Sew Useful Contest: Make Your Own Buttons




This past Christmas, my parents moved away from my childhood home on the coast of New England. My mother gave me a collection of sea glass and shells as a gift so that I would have something to remember the ocean.

Right after the holidays, I popped a button off of my peacoat and lost it. I didn't want to repair the coat with a mismatched button, so I decided to make some sea glass buttons instead.

I found sea glass hard to photograph against the white background, so I am using red fused glass cabochons for this instructable. The directions for sea glass are exactly the same.

I created this instructable for the Sew Useful Contest. You can find the accompanying Etsy listing here.

Step 1: You Will Need...

Materials and Tools

  • Glass cabochons (if you don't have access to sea glass or shells you can buy artisan cabochons)
  • Drill with Flex-Shaft attachment and 1/16" and 1/32" collets (available at Lowe's, Home Depot, etc)
  • Carabineer Clip
  • Crystalite Triple Ripple diamond drill bits, .75 - 2.1 mm (made by Abrasive Technology, Inc.)
  • Shallow plastic bowl
  • Water
  • Safety goggles
  • Ear plugs (if you have sensitive ears)

Step 2: Prepare Your Workspace

Assemble your drill

Attach the flexshaft attachment to your drill. Insert the collet into the flexshaft attachment, and the triple ripple diamond bit into the collet.

Suspend your drill

For this project, you will need to suspend your drill above your workspace. Many people buy a drill press to accomplish this, but I don't have enough room for one in my studio, so I just hang the drill from a nail in the wall using a carabineer clip. I sit in a chair with the water bowl in my lap and the drill at a level about equal with my head.

Fill your water bowl

Add just enough water to your bowl to cover the glass. Your drill bit should be the only thing underwater. Try to avoid getting the collets and flexshaft attachment wet, because they will rust.

Safety First!

Remember to put your safety glasses on, and if you have sensitive hearing, stick earplugs in your ears.

Step 3: Brace the Glass

When I drill glass, I just hold it in place underwater with one hand and drill with the other. I haven't actually hurt myself with this method, but some people like to keep their fingers away from the drill. If this is the case, you should buy a drill press.

Step 4: Drill S-L-O-W-L-Y

I find the hardest part of drilling glass to be starting the hole. This is when you are most likely to slip, and leave a skidding drill mark across your glass. Go slow and be careful.

Very Light Pressure is Key

When you start your hole, don't push down on the glass with the drill bit. Just touch it to the glass and let the bit do the work. Little pieces of glass will chip off, and you will slowly make a hole. If you push too hard, the glass may break.

Wash out the hole every few seconds

Every couple of seconds, remove the bit from the glass and let the water wash into the hole to remove glass bits and cool the glass. If the glass heats up too much from the friction, it will crack.

Drill halfway, then flip

This is a matter of personal preference, but I usually drill halfway through the glass, then flip it over, start a new hole, and drill through the other side to meet the hole. This prevents the chipping marks that can occur when you break through to the surface of glass from the inside.

First one hole, then the other

Once you are done with your first hole, pick a spot that is at least as far away as twice the width of your bit (e.g. if your bit is 2.1 mm, your second hole should be at a distance of at least 4 mm from your first hole), and drill your second hole using the same method.

Step 5: Video Example

I made a short video so that you could get a better sense of the instructions. In the video you see me drilling a little bit at a time and washing out the hole.

Step 6: Add Your Unique Buttons to Your Sewing Project!

Dry off your glass button. If it has any accidental scratches, you can usually cover those up with clear nail polish (or you can heal them with a kiln, if you have access to one).

Now all that is left to do is add your handmade button to your sewing project!



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    14 Discussions


    7 years ago on Introduction

    Do you have a picture of an actual sea shell being drilled or one you finished drilling ?


    Sure there is a way :-) goto the beach, and get a LOAD of shells. use a pair of wire cutters to rough cut the button shape from a flatish portion of the shell. drill the holes using the slowest speed possible, and with NO pressure. let the bit's weight do the work or you'll crack the shell. then finish off with sandpaper, file or emery board. Also works using coconut shell, wood, plastic... just about anything your heart desires


    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    Limpets would not have to be precut.  For other shells, I would probably use a plug cutter in a power drill.

    Best to use diamond bits (cheap at harbor freight) with rotary tool like dremel - do it under water to prevent diamond clog & inhaling the poison dust. Oil (baby oil) works well too. You can get a variety of tip shapes that will work on thicker or thinner, harder or softer shell. On the other hand you can buy metal "button shanks" at bead stores to epoxy on to whatever you want to have a button of --but it doesn't look too good with transparent bobbles like the glass. Oh also they sell "wet sandpaper" in super high grits for automotive finishes (up to 1200 I have), that will give you the final gleam that hardware stores 300 grit can't. Plus the water drowns that nasty dust. The paper is a bit more expensive, but way more long lived - it's the only type I use now.


    Reply 12 years ago on Introduction

    Very good job! to you and liskidder. I was just about to ask the same question as KnittingFreak. [making buttons from oyster shells]

    There are no oysters around here, but there are lots of clams about 300 yards away, and local fishermen come ashore with scallop shells only a little further away.


    Reply 12 years ago on Introduction

    I've drilled muscle shells before. When I researched it, I think what I found was that tungsten-carbide drill bits were the best for shells, but I suspect diamond core bits would work too. I also remember reading something about wearing a mask because seashell dust can be dangerous (this is a good idea any time you're drilling something).


    9 years ago on Introduction

    I have been working at goodwill sorting clothing, and recently I saw a garment with buttons made of cowrie shells (Cypreaea Moneta).  The button maker drilled holes in the back running through the shell's mouth.


    12 years ago on Introduction

    I have some very old buttons. Buttons were originally made out of mother of pearl. It's a great idea.


    12 years ago on Step 4

    How can you be sure that when you flip the button over, you are drilling over the hole on the front side?

    1 reply

    12 years ago on Step 4

    I eyeball it with opaque glass by looking at the glass from the side. It's easier with semi-transparent sea glass because then you can see the hole from the other side.


    12 years ago on Introduction

    Gorgeous! I'll have to give it a try. As for photographing seaglass, try it against a black velvet background.