Relief Printing 101: Cool Ways to Customize Paper + Textiles

Create customized stamps using inexpensive supplies like...potatoes!

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The time has come. 2017 will be the year that I win the gift-wrapping game.

Craft supply kits wrapped in custom stamped paper by Christy Petterson of Indie Craft Experience.

Photo by: Chris Tsambis

Chris Tsambis

Craft supply kits wrapped in custom stamped paper by Christy Petterson of Indie Craft Experience.

All it took was a few potatoes and some ink to convince me that I could be *that* person who takes the time to create custom-printed wrapping paper and skip the store-bought variety. I’m here to show you that you, too, can live this life. 

Photo by: Chris Tsambis

Chris Tsambis

My Atlanta colleagues and I have been crafting, mixing and building our way through our great city with the help of talented locals who are showing us the tricks of their trade. On this go-round, Christy Petterson of Indie Craft Experience hosted us in her studio space for a workshop on relief printing. Relief printing is a technique in which ink or paint is applied to a raised stamp, created by carving an image or shape into the surface of an object. The stamp is then used to create patterns and prints on all sorts of mediums, from fabric to paper. What makes relief printing so fun is the versatility of the objects you can use to create the stamps used. 

Christy Petterson, co-founder of Indie Craft Experience in Atlanta, GA shows off examples of her relief prints.

Photo by: Chris Tsambis

Chris Tsambis

Christy Petterson, co-founder of Indie Craft Experience in Atlanta, GA shows off examples of her relief prints.

In our craft session, Christy began by demonstrating the basic principles of relief printing by using simple erasers found on the ends of wood pencils and a rubber stamping ink pad. Without changing a single thing, voila! You have a perfect miniature circle stamp. Use this repeating pattern to create borders along blank stationery, clusters of simple flowers on craft paper, or anything else you can conjure up using a basic circle. 

To create your own custom eraser stamps, use a crafter’s knife to carefully cut away any parts of the eraser that you do not want as part of your stamp. Even simple shapes like triangles and squares can be mixed, matched and repeated to reveal an endless combination of unique patterns. 

Blank stationery gets a fun border with a repeating pattern from an eraser stamp.

Photo by: Chris Tsambis

Chris Tsambis

Blank stationery gets a fun border with a repeating pattern from an eraser stamp.

For bigger stamps, grab a spud. We used potatoes to make larger shapes and print onto paper and fabric. To do this, cut a potato in half width-wise using a kitchen knife. Grab a crafter's knife and carve away, again leaving only the areas that you want to be part of the stamp. You can experiment with the potato stamp using a standard rubber stamp ink pad and paper. The moisture in the potato creates a fun, unpredictable watercolor effect when mixed with the ink.

Online editor Jordan Lawson creates a triangular stamp by carving a potato.

Photo by: Chris Tsambis

Chris Tsambis

Online editor Jordan Lawson creates a triangular stamp by carving a potato.

Once you've mastered the potato stamp and want to try more complex designs, grab these supplies from your local art supply store: 

  • water-soluble ink in the colors of your choice
  • an inking plate
  • a brayer or ink roller
  • printmaker's blocks in rubber or linoleum
  • carving tools 
  • fabric or paper you intend to print on. We used simple white cotton tea towels. T-shirts or craft paper also work well. 

Carving tools used to create relief print stamps come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes.

Photo by: Chris Tsambis

Chris Tsambis

Photo by: Chris Tsambis

Chris Tsambis

Take the carving skills you practiced on the potato and erasers and carefully carve out areas in the printing block to create your print. Trim the edges to turn your pad into a completely new shape, as Paul did in crafting his abstract fish stamp: 

Photo by: Chris Tsambis

Chris Tsambis

Once you’re happy with your stamp, apply a dime-sized smudge of ink onto the inking plate. Use the brayer to spread the ink out evenly across the plate. Continue to roll the brayer until the roller has a nice smooth coat of ink. Roll the brayer onto the stamp to apply the ink. Then start stamping. 

Operations Director Paul Cox applies a fish stamp to customize his tea towel.

Photo by: Chris Tsambis

Chris Tsambis

Operations Director Paul Cox applies a fish stamp to customize his tea towel.

Photo by: Chris Tsambis

Chris Tsambis

Some helpful tips from Christy: 

  • Apply hard, even pressure on your stamp when printing to achieve a bold, filled-in pattern. Lighter pressure yields a more abstract, speckled look. 
  • Instead of a simple press-and-repeat method, try rotating your stamp with every application. Or skip the straight lines all together and print at-random. Experiment and have fun! 
  • It’s not a hard rule, but I found that my print worked best when I refreshed the ink after every application. Re-apply ink to the stamp as often as needed to achieve the look you want. 
  • You can also use your potato stamps with the water soluble ink. To do this, skip the brayer application and dip the potato stamp directly onto the inking pad to apply the ink. Then stamp away.
  • Let the ink dry on fabrics for at least 7 full days before washing according to the fabric instructions. It’s very tempting to break this rule, but particularly for t-shirts and clothing, the wait will be worth it. 

You can see that each of us went a different direction with our projects, but all achieved amazing creative results. How cute are Felicia’s towels with the bird and window border?

Photo by: Chris Tsambis

Chris Tsambis

Photo by: Chris Tsambis

Chris Tsambis

You can see how addictive this new skill can become. Turn a giant roll of plain brown kraft paper into colorful, last-minute gift wrap. Got a notebook lying around? Stamp it and make it your own. Printed tea towels are a lovely hostess or housewarming gift, especially when you use them as a Furoshiki wrap for a nice bottle of wine. 

Bonus: Watch Christy Petterson demonstrate these techniques during our workshop. That shirt she's wearing? She made it with a potato stamp! 

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