Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Just a quick update, and a question!

First, I'd like to thank everyone for the comments on the cards I posted last time! I was especially happy to see some people describe them as exactly what I was going for. I've also acquired a little statcounter from AtlastQuest to put on the main page of this blog to keep track of my finds and whatnot.

We managed to wrangle a little time here and there to snag a couple more boxes, but over the weekend had the disappointing honor of not actually finding the box we were looking for. It was posted in a public park, so it's possible the box may have been found and removed by a nonletterboxer, or that it may have been washed out of its hiding spot by the heavy rain we had Thanksgiving weekend. In either event, I still need to contact the box's owner and see if it was a matter of the thing disappearing or a matter of us just not looking hard enough.

I tried to make use of the mobile blogging I mentioned in an earlier post to share some photos of the railway bridge that was one of our landmarks, but I couldn't get it to work; it just kept giving me an invalid number sort of message. I tried it as both text and numbers (bloggr/256447) but it wouldn't go through, so I ended up emailing them to share today. Any thoughts? I use an iPhone, and Blogspot's information page says that I should still be able to post with SMS instead of MMS; I certainly didn't have any trouble registering my phone.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Winter Holiday Cards

There was some small interest in seeing other random crap that I do, so until I hop back out in the field, here's some holiday-type cards I've been working on. These are all made with scrapbooking papers and cardstock, various paper punches and commercial stamps and it's really only my second venture into cardmaking. Three more after the jump!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Kit and Mobile Blogging

Alright, I've got some clues scribbled up and I am going to go out and get those other two boxes I'd planned on getting the last excursion today. I snapped a couple of photos of the "kit" I've put together so far. You don't really need much to pursue letterboxing as a hobby, but there's a couple of things to make your hunts easier and more organized. As a side note, I signed up for Blogspot's mobile blogging, so now I can bring you notes from the field, as it were. It's pretty simple, you can simply send photos and messages via texts from your phone and it'll publish to either a special mobile blog or your existing blogspot account. I'll try it out to see how it goes later today.

Must Haves
  • Letterboxing Clues: The most important thing. Most clue sites like Letterboxing.org and AtlasQuest let you print clues directly from their pages, you can write out the pertinent parts, or even carry your internet-enabled phone with you to look up clues without getting paper involved. In any event, you're not going to get far without these.
  • Find Book: For recording your finds, obviously. The hemp and leather cover to the left is mine, the pages are unlined with a natural look to them, made from lokta paper. The one on the right is Red Wolf's, which is just a nice leather journal with lined pages and a brass clasp. You don't have to get fancy, any old sketchbook or journal will do, though I do recommend one with fairly smooth paper for optimum stamping results.
  • Personal Stamp: Either handmade or commercial, whatever works for you to leave your mark. Something to keep your stamp safe in if it's unmounted like mine is a good idea, too--an empty CD jewel case is ideal. Some people don't even use a stamp, but leave their fingerprint instead!
  • Inkpad: Apparently some people include inkpads for stamping in their boxes, but the vast majority don't. Why? Because it's generally a bad idea--many letterboxes spend years in their hiding spots, so between dramatic temperature shifts, moisture and time, even a quality inkpad could become useless pretty quickly. Some inks bleed more than others, some require a heat set depending on the paper you're stamping on, so experimenting to find out what's going to work best for the paper in your find book is a good idea. Personally, I'm a big fan of Ranger's Archival line. It's waterproof and extremely fade resistant, dries very quickly and generally leaves a nice impresion. The sepia pad you see in the photo above I've had for more than a decade for various light duty crafting, and it's still kicking.
  •  Pen or Pencil: For recording details like dates and names in both your find book and the letterbox's log.

Additional Considerations
  • Tough Shoes: Even if you're doing most of your hunting in suburban parks and cemeteries like I am, not all boxes are conveniently located and you may find yourself having to take short hikes or go through treelines and shrubs. Box clues usually indicate how much walking or hiking you'll have to do beforehand, but it never hurts to keep your feet dry and safe. 
  • Compass: Some letterboxers give very specific directions using compass points and paces as well as stating landmarks. Obviously the sun sets in the west and lichen grows on the north side of trees, but it couldn't hurt to carry a compass to orient yourself with, or a compass app on your phone, if you want to cut down on the amount of stuff you're carrying. I happen to own a very nice compass, and I enjoy any excuse to use it.
  • Flashlight: I wouldn't recommend looking for anything in the dark of night, but a flashlight can be extremely useful if you're hunting in a wooded or shaded area, or for getting an eyeful of just what might be down that hole or in that bush before you go sticking your arm in there.
  • Flushable or Baby Wipes: Great for cleaning ink off of stamps so that they don't stain, also great for cleaning up dirty hands. If that's all you use them for, a single pack will last you quite a while, so it's inexpensive in the long run. Also, if you're out hiking around in the woods away from a public restroom... well, that's handy, too. A note about these though, the labels on these things say flushable, but I looked up a number of consumer reports that say that they really don't break down and are not as sewer or septic safe as they claim. I'm going to keep looking for a more environmentally friendly alternative to replace this box once it runs out.
  • Bag: To carry all the other crap in one convenient place! Any old backpack or messenger bag should do, mine is kind of big since I'm typically carrying the gear for two people. Before the basketweave one in my recent photos, which was a last-minute Barnes & Noble purchase, I used a beaten up messenger bag I'd had for ages. Check out your local military surplus or thrift store to find something sturdy, or go to Etsy and support an independent craftsperson! Chances are more than likely if you see something you like but want certain changes, or have an idea, you can find someone talented to make you the perfect bag. Inner pockets are great idea--the zippered mesh portions on the inside of my bag have perfectly sized slots for everything I carry and thensome.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


I went out and hit another box this past week, I had planned for three, but the sun is setting so quickly these days and cemeteries and parks generally close at dark. We had a couple of mishaps that took a couple of big chunks out of our window of time, including the old messenger bag I've got my stuff thrown into falling apart in a very literal way. Not that stumbling around in the dark is a great way to find anything anyway, but I might be adding a flashlight to the kit.

In any event, we got an unexpected surprise in the box we did hunt up--our first hitchhiker! A hitchhiker is a sort of surprise letterbox find that travels around; a stamp and logbook to go with it that are sealed in a regular, stationary letterbox. Whoever finds it gets to stamp it with their personal stamp as normal, and then carry it from the location they found it to the next stationary letterbox they find. Ours started in Buffalo, NY, wound its way out in California and ended up here in central Ohio via Dayton and Yellow Springs. I'm not sure where to replant it yet, as I think the other two boxes I had lined out are a bit close, so I'm going to be looking into some boxes up in Union county and drop it off there next time I go visit my family, Thanksgiving probably. Including the hitchhiker, this brings my total number of finds up to four, which is not nearly enough! I'm probably going to send out notes to the planters I found tomorrow and then do some research on clues and really get some hunting done next trip.

Gold Medal hitchhiker by the Doctors B

There's a lengthier explanation of hitchhikers (also known as parasites) here for you to check out, along with links to the etiquette concerning them. I'd hoped to have more to share, but I spent a rare Saturday off tooling around Ohio's wine country and buying Amish cheese with people twenty to thirty years older than me. It was beautiful, we got a lot of great wine and cheese for fairly cheap, but being out in the countryside, all I could think about was how many letterboxes there must be planted all around the place.

With my bag having fallen apart though, I picked up a new one and so the next post will probably be showing of my shiny new bag and a discussion of just what should go into it.

Friday, November 5, 2010


Hey! I've got a really busy weekend lined out, but I'm planning on hitting up a couple of new boxes in the coming week and decided to leave a short list here as a quick note mostly to myself. I'm also curious to see what anybody would be interested in seeing me post on. The history and etiquette of letterboxing? Maybe related hobbies like geocaching, or sharing some of my stamped ATCs and cards and talking about the techniques I use with them? I work in retail, so I'm going to be super busy over a good part of the winter and won't have as much time to get bundled up and go out hunting, so I'm trying to plan out some other posts I can do while hiding from the snow and obnoxious customers.

I'm definitely going to be plotting out planting a box, or maybe a series of boxes myself, but I haven't decided on a theme and I want to find a good hiding spot that isn't treading on somebody else's plant site. I'd like to do something with a gothic theme which shouldn't really come as a shock to anyone, but I don't want it to be a lame card-store Halloween type look. I keep picturing this skull wrapped by an elaborately patterned bow, and I'm going to kick myself when it actually comes time to carve it. I am totally open to thoughts and suggestions.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Stamp Carving 101, Part Two: Carving

I didn't talk about carving materials in the last post, since I was just going over the image transfer process, but there's a lot of different products out there, suited to different purposes. Soft materials will cut much more easily and quickly, but you'll find it hard to make hard, crisp shapes, and it can be easy to cut too much. Likewise, you can get really tight detail out of a stiffer material, but you'll have a harder time working with it. I've seen Speedball's Speedy Carve (also known as "pink stuff") recommended quite a bit, but I haven't used it myself. Really, anything that you can carve and has a little spring to it can be made into a stamp--rubber or vinyl erasers, cork, craft foam. It all depends on the sort of look that you want; experiment!

As for what to actually do your cutting with, I use the same old linoleum cutting tools I've had for years. Speedball makes a nice set; you get several different tips that conveniently store in the handle; you can pick this up online or in a lot of different craft or art supply stores for less than twenty bucks. If you want to go even cheaper though, a plain old hobby knife or Exacto would work, too.

So. You've got this really shitty image transfer from Part One, possibly touched up with a permanent marker to clear up your edges before carving:

Mine's just a little chunk of plasticy stamp carving material I picked up for cheap, but it has a nice consistency. I find it helpful to use the knife edge and go around the outline of my design before I do any real removal of the block. This will help keep your lines cleaner and smoother in the final product.

There's not really an particular way you should cut, unless you're going for a particular look. I really like rough cuts with a little undercutting, so I use the broadest tooltip that I have and clear out big chunks at a time, working around the image and avoiding going "inward" into it for the time being. In this case, inward being the wolf's mouth, where I wouldn't have room to maneuver that wider bit around.

Yeah, don't be a dumbass like me and choose your work surface carefully, or take some means to protect it, like with a cutting mat. Thankfully my computer desk is a cheap piece of particle board crap that I've had for way too long and I don't care anyway. You should take care with any sharp tool though, and whenever possible, cut away from yourself, not towards. I've got a scar down my left index finger from a linocutting project gone awry.

 Time to move onto smaller tips and hash out some details. You should always start with a light stroke and increase the pressure, especially when moving from a narrow area to a wider one; you can always go over a cut again, but it's kind of hard to fix things if your hand slips and you cut away more than you meant to. The consistency of your carving material really comes into play here. I really like the brushy swipes that the wolf's head ends in, so I'm really trying to preserve that with thinner cuts.

If at any point in your carving you're not sure how close to being done you are, there's a great test: tap that bad boy on some ink and try it out on a piece of scrap paper. The above impression is stamped with Tim Holtz's Distress Ink in Fired Brick, next to one of the photocopies I messed up the first go-round. If you're like me and you like undercutting, you can leave all those messy little details, and you can see how some of your shallower cuts that are harder to read when everything's the same color (here I was checking on his eye) are shaping up.

Chances are very likely that your final image won't turn out exactly like your original drawing or print, and that's okay. I personally feel there's a certain beauty in the effects that you get out of the carving process itself. I really like the more angular look that the stamp has, and the dirty grunginess that all the little extra bits that didn't get taken out give it, so this is where I'm stopping at this particular piece.

Here you see my stamp  mounted to an old CD; the brand of carving material that I use has a sticky back for temporary adhesions like this, but you may want to mount your stamp more permanently on a wooden block or something else more comfortable for you to grip.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Stamp Carving 101, Part One: Image Transfers

Well, it would seem that I've acquired myself a letterboxing buddy, who is unfortunately not as artistically bent as I am. To that end, I decided to carve a stamp for him this morning, and share the process here because it's my day off and I've got dick all to do. I was originally going to do an entire tutorial from start to finish, but I'd only gotten through the image transfer stuff when I decided that it was enough and the carving information could be a post for another day.

This one's pretty easy; first of all, pick your design. Everyone has some personal iconography that they relate to. Here, I've made a copy of one of my friend's favorite emblems, the Gangrel clan symbol from Vampire: the Masquerade.

I think this is a great candidate for stamp carving; it has a clear, recognizable shape, with just enough detail to be interesting. Certainly nothing's stopping you from using your own original design, but this is what he decided on. If you want to be brave, you can draw directly on the surface of whatever you're carving, but if you want to use a pre-existing design or to carefully work on your image and play around with it before committing and wasting materials, you can easily do so on paper or in whatever image editing software you have first and transfer it very simply.

The most important thing to remember for preparing an image for transfer is that it has to come from a photocopier or laser printer only--these both use a powdered toner, which behaves in a different way than ink from a regular inkjet printer does. (Not sure if your home printer is inkjet or laser? If your print comes out with a discernible smell and is a little toasty right when it comes out, you probably have a laser jet. If you can hear the ink cartridge carrying back and forth as it prints and the paper feels just as cool coming out as it went in, you probably have an inkjet. Get thee to a Kinko's.) A photocopier is a great resource for any artist--it allows you to resize your work easily, and to easily make transfers using a number of different techniques without damaging your original drawings. Today though, I'm just going to focus on how to make a basic solvent transfer.

Make at least one more copy than you think you actually need, it can sometimes be tricky to get the whole thing to come out the first time, and it can be easy to damage the paper during the process. I made three copies today, just in case. Keep in mind that if you have any text or want your final stamp to face a certain direction, that you need to reverse the image when you photocopy it, otherwise it'll turn out mirrored. I cut my image out to a more manageable size, and then placed the copy face down onto my carving surface. You may want to actually tape your cutout down to keep it from shifting or moving around during the transfer process, especially if you have a large or intricate design. This should also help to keep your paper from curling up, so that the print stays against the carving surface where it belongs. Next, you apply your solvent: I've used xylene, mineral spirits, turpentine and similar harsh solvents before, but for safety and expense purposes, I used plain old non-acetone nail polish remover today. I read somewhere that 100% acetone works really well, but I haven't tried it.

The back of the paper should be saturated with your poison of choice using a rag or a cotton ball. Most solvents evaporate quickly (which is why you should always work in a well-ventilated area!) so don't skimp. You should let it sit for a moment for the solvent to do its thing and break down the bond between toner and paper, but don't wait so long that it dries up. Finally, agitate the back of your paper. Like, really annoy it. An old spoon works very well for this. All you have to do is press firmly and rub, being careful to move all around your image, with the edges being the most important. I find a circular motion works best. If you look closely, you'll notice that certain parts of your image will start to look lighter, and this means that the toner is being successfully moved from the paper to the surface beneath.

My transfer, as you can see, didn't turn out so great. However, that's because 1) I didn't tape down my paper, so the top area where the wolf's ears are kept curling up, 2) I didn't use a spoon or baren, I used a q-tip. The surface was too small to apply pressure evenly, and too soft to work the wet paper without pilling and tearing, but this was good enough that I could go back and strengthen the edges with a permanent marker. This transfer method can be used on a wide variety of surfaces; wood, rubber, canvas, really anything that the solvent won't eat away at. Always do a spot test. If you mess up and want to try again, you can clean the surface off using the same kind of solvent you used to make the transfer with in the first place and start over with a fresh photocopy.