Leather stamping tools can be somewhat overwhelming when you look at all the different brands, styles and types that are available from all the different producers. Then you try to figure out which tools you actually need versus the ones that are just nice to have. There seems to be an infinite amount of choices in the “nice to have” category. While there are many stamping tools that fall into the “nice to have” category, Undercuts are not one of these.
In my opinion, undercuts belong in the “must have” category for any tool collection. I have seen many collections where the maker simply made his own version of undercuts but the fact is that he had a set. Much like a beveler, the undercut is one of those tools that can make your job smooth or the lack of them can hinder your tooling progression.
In this article we will discuss the purpose of undercuts along with some of the ways to modify them to make them unique to your style of tooling. If you have watched my video on My Tool Roll, then you have seen the types of undercuts that I use and the different sizes.
Purpose of Undercuts
Undercuts are essential for the majority of tooling patterns because of the inside curves that are present throughout the tooling pattern. When beginning any tooling pattern, we first carve the artwork we have designed and then begin the beveling process for all the carved lines within the pattern. This is to lift the elements of the pattern and recess or push away the background. This brings the focal points of our patterns to the foreground.
The bevelers that we use for this step are flat or straight at the toe of the tool. This is the area of the tool that is actually doing the work during the beveling. For big slow curves, this flat edge works well depending on the width of the beveler. I do recommend three different sized bevelers from a narrow size to a wider size for longer straight areas.
Where these straight bevelers can get into trouble and not work as well are in the faster or tighter curves towards the end of vines and within the scalloped areas of petals and leaves. In these areas the curve is too tight for the straight beveler to fit without distorting the curve.
For these areas I recommend using the undercuts. These tools have a rounded toe that fits the curve much better than the flat bevelers. With an undercut you can fit the toe of the tool perfectly in the curve and with one tap bevel the entire area within the curve. Another advantage here is that the undercut will bevel much deeper than a beveler giving the curved area the appearance of “lifting” the curved area causing added depth and definition.
I was taught many years ago to always tool within the confines of your tools. This means not trying to put a square peg in a round hole in other words. If you have a tool that fits the area you are working on then use that tool. Using square bevelers in these curved areas can really distort the hard work you did carving a nice round curve.
Sizes of Undercuts to Have
I treat undercuts like I do bevelers as you can guess. Since I try to use the biggest beveler as I can depending on the length of the line I’m beveling at the time and the straightness of it, I also try to use the biggest undercut I can depending on the curve of the line and length of it.
To accomplish this and have the right undercut for the majority of curves, I recommend having at least four different sizes. For most tool makers I would assume this is probably all they offer but I am not for sure. I start with a really small one for the tight scallops in my flower and leaf petals and then step up through the four to a rather large one for the inside curves of vines and scrolls.
The particular sizes of these are not crucial here. The important thing is that you have a set that fits your size and style of tooling. Some toolers draw their patterns way bigger than me so may not need the small undercut at all. Then other toolers that work in micro tooling type artwork may not have a need for the large one. You have to determine what your needs are and the common curves that you put into your work to determine the tools to invest in.
The Brand that I Use
For complete transparency I will first say that I have not purchased stamping tools in many years. I do have a few tools that are a bit on the wore out level but the effects they give my tooling are to my liking so I have not replaced them. I am not current in my knowledge of tool makers available today so I can not offer an opinion as to who makes the best undercut.
The undercuts that I use are Barry King and I have had them for many years. The thing that I like about these undercuts is the steep angle that they have. The thing that I do not want an undercut to do is leave any heel marks from the tool when I use it. This gives more of a pear shader impression too far out from the area I am trying to lift. I did modify my smallest undercut of his to prevent this some and I will talk about this in a bit.
The one thing I would recommend when it comes to buying undercuts is that you are better off buying them from a true tool maker and not a manufactured cheap tool company. The custom tool makers do a much better job of creating an undercut that not only provides a correct impression but also will last you your entire career. These are generally a one time purchase tool and so the investment is well worth it.
If you are working on a budget or are just starting out you can make these tools fairly easily if you have a knack for tinkering. I have made them before by taking an old craftool stamp, say a camouflage, and grinding it down until I created the shape and size that I wanted. This works well as long as you buff them off to a mirror finish on a buffing wheel. If you are willing to put in the time and effort you can take an old tool you don’t use anymore and make it useful again.
Modifying Undercuts to Work for You
Like any tools that we buy, custom or manufactured, sometimes they take a bit of tweaking to get them to work in our program. There is nothing wrong with this as long as you are careful not to ruin the tool all together. I have modified many of my stamping tools from different makers and not all with great success. Many times you are better off finding the tool that comes to you the way you like it. Since every tool maker has little differences in their tools, I suggest shopping around and even attending trade shows where you can take these tools for a test drive before you buy them.
If you do decide to take a file or a grinder to one of your undercuts or other stamping tools here are some things I would suggest you have on hand to help you:
- bench grinder with a cloth buffing wheel
- polishing compound (red, green, and black or whatever color you like to use)
- emery cloth
- small set of good files
Altering any tool can be somewhat nerve racking especially if it was an expensive tool. Take your time and remember that you can always take more off but you can not put it back so “GO SLOW!”
I modified my small undercut like I said before. The reason that I did was that when I use this undercut I am trying to get in deep with the tool on the scallops of petals and leaves and really create a lot of lift in those areas. Because of the depth that I was driving the tool and the angle that I hold the tool, the heel of the tool was leaving marks in surrounding areas.
To help prevent this I filed off the heel of the tool creating a long sloping transition from the toe of the tool to where the heel was. After the area was filed off and was where I wanted it, I buffed it off with emery cloth to remove any burrs or deep scratches in the metal. Finally I loaded my cloth buffing wheel with black polishing compound and buffed the tool on this until it had a mirror finish.
In doing this i was able to create the effect I wanted and maintain the functionality of the tool. I only did this to my smallest undercut and not to my larger ones as I do not drive them as deep as I do the small one so there was no need. Since doing this I have seen other tool makers who make their undercuts in this way. The point of that is that I could have just purchased one of their tools. But, this tools works now and the little time I invested was worth the effect.
This same technique can be used to change the radius that the toe of a particular undercut has. I do not think that you need 10 or 12 different sizes of undercut for every size curve you draw. Although there are certain drawing styles where a person may need to modify this radius to fit their common need.
So do you need undercuts if you are just starting out? I would say they are just as important as your bevelers… so YES.
Whether you buy a good quality set from a tool maker or you modify some old pear shaders over a long weekend, you will find that you can’t tool without them after using them. Don’t spend all that time designing and carving a beautiful tooling pattern with lots of flow, scrolls and action just to distort your curves and turnbacks with a square beveler. Use the right tool for the job and see how much better the end result looks.
After completing a tooling project, take some time and run all your undercuts back through the pattern one last time. This is after all your tooling is done and decorative cuts are laid in. Lightly spray the tooling again with water if it is a little too dry (see our article on Casing Leather) and start with your smaller undercut and re-lift all those areas within the pattern. Then grab the next size up and re-lift those areas and so on all the way to the largest undercut.
This will clean up any curves that got a bit distorted through the tooling process and add even more depth to your finished tooling work.