Monday, November 4, 2013

Buttons! Making small wooden buttons on a lathe-Discussion and Plans

Hi Everyone,'s getting colder! Snow will be here soon so while we're waiting for that, let's make some buttons on the lathe. Here's the story behind that:

I have a wonderful friend who is a marvelous knitter. She makes all sorts of amazing garments-gloves, mittens, amazing scarves, out of all kinds of exotic yarn (one time she knitted a scarf out of yarn that contained an iron filament-woo hoo!). Anyway, she is currently knitting mittens that have an owl knitted onto the top of the mittens and the owls need an eye. Certainly they do. So I'm going to attempt to make several test buttons for her to try out.


Buttons are a simple type of fastening technology that have a lot of technical demands on them. They have to securely and correctly fasten parts of a garment together, they have to hold up to daily or near daily use, they have to be capable of being laundered, and they have to do all of this and be lovely to see and hopefully enhance the garment they are attached to. They also have to be strong enough not to break and hold up to the high heat of ironing. A lot to ask of such a small thing.

Buttons are small objects and turning them requires smaller than normal tools. Fortunately I had the presence of mind to purchase a set of micro turning tools when I purchased my lathe and I've never regretted that as I've used them a lot over the years. I'll be using those along with an X-Acto razor saw to cu them free from the wood turning blank.


I'm going to make a set of 4, 1/2" wooden buttons out of jatoba wood. We'll be doing two different kinds of buttons: ones with holes in the face for sewing, and ones that have a shank in the back of the button for sewing.  We'll also use jatoba which is a hard, red-colored wood which should make a button strong enough to hold up on the top of a mitten and also to enhance the overall garment.

Let's take a look at the photos:

Buttons with holes through the face:

I have a small 1"x 1" jatoba stick left over from a long ago project that will be perfect for this:

I've cut off a 5" section from the stick and I'm going to mount it between centers and turn it to a cylinder 1/2" in diameter. Time to get out the calipers:

Here is the cylinder about 5 minutes later:

 And here is a short, cut off piece of the cylinder mounted on the turning chuck:

I rounded off the face of the button with a narrow gouge,  and sanded it smooth. Then I marked off a small circle with a pencil to establish the distance between the holes. I don't want them too close together as the wood between them might not be strong enough and could break at a future point in time (I told you this is complex) but narrow enough to easily sew them on for use with a button hole (note: the mittens these will be attached to won't have button holes but the button is a test piece and future buttons will need to meet this requirement):

Next, I'm going to drill the holes through the face of the button with a 5/64" drill bit and I'm going to do this as straight and as carefully as possible so as not to crack the button:

If you look carefully you can see the holes in the face of the button: 

 The next step involves cutting the button off of the turning blank. In the photo you can see the razor saw and the turning tool for separating the button. This is something to do very carefully as the button can crack or the edge can chip:

And here is the finished button. I sanded the back it gently for a moment on the sandpaper. Not bad:

Buttons with a shank on the back

Here is a photo of the turning blank. I've rounded off the face of the button and sanded it smooth:

 Next I've cut a small diameter shank in the back of the button:

And drilled a 5/64" hole through the shank:

And then I sanded and cut off the button with the razor saw. Here are the fronts of both buttons:

And the backs of the buttons:

 And here are the buttons with a drop of oil on them to bring out the color:

I'm going to make more buttons and refine the process a bit. I'll show you the finished product later this week.


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