Making a Deck Your Own: Tarot Mods

Here we can compare a card before the borderectomy and after.

Conventional wisdom tells us to make our spiritual and magickal tools our own. If we can’t make them outright, they’ll work best if we customize them somehow.

However, Tarot is a strange tool when it comes to making something our own. Due to the logistics of deck creation we almost always stick to mass produced decks, and since the cards are already “finished” out of the box customizing them doesn’t readily spring to mind.

That’s disappointingly unimaginative. There are so many possibilities! After all, at the end of the day a Tarot deck is simply a pile of cardstock with pretty pictures on it. And we’ve all been playing with papercrafts since kindergarten. We’ve got the skills. We just need to apply them.

But… but WHY? 

I tend to modify decks as a way of charging and bonding with them. Not necessarily into that? That’s ok. There are practical reasons to consider it, too.

Cards too big to comfortably shuffle or easily carry around? Trimming makes them smaller.

Do the borders distract from the art and make it harder to read the cards? That’s a frequent complaint when there are bright white borders around a deck done in darker hues, but it comes up with overly complicated and/or thick borders too. Trimming takes care of that.

Are there aspects of the card art that need to be altered/corrected, or details not on the card that need to be? That’s doable too.

Are the front and back of each card richly colored while the edges are bright white, making the deck as a whole look unfinished? That too can be corrected.

Has a beloved deck been used so much that the edges are ragged and hindering use of the deck? Trimming it down can give it a new lease on life.

Additionally, every single one of these techniques, used singly or together, will make our decks utterly unique in all the world. That alone might be reason enough to mod our decks!

Cool. So how do I do it?

Some of the most common options include altering the card face, trimming and corner rounding, and edging. I’m going to walk us through the creation of my beautiful pocket Mythic Tarot and show some of the techniques I used, and I’ve included some awesome Youtube videos throughout if you want to see the techniques first hand!

Altering the Card Face

The two most popular decks in the US (the RWS and the Thoth) were both created by ceremonial magicians. It’s not surprising to learn that magickal correspondences are buried in every card! Over time, even readers who aren’t particularly ceremonial themselves have come to rely on and even enjoy those correspondences.

Other decks have since come out that take different and sometimes radical departures from those two sources. As a result, the original correspondences may be lost or deliberately discarded along the way. Some readers are fine with that. They either didn’t use those correspondences anyway or have them memorized. Others, though, really want that symbolism on their cards.

Even beyond esoteric symbolism, there are some decks that don’t even have labels on the cards. Counting the number of pentacles on a pip card before we can even read it gets tiresome! Once deck trimming enters the picture (no pun intended!), whatever labels the card originally had might wind up on the floor in a pile of scraps.

That’s ok, though. It’s dead easy for readers to simply add what’s missing to the cards. The most common things I’ve seen added are labels, numbers, and astrological correspondences, but anything useful can be added too.

Sharpie and paint pens are both go-tos for this. Sharpie gives a more subtle result, but metallic paint pens can add a dash of glam. Choice depends in large part on the design of the card itself, and considering the many options out there can be loads of fun!

While I haven’t found myself personally adding many correspondences to cards, I do have a deck I had to artistically alter to effectively use. The Bright Idea Deck is one of my favorites, but I couldn’t get past the blond guys in suits who reminded me way too much of a current politician. So I took a fine point Sharpie to them. All the blonds are now brunets!

Capability - the Magician - from the Bright Idea Deck. The one of the left is pre-alteration, and the one on the right is after I changed his hair color.

Capability – the Magician – from the Bright Idea Deck. The one of the left is pre-alteration, and the one on the right is after I changed his hair color.

It might be a small and insignificant change to some folks, but it allowed me to keep using this deck without weird associations I didn’t want to taint my readings. This deck is also now 100% unique, because even if other people do the same thing the results won’t be perfectly identical to mine. And it took a whopping 10 minutes to do.

These same techniques can add keywords, change color correspondences, add flowers or herbs, whatever. Get creative!

Trimming and Corner Rounding

This kind of card alteration is a bit more drastic and involves actually cutting the cards.

It’s usually – but not always – done to cards with heavy borders that distract from the art. Simply trimming off the borders and then rounding the edges can make a HUGE difference in a card’s appearance. It also makes the card smaller, which is fantastic for those who have problems handling larger cards and those who want to have a deck stashed in their car or purse.

In the case of my Mythic it fixed a problem. I’m only interested in the art on the old, out of print version, and that runs around $100 used on eBay. However, the original art can still be found on the $9 German version. Dealing with German labels saves me $90? SOLD!

Once I got it, though, I found that the German labels bothered me more than I’d anticipated they would. The cards are also proportioned differently from the US version, so the borders that had been tolerable were now a bit much. Together they were ridiculously distracting. So I fixed it.

This High Priestess from the Das Delphische Tarot.

This High Priestess from the Das Delphische Tarot. Isn’t she just crying out for a borderectomy? 🙂

When trimming cards there’s no “right” way to do it. It’s a series of totally personal decisions, from exactly where to place the cuts to what tools to use to do it. For instance, here are the possibilities when it comes to trimming the HPS card.

The Mythic's HPS card cut in various ways.

Here is the Mythic’s HPS card cut in various ways. Watch the card get smaller as we cut more and more away from it!

The first image is the original HPS card. The second removed three borders completely and just a little off the top. That definitely lightens the whole thing up! The third basically created a narrower frame around the card. (I think that’s the worst option of the bunch, but it’s a definite choice that could be made.) The fourth cuts off everything except the bottom border, and then the label is written there instead. Since that’s a more typical label location some readers might prefer it. The fifth and final image shows the card with all borders removed completely.

Since I know the images backwards and forwards, and found myself intrigued by the idea of making a tin-sized deck, I decided to go with option #5.

Then it was time to select the tools. It is absolutely possible to do this with scissors alone, especially since these cards have distinct borders around the images. However, a little investment makes the process much easier!

I’m a fan of this thing. It doesn’t cost much more than a good pair of scissors. I’ve done several decks with it and haven’t yet had to change the blade. It also cuts in both directions, and the wire guide makes sure the cuts go where they’re supposed to. It’s even got built-in measurements! I found I could trim a card in less than a minute even being super careful. That’s not bad! Because of the stop the cuts are straight, too. There’s a fixed blade version available, but I haven’t tried that.

Fiskars 9 Inch SureCut Paper Trimmer.

Fiskars 9 Inch SureCut Paper Trimmer. The blade is mounted to the little orange square on the left side of the track.

The process is really simple. Slide the blade to one end, lift the piece with the blade on it, push the card flat against the stop opposite the blade, and lower the lifted piece. Line up the guide wire with the exact place you want the cut to go, use one hand to steady the card, and with firm pressure slide the blade across the cutline. Done! Repeat for every cut.

The Two of Swords in the cutter.

Like this. The guide wire is the vertical line we can see running up the side of the image all the way across the top of the card.

Once I trimmed it I wound up with this kind of result. Isn’t the difference amazing? I fell in love the second it was done. It looks like a little painting now! The image pops more, the colors look more vivid, and the figure looks significantly more dynamic.

Here we can compare a card before the borderectomy and after.

Here we can compare a card before the borderectomy and after. If you look really closely you can see where I added labels before trimming. Once I rounded the corners they disappeared, and luckily I didn’t see any need to replace them. So keep that in mind when doing yours!

That’s really all there is to basic trimming. Lather, rinse, repeat.

There are more creative trimming options, too. The one in the video below I find particularly fascinating, and I might end up trying this approach with my Commemorative Waite-Smith deck. Here the reader cut her deck into perfect squares. The images of the standard RWS cards are so iconic that it’s easy to tell which card is which just from the focal image, and because of the square shape cards can be read upright, reversed, AND facing left or right! Imagine what that could mean for intuitive card interpretation!

Who knew taking a blade to your deck could open up whole new ways of engaging with Tarot?

Regardless of how the cards are trimmed, the corners are likely to be sharp when we’re done. They’ll need to be rounded off. For one, cards with rounded corners are less likely to catch on things when handled or shuffled. Two, rounding the corner protects it from excess wear and tear. It’s such an essential part of trimming that it’s considered part of the same process.

Luckily that’s even easier than trimming. Again, scissors can be used, but no two corners will match if they’re all done by hand. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I am absolutely not ok with that. I use a corner rounder.

There are billion of these on the market, in all different sizes, but I use the clear fan favorite.

The Sunstar Kadomaru Pro Corner Cutter.

The Sunstar Kadomaru Pro Corner Cutter. As you can see from the picture, this one cutter does three different sizes.

It’s easy to do. Pick the desired size, slide the corner of the card in until it’s square, and then press the top of the rounder down. Once we hear a “click” we can move on to the next corner. I got as fast as 2 cards a minute while punching my Mythic (although that felt silly, so I deliberately slowed down a bit).

I recommend doing some experimenting with the rounder before going to town on actual cards, to make sure the right/most aesthetically pleasing size is chosen. I went with the medium size for my Mythic project as I felt they best matched the overall proportions of the card. See how much more finished the cards look after rounding than before?

The trimmed cards before and after corner rounding.

The trimmed cards before and after corner rounding. One thing to note is that parts of the bottom border were still visible on the trimmed deck. That could have been a problem. Rounding the corners fixed the issue, though.

Want to take trimming to the next level? Change the card back as you trim! It’s super easy, and is especially useful for cards on poor cardstock or getting a lot of use. Check it out!

Burnishing

This is a step that I do after trimming and rounding. I’ve never seen anyone talk about it with cards, though, so I thought I’d cover it here in a separate section.

Basically, when I finish trimming and rounding the whole deck I take a spoon and slide the curved part of the bowl along all the edges of the cards, pressing firmly inwards and kind of rocking it. Once that’s done I use the spoon to press along the edges straight down before flipping it over and repeating on the other side. I’m trying to mimic the mechanical action that happens when a deck is originally cut, and I find that it really does make a difference.

Two stacks of cards. The ones on the left are not burnished, which the ones on the right are.

I took this picture when I was exactly at the halfway point of the burnishing process. See how much smoother and more finished the burnished cards on the right are than the unburnished ones on the left? Also note that the burnished stack on the right is noticeably shorter, even though it contains the exact same number of cards.

Do every card and, unless you’re edging, you’re done! Huzzah!

A random selection of cards from my trimmed and rounded Mythic Tarot!

A random selection of cards from my trimmed and rounded Mythic Tarot! Isn’t it gorgeous??? I’m madly, madly in love with everything about it.

For those wanting some more examples of trimmed and rounded decks, check out the video below. Particularly pay attention to the Thoth section – trimming completely changes the whole feel of that deck and makes it much more approachable! The Druidcraft might be one of the most trimmed decks out there right now – it’s freaking huge, more like an oracle deck – and he covers that one too.

Edging

Cards are printed on the front and back on cardstock. The sides of the card aren’t printed, though, and that can be an aesthetic problem. It’s particularly obvious when the deck is stacked for use during a reading. The uncolored side of the card can scream out, especially on darker decks.

Edging fixes that. It colors the edges of the card so that they match (or artistically contrast with) the printed parts of the deck. Black is by far the most common color, but navy, red, and even purple are used quite a bit too. I’ve even seen white used to brighten up light decks, and browns used to make a deck look aged. The process makes a world of difference in how a deck looks.

I don’t get too fancy when I edge my decks. I use a chisel-tipped permanent marker or paint pen, carefully put the card edge on the flat part of the chisel, and hold the card steady as I move the marker around. Other people have different techniques, though, and Youtube is a great place to find some options if you’re curious.

Remember those edges in the burnishing section above? Here’s my Mythic after edging with a black Sharpie.

The trimmed Mythic Tarot after one pass of edging.

This is the deck after one pass. I usually do two or three to make sure I hit all the angles. It’s easy to miss a spot!

Doesn’t that just make the whole thing look super special?

Keep in mind, though, that cards are paper. Water-based inks and paints, including both Sharpies and acrylics, will likely bleed through the paper. How much it bleeds is largely determined by the grade of cardstock on which the deck is printed and the type of finish added after printing. (I find that burnishing helps minimize bleed too.)

A super closeup of the Mythic Tarot's World card after edging.

A super closeup of the Mythic Tarot’s World card after edging.

See that faint black line along the edge? That’s where the Sharpie bled through. I thoroughly enjoy the effect on this deck – it looks like char lines around the cards. IMO it gives each one an incredibly subtle black frame that makes each image look complete.

Instead of using water-based inks, some folks prefer going the oil-based route. The paint doesn’t get absorbed by the cardstock so bleed is avoided. Other people like using stamp pads instead of markers, but I find the technique messy and don’t use it.

While I went with black for my Mythic, don’t feel compelled to do the same with whatever deck you’re using! There are as many options out there as there are colors.

This is an example of what we get with a silver acrylic paint pen. I like the softer tone, but a more metallic finish is possible by using pens made for quick fixes of metallic scratches. Rustoleum makes one, and there are other brands too. I’ve seen silver and gold, and think there might be a copper too.

The Clair de Lune Lenormand, edged with acrylic silver paint.

The Clair de Lune Lenormand edged with acrylic silver paint.

We don’t have to use the same color all the way through, either! Multiple colors can work beautifully with a deck. For the below example, I divided the Bonefire Tarot into three piles – Majors in one, half the Minors in the second, and the second half of the Minors in the third. Then I edged each pile with a different color (red, orange, or yellow). Here’s a pic of the deck after shuffling.

My edged Bonefire Tarot.

My edged Bonefire Tarot.

Edging can completely change the character of your decks!

Storage After Mods

If we stick to altering the front of the card, edging, and maybe even rounding the corners then the box a deck came in is fine for storage. The second we trim it, though, the box it came in is too big. Letting the cards bang around inside their container can lead to increased wear on the card edges and damage the corners, causing the cards as a whole to break down faster. It’s also excessively noisy during travel.

For decks that are small enough (like my German Mythic), mini Tarot tins are available online. I chose that for my Mythic and enjoy the extra sturdiness of it. I’m still dithering over what to do with the lid though!

Two options for the Mythic Tarot's tin.

Two options for the Mythic Tarot’s tin.

On the left is a panel from the front of the box the deck came in. I trimmed it to fit and rounded the corners. While it includes the author and title, and the card makes it very obvious what deck this is, I find it a bit garish. The deck also came with an extra blank card, and I’ve trimmed that as a possibility too. I think it looks much classier, personally, but it doesn’t include any identifying info in case I maybe possibly one day need it.

Decisions, decisions. Have some input? Tell me in the comments.

Bags, wooden boxes, and even cloths tied furoshiki style are all handy too. Go with what you like!

And that’s it on Tarot mods! Has this post inspired you to do your own? I’d love to see your results in the comments!

Note for those looking at doing this with the Mythic Tarot! The German version is smaller than the US version. While the OOP US version COULD fit into a tin if trimmed this way, it would be tight. Besides, it’s OOP! Sacrilege! The German version fits in the tin with some room to spare.

Size variation between the German and US versions.

Size variation between the German and US versions. The trimmed German version – with borders removed but image untouched – is on top of a card from the US version. The difference is definitely noticeable!

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2 thoughts on “Making a Deck Your Own: Tarot Mods

  1. SJ Himes says:

    I am now going to edge my decks. Thanks!

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