Thursday, 3 November 2011

Elephant No. 32: Rubber-Stamp Typography

Today I thought I'd try something fairly simple and (hopefully) not terribly messy: rubber-stamp typography.

I couldn't find any information on the origins of art created with rubber stamps, but rubber stamps themselves were probably developed around the late nineteenth or early twentieth century.

Vulcanized rubber was discovered in the United States by Charles Goodyear in 1844, during an experiment in his kitchen. Accidentally dropping a mixture of rubber and sulfur onto a hot stove, he was surprised to discover that it was still flexible the next morning. He dubbed the process "vulcanization" after the Roman god of fire.

The genesis of rubber stamps is actually linked to early dentistry. The bases for dentures were made by setting vulcanized rubber in a plaster mould. Dentists used vulcanizers called "dental pots" for this process, and these were eventually used to make the first rubber stamps.

In 1866, James C. Woodruff—whose uncle happened to be a dentist—began experimenting with a vulcanizer to make rubber letter moulds. Through trial-and-error with dental pots, Woodruff came up with the first "art stamps". The first picture stamps were educational in nature, but by 1919, German artist Kurt Schwatting was using art stamps in his collages. Sadly, I couldn't find any photographs of his work.

I thought the World Wide Interweb would abound in examples of the type of rubber-stamp work I was planning, but I actually found nothing that uses letters to make shapes. I have a hard time believing that I'm breaking any kind of new ground, but I guess I'll just make it up as I go along.

I won't sport with anyone's intelligence by describing rubber stamps and how they work. Something that has always interested me, however, is how a stamp design gets onto a sheet of rubber. Grossly simplified, the usual process is this:

1. Start with black-and-white art.

2. Photograph the art with a special camera to produce a film negative.

3. Send the film negative to an engraving company to have a metal master plate made. The metal plate is produced by transferring the image to a sheet of aluminum, which is then bathed in acid that eats away everything that is not your design. The deeper the etching, the thicker the rubber on your stamp.

4. Use the metal plate to have a Bakelite matrix board made. This is done by putting the metal plate and matrix board into a vulcanizing machine, which softens the Bakelite and imprints the design from the metal plate.

5. Sandwich the matrix board with a sheet of rubber that has been coated with a releasing agent. When this sandwich is inserted into the vulcanizing machine again, the rubber is forced into the indents in the matrix board, resulting in a raised rubber stamp.

6. Let the rubber cool, then cut out the stamp and mount on a block of wood or other support.

More detailed descriptions of the entire process can be found on the dotcalmvillage site and at

For today's elephant, I decided that I would spell out the word "elephant" as a substitute for drawn lines or brushstrokes.

I used a sheet of inexpensive paper from a sketch pad, and a regular stamp pad, along with a bunch of letters from an alphabet set I got at the dollar store.

I tested the technique on a scrap piece of paper and realized that it would be easier if I sketched an outline before starting. I also tried some coloured inks, but I didn't like the way they looked for this particular elephant.

One of the rules I set myself was that I had to spell out the full word every time, even if it meant curling around, doubling back on itself, or imprinting one letter on top of another. 

For most of the stamping, I pressed the stamp gently into the ink, then firmly onto the paper. For the lighter areas, rather than relying on stamping a second impression (i.e., without reloading the stamp with ink), I loaded the stamp, then stamped it lightly against a paper towel before applying it to the design.

Having the sketch was also very helpful, because it gave me a vague baseline to use when aligning the letters. As you can see, however, I wasn't really interested in precise spacing and alignment. I wanted something that looked a bit less polished, so the only real rule was that I had to spell out "elephant" every time, and it had to look like an actual elephant when I was done.

I really like the result and will probably use this technique again sometime. It took me about an hour to do this, and it wasn't particularly difficult, although my neck and right shoulder did get a bit sore.

Elephant Lore of the Day

There is a great deal of controversy about the etymology of the word "elephant". It has even been suggested that the name of the animal is actually derived from the word for ivory (âbu in Arabic, and ebur in Latin), rather than the other way around.

However the elephant got its name, the word "elephant" has found its way into a number of expressions over the years. Here are just a few:

An elephant never forgets: This is actually quite true. Because elephants have large brains and a highly developed cerebral cortex, they tend to have excellent memories. Not only do they remember migration routes and watering holes, they also remember acts of kindness, trauma, and friends. There are numerous accounts of elephants joyfully recognizing both human friends and former elephant companions, even decades after their last meeting.

The elephant walks: This archaic expression, which I found on the website means "It's payday," and was apparently used among elevator builders of the 1930s. There was no information on how it evolved, but with such a fun expression, who cares?

White elephant: A possession that's more trouble than its worth. This expression actually originates in the veneration once given to albino elephants in some Asian countries. Because white elephants were regarded as holy, they were very expensive to keep. The owner not only had to ensure that the elephant had special food, but also had to provide access to anyone who wanted to worship it. In Thailand, if the King grew angry with someone, he would present them with a white elephant: a gift that was very likely to ruin the recipient.

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society
Bring the Elephant Home
African Wildlife Foundation


  1. This is great, Shiela! Love rubber stamping myself! Love all the tidbits of information you offer!

  2. Thanks, Anna! I love your blog, too. I'm particularly in love with your Christmas trees. I must try them!