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.