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Modern die-struck metal buttons

A button maker describes making brass buttons with soldered ring shanks.

Cherub
The Cherub: Medium round 1 1/8" diameter Cartridge brass (70% Cu, 30% Zn). Struck on die hobbed from vintage hub circa 1890-1900. Original sculptor unknown.
Photos by Helen Maringer

I have been a maker of things all my life, and metal has long been the material of choice because of the many ways it can be formed. But it was not until 2003 that I made my first buttons. I had been making fantasy coins for some time at that point — coins based on fictional or mythical places – and one scene in a book caught my attention when the hero of the story lost all his beautiful brass waistcoat buttons while squeezing through a narrow doorway to escape certain death in a goblin’s cave. In order to make our hero’s buttons I had to learn about buttons and button making…a quest that continues to this day. I make almost exclusively one-piece copper or brass buttons with soldered ring shanks. This style of button predates the development of the three-piece wobble-shank buttons of the 1830s and later.

Lady Moon
Lady with Moon and Stars Medium round 1 1/16" diameter Cartridge brass. Struck on die hobbed from vintage hub circa 1910-1915. Original sculptor Felix Rasumny (1869-1940).

Many people were involved in the development of button making in England in the late 1700s, but the most famous of them was Matthew Boulton. I already knew about him because he is also famous in the coin-collecting world for designing the first steam-powered coining presses for the British Royal Mint. But I didn’t know that his button-making technology went far beyond mere coining!

Like coins, brass buttons are “struck” on steel dies with great force using presses or drop-hammers while the metal is cold. The force required may be from as little as 10 tons for a small simple button design or up to 200 tons for a large piece in thick metal with a complex high-relief design. The overwhelming force causes the softer metal to flow into the recesses of the hardened steel die where it can reproduce in exquisite detail every nuance of the engraver’s art.

The die engraving, or “die-sinking,” is the part of the process that requires an artistic touch, and it is here that button-making surpasses coin-making many times over. In designing a coin, the engraver is most often constrained by a very specific set of guidelines of what must and must not be present in the design. However, there are no rules when designing a button other than the laws of physics and no limits besides the capacity of the available equipment. The engraver’s artistic inclinations and imagination can push the materials to the limit of what is possible and sometimes beyond.

Dragon pearl
Dragon pearl: Medium round 1 1/16" diameter Cartridge brass. Struck on modern die, circa 1990. Original sculptor unknown.

Direct engraving is a process in which a die blank is prepared in high-carbon tool steel, which has been annealed soft by cooling it very slowly from a high heat. In this condition, the hard steel engraver’s burins can cut the soft annealed steel in much the same way as a woodcarver cuts wood but more slowly and with shallower cuts. After engraving, the die is again heated to red heat and plunged into cold water to harden it, after which it may be used to strike buttons. The problem with direct engraving is that it is difficult to cut deep, high-relief designs, and it is also difficult to model complex, delicate shapes like human faces because it is done in the negative: The high parts of the design are the low parts of the die.

Mother of pearl
Mother-of-pearl: Large round 1 3/8" diameter Cartridge brass escutcheon on black-lip mother-of-pearl . Struck on direct engraved die by master engraver Ron Landis (current) circa 1990. Struck image cut profiled with a jeweler's saw and overlaid on pearl.

Die hobbing is a two-stage process whereby the engraver works to create a steel “hub,” which is carved in the positive, exactly as it will appear on the finished button. When the hub is finished, it is hardened and then pressed or “hobbed” into an annealed steel die blank. This method involves the extra step, but it allows the engraver to model in the positive rather than the negative so that much more naturalistic expressions and much higher relief images become possible. In addition, the master hub may now be stored and can be used again and again to create more dies if the first die becomes worn or broken, or when the engraver wishes to use the hub image in a different way.

Raven
Raven: Medium round 1 1/16" diameter Cartridge brass. Struck on die hobbed from custom hub engraved in 2007 by Tom Maringer

Both direct engraving and hobbing methods are seldom used today. The bulk of modern die-sinking is done by computer-controlled machinery, mostly overseas. But there is a resurgence of interest in old methods among such groups as the Society for Creative Anachronism and other re-enacting groups that seek to keep historical crafts alive.

Llama
Llama: Large round 1 7/8" diameter bell-bronze (87.5% Cu, 12.5% Sn). Struck from die direct engraved in 2009 by Greg Franck-Weiby

The old presses were simple and robust mechanical devices, and some of this old, disused equipment is finding its way into the workshops of artists and craftspeople who are willing to learn and use the traditional methods. This process is made difficult by the fact that there is very little written information about workshop techniques used in the button maker’s trade; those techniques were apparently subject to craft-guild secrecy rules. But through trial and error and the efforts of individual artisans working in small shops, it is hoped that a new revival of traditional and neo-traditional button making will blossom in the coming years.

Titanium
Titanium button: Medium round 7/8" diameter button struck in pure 99.7% titanium, TIG welded shanks, anodized finish. Simple geometric design of radiating lines. Designer unknown.

Tom Maringer makes and sells buttons, fantasy coins, knives, bamboo walking sticks, and other such objects. He and his wife, Peggy, run Giraffe Gardens in northwest Arkansas in the U.S., growing vegetables, flowers, and five species of bamboo, and can usually be found on Saturday mornings at the farmer’s market on the square in downtown Fayetteville. Tom’s website can be found at shirepost.com and he can be reached by e-mail at maringer@arkansas.net. The photographs are by Helen Maringer.

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