An introduction to designing and producing enamel pins

Monday, December 18, 2017

I regularly get questions about my enamel pins, so it seems a educational post is in order.

Note: This guide only covers hard enamel pins. I don't do soft enamel and have no experience with making them. Every manufacturer is different, so your mileage may vary for info in this post. This is no gospel.

Step 1: Designing your pins

File Type

Different manufacturers (manu for short) have different requirements, but generally speaking, a vector file created in Adobe Illustrator is the way to go. Some manus will accept JPGs or other non-vector artwork, but this means they will have to go through the extra step of converting your artwork to a vector. Not only can this incur additional costs and processing time, you will be at the mercy of their artist who does the conversion. I've known people who were deeply unhappy with how their pins turned out due to the artwork conversion. Creating your artwork as a vector gives you the best chance of getting a final product you will be happy with.

Note, if you have questions about Adobe Illustrator or other software related stuff...please Google it. I get these kinds of inquiries a lot too and I'm usually like, "type that question into Google. It will explain better than I can." Also I don't have time to be tech support for free.

Line Thickness
The line work of your illustration is translated into the metal "walls" of the pin that separate enamel sections, and there are limits to how thin these lines can be. It varies by manu, but I like to keep my lines above 0.2mm thickness (Set your stroke measurement to mm under the "Units" section of the Preferences dialog box by clicking CTRL/CMD + K).

Color Selection
For best results, use Pantone swatches when coloring your artwork. Make sure your fan deck is current and hasn't faded. However, be prepared for the fact that color matching is probably not going to be perfect. Just because your fan deck is in good condition, doesn't mean your manu isn't working from a faded, outdated one. Or that they'll even try terribly hard to match your colors. I think it's best to be flexible. Close enough is good enough in my book. If you insist on being anal about color matching, talk to your manu about getting prototype samples before doing the full production. This will add time and money, but it's up to you. Regardless, include a color key in your file for your manufacturer identifying your swatches. Also, more colors = higher cost.

To make sure you're happy with the size of your pin, print out the artwork at 100% scale. You might change your mind when you see it in person and not on a screen. Your production artwork should be 100% scale, but to be safe, include some text in your file stating the size of your pin (width x height) in mm.

Metal Finishes
The usual metal options are gold, silver, black nickel, and copper/rose gold, or bronze in either polished or vintage (more matte) finish. Not all manus offer every option so be sure to ask. Include some text specifying your metal choice in your file.

Clutch Options
I like to use rubber clutches because I think they are more reliable than the metal butterfly option. Plus, you can also request them in different colors. Premium locking pin backs are also a thing, but I find them to be a pain in the ass. Plus, they tend to confuse people who aren't used to them.

Fancy Options & Packaging
Additional fun things some manufacturers offer is glitter, dangling elements, backstamping or lasering (if you want your logo or name on the back of your pin), etc. Ask for sample images from your manu if you're considering these things. For packaging, I get my backing cards printed at Vista Print, but some manus can do it for you and mount your pins as well. If you go this route, I'd suggest converting all text to outlines because they might not have your desired font.

Step 2: Finding a Manufacturer 

Middle Man or Factory Direct
If you google "enamel pin manufacturer" or some variation of that, and you find a website based in the US, there's a good chance it's a middle man. That means you give them your artwork, and they farm it out to a third-party factory in China. They may never even lay eyes on your pins, having the factory ship directly to you. I feel that having a middle man doesn't add any value, only additional cost, time, and potential for communication issues. I worked with a middle man at first, so I can speak from experience.

How to Find a Manufacturer
You research. Google is your friend. Search terms like factory, enamel/lapel/cloisonne pin, China, manufacturer, direct, etc. You may feel like the easy answer is to just ask existing pin designer who their manu is, but most are not going to tell you that info. Why? A lot of reasons. We don't want our manu to take on so many orders that they're quality, turnaround time, and customer service declines (something I've seen happen). We networked and researched ourselves to find our manus and we don't owe the fruits of that labor to anyone who sends a DM without even as much as friendly greeting. Or maybe you're straight up competition. Either way, don't be surprised if your request for info goes ignored.

If you do want to go this route, here's my suggestion. Purchase a pin from the artist and evaluate the quality in person first. Then send them a DM or email letting them know you have purchased a pin, liked the quality, and ask if they'd be willing to share their manu source, but state that you understand if they don't want to disclose this. Even better would be to share the names of manus you've researched (just to show you have made an effort on your own), and ask if they have any experience with them. 

Don't Forget About Seconds
If you order 100 pins, it's unlikely you will will receive 100 pins of perfect quality. There will be seconds, or pins that have defects like scratches, dirt in the enamel, missing enamel, chipped enamel, etc. You shouldn't expect 100% perfect pins. Seconds rates can very from manu to manu and even order to order. In my experience it's been at or less than 10% for the most part, but I've heard of people getting bad batches with a much higher percentage. It's up to you when it's a big enough problem that you need to haggle with your manu about refunds, replacements, and that sort of thing. But as a general rule, order more than you need. If you took preorders for 50 pins, don't just order 50 unless you want to send defective merchandise and have unhappy customers.