Victoria Lansford

 

Create Your Own Decorative Steel Stamps
by
Victoria Lansford

Victoria's Original Stamped Step Bezel Project

This 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.

 

The 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 afterwards.

If 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.

 

Tools & Supplies:
Allen wrenches or extra large nails
Steel bench block
Acetylene torch
Flex shaft
Separating or cut off disks
Mini muslin polishing wheels
Gray star polishing compound
Chasing hammer
Ball peen or conventional hammer
Bench vise
Course flat file
Inexpensive 1/2 round, round, flat, or triangular needle files
Firebrick

1/4 cup of motor oil in a small metal can

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[1] 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.

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[2-3] 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 [2]. 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 [3]. (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.

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[4] 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 when stamping.

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[5] 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.

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[6] 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.
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[7] 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.
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[8] 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.
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If 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!
 
Your 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.

Tempering

I 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.

I 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.

Annealed 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.

After 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.

I 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 tools.

Some 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.

The 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.

 

**The 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 the sheet.

 

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