DIYdiy projects

DIY Project: Tree Branch Buttons & Vinegar Wood Stains

by Maxwell Tielman


A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of showing my friend Matthew Robinson’s art as part of our Sketchbook Sneak Peek series. In addition to being a wildly talented painter and art teacher, though, Matt is also enviably adept at all manner of hands-on skills, from carpentry to crafting. Last winter, while he and his girlfriend Romina were visiting our apartment, I happened to notice his unusual shirt buttons. They were crafted, not from plastic or faux tortoise shell, but from wood. Cross-sections of tree branch wood, to be more exact. Ever since then, I’ve been dying to have him show me how to create such adorable, practical notions. Last week, he finally obliged and it turns out that the project is as easy as it is beautiful. Check out Matt’s full tutorial (and tips for making your own natural wood stains) after the jump! —Max


  • 1 tree branch, the diameter of which should be about the size you’d like to make your buttons
  • A coping saw
  • 1 clamp
  • A power drill
  • Some scrap wood
  • Sandpaper
  • A paint brush
  • Vinegar
  • Rusty nails or pennies
  • Shellac (Matt used Zinsser’s Bullseye Shellac)
  • A shirt and some thread!



1) Place your tree branch on a work surface and clamp it so that part of it comes out over your surface’s edge.

2) Using your coping saw, cut a thin slice from your branch.

woodbuttons_4 woodbuttons_5

3) With a power drill with a small drill attachment, drill two holes into your branch slice. Be sure to place some scrap wood underneath while you drill, to avoid putting holes into your work surface!


4) Rub your button against some sand paper to smooth out its surface.

woodbuttons_7 woodbuttons_8

5) If you desire, brush on a coat of wood stain, followed by a coat of shellac. The shellac will seal the wood, allowing it to survive multiple machine washes.


Above: Matt created natural wood stains by soaking pieces of scrap metal (from pennies to rusty nails) in jars filled with vinegar. The vinegar and metal chemically react to create a beautiful, natural wood stain that can be brushed on. As you can see, different metals create different colored stains. While pennies create a warmer tone, rusty nails create a more somber, gray look. Experiment with different metals to see what you like best!

6) Allow your buttons to fully dry and then sew them onto your clothes! Presto! Beautiful, handmade buttons for fall!

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  • Hey Maxwell, very creative! I also like your “scrap metal in vinegar” stains. One question: How do these hold up in the laundry or at the Dry Cleaner?

    BTW – Did I detect a carving project in the background of some of the above images (Esp. in #3 with the orange drill)? Hmmm, looks interesting…

    • Hey, George!

      No problem! Your question was actually one of the first questions I asked Matt about this project. According to him, after you shellac the buttons, they hold up pretty nicely in the wash. I can’t guarantee that they’d hold up forever, but the beauty of these buttons is how easy they are to make!

  • My apology regarding my previous post — I realized too late that it was Maxwell to whom I addressed my comment and it should have been Matt. I could not return to the original comment and correct my error.

  • I love the natural look of these chunky buttons. Wouldn’t they be great on a textured wool tweed? I want to suggest this method to ‘compute’ the right size button hole for these non-traditional buttons: measure the button across its diameter + thickness and add 1/8″. That should give you a button hole length that the button can easily pass through.

  • I’m loving this! woodwork usually takes a lot of space, but I could make this project work in my apartment! I think it’s time I add some new buttons to liven up some old shirts.

  • I am a designer of clothing. I collected some wood pieces this weekend from a fallen tree. I will try making button and various style of closures for my vests that I am doing. It is a wonder and money saving idea. Thanks.

  • I know it has been a few years, but I really like the stains you did and would like to replicate the penny stain. I’ve seen other people who have done it but got a teal stain instead of the warm reddish brown you demonstrated. Which brings up the questions, what kind of vinegar did you use, how long did you soak the pennies, were they older or newer pennies, etc.?

    • The best would be to leave branches outside for a season but not in full sun. Leave them suspended on rocks, blocks etc so they don’t get buried under leaves or soil.

      Next best would be bring them inside in lengths that are suitable, store them under a bench etc for two or three months

      Least favourable would be to cut your “button” pieces and oven dry them. This method may create problems with cracking or twisting but might also create pleasing effects.

  • I’m wondering if an epoxy (gorilla epoxy) finish would be stronger than shellac.