There are several ways to begin a handmade metal button, the specific technique depends mainly on the raw material used.
Reclaimed Copper Water Pipe
Copper is a beautiful pinkish red metal that is native to Vancouver Island. It has strength, ductility, natural antibacterial properties, and ages to a dark brown or bluish green colour.
Copper water pipe is used to carry water to the sinks and taps in a house. It comes in a couple of different sizes, and often plumbers have small scraps they cannot use. Copper does not corrode very quickly, so even very old pipe is still good to use. Some of our reclaimed copper pipe came from a house built on the beach in the late 1940’s.
Annealing & Cutting
The first step is to soften the pipe by heating to a dull red colour in a fire and then allowing to cool. This makes the copper soft enough to cut and bend without cracking. The fire also creates amazing colours on the surface of the copper. Usually the heat for this process comes from excess energy in the charcoal retort fire. Once it is cool enough to handle, it can be cut into short lengths with a small pipe cutter.
Splitting & Flattening
The shortened piece can now be split using a chisel or metal shears. Once it is split, it is opened with a hammer on a bick iron and the anvil horn in stages until it is flat.
Shaping & Punching
A chisel or shears are used to give the button a rough shape and a punch or drill is used to place the thread holes.
Filing & Smoothing
Files are used to round the corners and adjust the profile further. Any sharp edges are removed as files and sandpaper are used to smooth and round the outside rim.
Texturing & Polishing
Depending on the concept of the final finish, texturing and polishing may occur in either order. A rounded or patterned hammer is used to give a rough texture to the front of the button. This hammering also serves to harden the copper again after the annealing in the first step. The rim of the button may also be given mimi, which means “ears”, by hammering inwards all the way around until a raised ridge forms. This is also the stage where a slight dish is created to give the button a third dimension.
If polishing is required to bring out the highlights of the hammer marks, it can be done with charcoal powder. A thin coat of clove and camellia oil is wiped on to help preserve the patina and colour.
Reclaimed Aluminum Scrap
Aluminum is a silvery grey metal that is often used in marine applications here on the west coast of Canada. It is strong, lightweight, resists corrosion, and ages to a light grey or dull silver colour. Aluminum is commonly used for boat hulls, carbonated beverage cans, and cooking foil. Because aluminum has a relatively low melting point, we are able to reuse the cut off scraps from button making along with other recycled items to create new button blanks.
Melting & Refining
The first step is to melt the scraps into liquid form. We use the blacksmithing forge and handmade softwood charcoal to fuel the fire. When the crucible begins to glow red, the aluminum is like a silvery liquid and flows like water with a skin. Borax washing soda is added to the molten aluminum and stirred with a steel rod to remove the impurities from the surface.
Pouring & Annealing
When the aluminum is completely melted and as much of the impurities removed as possible, it is poured into steel forms to cool. We use various blocks and hammer eyes to create interesting shapes to work from. Depending on the rate of cooling, the aluminum blanks may need to be annealed by reheating slightly and cooling in water.
Forging & Punching
After the aluminum is softened by annealing, it may be forged cold into a flat shape. Extensive forging may require one more annealing cycle to prevent cracking as the button is shaped. When the final shape is approximated, a punch or drill is used to place the thread holes.
Texturing & Polishing
Depending on the concept of the final finish, texturing and polishing may occur in either order. A rounded or patterned hammer is used to give a rough texture to the front of the button.
Polishing is done with progressively finer sandpaper to bring out the hammer texture. The final polish is done with charcoal powder and a thin coat of blended beeswax is wiped on to help preserve the colour.
See some more of Tamaki’s artwork:
Edo Inspired Buttons
Handmade Metal Buttons