Enamel Pins 101: Hard or Soft Enamel?


Hard or Soft Enamel?

One of the questions we get most often here at PGS is “What is the difference between soft and hard enamel?” The short and most obvious answer is that soft enamel pins have raised outlines, and hard enamel pins do not. With hard enamel, everything is smooth and shiny and flush. Here are a few examples:

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By Wild Hunt x Fabula Nebulae. Soft enamel, nickel metal.

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By JoleePrints. Soft enamel, black dye metal.

As you can see in these soft enamel pins, the enamel sits lower than the outlines, making the pin very textured and dimensional.

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By Quinne Larson. Hard enamel, black nickel metal.

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By That Crafty Little Fox. Hard enamel, rose gold metal.

With hard enamel pins, the whole thing is sanded down flat, so that the enamel and metal are flush. You can read more about the differing manufacturing process here.

Which One is Better for My Pin?

Largely, hard vs soft enamel is a matter of preference, but here are a few things to consider when deciding what’s right for your design:

  • Hard enamel can tend to look a little more “high-end”. Soft enamel is traditionally more popular in the music/artsy/punk/diy type scenes, but hard enamel has rapidly caught up and is very popular with a lot of modern illustrators and pin artists.
  • Soft enamel is faster and cheaper than hard enamel. Because hard enamel has to go through more steps than soft, the labor time is higher. Soft enamel can be rushed a little bit when necessary, but hard enamel really has to take its time. If you need your pins ASAP, soft is a better bet.
  • Because soft enamel is plated before enamel is added, it has more metal plating options than hard enamel does. That means with soft enamel, you can have pure black or white metal, any Pantone color you like, or even rainbow anodized metal. Hard enamel is limited to the standards – gold, silver nickel, brass, copper, rose gold, and black nickel (which is a shiny dark charcoal color.) We can also do a matte gold or nickel if you don’t want the metal to be shiny.
  • Soft enamel is a little bit better at holding narrow detail, especially in the metal outline. Because hard enamel is sanded down, metal lines can tend to widen a little bit from the pressure applied to the surface.

What About Epoxy?

Epoxy is a type of clear resin that can be put on top of a soft enamel pin to give it a smooth surface, sort of a “faux hard enamel” vibe. We don’t charge to add epoxy to your order, and it can be a good option if you want that smooth look but also want a metal that can’t be done in hard enamel (it’s also nice for keeping glitter in check, as soft enamel glitter can sometimes shed a little.) It’s definitely a different look- sort of a glassy bubble effect- but very cool in it’s own way. Many vintage pins were done this way, so it can give your pin an automatic retro vibe.

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By Lil Boat Boutique. Soft enamel, rainbow metal with epoxy topcoat. Rainbow metal can only be used on soft enamel pins, so epoxy is a good way to get a smooth surface anyway.

What’s the Deal with Printed Pins?

We’ll talk about printed pins in detail in another post, but basically, printing allows us to add details that are too complex for the usual metal/enamel method. Normally, we start with a flat piece of metal that is cut to shape, and then your design is printed on top of it using either a full-color CMYK method (think, the way a magazine is printed) or spot-printed (more of a silkscreened look), depending on your art. Occasionally, if a pin design has just a few too-small details, we can print those details on top of a regular enamel pin (almost always hard enamel, since they need a smooth surface to print on, and it blends in better anyway since printing is flat.) In those cases, you might never even guess that a detail is printed on!

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A full-color, CMYK off-set printed pin by Knitted Wit.

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A spot-printed pin on gold metal by James R. Eads.

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