Thursday, September 8, 2016

Am I Really Obsolete?

Tools of The "Forgotten" Trade

I remember vividly in June of 1969 meeting an old man who was a traditional upholsterer.  It was in a  shop around the corner from where I lived, and, in fact, just a block from where I still work.  He was trained in New York in the ways of making furniture comfortable and stylish.  I can still see his muscular hands, even though he must have been nearly 80 years old, pulling the cord to tie the springs, working the muslin to get it even and stitching the burlap, creating a perfect edge from the horsehair.

I remember being shocked when he casually used his magnetic hammer to pick up a bunch of upholstery tacks and put them in his mouth.  Who would even think of doing that?  As he worked he would rapidly put the hammer in his mouth and put a tack on the end, then driving it in place with amazing precision.

This was the first time I saw a worker "spitting tacks."  I had to try it, and almost immediately discovered that I could make a good living restoring upholstery on antiques.  In fact, the ability to not only work on the wood frame, but to be able to upholster as well, put me in a class by myself.  No longer did the client have to take the frame from the refinisher to the upholsterer to get it done.  One stop shopping.

Of course, during those early years a lot of places were able to supply traditional materials.  I would go shopping on a regular basis in my area and get quality muslin, burlap, spring twine, tufting cord, cambric (not the synthetic stuff...actual black muslin), pounds of 100% horsehair, 50/50 cotton batting, coiled springs in various sizes, and boxes of tacks.

Much of that list is no longer available these days as the trade has completely changed.  Foam and staples have become the standard process and more than a few upholsterers I have met have expressed shock and surprise that I don't even have a staple gun.  (Woodworkers also are surprised to find I don't have a table saw or router, but that is another story.)

I charge extra for projects which have been "converted" by other workers who throw away the original stuffing and staple on their synthetic materials.   I hate staples.  They don't hold well and removing them is a pain.  Usually I bleed from some unseen fragment of a staple which gets me as I work the job.  I think modern upholsters use their staple gun like a 2nd amendment enthusiast who goes to the gun range and fires thousands of rounds.  You cannot believe how many staples I find.

Tacks in Different Sizes, Including Gimp Tacks

The simple fact is that I have spit tacks all my life.  Hundreds, perhaps thousands of pounds of tacks. All sizes: 18, 16, 12, 10, 8, 6, 4, 3, 2, and even 1 1/2.  To be honest, any tack above #10 I don't put in my mouth.  They have a tendency to get stuck in the top of my mouth which hurts, so I just place them on the hammer individually.  However, it is rare to use such large tacks, as a skilled traditional upholsterer will understand to use the smallest tack which will do the job, to minimize the damage to the wood frame.

Spitting tacks is important.  It allows the right hand to work the hammer with precision, as the left hand manipulates the material and holds it in place.  This allows amazing speed and precision.  Most people do not even know how to work the hammer properly.  Notice the head is curved on a radius.  If you hammer from the elbow or upper arm you cannot hit precisely in the same spot each time.  You need to pivot the hammer just from the wrist, holding the upper arm steady against the body.  Since the distance from the wrist to the head of the hammer is fixed you can swing the arc exactly the same each time.

That means you can set the tack and hit it several times without missing.  Also you can work next to the polished wood frame or gold leaf frame of the chair with confidence.  People who watch me work are stunned that I never seem to miss the target and can hammer with a certain force right next to the edge, perfectly and precisely,  all day.

About 20 years ago the local supply house stopped selling tacks.  I bought all the surplus they had, but those are long gone.  I started to shop nationally and even internationally in order to keep my supply of tacks from running out.  One by one the old companies stopped production.  Nobody bought tacks so nobody made them.

As a side note, one day a ballet teacher came into my shop and showed me a #12 upholstery tack.  She wondered if I had any like that.  I showed her several boxes, each weighing a pound.  She was shocked.  "These are special tacks for ballet slippers.  They are sold in Florida and cost $12 for a package of 6!"  I handed her a dozen and said "Have a good day."

I also remember using tacks to attach my cleats to my shoes when I raced bicycles.  That is another application which is no longer done.  Toe straps are gone and you buy a bicycle without pedals!!

A Cobbler's Tray 

In desperation recently, I found a supplier in New York who said they could get me tacks.  I ordered and received 50 pounds of #3, since that is the most common tack I use.  They tasted terrible!  They were crooked and different sizes and I imagined they had been gathered up from the floor and put into a box.

I complained and received this note:

"For years our former supplier of the cut tacks "Crown Nail" of England (no longer in business) made the best cut tacks around the world and went the extra step to insure his quality and sterilized products do to the amount of 'spitters' years ago...We would not recommend doing it 'the old fashion way' i.e.; putting them in your mouth any longer as we do not have the same relationship with the Indian supplier as we had in the past with Crown Nail and we do not know the methods of 'degreasing' the products."

I can work around the lack of materials, like silk or 100% cotton damask, silk or wool mohair, and even good quality horsehair.  I cannot work without tacks.

Am I obsolete?  Is the craft of the traditional upholsterer dead?

I cannot believe I am alone in this trade.  If you read this and know of a supplier of good quality sterilized cut tacks, please let me know.

PS:  You may notice the comments to this post.  I am unable to imbed a link in the comments section so here is the link to the "Tack Spitter" Master Tack Spitter Video


Damien said...

Thank you for the story, I found a tack spitter on youtube to complete the picture.

W. Patrick Edwards said...

This is the video I found. I find it somewhat humorous that he says over and over again it is dangerous. He talks about swallowing tacks. OMG. I have never swallowed a tack in my life. Also, the way he talks about his staple gun reinforces my opinion that men just like guns.

Another observation: the hammer has a magnetic end, for placing the tack, then you rotate the hammer and drive it in the rest of the way with the other end. If you continue to hammer with the magnet, it will loose its power.

I am surprised that there are not more videos of this process.

Jonathan said...

Recalled this blog post about a nail factory which uses veg. oil to protect its machinery as an accommodation to the "spitters". Big fan of your blog btw it's nice to see some new posts!

Anonymous said...

Look up Buckminster Upholstery on You tube. Kim does a lot of restoration work and uses traditional methods for a lot of it. He does use a staple gun quite a bit but he also uses tacks, horsehair filling, and a lot of other traditional materials. He might be able to connect you with suppliers that would be helpful.

W. Patrick Edwards said...


I know Rivierre company in France very well. They made us 50 kgs of speciality nails for our marquetry veneer packets. I was pleased to see Christopher ordering nails from them, although a much larger type. I can tell you that this company does not do cut upholstery tacks.

I also am familiar with Buckminister Upholstery videos. I will contact him and see what he suggests.

The purpose of my post now is to get help from any person who can help me locate a source of quality tacks. Then I will buy as much as I can, because in a few years no one will know what I am talking about.

Anonymous said...

Mike Mascelli writes:

Patrick ! Love your blog.

If you are indeed obsolete, I am right there with you. I have been railing against cheap import tacks for years, in my upholstery classes. Like you I scrounge for good old stock tacks, and happily our friend Freddy Roman just landed a whole stash of Cross beauties which we are sharing.

Are you familiar with DB Gurney ?? They are a very old tack mfg company who still makes REAL tacks here in the USA, and though they are pricey, they are the only source for new ones. The blued tacks are over $20 a pound, but worth it for those few of us left who really care about what we do. You might want to check them out.

Anonymous said...

Hello Pat,

Try here,

Filip from belgium

Kevin Deal said...

I'm still using tacks I inherited from my father. Save them for the jobs that truly desire them. The world is changing Pat. There is parts of it I wish wouldn't.

Renewable Community Power said...

Obsolete? Maybe almost; but you might just be the future too

Anonymous said...

there is one shop left here in Vienna, Austria:
You can find different sizes of nails here:
The homepage is little bit oldfashioned and in german but i am sure they speak english.
Good luck!