Whether you’re a pin collector or a pin maker, knowing the basic composition of enamel pins and the manufacturing risks involved with each type of enamel pin is critical to making informed purchasing decisions.
This blog post is essentially a crash-course on all things pins & pin-making. If you don't know much about pins or if you want to get into pin-making, you're in the right place!
What is an enamel pin?
Enamel pins are small accessories with pin backs (obviously). They're a great way to show off your personality in a small and compact way, which is part of why they’ve grown in popularity recently as artist alley products.
An “enamel pin” is a broad term.
While enamel pins and lapel pins are basically the same, artists & pin collectors will generally refer to these accessories as “enamel pins.” Lapel pins have a connotation of being worn on clothes (i.e. the lapel of a jacket or shirt), and they usually indicate the wearer's affiliation with an organization or cause.
Or, to keep it simple – you can just call them “pins.” (That's what I do.)
Quick note for online selling: While an enamel pin technically involves the use of enamel, you’ll find that many artists label their products as an "enamel pin" for all sorts of pins (even if they don't have enamel on them). Why? It's good for SEO 🔎 And it's a habit.
Why are pins popular? 🤔
Pins saw a resurgence in popularity in 1999, when Disney Pin Trading was introduced at Walt Disney World as part of the Millennium Celebration.
This is when a shift occurred in pin manufacturing – while lapel pins were still often used in the official sense (ex: American Flag Pin worn by government officials), pins also started to be mass produced for the specific purpose of pin collecting and pin trading.
Unlike lapel pins, these Disney “trading pins” had no significant cause or affiliation associated with them; they were developed to generate revenue and engage audiences – like Pokémon trading cards, except more durable for rainy park days and with the intention of exchanging many hands.
Pin collecting has only grown in popularity since then, and pins are now common in artist alleys and craft shows. The appeal of pins remains largely the same for collectors and creators: they’re fun, relatively affordable, durable, and seen as “luxury” when compared to items with similar price points (like acrylic keychains or lanyards).
Entering Pin Making
How do you start making pins?
I will make a separate blog post detailing the step-by-step process for finding a manufacturer and optimizing your designs for pin manufacturing, but here's a few basic things you need to know if you plan on getting into pin making:
- Manufacturers generally have a Minimum Order Quantity (MOQ), typically between 50-100 units per design, with a separate minimum per color variant.
- On top of unit costs, there is usually a 1-time mold fee, which makes the initial purchase of a pin design more expensive than future purchases of the same design.
- Printing, back logo designs, specialized rubber clutches (like hearts or stars), and other special effects add additional costs.
- If you are ordering from an overseas manufacturer, expect there to be a high shipping/freight rate. Factor this into the cost when you're determining your break-even point. Freight costs from my China-based manufacturer directly to my house in the United States average between $300 - $450 per order (granted, I usually order a lot).
- Determine whether you want to handle all the product packaging by yourself or pay an additional cost for your manufacturer to do it (example: card backers, cellophane bags, etc).
- EXPECT SOME B-GRADE PINS. I can't stress this enough. It is almost guaranteed that you will receive some B-Grade pins in your order. The reason for this is that pins are typically hand-made and hand-filled by the manufacturing factory - unless you order mass quantities (500+ units per design per variant, in which case they will usually use a machine to do the enamel filling and other production processes).
- Reordering pins will probably result in some variation. Even if the pins are made from the same mold, enamel & epoxy colors might vary slightly due to being hand-mixed (the Pantone color-match is eyeballed) and the baking process (any variation in time might result in darker/duller colors). Quality might also vary for any number of reasons.
The cost barrier for pin manufacturing is higher than for prints, keychains, patches, and lanyards, but it's not as expensive as apparel and ita bags. Custom samples for pins are not particularly common, but you can request them from your manufacturer, especially if colors are a major concern. I personally don't bother with samples for my pins, but that's mainly because I self-fund them, so I don't need to show a product before mass-production (which is more common with crowd-funding and pre-orders).
Is a Pantone Formula Guide necessary?
This is an unpopular opinion, and you'll probably hear differently, but I just have to say it: you DON'T need a Pantone Formula Guide to get started!
Are they useful to have? Yes.
If you're just getting started, a $160+ color book is not a necessary expense. There are two virtual options for determining Pantone colors.
Pantone Plus color libraries - Adobe Illustrator
Pantone Color Finder - Online
Both of the above options are free. However, you obviously need to have an Adobe subscription to have access to the Pantone Plus color libraries in Adobe Illustrator. The Pantone Color Finder is online, accessible to everyone, and it's 100% free.
If you feel daunted by Pantone colors, your manufacturer will also have an in-house designer. During the proofing process, they can also determine Pantone colors that best match the colors in your design if you didn't personally provide Pantone colors.
If I'm being honest, I mostly use the online Color Finder. I use Adobe Illustrator for all of my design work, but I prefer the setup of the Pantone Color Finder. Why do I use the Color Finder instead of my physical Pantone Formula Guide? Mainly for two reasons:
- You can manually pick Pantone colors or convert an RGB/CMYK/HEX color from your design. This does a lot of the heavy lifting for finding matching/similar colors quickly instead of flipping through pages.
- Sometimes, I end up finding & liking a Pantone color via the Color Finder that's not technically the "closest" to the color in my design, but it works better for a physical product.
After I determine a Pantone color using the online color finder, I'll reference my Pantone Formula Guide (Solid Coated) to make sure I like the color in person in natural lighting.
Quick note: If you're wanting to take the plunge and get the Pantone Formula Guide, pin manufacturers use the Solid Coated.
Basic Pin Composition
Enamel vs. No Enamel
Are pins with no enamel considered "enamel pins"? Why would you even want a pin with no enamel?
The answer is simple: pin creating has become more creative and innovative the past few years, encompassing several new finish and design techniques. Different techniques yield different results, and mixing & matching different kinds of finishes can bring your pins to the next level.
Here's an overview of the most common pin types, pros & cons of each, and what sort of flaws you can expect from them.
Common Types of Pins
Hard Enamel: best for thicker metal lines
|Screen Printing||More Expensive|
|Smooth Surface||Scuffs & Scratches|
|No Glitter Fallout||Enamel "Lifting"|
|Combine Techniques||Limited Metal Options|
Hard enamel pins are the most common type of pin you'll find in an artist alley. They are generally preferred by collectors & creators for their quality and versatility. During the production process, hard enamel sections are overfilled and then buffed down so that the enamel surface is flat and flush with the metal components. Hard enamel can be combined with techniques like glitter and screen printing to create unique effects, and they're ideal for complicated pin designs such as Pin-on-Pin (POP), sliding pins, and spinning pins.
The main flaws you need to look out for with hard enamel pins are:
Soft Enamel: best for intricate metal lines/details
|More Small Details||Glitter Fallout|
|Metal Finish Versatility||Dust & Debris|
If cost is a concern, soft enamel is a great option to get more pins for your budget. However, many pin collectors prefer hard enamel or epoxy finishes (I'm probably biased, I'm not a fan of soft enamel pins). They have a more 3D look and feel (raised & recessed areas due to enamel under-filling), which might work better for some designs - especially if your design has intricate metal artwork or thin lines. Soft enamel is more commonly combined with an epoxy overlay so that you can add on screen printing and not deal with glitter fallout.
Another major bonus when using soft enamel is metal versatility. Some metal finishes can't be buffed, which is a required process for hard enamel (namely rainbow & dye metal finishes).
Epoxy: best for Special Effects
|Smooth, Shiny Surface||Yellowing Over Time|
|Screen Printing||Higher Flaw Rate|
|Wide Technique Range||Dust, Debris & Bubbles|
|Metal Finish Versatility||Scuffs & Scratches|
Epoxy has the widest range of capabilities. It can be used to make "stained-glass" sections on a pin. It can be combined with a primarily hard enamel pin when put over soft enamel, sandblast, or cut-out areas to create unique effects; an epoxy overlay also allows for Screen Printing and minimizes glitter fallout in these areas.
Epoxy also has the highest flaw rate due to dust, debris, and possible bubbles being caught in the epoxy while it cures; its translucent nature makes all of these flaws more noticeable. Epoxy can yellow over time, however this is a very gradual process that usually takes years. Epoxy pins are also more susceptible to direct sunlight and hot temperatures, but you shouldn't leave your pins in direct sunlight anyways, so this isn't a particularly noticeable or major cause for concern.
no enamel: best for minimalist designs
Most no-enamel pins you'll find tend to be board "filler" pins - usually mini pins with simple shapes. A great example of this technique is my sparkle filler pins.
There's recently been a trend with using a flat, dye-metal pin that has no raised lines (enamel cavities) and then screen printing your entire design on top of it. Imagine icing a 🍪, except... pins.
Cloisonné: an uncommon classic
Sometimes you'll see the word "cloisonné" tossed around or stuck in the tags of a product listing. Despite what people might say, cloisonné and hard enamel pins are not the same thing. Sure, they share a lot of the same production steps, and the end products are somewhat similar, but cloisonné pins are undoubtedly the highest quality pin you can make (as far as the production process, anyways, since they are jewelry-grade). They are also the most uncommon due to the cost and complexity of production.
Like hard enamel pins, cloisonné pins start off with raised and recessed cavities, which are then filled with color. Hard enamel pins are filled with a molten material that cools and hardens; this process is repeated in layers to build up the height of the enamel, which is then buffed down so that it's flush with the raised die metal lines. Cloisonné pins are filled with a colored sand and then heated to 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit, turning the sand into colored glass; this process needs to be very precise since these pins can't be overfilled and buffed down.
Chances are, the pins you'll find in artist alley aren't cloisonné pins, as the process is usually reserved for jewelry-grade lapel pins. I personally have no experience in making them, as I (and most artists) stick to the 4 other pin types listed above.
While there are several base metals that enamel pins can be made from, the two most common are iron and zinc alloy.
Iron is primarily used for simple, 2D designs. Iron is heavier than zinc alloy, so if you like a weightier pin and your designs aren't complicated, iron might be a good choice for you. Zinc alloy, on the other hand, is more malleable during the production process, so it can accommodate more complex designs. If your design has lots of ridges, cutouts, or detailed line art, zinc alloy is your best bet.
On top of these differences, zinc alloy and iron pins require different posts.
Pin posts are the sharp studs on the back of enamel pins where clutches are attached. There are several different kinds of posts, but for the sake of simplicity, I'll just go over the basics.
These pins are the same size, but because of the cutout on "Main Squeeze", zinc alloy was used instead of iron. You can see that (because of this base metal difference) different posts were used for the pins.
The reason for this is because posts are accounted for in zinc alloy pin molds.
Plating refers to changing the base grey of iron or zinc alloy into the more familiar colors found on pins: gold, silver, rose gold, rainbow, etc.
Manufacturers all offer different varieties of plating, so make sure to ask your manufacturer what they offer - sometimes, they'll have options you didn't even think of! It also doesn't hurt to ask if they have a plating option that isn't listed.
Quick note: Enamel pins usually aren't plated with a measurable amount of metal. When you see a 'gold' enamel pin, it's most likely gold-toned, not what is considered gold metal.
Enamel pins are most commonly electroplated. Electroplating involves dipping racks of your pins into a series of chemical baths; the racks are charged with electricity, which causes the ions from the electroplating solution (gold, silver, nickel, bronze, etc.) to attach to the pin base.
Electroplating results in a shiny, metal-looking finish.
"Silver" plating is at a much greater risk of tarnishing than any other electroplating I've personally used; instead of "silver" plating, most pin makers opt for "nickel" plating (which basically looks the same but with lower susceptibility to tarnishing). I've also heard of people having problems with "rose gold" plating, but so far, so good for me.
Dye Metal Plating
This type of plating is relatively new and uncommon. It essentially involves your pins being spray-painted in your desired color. Pins that use this kind of plating method can't be buffed, and they often have a speckled texture due to the painting process. This plating technique also has a higher risk of chipping compared to electroplating, although electroplating can also chip if it's not bonded properly.
This plating technique is often combined with soft enamel, epoxy, and screen printing to create unique, colorful designs with a more 'cartoony' effect. Because it's still relatively uncommon, it really makes designs stand out.
I will make a separate blog post detailing the ins & outs of pin designing and the effects you can use to achieve them, but here's a quick run-down of some of the more common "special effects" added to pins:
If you made it this far, then congrats! You've made it to the end of this crash-course on the basics of pin making! I could go on and on about pins (some of you probably think I did), but I really wanted to compile a centralized place of information on pin-making specifically for small artists and artist alley!
I hope this quick run-down gives you a better idea of where to start on your pin collecting and/or creating journey. Be sure to check out my other blog posts for more tips & tricks for pin making, designing & manufacturing other types of products, and running a small art business!
Please note: This blog post encompasses my personal knowledge of pins & pin making. It will be added to & updated when I learn new techniques, become familiar with new materials, etc.