In Praise of Pins

This is my submission for the May 2020 Carnival of Aros, on the topic of “DIY“.

A year or so ago, I was sitting at a transit stop, waiting for a train, when I caught a snippet of a quiet conversation behind me:

“Is that an…Oddish?”

“Yeah, you’re right, that’s Oddish!”

“What’s that one?”

“I think that one’s an ace flag”

“And what’s that one?”

“Hm, I don’t know that that one is”

Upon turning around, turns out that there was a dad and his kid (who couldn’t have been more than like, 10) who had been looking at the decorative pins that I currently have on my usual weekend bag:


The dad mentioned something about liking my pins, I mentioned that the third pin (that they were having trouble identifying) was an aromantic flag, got a thanks and a smile, and then our train came and we went our separate ways.

It was a relatively small interaction, but a heartwarming one – both to see that bit of awareness in the wild, to see some great parenthood, to be able to work in such tiny snippets of education in an unexpected location.

This also isn’t the first time that that same set of aro and ace pins has been a conversation starter – I’ve also gotten quick “hey, I like your pins!” with knowing looks and a few “oh hey, I am too!”s and some other “hey, is that pin what I think it is?” –  in the audience at LGBT student conferences, in the elevator at anime conventions, from the next table over at a restaurant.

The exact pins have occasionally changed since I first added them on – the aro flag was a later addition after it started gaining more popularity, and the current sparkly one was a recent replacement for my old DIY standard one; the oddish one has been changed out a couple times when I found a new one or lost an old one.

And over the years, I’ve acquired more pins, and more bags, and then more pins to the point I now have an entire drawer of various fandom and sexuality and all sorts of other pins to the point I’m starting to look into different ways to display them (a corkboard or tapestry to hand on a wall maybe?)

While many of my original pins were sourced, surprisingly enough, from anime conventions of all places (turns out lots of artist alley fan artists also sell pride swag and make a point of including lesser known identities!), some of the others have come from a newer source: my own handy dandy button maker!

Getting Bit by the Pin-Back Button Bug

I was first introduced to the wonderful wild world of making your own buttons via friends who participated in the aforementioned anime convention artist alleys – while I’ve never been much of a fan artist, I did on a few occasions volunteer to help them staff their own tables, and in addition to keeping an eye on the table during bathroom breaks and doing food and snack runs, one of my other big responsibilities was helping churn out more buttons  – because one of the many perks of having your own button maker is that you can create pins on demand based on the interests of the crowd that day, instead of having to guess on quantities for giant advance orders from some third party.

The process of making buttons was almost meditative – place, spin, pull the lever, spin, pull the lever again, making that super-satisfying “ka-chunk” noise – and when you lift it up, lo – you have your very own custom button, almost impossible to distinguish from the professionally manufactured ones.

My first foray into having a button maker of my own was with a cheap hand-clamp model from badge-a-minit. I wouldn’t actually recommend that model particularly (the badge-a-minit brand uses nonstandard sizing, which can make it hard to find supplies, and the loose hand clamp model was both stressful for small hands and had an incredibly high failure rate – 1 of every 4 or so attempts came out kind of smushed, and even the successes weren’t great quality). But it was cheap, and it was enough to get me hooked. I could make ace pins! Or aro pins! Or pokemon pins! Pins of my random doodles on printer paper! Pins of my own made-up political campaign slogans! and more!

Still, as fun as my first foray into doing my own pin making was, it was really practical to scale up in any way – my hands would have probably given out before I got past 15 or so in a day. So at that point, it was mostly about self-expression for myself, rather than any much wider goals. Going bigger would require upgrading – which, eventually I did! Here’s how that happened.

Buttons as Activism

While I’d always been aware that, conceptually, buttons are a great marketing or giveaway item (I certainly had my share from pride festivals and other events!), the thing that brought it from a conceptual to a concrete idea that I could see myself actually pursuing was through getting involved in my campus LGBT+ center.

At around the same time that I had started getting more seriously interested in independent ace organizing (the aro organizing would come later), I had also started getting more connected to my campus LGBT+ center, in part through volunteering with the campus Queer Straight Alliance, but also in part because I had more friends who liked to hang out there, (and because it turns out that they actually have really comfy couches for sneaking in a quick nap between classes).

It was there that I sat in on my first big promotional button-making session, where volunteers gathered to print off designs on the center’s computers, cut them out with handy circle cutters, and made pin after pin with those slightly more industrial-grade button machines. After everyone had filled a box or two full, the pins went out to be handed out at various tabling events, awareness events, pride parades, etc.

It was especially handy to be able to put organization names or websites on something that people would be more likely to keep instead of immediately tossing out (unlike say, a flyer).

A year or two later, once I also started to get into more active ace organizing, I decided to go the same route, and eventually upgraded to this bad boy from American Button Machines, which I recommend much more (I got the adjustable circle cutter option):


While it’s a bit of an investment that might not make sense for everyone, or even most people, I’ve been a big fan and I’ve gotten a ton of use out of it – for giveaways at ace and aro events and festival booths, for handouts at meetups, for creative stocking-stuffers and gift bag fillers for friends and family, for niche fandom swag, and more. Anyway, if I haven’t sold you yet – or if you’re still wondering whether this might be something for you or your group – here’s some more specific pros and cons.

Button Makers: Why, or Why Not?

Let’s talk about Money

First, I want to be upfront about one thing: getting a button maker that works well is a bit of a pricy up-front cost: my kit that I recommend cost about $350; and to get the best prices on supplies, you usually want to make bulk orders of $100+. That kind of investment makes more sense for people who either run a large enough and active enough group that the investment makes sense when spread across many future events, or who have the financial freedom to make largish hobby purchases; it might not make sense for the average ace or aro individual who just wants to make a few things for personal use.

Instead, before considering buying a button maker of your own, you may want to see if there are places you can borrow one, as few button-maker owners are using theirs every single day. For example, that campus LGBT center I mentioned would also loan it out for use by other campus queer groups. If you run in any arts and crafts circles, you could also ask artist friends or local maker spaces if they have any that could be borrowed for a day. Finally, try other activist or political organizer friends!

(At a minimum, even if you think you will eventually want your own, it’s always worth trying to borrow one just to get a feel for what it’s like).

On the other hand, if you do see a use for lots of buttons, making your own can pay off in the long run. The last time I ordered supplies (1000x quantity), I think the costs worked out to about $.09 per button, after printing and shipping, which is much cheaper than ordering them custom from a manufacturer (not counting the initial machine cost, which I considered a birthday present to myself).

We also recoup partial costs by asking (but not requiring) people to consider a $1 or so donation in exchange for buttons from those who can afford it at tabling events.

Ok, but why homemade buttons/pins?

“Enough about costs!” you may say – “why would I even want a button maker in the first place? Well, here are the some of the reasons I’ve become attached to mine:

  1. It’s one of the few promo items where you can achieve professional looking quality at home. Unlike things like stickers, temporary tattoos, club cards, or other common giveaways that require special printing and coating techniques to look professional and just feel…different when made using home kits, for buttons all you need is a box of parts, access to a color printer (Fedex or Staples or your corner print shop will do just fine), and your button maker.
  2. They’re pretty versatile. While a standard kit makes pin back buttons, you can also remove the pin back and glue a craft store magnet on the back for a refridgerator magnet, or glue a thumbtack for a corkboard decoration. You can even get specialty kits for keychains, jewelry, badge clips, and more.
  3. They’re reusable, and they hold up. While stickers can usually only be stuck on something once, a pin can be added and removed to any number of bags or outfits and swapped on the regular.
  4. They’re great for one-off projects. Unlike professional custom production, where there are often set order minimums, with a home button machine you can make only the exact number you want – whether that’s 1, 10 or a hundred.
  5. They’re easy to learn – unlike other DIY projects like knitting or friendship bracelets or painting, you don’t need a lot of art skills or crafting experience – you can learn how to use a button maker in like 5 minutes.
  6. Finally – the “ka-chunk” is just like, really, really satisfying. I don’t have a serious point to this one, I just can’t get over how fun it is.

Other Things to Know Before You Buy

Have I sold you on button makers yet? Before you all go run to your computers to buy one, there’s one other main caveat I want to mention:

When you buy a button maker, you’re locked into that shape and size.

Generally speaking, all reliable button makers are machined to only produce a single size and shape of button; and if you want to add other sizes or shapes, you’ll have to get a whole new button making kit, which is prohibitively expensive for most small groups.

So before you buy, put a lot of thought into what size you might want. I generally recommend 1.25″ for all-purpose usage, 1″ for more abstract or low-detail art, or 2.25″ for text-heavy slogans that you want to be readable without being 6″ away. (1.25″ can fit a short 2-3 word slogan, or a website around the rim, but you have to be fairly close to read it – whereas the 2.25″ or 3″ are large enough that someone say, behind you in a line could clearly read them). I’m not a fan of square or oval sizes.

So you got a button maker somehow: What next?

Whether you already have one on hand, found one to borrow from a friend, or ended up getting one for yourself, here’s some ideas for DIY projects:

  1. Pride swag! With pride coming up next month (or rather, starting tomorrow), you can make your own pride buttons, especially for hard to find identities – see, for example, the featured image at the top of this post for some examples I made for our local Aro-Spec Awareness Week meetup. In fact, I’ll hopefully be posting some of my own designs for anyone to reuse later that month.
  2. Other Activism and Political statements – in addition to pride swag, you can use buttons to promote all sorts of other movement goals as well  – maybe print a badge to support your favorite candidates in an upcoming election, your position for or against an upcoming policy proposal, or for any other activist or political statements like #transrights or #blacklivesmatter, etc.
  3. Found Art – In addition to drafting my own graphics, I also have fun experimenting with making buttons from any other decorative paper that’s not too stiff – think decorative origami paper, magazine cut-outs, pages from old used books with key words highlighted, particularly interestingly colored spam mail gift wrap, etc. There’s a ton of possibilities out there!
  4. Add Googly eyes – everything is better with googly eyes. As personal gifts for friends a couple years ago, I printed out pokemon card images to make into buttons, but glued silly google eyes on top of all the character’s eyes – it was a big hit!
  5. Full on DIY sketches – while most of my event buttons are printed graphics that were designed on my computer, sometimes it’s fun to just break out the crayons and colored pencils and markers and just freehand something yourself to memorialize in a button. This can also be a fun side activity for festival booths or meetup events – DIY buttons on demand!
  6. Metallic gel pens on black paper – on the trend of diy custom buttons, I’ve found that using white, gold or silver gel pens (or metallic sharpies) on black paper can be a great way to make simple designs (like, say, custom pronoun buttons) that changes things up a bit from the standard white background of regular printer paper.

(note: for giveaways and selling, stick to original designs that you have proper copyright to – leave the found art and such for limited personal use or small personal gifts. Also, if going into the grey zone of using commercial series imagery for personal fan stuff, just make sure not to use any private fan artists work without explicit permission (and maybe compensation) – stick to things like official corporate promotional images)







One thought on “In Praise of Pins

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