MillWorks: Vintage Button Box

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Vintage Button Box

This is a beginner antiquing project that will not only create a useful household item, but will also introduce you to some of the concepts behind creating a new heirloom. I have a whole article on creating vintage finishes, too! Click here if you would like to read it. It will give you other ideas for finishing the box. As just small ideas for how to modify this box, why not change the color scheme? Or make one smaller or larger for something other than buttons?

Start with an unfinished wood lunch box/mini suitcase (or other box with a closing latch and hinges). Mine is approximately 8 1/2" deep x 12" wide x 4" high. This sounds huge, but if you start a button collection, you will see that they have a way of piling up! Another nice thing about a larger box is that you can search through it easier.

Remove all of the hardware from the box, taking it apart into two pieces (lid and bottom). Remove and discard the handle and any related screws. The handle will not be used on the button box. Use wood patch and light sandpaper to seal the screw holes that held the handle on. Follow the instructions on the patch to hide these as much as possible. Don't seal the other holes.

Use black craft paint to paint a base coat of black over the entire surface. (The lid and bottom will be worked on at the same time.) Thoroughly dry between all coats.

Next, paint over the black with red craft paint. This will take multiple coats. Sand between coats of red. Sanding takes a little extra time, but it will create a box that is smoother, which feels more old and worn than a new, rough finish. Continue to add thin coats until the black is just peeking through. Let the final coat thoroughly dry.

Using your computer printer, print out the word "Buttons" or term "Button box" in an old-fashioned font, in the size you want. Cut out the word and color on the back with a pencil to create carbon paper (which you can alternately use, if you have it). You can also print out a picture of some sort. The website is a good place to check for items in public domain, and is where my illustration came from. The significance of this illustration being on a button box is that Marcella is comforting her doll, who has just lost her button eye! A sewing-related image would be just as cute. Adjust the picture to the size you like. Including an image is recommended only if you have some artistic leanings--it takes significantly more work and isn't necessary. If you do wish to do a drawing, similarly color on the back of it, hard, with a pencil.

Tape the homemade carbon paper in place and trace the designs onto the box. For the word, I used black craft paint outlined in permanent marker, with the marker being used first. This is a good cheat that makes black details easier to do! Similarly, I used black paint and marker on the illustration, but also colors. Another cheat that is really helpful is to use a thin watercolor marker (dried up) as a "paintbrush." I feel I have more control over a non-moving tip than a pliable one. You do have to dip it very frequently, but you may feel like you have more control over what you're doing with it.

If you do an illustration, it helps to go over it again with permanent marker when done, in case any paint obscured the details.

Let the design dry overnight.

Sand all over all the surfaces very lightly with light sandpaper. Be especially careful where your designs are. You can rub off as much as you like; this is all to personal taste. You may wish to touch up some details with permanent marker if too much comes off.

Sand all of the edges more roughly, removing paint to the bare wood. Try not to be consistent here. Some areas may be more worn than others. Also be sure to especially distress where the latch will be, since the paint would get worn off there.

Next, apply antiquing medium or watered-down brown paint to all surfaces. This is also to your own taste. If you want it lighter, be sure to mix in some water. But make sure that the areas of bare wood get a dark tint to them. Let the antiquing medium thoroughly dry, after wiping it off.

Varnish all surfaces. Oil-based varnish, as I used, will develop an ambered hue over time, making it appear more vintage. But it's also more caustic, so you may wish to use water-based. If you want the look of my box, I used gloss oil-based varnish--mainly because gloss is what I had (gloss makes things more shiny and new looking, which may not be ideal for an aged item)! Let this dry and cure for at least a few days.

Add the hardware back on. You may find that the hardware looks too new on an antiqued box--if so, it can be replaced. Close and latch your box.

Did we forget something? . . . Oh, yes. Open it back up--and add buttons!


I really do save buttons! For years, I used a purchased official button box . . . but it was made of cardboard (and thus, not in the best shape!), the latch malfunctioned, and it was definitely being "outgrown" by an ever-growing button collection. So, I thought, "I have got to find a new box!" I couldn't find anything big enough, or, if big enough, at a small price point. It suddenly dawned on me that the best way to get something really nice inexpensively is to make it! (Of course!)

It's likely one of your family members long ago had a button box. People used to be really resourceful and save things like buttons. They would cut them off worn clothes. If you have any old buttons, as I do, it's not unusual to find threads or even fabric attached to them!

Button boxes weren't only good for sewing repairs. Kids could sort through them, and play all sorts of games. Opening a button box is like opening a treasure chest. You never know what you will find inside!

I use my button box for sewing crafts. For example, in the past when I have made a scissors case, I had a fun time looking for the perfect single button--there are plenty of sewing projects that only need one! Sometimes you may need more than one, and then you'll be on a scavenger hunt to see if you can find any that are the same size, match, or are close enough to use together. And if you think you don't have any spare buttons around--start looking on any clothes in your closet. Sometimes a spare is sewn right inside!

Have fun!

Providing crafts since October 2011. Vintage button box crafted in December 2012. Copyright 2011- and all contents by Millie. Resulting products can only be kept or given away as gifts. Always keep safety in mind.