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Block Printing Stamps: A No-Fire Way to Make a Great Impression

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There are myriad ways to get texture on clay – one of these being the handmade bisque stamp. But sometimes you just want more immediate gratification. That’s where carving block printing material comes in.


In today’s post, Ann Ruel explains how to use these printing tools to easily create your own stamp designs (with no need to own a kiln). These could come in handy for someone who works at a community art center and doesn’t want to wait for a bisque stamp to be fired. – Jennifer Harnetty, editor.



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My favorite pottery surface designs involve textures created by carving directly into a piece after it’s been formed. Lately,  as an alternative, I’ve been experimenting with carving my designs onto block printing material, a flexible eraser-like material that won’t crumble, crack or break. In this way, I can test and polish my design choice before I apply it to the clay, and at the same time create a reusable design tool. Block printing materials are readily available in arts and craft stores or online. There are several sizes and depths of blocks available from which to choose depending on your design (figure 1). In addition, you also need to purchase a carving tool and a few interchangeable gouges. These are usually found alongside the printing blocks. 


To begin, purchase three gouges of varying shapes as often one will not be sufficient. Purchase one gouge with a tight V shape, which will remove a narrow section of debris. Also look for a wide U-shaped gouge, which will remove a wide sweeping amount of debris. Find a third gouge with a shape that’s in between the other two. As you begin to understand how each of these work, you’ll develop preferences for gouges that fit your specific needs.


Decisions, Decisions


The first step to carving the stamp is to decide on your specific design. For the first few stamps, choose bold, blocky designs, as these require only simple carving strokes. As you begin to understand how different variations of gouges affect the overall design, you can become more creative.


There are several ways to work the design onto the surface of the block. You can draw the design directly onto the face of the material using a pencil or use designs from an ink-jet printer, laser printer or newspaper. Images from a printer may need to be traced in pencil before being transferred. Pencil marks can be erased if needed but can also smudge. I prefer creating my design in pencil on a sheet of paper first, and then transferring it to the block.

Line up your design face down on top of the block surface. Rub the back of the paper with a blunt edged object until the carbon transfers completely to the surface. Instructions on the block state that you can run a warm iron over the top of the design to transfer the image.

Before beginning to carve the block, pay special attention to the stamp’s edges. Decide whether a border is more appropriate to your purposes or if your design will continue off the edges to become a part of a more complicated pattern.


Carving the Block


Low-relief and high-relief carvings can be created using block printing material. Low-relief carving includes simply gouging ditches along outlines or shallow gouging away from the positive design areas (figure 2). These techniques result in one, level positive shape protruding slightly from the clay surface. High-relief carving involves a more complicated approach where areas of the stamped design sharply protrude from the base of the clay at many different levels. To achieve this look, make some cuts in to the block deeper than others, based on your design. Remember that the farther you cut into the surface of the block, the more the resulting clay will jut out once stamped.


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After carving the design of the stamp, use a sharp edged blade to cut a straight line or beveled edge along the stamp edges to create a border. Before using the stamp on a prepared piece, be sure to test it out on scrap clay first (figure 3). It’s easy to become confused and accidentally gouge away the positive space of your design when you should have removed the negative areas or vice-a-versa. Unfortunately if this is the case, the stamped image will result in the reverse of what you intended and you may need to start over. On the other hand, you may notice that an area needs just a little more definition.


Stamping Strategies


You’ll find that many different looks can be achieved from one stamp. By varying the contact pressure to the stamp when applying it on the clay surface, you can control design texture. The least amount of pressure results in less definition from your carving and you get a smoother surface. When you apply more pressure, the opposite is true and more texture results. If you want to ensure consistent pressure to the entire stamp at one time, attach the stamp to an acrylic or wooden block for easier use. You can also achieve a varied look after the clay has been stamped by altering the border lines around the stamp.



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Indirect Application


There are two techniques for applying the block printing stamp to pottery—indirect application and direct application. When indirectly applying the stamp, keep in mind that not all pottery is conducive to this technique. Objects that tend to flare out as they get taller, such as bowls, do not do as well. Stamps applied to the exterior of the bowls, generally fire without any problems, but sometimes the stamped area tries to flatten out when fired, thus causing the bowl to warp. Cylindrical shapes have less trouble.


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To indirectly apply the stamp, roll out a slab of clay between ½-inch and ¾-inch thickness and smooth with a rib. The slab must not be too wet or it may stick to the stamp and you won’t get a good impression. Stamp more images than you need and decide which ones to use. Let the clay firm up just enough so it won’t distort when removing it from the worktable. Take a wide putty knife and cut around the edges of the stamped pattern and remove the extra clay. Slowly and carefully, run the putty knife under the clay to release it from the work surface, again being careful not to distort the edges of your pattern.

Using a small looped carving tool, carefully create grooves in the back of the pattered slab, similar to the back of commercial tiles. This makes it lighter and also serves to score the back of the clay.


Place the stamped slab over the area on your pottery where you want to apply it. With a needle tool, trace a light line around the outside border. Remove the slab and generously slip the back of the stamped image. Then, working within the tracing that you made on your pottery, score and slip that area as well (figure 4). Press the image to the clay, beginning gently at the center of the stamp and working out towards the edges. Be sure that your edges are tightly adhered to the surface of the piece or it may peel away during firing (figure 5). Remove any excess slip from the edges with a small paint brush and carefully smooth the area.


Direct Application


Directly applying the stamp to a piece is much more complicated as you risk distorting your piece or weakening a wall. Try applying the stamps to clay slabs that have been placed in a mold or directly apply the stamp to a slab and use this to create pattern pieces to be assembled. Block printing stamps can be cut so that when used in multiples they can form creative patterns (figure 6). I created four of these textured slabs (figure 7), cut them into squared pattern pieces and assembled them into a Victorian box with a lid.


Ann Ruel is a potter and frequent contributor to Pottery Making Illustrated residing in Chesapeake, Virginia. For comments, you can email her at annruel@yahoo.com.



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