Enamel Pins 101: Introduction to Enamel Pins

Enamel Pins 101: Introduction to Enamel Pins | Alchemy Merch

September 30, 2020

an assortment of enamel pins by Alchemy Merch

I Want to Make Some Pins!.... Now What?

So you’ve decided to enter the wonderful world of enamel pins! Or maybe you’ve been a collector for a while, and are looking to check out the other side of the fence. Perhaps you’re looking for a great way to promote your business, brand or create a unique wedding favor. Whatever your motivation, enamel pins are an awesome way to make affordable, wearable art.  They have great margins and an easy break even point, making them a low risk and high profit item to sell. 


At Alchemy we’ve made over 1.5 million pins, so we’ve got our unique process down. Over the next few posts, we’ll be guiding you step-by-step through everything you need to consider when it comes to making the best pins possible. We’re committed to making sure the end product is something that you’re going to be proud of.


In this first installment, we’re going to take you through the very basics of enamel pin manufacture. Understanding the process is super helpful when you’re creating - or altering - your art (plus, it’s amazing how they are made!) 


When a Mold and a Syringe Love Each Other Very Much…


Traditional enamel pins consist of two main parts. The metal framework, and the enamel fill. Think of the metal as a very complicated swimming pool, with metal walls and differently shaped “pools” for each colored area of the pin. 

 

unfilled, raw molds at the enamel pin factory
A tray of raw molded metal. In the corner, you can see a set that has already had rose gold plating applied. 

 

When the factory gets the art, the first thing they do is create a mold, which they then use to stamp and cut the metal pieces. For very complex designs, rather than stamping, they melt down a zinc-based metal and pour it into the mold. If necessary, areas that are delicate or narrow are filed by hand. Posts are welded on the back. 

files and cutting tools used in making die-cast enamel pins

Some of the tools used in hand-filing the pins.


With soft enamel pins, the metal is then plated with your color of choice (like gold, silver, copper, black, or any color of the rainbow.) With hard enamel, the plating happens after the coloring step. (We’ll talk more about the differences between the two in a later post.)


Now the “swimming pool” is ready to be filled with liquid enamel! Until recently, all of this was done by hand with tiny syringes. That’s right- each and every teeny, tiny spot in each and every pin! Lately, more and more soft enamel pins are able to be colored by machine, which makes the process quite a bit faster. They can fit enamel into spaces down to about 0.3mm/0.01”.  Hard enamel pins are still colored by hand though, which is one reason they can’t really be rushed. Coloring can take several days, since each color needs to cure and harden before the next one is added. 

 

several brightly colored syringes full of enamel
A set of syringes used to color enamel pins. Notice the itty bitty tips!


At this point, soft enamel pins are pretty much done! They get packaged up and sent on their way. Hard enamel still has several steps though - first, they are sanded down to create a flat, smooth, shiny surface where the metal is flush with the enamel. This step is the main difference between hard and soft enamel pins. Then the metal is plated and the whole thing is polished.  The materials used in soft and hard enamel are the same, but the process steps are different.  Hard enamel cost more because of this additional labor time. 

a tray of enamel pins curing after being inked
A completed tray of pins, waiting for the enamels to cure. 

 

Think: Tiny Coloring Book


The main take-aways from this process, as far as art preparation is concerned, are these:


  1. Any area of color MUST have an outline of metal. The swimming pool must have walls, or the liquid enamel would spill out and mix together. So when designing your art, think “coloring book” - each color has its own designated, outlined space. 
  2. Be aware of sizing. The smallest space that the factory can fit enamel into is .3mm - which is quite tiny, about the width of sewing thread. Sometimes when designing something at a larger scale than it will be produced, it’s easy to forget how small pins really are. Printing your design out at home in the size you want your pins to be is a great way to get perspective on your level of detail, and see if it feels like anything is just too darn small. If there’s absolutely no chance you could color something in, even with a well-sharpened pencil, there’s probably no way they’ll be able to get that syringe of enamel in there.  If you print out your design at home, try holding it at arm’s length and if a detail is hard to make out, it might be too small.  

a diagram showing several ways to use metal and enamel filling
A few different ways to do a simple logo pin

If you’re designing from scratch, it will be helpful to keep those things in mind going in, but converting existing art is usually totally do-able too (and definitely a process we can help you with! Don’t hesitate to send us an email- orders@alchemymerch.com.)  

 

Next time, we’ll be diving a little deeper into art preparation and talking about our favorite software for creating pin art! 




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