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Barb Tobias – Adapting her Crafting for Lost Arm

Join me for my interview of Barb Tobias, the one-armed stamper.

As hard as it is to imagine that rubber stamping and card making with only one arm is even possible, we want to invite you to Barb Tobias’ craft room where it happens, — well — every day! The self proclaimed “one-armed lady stamper” will share with us solutions to her most basic crafting dilemmas, a list of her favorite tools, and her encouragement for other physically challenged crafters.

In 2005, at the age of 60, Barb Tobias lost her left arm and shoulder to cancer. For more than 30 years previously, Barb had worked in the hobby ceramics industry. From hobbyist to owning her own home studio where she taught basic ceramics, Barb was an extremely proficient ceramic artist, painter and teacher. She held national and international instructor certifications and eventually held the positions of assistant editor and editor with two subscription based magazines.

Beautiful painting by Barb May, 2005

“My goal at that time had been to help others create objects of beauty within the fired arts,” Barb explains. Now faced with the loss of her arm, she realized, “No matter how I looked at it, there was no way for me to continue working with ceramics like I had in the past. I had two choices, I could sit around and feel sorry for myself, or become determined to discover what I could do.”

Barb’s desire to find an alternative way of expressing her creativity was soon realized when a friend introduced her to rubber stamping. “As I looked at my friend’s beautiful cards, I envisioned how I could use my painting skills within the art of rubber stamping.” One of the first stamp companies Barb Tobias discovered was Rubber Stamp Tapestry, a company in North Carolina that makes over 1,200 individual wooden peg stamps. “I realized the benefits of Rubber Stamp Tapestry’s unique peg stamp design and loved that step-by-step instructions are included with every peg stamp set, which gives you an artistic starting point, while also encouraging your own creativity.”

Even though life, as Barb once knew it, had changed forever, rubber stamping helped Barb find her new place in life. She had suddenly re-discovered what she could do. “Today,” she said, “part of my philosophy is to create beautiful cards that hopefully put a smile on someone’s face.”

With her new-found creative outlet came new challenges like folding paper, keeping the paper in place while working, opening ink pads and other items, and holding her embossing and cutting machines in place. Fortunatly for her, Barb is married to Jim — a proficient woodworker, problem solver extraordinaire, and as she puts it, “Jim has been my biggest supporter since the day we met in 1967.”

An electrician by trade, Jim grew up with the encouragement of his grandfather, a University of Michigan carpenter. In 1987, when Barb began working from home, Jim used his carpentry skills to design and build Barb’s office furniture with wood harvested from their own property. Now, with Barb’s new passion with rubber stamping, Jim was there to help her overcome physical obstacles and to design solutions that helped compensate for the loss of her left arm. “When I can’t figure how to make something work, Jim is right there. We discuss what I’m aiming for and he usually has a solution.”

When a friend told Jim what some woodcarvers used as a workstation, he designed a new work area for Barb, similar to that of a desk blotter.

Jim’s Workstation Design

Jim’s creation was basically a wooden tray with thick trim on three sides, which forms a containment area for Barb to work in. On the top surface of the trim borders are shallow “gutters” — great for holding Barb’s stylus, supplies, pens, glues, weights and other tools she uses. Jim constructed the tray with a front edge that hangs down to prevent it from sliding away from Barb while she is working. Additionally, the bottom work surface gradually slopes to the rear to keep tools and supplies from rolling off onto the floor.

Barb reflects, “With only one hand, it is difficult to do most anything, even use a paper cutter.” Once again, Jim found a solution. “While at our local Steele Company, Jim noticed scrap pieces of brass rod. He brought home several sizes, cut them to two and three-inch lengths, and attached felt on the ends.”

Brass Weights Jim Created

Barb now uses the weights to hold down her work. For cutting and scoring, Jim built a box from walnut and filled it with lead, creating a larger weight. Barb tell us, “It is actually rather heavy, but it’s a great way to build muscle while creating!”

“The weights are used as if they are my left hand,” says Barb. “They are used for holding the paper still when stamping, writing, painting and trimming. Without my weights, there would be (and has been), a great deal of frustration. I often work from the corner of my work tray and place a weight or two on my projects.”

Weight Used with Paper Cutter

For years, Barb was dependent upon Jim or her friends to open ink pads for her. The tight suction on most pads is just too much to tackle with one hand. Jim realized that something he bought years ago, while attending a tool show, was perfect to hold Barb’s ink pads while she opened them.

Jim’s Prized Pin Vice – This particular vice is no longer being made

So, he gave her his most prized tool — his pin vice. The unique vice features pins coated with rubber which protect the items being held. Barb has put Jim’s vice to good use — opening inks, jars, and all sort of other small things.

For crafters with upper extremity handicaps, automated appliances like embossing and die cutting machines can be a huge benefit. The disadvantage with many of these tools is that they must be held with one hand and cranked with the other. After having difficulty using her first equipment purchase, a Sizzix BIGKick™ Machine, Barb explained to us, “You cannot imagine the awkward positions I found myself in. I struggled with the process until I found a simple fix.”

C-clamp Holding Down Die Cutter

Jim has a fantastic woodworking shop and a basic c-clamp became exactly what she needed to tighten the machine down so it does not move while she operates it with one hand. For picking up metal objects from the floor, Barb keeps a telescoping magnet with her die cutting machine for those times when she accidentally drops a die. With this great little tool, she can easily pick up metal objects, no matter where they land.

In addition to Jim’s custom-made crafting aids, Barb’s work room also contains some items that make life as a one-armed crafter even more fun. From electric and manual devices to rubber stamps, here are some of her favorite things:

  • Craftwell Cut’ N Boss Die Cutting Machine
  • Silhouette Cameo 2 Electric Cutting Tool
  • Sizzix BIGKick™ Machine
  • Rubber Stamp Tapestry Peg Stamps

Barb loves her Craftwell Cut’ N Boss die cutting machine. “As I watched the TV demonstrations of this machine, I could see how it would make my life easier. I had been looking at other electric units for over a year but found the 8.5- inch opening and 11- inch platform a more workable surface for my needs. Plus, it is electric.”

“Towards the end of last year, a friend mentioned the Silhouette Cameo electric cutting tool,” says Barb. “This machine is great for die cutting and a lot more. There are times when I take on larger projects and have to produce dozens of like items. Again, this was part of the natural progression for this old crafter. The Silhouette offers a vast number of design features that have helped me achieve my more ambitious goals.”

When she began her stamping journey, the Sizzix BIGKick™ worked well for Barb’s needs. “In the beginning this seemed like the logical choice,” she says. “It was affordable and did what I needed as a beginner. All I wanted was to have some shapes cut so the die cutter was a reasonable solution.”

When it comes to the stamps she uses, Barb gets quite excited. She explains that she has been using Rubber Stamp Tapestry peg stamps for about 10 years. “I started getting your stamps in 2006 or so,” says Barb. “I really found them exciting and found they lent themselves well to personal creativity.” At present, she owns 22 sets she purchased from Rubber Stamp Tapestry over the years and according to her, “I often find that I work with two or three sets to complete projects.” Barb finds the sets to be very versatile and says, “Traditional stamps are exciting, but they usually limit your personal expressions. Do not get me wrong, I have a very large collection of stamps. This is a great hobby with a lot of opportunity for self expression. However, in my opinion peg stamps offer more freedom for creativity. I sometimes refer to them as my gentle stamps.”

A Beautiful Card by Barb

With the craft room that Jim has created for her, together with her electric and manual tools, and rubber stamps that are fun and easy to use, Barb explains, “I enjoy card making as much as a person with two hands.”

Today, as a survivor of cancer and an avid crafter, she shares what she’s learned with other upper extremity amputees and disabled crafters, so that they too can enjoy card making and put smiles on the faces of friends and loved ones.

A quote by Douglas Pagels is Barb’s lifelong motto. “I am aware that I am less than some people prefer me to be, but most people are unaware that I am so much more than what they see.” If you take a look at Barb’s Pinterest page, or ever have the opportunity to talk with her, you will see how she lives this motto.

Barb likes to remind us, “We really need to make people aware that being physically challenged is not the end of our world, but a new beginning. I get a real chuckle when I finish a project and someone with two capable hands says, ‘I could never do that. It looks too hard.’”

This Box Project Kept Barb Busy

She continues, “Only a few of the new amputees we have met with over the years have taken on the ‘feel sorry for me’ attitude. However, that attitude is not good, nor is it healthy. Years ago, a 3-year old girl saw me and proclaimed, ‘Look mommy, that lady only has one arm.’ Her mother told her not to look. I wanted to cry, because I upset a child.” Barb lamented. “This could have made me afraid to be in public. I had to, with Jim’s strong support, make up my mind that the situation was not going to define me. I knew then I would have to be a stronger person and look at things in a positive way.”

The advice that Barb gives to crafters who’ve recently become an amputee or experiencing something that is limiting their previous abilities is to:

  • Stay positive.
  • Don’t feel sorry for yourself.
  • Take some time to grieve your loss, but don’t dwell on it.
  • Be realistic about your situation.
  • You may have to learn to think things out, like how to pursue a project instead of just jumping in.
  • Do not give up on yourself.
  • Please don’t listen to your negative friends. They mean well, but have no idea what they are talking about, nor what you are now adjusting to.
  • You have more abilities than you can imagine. Just try and try again. I have a ton of projects that have taught me what not to do. Then, I try a different approach.

With her supportive husband and her positive can-do attitude, Barb not only conquers her crafting dilemmas, but is an example to others. Her Pinterest and Facebook pages continue to show the world that there is far more to Barb Tobias than what they see.

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