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Cold plastic enamel - CPE

Is it plastic or real enamel? Lean how to tell the difference between these look-alikes.
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Realistic flower basket shows the beauty of the CPE buttons
Cat in basket
Button-maker Kevin Kinne uses organic CPE as the swirled background of this button
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Buttons of this type include patterns as well as realistic
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Designers use CPE on their vanity buttons
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Buttons using CEP imitate various enamel techniques creating beautiful pictorials
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Rhinestone accents add charming detail to CPE backgrounds
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Rhinestone accents add charming detail to CPE backgrounds

On many trays of enamel buttons, particularly modern enamels, collectors mistakenly include lovely examples of cold plastic enameling. Sometimes these trays of buttons are entered in competition as enameled buttons, and sometimes judges don’t recognize that these are plastic buttons. A study of these buttons and how they are fabricated will help distinguish the two types.

Cold Plastic Enamel (CPE) is a liquid plastic…an epoxy resin or a polyester. It does not need heat or firing OR a kiln to cure as true enameling does since it is made from small powder that is heated to melt the glass and adhere it to the metal base. In a CPE button, low heat might be used to speed up the process. True enameling must use a metal base, but the CPE technique can be applied to virtually any surface. In button collecting we see examples of CPE on metals and metalized plastic (ABS), but any material may be coated with CPE.

Kevin Kinne, a button artist as well as collector and dealer from Tennessee, shared his knowledge and research. He found that although most CPE buttons are an epoxy or plastic material, there are also different compositions and make ups of CPE. He is familiar with at least eight compounds used by jewelers, as well as the type he uses in his cold enamels which is 100% organic and do not use an epoxy or polyester. Using a catalyst and metal filings to produce a metallic swirl or powdered fish scales for a pearlized effect, Kevin cures his buttons for four hours at 450 degrees, and because of the long curing time, he does not consider his buttons cold plastic enamel.  These buttons, however, do fit in this category. Kevin found that Todd Oldham’s buttons also used a liquid plastic method to create buttons, making these CPEs. After using some of the do-it-yourself kits which are mainly acrylic paint, Kevin found them to be smelly and sticky, but admits the results are still cold plastic enamel. So, you could create your own CPE buttons.

How can you tell CPE? This is tricky for me, and the fact that these buttons still show up on enamel trays indicates that others have trouble. Some buttons, like the JHB buttons that I thought were CPE, are actually painted. The dull color on the ice cream cone pictured is paint, not CPE. Here are some suggestions for identifying CPE:

  • More shine than regular enamel
  • Varying shades of color
  • Dull sound on the teeth rather than the glass sound of an enamel
  • Warm to the touch on the cheek
  • Age—CPE was first popular about 20—25 years ago

While most CPE buttons have a hand-applied brush technique, many imitate various types of enameling. For example, CPE buttons can imitate cloisonné by using a pouring process into recesses in which the wire is bent into shapes that define the design. Other buttons show imitations of emaux peint, basse taille, champlevé, and plique-a-jour enameling. Great illustrations can be found in Jocelyn Howells, A—Z Materials.

Numerous examples of cold plastic enameling can be found on lapel pins, key chains, and jewelry as well as buttons. Many designer or vanity buttons have CPE finishes. Economics is responsible for the use of this technique. It is important to keep items as low-cost as possible. While some of the buttons may have a base of metalized plastic, many designers use quality metals such as brass, silver, and even gold under the CPE finishes.

These buttons are classified in Section 12, synthetic polymers 12-7.1. CPE is considered a finish, whereas enamel is considered a material. In judging these buttons, a true counter would be a “glow in the dark” which can be found on elusive Danforth Pewter. Often CPE buttons are backmarked. 

Now sort out the CPE finished buttons and take them off your enamel trays.  Enjoy their beauty. 


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