Your Own Decorative Steel Stamps
Original Stamped Step Bezel Project
project article was originally solicited by Art
Jewelry magazine in 2006 and published in May
2008, Volume 4, Issue 4. Due to the extreme changes
they made, much of the information published in the
magazine is confusing and false particularly concerning
tempering the finished stamps (full story at the bottom
of this page). By agreement with Art Jewelry,
I retain copyright of my original material and have
uploaded it here to ensure the correct information
is available to everyone.
possibilities for stamp making are endless. Some of
my favorite stamps are shallow curves of varying lengths.
Hardware stores are great places to find tools that
can leave unusual impressions. Nail sets (used to
hammer nails flush with molding) make great circle
stamps. Commercially available letter or designs stamps
can be altered to make them your own. Just remember
to anneal before you work on them and temper them
your design seems too complex, consider dividing it
into 2 or 3 stamps to be used together. Some of the
first stamps I made were 2 curves that combined to
form a crescent moon. Years later I discovered that
by turning one around and stamping a medium sized
nail set in the center, I had created a stylized ancient
Egyptian eye, a repeating motif I've used on the front
of several amulets.
Allen wrenches or extra large nails
Steel bench block
Separating or cut off disks
Mini muslin polishing wheels
Gray star polishing compound
Ball peen or conventional hammer
Course flat file
Inexpensive 1/2 round, round, flat, or triangular
cup of motor oil in a small metal can
Allen wrenches (hex keys) and large nails make great
inexpensive steel blanks for making your own stamps,
and they are available at any hardware store. While
nails work well, I prefer allen wrenches because they
are easy to hold while stamping, come in a wide range
of sizes, and their flat sides mean they require less
filing to create many types of shapes. It is necessary,
however, to cut off the bent ends first. The allen wrench
pictured in this project is 6mm.
Use a separating or cut off disk on the flex shaft to
carve a 2mm deep groove all the way around the allen
wrench just below the 90 degree bend . Be sure to
wear safety goggles and a particle mask when using the
flex shaft. Holding the tool with tongs or cross tweezers,
anneal only at the groove until cherry red . (It
is not necessary to heat the whole length of steel.)
Let the tool air cool by placing it on a bench block
or soldering brick.
Place the tool in a vise with only the groove and
short end sticking out, and whack the end several
times with a heavy hammer. This may take a few blows,
but the steel will give way where the groove has been
annealed and will fall off. File the broken end of
the tool flat. If you are using a large nail, file
the pointed end flat. With either tool, the end you
file flat will be the end you strike with the hammer
Holding the tool with tongs or cross tweezers, anneal
the other end and allow to air cool. (Annealing again
will make filing much easier!) Draw your design with
a permanent marker on the smooth end of the allen
wrench or the head of the nail. Use a course flat
file to taper the sides of the tool on the outside
lines or curves of your design. A sharp taper gives
a much clearer and crisper imprint of your design,
and also makes it much easier to see where the design
end makes contact with the metal you will be stamping.
Use needle files to remove the metal around your design.
Even though you may have roughed out your outside lines
with the course file while tapering, always do the finer
filing on the inside curves and angles before creating
the final shapes on the outer edges. It is easier to
correct and make design changes by adjusting the outside
lines than the inside ones. If you cannot get into an
area with a needle file, use a rounded or pointed bur
on the flex shaft. Burs work well for spiral designs
or when carving out the negative spaces in letters of
the alphabet. Test your tool often on a sheet of scrap
copper. The line of your design should be crisp and
uniformly deep. If part of your design does not show
up, carefully file the end of the tool until your design
is flat again, then redefine and sharpen your edges.
When you are satisfied with the shape of your stamp,
polish it using the flex shaft with a mini muslin wheel,
charged with gray star compound. There is no need to
use any sandpaper. Gray star will remove all the file
marks and take the steel to a high polish.
To make your stamp last for more than three strikes
of the hammer, it is essential to temper it. Although
this may sound daunting, it is really very easy. Have
tongs or cross tweezers available. Lay the stamp on
a firebrick with the design end hanging off, and aim
the torch 1/4” above the tip of the stamp until
you see the metal turn “straw” or dark yellow.
Immediately drop the stamp into a small metal can of
motor oil to quench it. Be sure the can of oil is near
enough to drop the hot tool into but far enough away
from your torch not to catch fire.
heated correctly, the motor oil will sizzle and smoke
slightly on contact. Leave the stamp in the oil to cool.
When tempering, the stamp will heat up faster than you
might expect. If you see it turn blue (the next color
after straw), that’s fine. Go ahead and quench
it in the oil. If it turns red, let the stamp air cool
and try again before quenching. Once cool, remove the
stamp from the oil and clean with soap and water. The
stamp is now ready to use!
stamps can be used to embellish any surface safe to
hammer, including flat sheet around a bezel setting.**
Solder on the bezel first, then stamp before setting
your stone. You can even create wonderful patterns for
bands and ring shanks, by stamping before bending and
disguising the seam in the same way as the bezel wire.
did not write the sidebar entitled "temper, temper,"
and the information contained in it is false. Tempering
does not soften steel as the sidebar stated, but rather
freezes it at a particular hardness. The difference
in annealed or tempered steel tools is self evident
when testing a stamp after filing or grinding the
design. Continued stamping before tempering will result
in an increasingly less sharp impression because the
stamp is still relatively soft from annealing. Tempering
the stamp hardens it enough for use but not so hard
that it becomes brittle.
only temper these stamps once although the article
in Art Jewelry says to temper them a second time.
The way many of my peers and I temper steel stamps
and punches has recently caused a bit of a stir on
a certain email list, and some metalsmiths have hotly
debated what steel requires. Some insist all steel
tools and blades must be tempered twice. (Apparently
they have forgotten about Samurai swords.) I originally
learned to create repoussé tools (the inspiration
for my stamps in the article) from my teacher, Gia
Gogishvilli, who was an artist in residence when I
was studying at Georgia State University in the early
90's. Gia comes from a long line of metalsmiths from
the Republic of Georgia. In his studio, the majority
of the steel tools were handmade by him or his father.
Their repoussé tools were used on small scaled
religious objects as well as 7' tall doors.
tools feel quite different when struck. Neither the
tool on the sheet metal nor the hammer on the tool
end rebound at all, and if used too long before tempering,
they will bend and dull quite quickly. There is a
subtle sinking of the whole assembly that makes the
more exactingly shaped tools hard to control. For
instance, the repoussé line tools make lousy
lines because they fail to "glide" across
the sheet as they are struck. One of the reasons that
I always test every single line tool my students make
is that this difficulty to hammer a continuous line
with an annealed tool can leave those learning the
process unsure whether they have correctly shaped
the tool. Conversely, significantly altering a tool
that has been tempered once in oil can be a real pain
in the backside. The tempered tool (tempered once
that is) is much harder and therefore more difficult
to grind or file.
years of making and helping students to make and test
stamps and repoussé tools I must have been
part of some 500 or more pieces of steel that underwent
these transformations. I have made stamps, punches,
repoussé tools (Eastern and Western), small
and medium sized antilclastic stakes, and chisels
not only from Alan wrenches but also from nails, water
hardening steel, Japanese tool steel, and all manner
of things that looked cool at the hardware store.
recently misplaced my small line tool, so with all
the hoopla, it was a perfect time to perform an experiment.
I made the tool and tempered it as described in Art
Jewelry's version of my article by heating it to red
hot, quenching it in water and then heating it to
"straw" and quenching in oil. There
was no difference at all in the way the business end
of the tool functioned. It created the same
type of mark at the same depth with the same force.
It "glided" the same as my once-tempered
will insist that the value in two-part tempering lies
in the longevity of the tool, but this too is disproved
by the very specialized tools I made in 1991, including
my logo stamp, and have used continually since.
short answer: Ours is not a black and white world,
where everything has only one right answer. As National
Geographic photographer, Dewitt Jones often describes,
there are often "right answers" and "more
right answers." The one that works is the one
that is most effective. The best way to judge an artist's
tools are by the work s/he uses them to create.
published article has changed this recommendation
in a way that can be quite confusing to the reader.
What I suggested was to solder the bezel to larger
sheet then stamp around this outside ledge on the
front. What they wrote sounds as if I'm suggesting
to solder on the bezel then stamp the back. While
that is possible with the right set up (an upside
down dapping punch held in a vise will serve as a
tiny steel plate) it is infinitely easier to stamp
the back of the bezel before soldering the bezel to
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