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How to Turn Blah Buttons into Bodacious Buttons

comments (21) March 20th, 2009     

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Sister_Diane Diane Gilleland, contributor
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These buttons were customized with Sharpie paint markers—one of four methods for painting buttons well explore in this post.
Heres a set embellished with ordinary hobby-store model paints.
This group of buttons gets luminous color from nail polish.
These buttons were customized with Sharpie paint markers—one of four methods for painting buttons well explore in this post.

These buttons were customized with Sharpie paint markers—one of four methods for painting buttons we'll explore in this post.

Photo: Diane Gilleland
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I love buying old tins and jars of buttons at thrift stores or on eBay. They always contain a few treasures-but they also usually contain a lot of rather uninteresting white plastic buttons. As much as I love buttons, these plain ones don't seem to lend themselves as well to crafting as their prettier counterparts. So I've been experimenting with ways to brighten them up with paint.

What you'll need:

  • Plastic buttons
  • Paint (see types below)
  • Thinner (as needed-see below)
  • Paper towels or cleaning rags
  • Small paintbrush
  • Round toothpicks

A couple of notes before we begin: Plastic buttons can be made from lots of different plastics, and if you get them in thrift stores, you'll probably have no way of knowing what kind of plastic you're working with. The paints I'll recommend here may perform differently on different kinds of plastics, so I recommend keeping an experimental mindset. If you like, you can make a little test spot on the back of the button first and see how it performs and how it dries.

buttons Get more on buttons:

How to Make Dorset Buttons
How to Make Polymer Clay Buttons
How to Emborider Buttons
All of the paint options I'll cover here will release fumes. Please be sure to use them in a well-ventilated room.

I subjected all four paints to a washer and dryer test: I sewed a few of each kind of painted button to some muslin, and then ran this through a cold-water wash and tumble dry along with a regular load of laundry. You'll see the results below. Overall, I would recommend that if you use painted buttons for a wearable project, it's probably best to wash it by hand or on the gentle cycle of your machine, and hang to dry.

Ordinary toothpicks help hold the buttons in place while you paint them.

A Great Tool for Painting Buttons
Keep a handful of round toothpicks near you when you paint buttons. They allow you to move the button around easily without touching fresh paint. I usually hold two toothpicks at a time, placing them through two of the holes in the button to hold it steady.

Poke the toothpicks through the holes in the buttons, and they form a convenient handle.

If you want to paint the edges of a button, just put the toothpicks through the holes, and use them as a handle. Works like a charm!

Method One: Sharpie Paint Pens
Usually, I try not to design projects that require special supplies, but I have to say that the Sharpie paint pen is my absolute favorite tool for button painting. I'm using the oil-based version here. These pens are available in lots of colors, and in fine or ultra-fine point, so you can create tiny details with ease. The greatest thing about them: no messy brushes to clean up.

Sharpie paint markers are easy to use and provide good coverage and control.

The Sharpie paint came through washing and drying very well.

Sharpie paint pens provide smooth, opaque coverage with the first coat, and the paint dries quickly with a satiny finish. It also stood up well to the washer and dryer, emerging without any chips or cracks. (You might want to seal your finished buttons with some clear polyurethane sealer.) These pens would be a good bet for buttons you want to sew to a garment, or for button jewelry and embellishment projects.

Method Two: Nail Polish
Here's an option you might already have around the house. If you're painting buttons for a nonwearable use, like a jewelry project, you might give good old nail polish a try. Depending on the formula, it will provide sheer to opaque coverage. (You can always add extra coats if you want the paint to be more opaque.) It will dry with a lovely, glossy finish, and you can experiment with pearlescent, frosty colors or saturated solids. And, since it's formulated for nails, it has a nice way of smoothing itself out as it dries. The brush that comes in the bottle may be a little large for painting a button, but you can dip a smaller paintbrush into the bottle. (You can clean it up with some acetone or drugstore nail polish remover.)

Nail polish provides a glossy finish.

Nail polish will crack in the washer and dryer, so it may be best for nonwearable projects.

Nail polish should be left to dry overnight on your buttons, and then you can seal it with some clear top coat. Nail polish didn't perform especially well in my washer and dryer-as you might expect, it cracked on the buttons.

Method Three: Model Paints
Hobby stores carry these little bottles of glossy or matte colors for painting plastic models. The paint is very thin and runny, but it gives opaque coverage with one coat, and the glossy finish in particular looks beautiful on buttons. This is by far the most fume-intensive option and will require a couple days' drying time. The paints come with their own thinner for cleanup.

Model paints are available in gloss or matte finishes.

Model paints held up well through washing and drying on some plastics but not on others.

Model paints held up fairly well in my washer/dryer test. There appears to be some variation depending on the type of plastic the button is made from-some of my samples emerged from the dryer with scuffs, and some were perfect. You can seal your buttons with clear polyurethane sealer before washing.

Method Four: Enamel Paints
I tried two inexpensive craft-store enamels: one water-based acrylic enamel, and one more traditional enamel. This was my least favorite paint for buttons. While I like the opaque coverage these paints provide, they are quite thick, and covering large areas of a button smoothly can be a challenge. The good news is they clean up easily with soap and water while they're still wet. The bad news is that the package recommends a 21-day drying time.

Enamel paints clean up with soap and water but need a long drying time.


Enamel paints create bright, opaque coverage on plastic buttons.


The package also offers a quicker option: baking the paint in an oven to cure it. I tried this with some buttons, but the heat turned them yellow and brittle. However, these same buttons emerged from the washer and dryer with the paint in great shape. So if you can spare the long drying time, these paints might be a good bet for a project you'll be wearing and washing.

The paint on these heat-cured buttons held up well, although the heat-curing process damaged the buttons.


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Comments (21)

DenimHearts writes: I make purses and tote bags. Finding the right buttons has been a problem. Now it is solved. Thanks a bunch.
Posted: 1:34 pm on March 22nd
BluKatDesign writes: Fun idea! This could add a whole new dimension to my button earrings :)
Posted: 10:18 pm on April 26th
mrsg3 writes: Thanks for all of the ispirational ideas! I'm off to play : )
Posted: 2:23 pm on May 2nd
KimberlyJDC writes: I've been using nail polish for about a week now until I found this tutorial... I'll be buying Sharpie paint markers tomorrow! I've been using a piece of styrofoam to stick my "buttons on toothpicks" in to let them dry too. Thanks for a wonderful tutorial!
Posted: 10:53 am on March 31st
BeckyN writes: I knew there was a reason why I've hung onto all these old white buttons for so long - that some day I could justify this habit!

Thanks! Off to get Sharpies!
Posted: 8:42 am on March 28th
beaderonboard writes: What a great idea!!!
I have lots of white buttons, as soon as I get some Sharpie Paint markers I will paint them all.
Yeah, no more boring white buttons,
Now I'm thinking I will buy nothing but white buttons from now on, they are cheaper, and I can customize them.
Thanks for sharing such a wonderful idea.
Posted: 3:12 pm on March 22nd
pinkroses writes: You can make earrings too.
I have made some
you need a jewerly plier and you pop off the back and put on a post of finds and there you have it pinkroses
Posted: 1:29 pm on March 22nd
paperrain writes: This is great stuff. I especially like the use of different paints, and polishes, in case you can't find the right color. And I think of all the plain buttons I've given away because I thought they were blah!

never again!
Posted: 4:52 pm on March 21st
samsstuff writes: Too cute & so simple, what a great idea! Thanks for trying out the different methods for us! Thanks for the article.
Posted: 4:23 pm on March 21st
Inba_Weisman writes: Great tutorial!
Posted: 3:49 pm on March 21st
DonnaLee50 writes: I have used the sharpies for designs with great results. One of my favorites ways to use white buttons is to dye them with fabric dye. Just add boiling water to a jar with a teaspoon of your choice of powdered dye and let sit until cool. Some plastic buttons will take the dye well and become vibrant and others do not work at all.
Posted: 3:29 pm on March 21st
PamHarris writes: I would never, ever have thought to paint buttons! I love the way they look and that you can make them truly your very own. -No two alike!
Posted: 1:12 pm on March 21st
kathidahl writes: I cannot wait to try this. I have some granddaughter projects coming up - these clever buttons will really make them pop!
Posted: 12:48 pm on March 21st
TisMsMarlo writes: This is a great way to add a personalized touch to a project and it's thrifty too. Another inspiring project thanks Craftstylish!
Posted: 11:57 am on March 21st
Average_Jane_Crafter writes: Such an awesome tutorial! First off, the toothpick idea is beyond brilliant - I love it! And I love the idea of customizing plain buttons. Fantastic!
Posted: 11:21 am on March 21st
sweetserenity writes: A perfect tutorial.
Posted: 11:05 am on March 21st
walkinthewoodsllc writes: This is such a fun-fun-fun idea! And, as a rabid waste-not upcycling champion, I adore the nail polish idea! While I don't wear it, I know several who do and who likely have bottles that they (shame on them) regularly discard! :)
Posted: 7:54 am on March 21st
sandysheep writes: What an excellent article!! So great that you showed the laundry results as well as all of the different materials!!
Great pix too. Can't wait to try it!
Posted: 7:48 am on March 21st
Glorijane writes: I wish I thought of that, you just added a whole new level to my Button Bracelets that I make.
Posted: 5:21 pm on March 20th
JenniferStern writes: I love it...what an easy way to get buttons that match the fabric!!
Posted: 2:34 pm on March 20th
eyesaflame writes: Great job giving us not only the toothpick holder tips, but also showing how they hold up after washing! That's invaluable . . .
Posted: 1:05 pm on March 20th
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