Adventures in Deck Modding

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A standard Robin Wood tarot deck, and a modified Robin Wood tarot deck. Hacking off borders and coloring the card edges certainly changes the flavor a bit.

This past fall, I realized that without teacher grad school in my life, I pretty much only saw 17- and 18-year-olds all day long. I did not like what that was doing to my brain, so I started taking a tarot class in Indy to get more interaction with adults. It’s been a great experience that I will have to write more about at some point, but today the name of the game is something they exposed me to: deck modding.

All deck modding really amounts to is hacking the borders off your cards, rounding the corners off, and coloring the sides. The more artistically talented (or adventurous) go further to enhance the images with various paints and gilding. It’s not exactly rocket science or even all that destructive to a deck, but when I first learned about modding, I was scandalized. Why would anyone want to remove card borders? They’re literally there to protect the images against damage from repeated shuffling. Take a look at a well-loved tarot deck: the edges will be all nicked and scuffed. I just couldn’t wrap my head around why someone would want to go through all that tedium only to essentially weaken the card. So when the class decided to devote a couple weeks to modifying decks, I happily skipped.

But the next class I attended, I was utterly charmed by all the modified decks. I was surprised by now nice the borderless cards looked and how the images seemed to “pop” more against the reading cloths. For the most part, the cards were a good bit easier to shuffle, too, with a quarter inch shaved off every side. I soon thereafter picked up a spare Robin Wood and a Universal Waite and decided to play around with deck modification when I had some free time.

Well that time certainly arrived with the cold weather. When I wasn’t organizing the heck out of my house, I was curled up on the couch drinking cocoa, watching Netflix, and hacking away at two decks of cards.

Some of the tarot ladies mentioned they had used a Fiskars sliding trimmer to make their cuts. I just happened to have one, and it was a cinch to pick up a great corner rounder. So I blissfully worked my way through a couple movies and my Universal Waite “test deck”. I was beyond pleased with the final trimmed and rounded result…but then it came time to edge them.

To edge a deck, you basically take a Sharpie or other indelible marker of your choice and run it around each card edge individually. If you try to do the entire stack at once, ink will bleed between the cards. I wasn’t prepared, however, to see so much bleeding on individually edged cards. Because I used black ink, it doesn’t look bad per se — more like the edges have been charred — but it still wasn’t an effect I was expecting.

After a close examination of the cards, I think I diagnosed the problem. A sliding trimmer is a fantastic tool for accurate cuts, but it operates by dragging the corner of a razor through paper. It makes a very clean, sharp cut for paper, but the cuts get a little ragged once you start moving into cardstock. Tarot cards are laminated cardstock, which are thicker still. The ragged edges were not obvious until I rounded the corners of the deck. Once I had the entire deck together, I was able to see that the rounded corners were thinner than the edges of the deck were. Unfortunately, this means that the sliding trimmer slightly pulls the two sides of the card away from each other and creates an edge that is wider than the card itself. This means that more of the paper between the lamination is exposed to the ink, which allows it to soak in more and lets it wick through the card. The black bleeding is especially obvious on the corner of the Fool card pictured above with its white sun. As you can see, the only place that didn’t bleed on that card was the more cleanly cut corner.

I very much wanted to avoid the bleeding edges for the Robin Wood deck, for I almost exclusively read with that deck and wanted it to look as professionally trimmed as possible. So I acquired a guillotine-style trimmer, which slices cleanly through paper of any thickness with a long blade attached to a chopping arm. I picked up a small-scale guillotine at the local craft store. It worked beautifully, made exceptionally clean cuts, and was dead easy to use. After five cards, though, I realized that the cutting arm wasn’t properly attached and was cutting everything at a slight angle. I ended up returning it and used long-bladed scissors to finish trimming the deck.

I think the scissors ended up being the easiest to operate, and they made just as clean of a cut as the guillotine. If my blades had been shorter, I don’t think I would have been able to cut as evenly, so it is probably worth it to get some properly big scissors for this job. It’s also probably not a great idea to try to trim all your cards in one sitting: I’ve got a broken blister at the base of my right thumb now that is taking its sweet time to heal.

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The Ace of Hearts: unmodified. Ace of Wands: borders cut off. Ace of Swords: borders cut off and corners rounded. Ace of Pentacles: borders cut off, corners rounded, and edges colored black.

I was incredibly surprised by how much the deck appearance changed at each step of the process. Without rounded corners, the trimmed deck seemed amateurish to me, but the simple step of corner rounding made it seem intentional. The black edging also hid all the random colors peeking through the edges of the borderless cards and really made the final product look sharp. There was exceptionally little edge bleeding with the Robin Wood deck, and I think it now looks like it was always supposed to have been trimmed this way.

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Well, almost. The Robin Wood deck has these banners at the base of all the Major Arcana cards that display the name and number of each card. The banners run off the artwork and into the white border. Most of these banners were relatively unaffected by the trimming and rounding, but some of them were really obviously clipped. The worst of them were Justice, The Tower, and The Moon. The Moon and Justice both lose an entire “1” off their left hand 11 and 18! Aside from that unfortunate issue, however, the final cards look wonderful…and they’re *so* much easier for me to shuffle now that they are smaller!

 

3 thoughts on “Adventures in Deck Modding

  1. Back when the AT forums were still up and active there were a lot of threads on modding decks. Sometimes for ease of shuffling, but most of the time it was to enhance the artwork, especially when people used dark-coloured cloths to read on – some of the more luminous decks looked amazing against black fabric.
    I’ve occasionally been tempted, but I don’t trust myself not to screw it up even after practicing, and since my reading cloth is patterned I think I’d run the risk of ‘losing’ my cards if I took the borders away. Your new deck looks stunning though.

    • I miss the AT forums. I can’t believe I never heard about modding up until this point. And frankly, I’m floored I never thought to cut off borders myself! I’m always annoyed at how big the cards are.

      To be honest, I was pretty sure I would screw it up. That’s why I got additional decks rather than experimenting on one I already had. I figured if I really botched it up, I was only out $20. (I got both of the decks I modified on eBay for maybe $10 each.)

      • Even though I spent more time lurking there than posting, it was one of the places on the internet that felt like home. Thankfully a lot of the threads have been archived so we haven’t lost all that wealth of information, but the community’s very scattered now.

        Maybe if I go for the four-deck comparison thing I might try modding one of those.

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