nothing to keep the lines straight, and if you dig too deeply, you just impale the point of the Exacto knife into the wood. Trust me. Exacto knives really don't work very well on curved surfaces.

So, supposing everything has gone according to plan here and you have a label the right size without any lines showing carefully centered on your wood block with the edges of the label pointing pertly straight out waiting for their dab of glue.

The amount of glue that works between these two surfaces is every bit as hard to get right as all the other zero tolerances in this indexing process. If you don't get enough glue on the label edge, it won't stick. If you get too much glue on the label edge, it won't stick either because the label plastic doesn't breathe and the glue can't dry. Even if the label edge does appear to stick for the moment, you might be in for a surprise when you come back from your coffee break. If the block edge has any sign of a knot to it, the glue won't stick anyway, but you won't know this until you come back to check your handiwork and find the label edge pertly pointing straight ahead.

Oh, one more thing. Of course, you don't see the minute fragment of glue tip until AFTER you have pressed the label edge to the curved side of the block. You know the tip of the glue applicator is white, but somehow the clear plastic label makes the trapped fleck of glue tip look positively gray and big enough for anybody with cataracts to see. Really. So you have to get good at trying to see these miniscule white-on-white blobs before you actually pat down the end of the label to the block side. This means deftly nabbing the glue tip blob with the point of an Exacto knife while trying to keep the other end of the flapping label from sticking to your clothes or your table, all while trying to keep the rest of the glue on glued bespeckled label end from getting all over the knife blade.

Oh, and did I mention that you can't do this with bifocals?

Now, you were saying about the price of mounted stamps....

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