Thursday, March 8, 2012

Button Tree Tutorial

Earlier this week I told the story of how we started making button trees, how we started selling them and even how we made it into some newspapers with them. It was a wild button ride! When we stopped making them to pursue other creative endeavors we had no idea they'd develop a life of their own on Pinterest and bring people to this blog every day to check them out. So we thought we'd write a tutorial to show you how you can make one yourself. And here it is!

Button Tree Tutorial 

You will need:

- 1 canvas
- 1 tube 'background' acrylic paint (we use Jo Sonja's 'Soft White')
- 1 tube acrylic paint for the tree (we use the colour 'burnt umber')
- 1 large-ish flat paintbrush for the basecoat
- 1 smaller round-tip brush for the tree
- Paint palette (this can be anything! It doesn't have to be store-bought. We have even used those plastic takeaway containers!)
- A container/glass of water to wash brushes
- Rag to dry brushes
- Craft glue
- A range of buttons
- Hook and wire to attach to the back of the canvas for hanging

Optional items:

- An easel (we spent a long time painting flat on the table so it's not a necessary item but useful...and ergonomic if you're going to be doing more painting!)
- Gloss (we gloss after the painting stage to give it a nice 'finish' but this is not mandatory and it still looks lovely without gloss).
- A small crafter's knife or pocket knife (you'll see why when you get to that stage. It depends what kind of buttons you're using)

Just a word on this project. There are quite a few steps so I'm not promoting it as quick! But the result is well worth it if you're determined to have a button tree of your very own. This is definitely a weekend project because there's drying time involved (the paint, the gloss, the glue) so you'll have to do some waiting. You might be able to whip it up in a day but, at the very least, you'll probably need to wait overnight for the glue on the buttons to dry. So if you're going to make it as a gift, or for a particular occasion, give yourself time.

Here are the steps:

1. Coat the canvas with background paint. We have sometimes mixed colours to create a particular background shade but remember, if you do, to save a little bit in an air-tight container in case you make a mistake or have a little paint-splash accident while painting the tree. You'll need a perfect mix of that colour to patch up the background. Much easier to use the paint straight out of the tube. Brush the paint over the canvas in long, fluid strokes, taking care to evenly cover the entire surface and the sides. Wait until it's completely dry then give it another coat.

2. Once your background is dry you can start on the tree. We like 'burnt umber' but you can use any colour you like for your tree. You can draw your tree on the canvas first very lightly in pencil if you feel you need an outline. Remember though, that wherever you draw a pencil line you will have to paint over it because pencil is almost impossible to remove from the canvas. Actually, it is impossible. I've tried.

We usually paint the tree straight onto the canvas but you could do some practice-trees on paper first to get the shape you like. This 'curly' tree that Kim's painting below is what I think of as our 'classic' curly button tree but there are many different ways to paint the tree as you can see in this collage. Don't worry if it's not looking quite right at first because you can always 'fix' it by making the lines thicker or adding more curls to create better balance.

Something to remember when drawing trees is that the trunk is thickest at the bottom and then narrows as it goes up. Branches are always thickest as they come off the trunk, then become thinner towards their tips.


Let your tree dry completely before you go to the next stage (the most fun in my opinion!).

3. Okay, here's where you try out buttons on your tree to work out your design (but please make sure your canvas is absolutely dry first!). Warning, this may take a while as you decide on colours, placement, and the type of buttons. The more buttons you own, the tougher this will be! To make it easier, here are some thematic ideas you could go with:

The same-colour-different-button tree

This is where you use a single-colour, but a range of different styles of button. This creates a nice colour connection but the different kinds of buttons create contrast and interest. Have a close look - there are some standard buttons there but some really kooky ones too. Awesome.

The same-colour-same-button tree

If you want to colour-match for decor, or you only have one little bag of buttons lying around (I'm not sure how this would happen, but you never know!) this is an attractive and nice, neat way to approach it.

The vintage button tree

Oh, I am partial to the vintage button tree! Gather up all those cool, funky buttons floating around your button tin and pop them on your tree. This creates a colourful, fun, button time-warp!

The Family (button) Tree

Okay, this might be my favourite idea. It doesn't create the most uniform-looking tree but it's definitely the most meaningful one. In a play on the 'family tree' concept, you could ask around and get a button from each family member that comes from a significant or special item of clothing (or even a special button they've got in their button stash if they don't want to wrench a button from their precious garment!). You could also use special buttons from kids' clothes that they've outgrown. This would create a precious memento. A great gift idea too for a special birthday.

The fabric button tree

Love, love, love fabric buttons. My stash has been significantly depleted as they are now on button trees which other people now own! But you can get some really great old fabric buttons if you're on the lookout. The thing about fabric buttons though, is that the underside often looks like this:

This creates a problem later when you're gluing. But don't despair. You can still use these buttons. We'll show you how to get around it.

Okay, so after all the playing around with colours, shapes, sizes and styles, we've settled on the classic green (to symbolise leaves) but in a range of different types. Phew!

Once you've decided on the placement of your buttons it's a good idea to take a digital photo so you remember what you've done in case your canvas gets bumped, knocked over, or in case you decide to do the next step...

4. Glossing. This is absolutely optional! You might prefer a matte finish, or don't want to be bothered with the gloss. That's okay! It really won't alter your end result a great deal. In fact, you might not want to gloss just in case. We've had some bad glossing experiences where the gloss made the paint run and ruined the artwork. I don't want to scare you off glossing! I'm just saying. This has happened. I don't know why. Maybe it was the brand of paint we were trialling? Maybe we didn't shake the gloss spray can enough. Who knows! But if you do gloss, do it outside or in a ventilated room and make sure kids aren't around. It's stinky! Follow the instructions on the can for spraying. Once it's glossed it doesn't take very long to dry. If you're happy with the coverage, leave it. If you think it needs to be evened out or you want it even glossier, give it another spray.

5. Once the gloss has dried (or if you didn't gloss, once you've decided on the placement of your buttons) it's time to glue! We can't really recommend a brand of craft glue because, to be honest, we've never really found the perfect one. Glues that are stringy are harder to work with but not impossible. This one we're using here is a stringy one. Don't use a fast drying glue (like super glue) because you want to be able to wiggle the button around if you've placed it wrongly. You only need a very little bit of glue on the button because you don't want the glue squelching up around the button and through the holes. However, if this does happen, don't worry, the glue will dry clear and you'll barely see it.

6. If you have some of those pesky buttons with a raised hook at the back, here's what you do. Grab a craft knife (you could use a pocket knife I suppose, but a craft knife has a fine tip and will create less of an indentation). Aim for where the centre of the button will sit and pierce the canvas. You only need a very small slit for the hook to fit through. Then apply glue to the back of the button, as you did with the others, and then pop the raised hook through your hole, gluing the button down at the same time. It makes the back of the canvas a little holey, but you don't view from that side anyway. Just don't look back there ;)

7. Once you've finished gluing you will need to wait until the glue has set. I can't tell you exactly how long this will take but we would always wait a minimum of 24 hours just to be sure. The very last thing you need to do if you intend to hang the canvas on a wall is to attach the hooks and wire to the back. You can get these from craft supply stores or even the craft section of your local hardware store.

Before you do this, wait until the glue has dried and make sure your hands are absolutely clean as you don't want grubby fingerprints on your white background. Come to think of it, you could probably do this step first! That would make much more sense. However, we always leave it til last!

Push the first hook into one of the sides about a quarter of the way down from the top. Once you've made a dent, twist it in. You might need to measure across to the opposite side to get the other one in line. Kim does it by sight. He is very clever like that :) Once you've got them both in, measure the wire across with a bit extra on either side for tying to the hooks. Cut off what you need. Thread one end through a hook and twist the wire around to attach it. Hold the wire almost-taut across (you only need to leave a tiny bit of slack as once it's hanging from a hook it will give a little anyway) and attach the other end to the other hook in the same way. Your canvas is ready to hang!

And that's it! You've done it! You've created your very own curly button tree. Well done you!

If you do make a curly button tree, please share it!

Email me a photo at artbywiley[at]rocketmail[dot]com, or send me the link to the place you've posted the image (and it would be lovely of you to credit this tutorial by linking back).

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  1. Just gorgeous! You have really put a lot of work into this post. They are beautiful!

  2. This is way cute and fantastic! Love it - it's gorgeous!

  3. A great tutorial Jodi. Thanks heaps!

  4. Super cool idea! I love them in all the color combinations. How creative!

  5. I'm pretty sure I've got one of these pinned :-). Thanks for the tutorial!

  6. Fabulous tutorial, hopefully I will get a chance to make one. I just love them :)

  7. I love it! So gorgeous! And you've been so generous in sharing this tutorial! Thank you!

  8. Love these button trees ! Thank you for the tutorial.
    Merci, c'est magnifique !

  9. Love the tree + buttons tutorial. So, creative. Thanks for sharing.

  10. lovely idea and soooo neat, thnx for sharing. by the way, was just wondering where you got all the buttons from, lol.

  11. Hey hun,

    I featured this on my blog today, hope that's ok. Would love for you to check it out :D

    - Adele @ Mammy Made

  12. I wonder if this could be used for a Christmas button tree during December?

    1. Yep, we made those too, Rachel! They were a hit as well. Just take the basic tutorial and use Christmas colours with the buttons!

  13. Any idea where I can find a large amount of buttons in assorted sizes and colors for a reasonable price? I really like the button trees and want to try one in all four seasons.

  14. Wonderful project! I'm thinking kids could do this too (at least the painting and gluing parts). It has great gift giving potential.

  15. I love the idea of the button tree, especially the blue one! Thank you for the informative tutorial--I want to make lots! What a wonderful idea. :)

  16. I work as an activity co-ordinator with the elderly, mostly with dementia. I think they will be able to a simple version of this project. Thankyou for the inspiration.

  17. These button trees are gorgeous and SO effective!!! Thanks for sharing ~ :)

  18. Thanku very much for the tutorial, your trees are so very, very cool! Now I know what to do with all those buttons I can't part with!

  19. Thank you for sharing this tutorial. Your artwork is beautiful and inspiring. It's not everyday that someone would take the time to share with others how they began and ended their journey, and then show people how to make the art for themselves. I admire you for choosing to follow your art dreams.

  20. Wonderful tutorial!!! I've always wanted to try button art but was afraid because I didn't know where to begin! Thank you! Just wondering... can you use a hot glue gun for the buttons?

    1. Hi there! I've actually never tried it with a hot glue gun (actually, I've never used a hot glue gun before!) so I'm probably not the best person to ask ;) My initial thought is, I can't see why it wouldn't be okay. If you try it, let me know how it goes!

  21. My mom passed away few weeks ago. She loved to collect bottons. Your information is going to help me keep her legacy alive through her bottons. Awesome ideas cant wait to start. Thank you for sharing. In memory of mom.

  22. Ive been collecting buttons for years waiting for "that project". Im in love! And so thankful youve shared such a great story and craft with all of us! This is my first day on Pintrest, I feel like it was meant to be. Thank you!

  23. Thank you so much everyone for all your feedback and the stories of how you will use your buttons to make special button trees. I really feel so heartened that this tutorial has inspired people to take on projects that mean something to them. Thank you!

  24. Thank you so much for posting your tutorial! I have 5 kids and I might just have to do this with them! (At least they could help put on the buttons). We have been decorating our upstairs area with crafts the kids have done on canvas that I have found on pinterest, so your button trees will fit right in! I have never tried painting anything that fancy but I think I might give it a try!

  25. Wow, 5 kids, Dena, you are an inspiration! That's so fantastic that you will be able to use this activity with them. Would love you to share the end result :)

  26. I wish all tutorials were as well done as yours is! Thanks for your efforts.

  27. Wow! This has to be the absolute best tutorial I have ever seen! I am one of your phantom pinners - I pinned this ages ago and just came by today. I loved reading your story and now I am inspired and will be making a button tree for my mantle ! Thanks so much for your generous sharing of the process.

  28. Thank you so much for the tutorial. Its the day after Christmas and I was feeling like I NEED to be doing something productive (got the 'letdowns' bad!) This is the perfect idea! I will be making these as future gifts and I think the button tree would also look great as a collaged pillow. Thank you for sharing!

  29. I don't have a lot of buttons but I know I can make a couple of these, and a long one. Sweet T..Y

  30. This is a fabulous tutorial! I wonder if I could do the same project but with single/odd earrings instead of buttons?...! My mom has a ton that I've kept and still have no idea what to do with them...