Handmade DIY Tarot Cards (Or Not)

If you had told me 20 years ago that I’d spend a weekend trying to fashion a DIY tarot cards in my living room, I’d probably have said, “Yeah, that sounds about right.” Tarot as a means of divination is not something I’ve ever really considered and any knowledge I had of it has been peripheral until a month ago. In much of Europe they are simply used to play games, but instead of the 52-card playing cards familiar in the US, there are 78 total. Both decks have shared origins. Looking at the various styles over the centuries sent me down a rabbit hole of research. It reminded me of the nights I spent in the family library reading about Egyptian mythology in the World Book Encyclopedia.

The Rider-Waite deck, featuring the artwork of Pamela Colman Smith, is one of the most common decks out there. One thing I didn’t care for were the color schemes. One weekend I started playing with watercolors and making my own colors.

Various watercolors on my art table.
Various watercolors on my art table.

My preference was for an ethnically neutral version, so all the figures have blue and green skin.

The next tarot theme thing I worked on was a notebook. Of all the things I made and experimented with, the notebook is the one I’m mostly likely to reproduce in the future.

Tarot themed book
Clockwise from top left: Front cover, Sun page, World page, back cover

This notebook pages and features a mix of lined and unlined pages. At standard intervals there is a full page devoted to each of the 22 cards in the Major Arcana.

Then entered the DIY tarot cards. Fun Fact: During the Vietnam war there were rumors that Vietnamese soldiers were superstitious and fearful of the ace of spades. Decks consisting solely of the ace of spades were made up and distributed to U.S. soldiers as a tool of psychological warfare. So my initial tests were were the Death card thinking that might be a thing people would buy.

Tests were done with various Krylon clear coatings. The Triple Thick Clear Glaze seemed to offer the most promise. In the small playing card format it seemed effective, but until you have a whole deck in your hand it is difficult to tell how the tarot cards will really handle.

Three different varieties of Krylon clear coatings
Left to right: Krylon Specialty Lacquier, Krylon ColorMaxx Satin Clear, Krylon Triple-Thick Crystal Clear Glaze

Before I started I did a search to see if I could find folks who had done something like this before. Next thing I know I was lurking on RPG message boards (think Dungeons & Dragons). Then I ignored their whole method. Most people where were duplexing linen textured paper. Duplexing paper is when you glue two sheets together. I didn’t want to do that. Surely the 100# cardstock I had would be sufficient and adding layers of lacquer to it would stiffen it even more. I was wrong.

The other thing I overestimated were the abilities of my printer. I have a semi-fancy pants inkjet printer that will handle media up to 13 x 19 inches. I thought it would be consistent enough that I could print the fronts and backs on the same sheet. However, it doesn’t take much change to get the fronts and backs totally misaligned.

Prototype cards
The two back facing cards show the inconsistencies in printing. The ruler is for scale.

My initial design for the card back was a little ink heavy, and about halfway through I had to pause the process and refill ink cartridges.

Ink botles and refillable cartridges
Refilling ink cartridges is a thing that has to happen from time to time.

This caused me to reevaluate the design of the back and come up with a version that would take up less ink.

Two examples of playing card backs
The design featuring less ink is on the left on an uncut sheet. The original design is to the right and has coats of acrylic on it.

Since the backs didn’t align, I decided to just make them black. I really thought the ink I used (which contains some acrylic lacquer) would stiffen the paper a bit. It didn’t.

Coating the backs of the cards with black ink
Covering the backs of the cards with black ink was cathartic, but ultimately not effective.

After the tarot cards had been sprayed with several coats of lacquer and acrylic, I decided to use a heavier hand and brush on a water based clear satin acrylic. The cards curved a lot when wet, but straightened out again after drying.

Cards coated with water based acrylic
The moisture in the wet acrylic causes the cards to arch. After about ten minutes they flattened out.

One of the highlights of the process was using my new corner rounding machine. It put a rounded corner on the cards nicely and it seems like it will even work with my handmade notebooks.

Corner rounding machine in action.
Corner rounding machine in action.

At some point in all of this mess I had to take stock of what I had done, where it was going, and how I wanted to proceed.

Dining room table overrun by card making materials
The dining room table has been overrun with card making supplies.

And I decided I didn’t want to proceed.

It’s a difficult thing to put so much time and energy into a project and then decide to abandon it. However, I really only have $40 in supplies and less than 8 hours of effort into these tarot cards. And I don’t consider any of it a waste if I learned something. I became more knowledgeable about the limitations of my tools and the effectiveness of certain materials. Even if I don’t have a tangible thing to show for my efforts, I enjoyed the time I spent working on it. Most of the time I share a post to celebrate a new creation, but for every success I have, there are days I spent learning hard lessons. The trick to being good at something is being bad at it first.

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