The upholstery hammer: use and history
The upholstery hammer is an important tool for the furniture upholsterer. The upholstery hammer is mainly used for driving upholstery tacks and decorative nails, but after the invention of the staple gun the importance thereof becomes a lot less. The upholstery hammer is a nice tool but can also be quite pricey, and that is why we want to make clear with this article what a (starting) upholsterer can do with it and what you should pay attention to when purchasing.
The development of an upholstery hammer extends over more than 200 years. Up to the 1950s, the upholstery hammer was mainly used for fixing upholstery fabrics with upholstery tacks. These are small sharp blue steel nails with a flat head. They come in various sizes.
The basic shape of the upholstery hammer is a relatively lightweight head of approximately 200 grams and a long, slender handle. The head often has a slightly curved, elongated shape and a small round face. The long handle and the nicely balanced head ensure a lot of stroke speed and precision. With the narrow, long head, the nails can also be hit in hard-to-reach places.
Because the small nails are difficult to hold with your fingers without the chance to hit you, the upholsterers started magnetizing their upholstery hammers as early as the first half of the 19th century. With a magnetized head, the nails could easily be smashed without having to be held with the fingers. Moreover, it was possible to keep a hand free for putting on the material. The magnetization was done by brushing the hammer along a magnet or by wrapping a copper wire around the hammer head and passing a direct current there. This form of magnetization was not so effective and in 1856 Arthur R. Robertson from Sommerville, Massachusetts USA developed an upholstery hammer with a magnet in a horseshoe shape that generated a much stronger magnetic field. He was patented on November 2, 1886 (pat. US 352070 A).
He describes that as follows:
My invention has for its object to provide a hammer or greater magnetic power than hammers or that class as heretofore constructed, so that shingle-nails or nails or considerable size can be set, and also so that tacks or small nails can be held with greater security and driven with greater certainty and precision.
To the foregoing ends my invention consists in constructing the head of the hammer in the form of a horseshoe magnet in such a way that the poles of the magnet will form one of the peens or faces of the hammer, all as here described inafter, and forth set forth in the claims.
With these magnetic upholstery hammers, the upholsterers could achieve a fantastic speed when nailing the upholstery fabric. It was common practice for the upholstery nails to be used by the upholsterers. The upholstery hammer is brought to the mouth with the magnetised side, the nail is spit onto the head and the nail is then smashed in the right place with a quick tap. The hammer is then turned and the nail is hit further with the other side of the hammer head. One could thus achieve speeds comparable to working with a staple gun. Spitting nails would not have been harmless, because of the speed of work there was always the chance that such a sharp nail was accidentally swallowed. I hope there were mutual agreements that your colleague would not spit his stock of unused nails back into the nail box where yourself later had to take another mouthful out.
After the invention of the staple gun in the 1930s, much changed in the manufacture of furniture and upholstery furniture. The upholstery nails gradually fell into disuse and with it the upholstery hammer.
(Popular Science, November 1934)
The further development of the upholstery hammer
The American company CS Osborne & Co has been very important for the development of the upholstery tools. This family business has been active since 1828 and is still led by the 8th generation of the Osborne family.
Osborne has taken the magnetic hammer from Robertson’s design into production and the hammers with this shape are still being sold new by C.S. Osborne & Co. But with new materials, the specific horseshoe shape of the hammer is no longer necessary. There are now plenty of hammers with a powerful magnetic head for sale without a horseshoe head.
Arthur Robertson also mentioned in his patent application of 1886 a functional extension of the upholstery hammer with a claw for pulling out nails. The design was not very successful in that shape.
Osborne has further developed this idea and equipped the upholstery hammer with a claw hammer modeled on the hammers of Wupertal in Germany. Upholstery nails can be pulled out with the claw of the hammer.
In order to be able to retain the slender handle of the upholstery hammer, it had to be reinforced with steel “springs” to prevent the handle from breaking when the nails were pulled out.
In summary, we can state that the current upholstery hammers in different versions have the following combined functions: 1. Driving the nail, 2. Putting and holding the nail in place and 3. Pulling out the nail.
To begin with, the observation that driving a furniture nail with a magnetic hammer does not work properly. Bringing the nail in place with a first tap is fine after some practice, but driving the nail in further, especially with harder woods, is not really nice. For driving the nails we use a hammer with a hard steel head of 200 to 300 grams with a long slender handle. The head has a slightly curved, elongated shape and a small round face of 10 to 12 mm. The long handle and the nicely balanced head ensure a lot of stroke speed and precision with the intention that you hold the hammer at the very end of the handle to get an optimum stroke speed. With the narrow, long head, the nails can also be hit in hard-to-reach places. Nylon attachments are available to break the decorative nails to prevent damage to the decorative nails.
Inserting and holding the nail
An experienced upholsterer can reach a very high speed when driving the furniture nails with a hammer with a magnetic head and can thereby keep a second hand free to keep the fabric taut when he “spits” the nails on the magnetic head and then the nail with the other side of the head. You will not often encounter these skills at the moment. For the less experienced upholsterer there are fortunately other tools to be able to place and hold the nail without tapping your fingers. Osborne has the “Magnetic Nail & tack placer” in two sizes in the assortment as shown below.
Furthermore, there are nail holders for sale that can be used for both decorative nails and furniture nails. These nail holders also make it possible to drive decorative nails at equal distances. Stof en Steen has developed special 3D printed adjustable nail holder.
Pulling out the nails
With the upholstery hammers that have a claw, it is possible to pull out upholstered upholstery nails. So-called tack claws are also available for this function. These are used in combination with a wooden hickory mallet and in our opinion are more suitable for a piece of furniture upholstered with upholstery nails than with the claw of an upholstery hammer.
The upholstery hammer with a claw and with a magnetic head is especially useful with classic upholstery for traditional furniture upholstery, just as with modern upholstery the staple staples are used.