A few weeks ago I posted some original stampmaker’s pen and ink drawings, with the comment that the only remaining mystery of the whole stampmaking process, was the type of tools.
Thanks to the power of the internet and the foresight of the daughter of someone who served as a stampmaking apprentice in the 1920′s, I can now show you the tools used. Janet Smith, granddaughter of John Harris found this website while researching her family history because I had mentioned Smith & Howarth, the company where he learned his craft. John Harris had a difficult childhood. His father was killed in WW1 and so John had to take the role of head of the family at just 8 years old. At 14 he was allowed to leave school early to start work because he had no father. He decided to become a stampmaking apprentice at an early age even though none of his relatives had any connection with the business. 5 years later, by the time his apprenticeship was complete, the trade was in a recession and he never worked again as a full time stampmaker. According to his family, he was always a hard worker and had around 40 different manual labour jobs but had made stamps in his spare time from home, which his sister used to take to companies including JU Hallam and Shaw & Latham.
John Harris rightly complained that the skill and time it took to make a stamp was never properly appreciated and one of the purposes of this post is to redress that. His son told of his father complaining that there was such disregard for the value of redundant stamps that they were even used upside down to create parking garage floors! Even in his 70′s, John Harris would never forget how to make the stamps, creating them in his spare time until the end of the 1960′s, forty years after he first learned the craft.
So here are some of his tools. The collection seems to be a bit of a mixed bag with duplicates, a mixture of toolmaker’s names and unusually, none of the tools are marked with any JH initials. Maybe some of the tools were bought or given to Mr Harris by other stampmakers as they retired. There are also a couple tools such as the drill and junior hacksaw which seem out of place and may have just ended up here by being put back in the wrong toolbox.
The photo above shows the Chisels used in the stampmaking process. To create a stamp, the maker would take an exact drawing of how the stamp would look and transfer the drawing onto a block of sycamore or pear wood. Each strip of copper would need to be inserted into the hard wood block, so an incision or slot was created by hammering a chisel of a corresponding shape into the wood. The top of the chisel would be struck by a flattened metal baton as shown in the photo below and on a return stroke, the baton would strike the bottom of the mushroom shaped handle, knocking the chisel back out of the wood block. John Harris’ children said they could hear a rapid bang, bang, bang, bang thousands of times as the chisel built up the guide for the copper strips to be inserted.
Once the strips of copper and brass pins had been inserted, pliers of varied shape would twist, pinch and crimp the copper into the exact shape required to complete the stamp design. This part of the stampmaking process was very labour intensive and there was no room for errors. A stampmaker would also have a reasonable amount of work repairing damaged strips of copper on stamps. Once the copper work was complete, chisels were used to taper the wood back around the edges to help keep the wood away from the fabric and reduce their weight. Finally, the copper surface would be made perfectly level by rubbing the stamp on a large piece of flat pummice stone.
After interviewing the family last week, I wanted to post these photos and do a quick outline of how they were used. I will update this post with a more comprehensive description at a later date.
Many thanks to Erin Beeston, Collections Access Officer of Bolton Library & Museum Services for allowing me to use the photos she took of the John Harris tools
Here is a photograph of John Harris, Stampmaker, kindly provided by his son