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Skull & Crossbones Buttons Project

Alastair Callum

Skull and Crossbones button.

Fred was getting married and wanted a kilt for his wedding. I'd been recommended to him by a mutual friend and we got chatting when he came round for a fitting. When he found out that I make silver jewellery, his eyes lit up. Could I make him silver buttons for his kilt jacket and waistcoat? I reckoned I could, but needed to know what he wanted. “Edinburgh plague skull & crossbones”. That’s a thing? It seemed so*, and was a very different style, (particularly the skull) to your typical Jolly Roger pirate-flag skull & crossbones, which was definitely not what he wanted! I was still clueless as to what “Edinburgh plague skull & crossbones” actually looked like but he was on his lunch break and had to get back, so I said I’d look into it.

* A little digging around on the internet whilst writing this blog indicates that the skull & crossbones carvings might not be specifically plague related. At least one source indicates that around the time, the custom was to depict "symbols of Mortality, such as the Deaths Head; skull and cross bones; Father Time; the weapons of death - bow, arrows, scythe..."

Skull & Crossbones carving on headstone in Greyfriars Kirkyard, 
Edinburgh.I took a trip to Greyfriars Kirkyard to track down this stone and get my own photo of it for this blog.

One Google search later, I was looking at an array of photos depicting stone-carved skull & crossbones on gravestones. There were a few styles, but generally not that of the Jolly Roger. I picked the one that had come up most often for the search and was also the most distinctive and unusual - a particular headstone in Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh. “Is this something like what you want on them”, I asked in a message, along with a link to the photo. “Yup, exactly that!”

Okay, so now I had to think how this could be done. He needed 25 buttons in all. You’ve probably never considered it, and neither had I until then, but an Argyll kilt jacket needs 15 or 16 buttons in all: 3 on each cuff, 3 on each side pocket, 1 for each epaulette and usually 1 or 2 buttons on the front (2 in this case). Then there were 5 for the waistcoat, 2 spares, and 2 to be made into a set of cufflinks. My thoughts turned to either casting or making individually. Although making individually was going to be quite labour intensive, and therefore expensive, it seemed casting (through a company I use for some of my kilt pins) was going to cost even more, once I factored in the design work, model making and finishing. It was time to make a mock-up and get an idea of the process and time involved. Here’s the mock-up process...

Skull image processed to sharpen and with crisp outline.

1) First, I started with the photo which I rendered into vector graphics so that I could get a crisp outline to work with. This also helped highlight the contours which would be recreated later. I printed out the image to scale and pasted it directly on the copper. After cutting out the skull shape, I contoured the edges a bit.

Skull & Crossbones button - proof of concept, flat

2) Proof of concept mock-up, with a 3D skull and “bones” in copper, soldered to a base with a rim, to get an idea of the scale I would be working on and check if there were any problems with the basic procedure.

Skull & Crossbones button - proof of concept, domed

3) I domed the button to give it a bit of “body” - it just didn’t seem that flat buttons would be as aesthetically pleasing.

Skull & Crossbones button - proof of concept, with sewing 
loop

4) I made up a sewing loop and soldered it on.

Okay, so the process worked, I was confident I could make individual 3D skulls and bones (done in the same way - cut to shape and contoured slightly) reasonably quickly and so hand-make the individual buttons for a reasonable price.

Fred was back for a fitting, or possibly just to discuss the buttons, and I showed him the mock-up. He really wanted the buttons to be square, like the dress-style kilt jacket buttons – no problem. “I was hoping it was going to be more 3 dimensional...”. “Oh”. Well that ruled out hand making them individually – no way I can do 25 really-3D buttons within the given budget. In a flash of inspiration, I suggested maybe they could be stamped – have a punch made up, stamp the flat blanks, dome them and add the sewing loop. They wouldn't have been 3D, but at least the price might be more manageable. But I approached a few companies about having a punch made up, and got quotes back at around £200, that ruled out stamping!

So it was down to casting. I had no idea just what 3D effect I would be able to create, but I said I’d get on to it. And here’s that process…

Copper carving of femur bone - trial version

1) I needed to make one button up in copper to use as a model for casting. If I’d had any experience of wax modelling I might have tried that, but I didn’t and I figured copper would suit this project just as well. After a bit of research to find some good pictures of femur bones, I did some painstaking model work by soldering and “carving” bits of thick copper wire to make a 3D bone, mainly using a selection of files. This one was too short, but I was pleased with it as a proof of concept, even if it needed a bit more work to refine it. I showed it to my customer who agreed it could work, though he didn’t seem too convinced. I’m not surprised – it’s not much to look at at this stage… By the way, the domed copper square behind it is about 14mm x 14mm.

Skull & Crossbones button - mocked up model

2) I made up another bone, slightly longer this time and sent Fred a photo, this time mocked up a bit more like the button would be. The response this time was a little more enthusiastic. “Cool!”

Skull & Crossbones button model - parts dry-fitted

3) Much more painstaking work later, I’d created another 3D bone and a skull. The skull was cut to shape and then carefully contoured with files. I used square and triangular needle files to stamp the eye sockets and nose (an excellent example of tools being used in ways they were not intended), and an odd bit of metal to stamp the depression behind the sockets. I had to cut the bones to fit them together, and made a mistake the first time, but they healed up fine with a bit of solder. The picture below is a dry assembly to make sure everything is going to be in the right position when I solder them onto the base. At some point between the previous step and fitting them together, I decided the bones needed to be longer and soldered in an extra section to at least one of them.

Skull & Crossbones button model - parts soldered

4) I soldered the skull and bones onto the base, but I wasn’t quite happy with the position of the bottom right bone part…

Skull & Crossbones button model - domed and sewing loop added

5) I took the model back up to soldering temperature and carefully adjusted the position of the offending bone part. The model has now been domed and had a shank added for sewing.

Skull & Crossbones button model - tidied up

6) And here’s the tidied up model. Despite the breaks being visible, the solder is smooth and they won't show up in casting. I did tidy up some rough solder around the edges of the bones before it went for casting though.

Fred was back for an update and I showed him the model.

“THAT'S TOTES AMAZEBALLS!!!”

That’s what? That’s something else I learned is a “thing”. And it’s a very good thing.

We hadn’t settled on the cost yet, and since the model was ready to go for casting and he had to confirm the final number of buttons, we had to do that now. The cost of the casting and labour in finishing them was already enough, but it was the design and model work on top of that which really jacked the price up. To a point it was becoming unaffordable. So I made a suggestion: if he didn’t really need the buttons to be unique to him, as a one-off commission, I liked the design enough that I’d be willing to write off pretty much all of the design and model work cost in return for retaining the design rights. We agreed and the model went off for casting.

Skull & Crossbones buttons in silver, just back from casting

A week or so later I signed for a Special Delivery with excitement. In it was a bag of 30 silver buttons! (I’d ordered a few extra to see how they’d sell). Just above the skull, you can see the sprues (a result of the casting process) which need to be removed and tidied up. I sent Fred this photo.

“SWEEEEET!!!!!”

“Cool awesome, thanks bud!”

He seemed pleased.

Skull & Crossbones button in copper, tidied up

I also had a small quantity of copper buttons cast at the same time. I've already removed the sprues here, doing the copper buttons first in case I ran into any problems.

Skull & Crossbones button in copper, finished with patina

Then I gave the copper buttons a very dark patina and polished the tops a little to provide contrast. Much better!

Skull & Crossbones buttons in silver - customer's finished set

And here’s Fred’s finished set in silver, treated in the same way to give them more character. I also made some into cufflinks and added a ring around 2 buttons to make them a more suitable size for the front of the kilt jacket.

Skull & Crossbones buttons in silver - finished set

Here we have a small batch of Skull & Crossbones buttons in silver, finished with a patina and polished.

Skull & Crossbones button in copper - peering out of the darkness

And a lone copper button peering out of the darkness.

These quirky little buttons are certainly not limited to kilt jacket and waistcoat use. Sew them to anything you like to show off your macabre sense of style. Available from Jewellery by Callum Kilts in silver and copper. They could also be made available in bronze or brass - contact me if you're interested.

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  • Anna Haley on

    What a beautiful story and an amazing product. Just love love love xxx


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