The question of whether traditional upholsterers should use tacks or staples when re-upholstering antique furniture is frequently and, often, fiercely debated. So what are the two sides of this argument?
Those who are solidly in the Tack Camp argue that all re-upholstery 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, as to do so results in an unhappy blend of different eras. Some even maintain that using staples will ruin the furniture. To them staples are seen at best as unthinkable, at worst as almost sacrilegious.
Those upholsterers who are in the Staple Camp maintain that one of the foremost reasons for using staples is to protect the wooden frames of the furniture, as staples cause much less damage to the frames. Without a doubt tacks create a much larger hole in the wood than do staples. Staples make two little holes. The pro staplers also maintain that putting in a staple is one hit to the furniture and the staple is home, where a tack require several hammer hits to knock it home. For fragile pieces of furniture the less hitting the better. It is also claimed that because the staple gun is placed in position before the staple is fired, there is no damage to the show wood.
I think that both sides of this argument have merit and that the ideal situation is a happy blending of both tacks and staples. In my work I do use both; though not always on the same piece of furniture.
Staples are in fact not all that modern. The first patent for a stapler was granted on August 7, 1866 for a device called the Novelty Paper Fastner. This device allowed a single staple to be loaded and it was used mainly to bind papers or books, but was also used on carpet, furniture and boxes. However, the earliest record of staples is from France in the 18th century. They were developed for the use of King Louis XIV of France and each staple bore his name di lui!
Staples were not originally created specifically for use in upholstery, but the upholstery trade has a tradition of ‘borrowing’ materials from other trades. For example Calico, which is a bleached cloth used frequently in upholstery. Originally this was a fabric brought to the UK from Calicut, India by the East India Trading Company for use in the clothing trade. Very quickly upholsterers saw the benefit of this cloth to their trade and so Calico became a fundamental part of upholstery.
In practical terms often a long-nosed staple gun will successfully place a staple in a very tight area where a tack and hammer just won’t work. Recently I was asked to re-upholster a Victorian chair whose tacking rail was in such poor condition that the only answer was to use staples or else have the tacking rail rebuilt.
One drawback of staples is that they tend to be a nuisance to remove when stripping off a piece of furniture. They often snap leaving a small piece of staple left in the furniture. This though can be hammered flat which will cause no ill effect. Usually the staples can be removed by hand with a staple remover and a pair of pliers. This is beneficial to the frame since there is no banging as there is when using a ripping chisel and mallet to remove old tacks. If you are careful about the placement of the staples then it is possible to remove them without causing any damage to the show wood.
Tacks still have a very worthwhile place in the upholstery trade. I think that it is right to try to use tacks on very old and / significant pieces of furniture.
From a commercial point of view though staples greatly speed up an upholsterer’s job and at the end of the day we are running a business. If it came down to making a choice, I would rather use staples than reduce the quality of my stuffing or webbing.
One final point to consider is that when re-upholstering any piece of furniture we should not try to hide the fact that the work has been done in the 21st century. After all this is another phase of the furniture’s life and in time it will also become part of its history.