Spitting Tacks and Staple Guns: Upholstery Then and Now

Spitting tacks is a learned skill – using staple guns is not. Both can be dangerous. You don’t want to swallow upholstery tacks, but a 60 lb staple gun can do a lot of damage to a finger! Which is best? I have my own ideas about that, but upholstery has changed a lot over recent years, and not for the better.

When I was younger, my dad taught me how to spit tacks. Not too much younger, because you need a magnetic upholstery hammer for tack spitting. Prior to the development of these hammers you had to hold the tacks in your fingers and hit them (the tacks preferably, but sometimes both!) Magnetic hammers were followed swiftly by the skill of spitting tacks!

The Art of Spitting Tacks

With the advent of the magnetic hammer, upholsterers found that it was quicker if they held a mouthful of tacks, and spit them out onto the magnetic head of the hammer one at a time. They would then hammer the tack into the furniture, fixing the webbing, burlap, canvas or top cover as they did so.

It was important that the number of tacks entering the mouth equaled the number that came back out. Master upholsterers quickly became good counters.

A master upholsterer such as my dad could spit and hammer tacks just as fast as somebody using a staple gun. We shall discuss staple guns shortly. We would use 3/8 or 1/2-inch blue tacks for most uses and 3/4-inch for heavier work such as the webbing and twine used to fix steel coil springs. The large one-inch tacks were used only for floor carpets.

These were the days when upholstery was carried out the traditional way, and upholstered furniture lasted 20 or 30 years. My dad would boast he never had to spring the same seat twice, because his work would last a lifetime.

Staple Guns

Eventually, staple guns took over from upholstery tacks. Some craftsmen still use tacks, but staples are much more common today. They are OK, but I doubt they will last a lifetime! They don’t have the same holding power as tacks, and are not as strong. They are also a devil to strip out when reupholstering a chair or sofa.

Rather than strip them out with an old screwdriver or chisel and a mallet, you have to prize them out and then pull them out with pliers. That takes longer. That’s a paradox – staples are weaker than tacks, but take longer to remove! As with all upholstery, of course, it’s technique that matters, not how strong or weak a particular fixing is.

Spitting Tacks Today

I still spit tacks when I reupholster my own furniture at home. I prefer the traditional ways to the new ways. Modern upholstery involves pre-manufactured box constructions. Much of today’s upholstered furniture is manufactured by machines. Spring units are constructed as a complete unit that is simply slipped into the frame of a chair and sofa. Padding is pre-formed foam or even just cushions that may or may not include springs.

The domed seats of yesteryear are now flat, and tend to sag in the middle after a few years of use. This is in contrast to properly constructed seats using individual coil springs that are manually tied to provide the correct shape of the seat. They are then padded and covered to produce a beautifully constructed seat that is superbly comfortable – and will last a lifetime.

The Old Upholstery Skills Are Not Lost

However, the old upholstery skills are not completely lost. Craftsmen and women are still spitting tacks in the depths of Illinois and many other states. The Amish and other traditional communities of America’s Midwest use the old methods to craft beautiful furniture.

Their joints are traditional strong wood joints, and their upholstery is carried out manually by master upholsterers. I bet a fair bit of tack spitting is still carried out in America’s old Midwest! Such furniture is of the highest quality, yet it looks simply made. It’s funny how the highest quality hand-crafted items appear plain and simple, and much of the fancy-looking stuff is mass-produced and weak.

Traditional Upholstery Vs. Mass-Produced

Traditional upholstery is more comfortable, stronger and longer-lasting than mass produced items. If you feel like a change of color, or think the seating could do with a bit of strengthening up, then that can be done with traditionally crafted pieces. The mass-produced stuff with their box construction and synthetic materials frequently cannot be reupholstered. If you want a change you will have to purchase a whole new sofa or chair.

Spitting tacks is a noble skill, although staple guns are more modern. Each is better than mass produced boxes, in that the standard of upholstery produced is far superior to anything a machine can offer. The Amish and others have got it right by continuing to craft furniture manually, and we should support them by using it.