"Carving Chinese characters require a lot of precision, but for images it's a much more carefree and forgivable process."
Jean Toh was introduced to Chinese seal carving a few years ago at Chinese calligraphy class, and since then she's been hooked on carving custom designs on both stone and rubber stamps.
How did you get started with stamp carving and why?
I had quite a bit of time to spare during my university days so I went to learn Calligraphy at a nearby community club. For some lessons the teacher would introduce Chinese seal carving (纂刻) and I got interested, so I got him to teach me and he generously did. I’ve been hooked ever since!
What do you like about carving stamps?
I carve on both stone and rubber and I enjoy them both in very different ways. I like stone carving because of its uniqueness. It is a more time consuming process, but each seal is special in a way that I can never make another one that looks exactly the same. Rubber carving is a much easier process, and the nature of it makes it possible to replicate designs. To give my customers a wider variety and price range, I include both in my shop.
What’s your most favourite stamp and what’s the most unusual request you’ve had?
As for rubber stamps, I really like the bamboo one. I wish I had an interesting reason for this but it's really just because the Chinese character in my name 筠 refers to the skin of the bamboo.
Unfortunately the requests I've had so far are pretty normal, but there was a custom request that left an impression on me. The customer had wanted a Chinese seal that says "Beautiful Family", and she liked it so much she had it tattooed on herself! I was pleasantly surprised and a little shocked to hear that because I was a relatively new seller on Etsy then with not much credibility. But it really did encourage me to work harder to ensure every seal I make is special to the buyer.
Another memorable request was from a university student, who needed stamps for a community service project in Cambodia. They were going there to conduct free basic health screenings and needed stamps of people falling ill for use in clinics. The stamps were really fun to make and I was happy to be involved in a meaningful project like this.
What’s your favourite kind/type of design that you like to carve?
I know my stamps are mostly of Chinese characters, but I actually like to carve images! When my calligraphy teacher first taught me seal carving, I quickly asked him if it's possible to carve images of bamboo on stone. I think it's because carving Chinese characters require a lot of precision, but for images it's a much more carefree and forgivable process.
Could you share your work process?
For Chinese character stamps, I start by researching the fonts I'd like to use for a particular stamp. Then I play around with the design before making a final decision and I copy it by hand onto my depleting stock of graph paper from my secondary school days. After that, I transfer it onto stone or rubber and begin the carving!
Do you have a peak period where you’re very busy with stamp carving?
Yes, mostly during October and November when people are doing their Christmas shopping, and I'm really grateful for it.
Is stamp carving your main occupation? Would you like to do this full-time if possible?
Not at the moment—I have a day job that is really time consuming and during my busy periods I’m not able to work on it much. But on certain weekends I am still able to find time for carving and sewing, and these are the days I get to detach myself from work and indulge in making things for a while!
It would be nice to do it full-time, but I don't think it is sustainable at the moment, especially not in Singapore! But if an opportunity comes I'd like to try it out someday.
Are you branching out into making other items on your Etsy shop?
Yes, I am the type of person who cannot stand doing the same thing over and over again! So I tend to keep learning new crafts and processes, and I will add them into my shop if it blends in with the rest of the items. Apart from stamp carving, I also sew and crochet, and I'm learning pottery on weekends. So I'll keep my shop filled with all sorts of random things I make, and hopefully they'll keep my shop fresh and interesting!