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Should Traditional Upholsterers Use Tacks Or Staples When Re-Upholstering Antique Furniture?
The question of whether traditional upholsterers should use tacks or staples when reupholstering antique furniture is often and often fiercely debated. So what are the two sides of this argument?
Those firmly in the Tack Camp say that any reupholstery should be authentic and true to the history of the piece of furniture. They argue that staples are a modern invention and should not be used on old pieces of furniture because it leads to an unfortunate blending of different eras. Some even claim that using staples will ruin the furniture. To them, clamps are considered unthinkable at best, almost sacrilegious at worst.
Upholsterers who are in the Staple Camp say that one of the main reasons for using staples is to protect the wood frames of furniture, as staples cause much less damage to the frames. Doubtless, studs will create a much larger hole in the wood than staples. The clips make two small holes. Professional staplers also claim that inserting a staple is one hit into the furniture, and the staple is at home where the click requires several hammer blows to knock it down. For fragile pieces of furniture, the less impact the better. It is also claimed that because the staple gun is positioned before the clip is fired, there is no damage to the show wood.
I think both sides of this argument have merit and that the ideal state is a happy union of both studs and clasps. I use both in my work; although not always on the same piece of furniture.
Clips are not really that modern. The first stapler patent was granted on August 7, 1866, for a device called the Novelty Paper Fastner. This device allowed a single staple to be inserted and was used primarily for binding papers or books, but also on carpets, furniture and boxes. However, the earliest record of staples is from 18th century France. They were developed for the use of the French King Louis XIV. and every staple bore his name!
Staples were not originally created specifically for use in upholstery, but upholstery has a tradition of “borrowing” materials from other crafts. For example, Calico, which is a bleached fabric often used in upholstery. It was originally a fabric brought to the UK from Calicut, India by the East India Trading Company for use in the clothing trade. Upholsterers very quickly understood the contribution of this fabric to their craft, and so Calico became an essential part of upholstery.
As a practical matter, often a long nose staple gun will successfully place a staple in a very tight area where a thumbtack and hammer just won’t work. I was recently asked to reupholster a Victorian chair whose rail was in such bad shape that the only answer was to use staples or have the rail rebuilt.
One disadvantage of staples is that they are difficult to remove when stripping a piece of furniture. They often snap and leave a small piece of staple in the furniture. However, this can be hammered flat, causing no harmful effects. Staples can usually be removed by hand using a staple remover and pliers. This is beneficial to the frame as there is no banging like when using a chisel and mallet to remove old studs. If you are careful with the placement of the clips, it is possible to remove them without damaging the display wood.
Tacks still have a very valuable place in the upholstery trade. I think it’s okay to try using studs on very old and/significant pieces of furniture.
From a business point of view, staples make an upholsterer’s job very fast and at the end of the day we are in business. If given a choice, I’d rather use staples than compromise the quality of the padding or webbing.
A final point to consider is that when reupholstering any piece of furniture, we should not try to hide the fact that the work was done in the 21st century. All of this is the next phase of the furniture’s life and will eventually become part of its history.
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