Finishes and Fabrics: Detailing with Nails and Tacks

Types of upholstery nails have been used for furniture finishing for at least 500 years. Historically, brass, iron alloy or copper alloy domed nails were used in a wide range of applications, including saddlery, carriages, trunks, cabinetry and architecture, as well as for wooden and upholstered furniture.

Early upholstery of chairs simply used leather fixed with nails around the edges. Thick and heavy leather required large, raised head nails to fix and hold it in place. Our current methods and styles of nailing have grown from this simple technique. Brass nailing became popular during the 18th Century, the look and finish of brass continues to be very popular, especially in more traditional settings. With the wide range of fixings available today, nails are most often used for decorative and traditional finishes.

Leather chair with upholstery nail finish

There are three main types of nail style fixings used in upholstery today, these are the tacks, gimp pins and nails. We also use staples for almost all fixing purposes where the finish is hidden. We’ll briefly cover what each of these fixings are used for below.

Cut steel, blued tacks are the traditional choice for upholstery fixing. These have over time been replaced by the cleaner and more efficient option of staples, and tacks are now used to achieve a very traditional finish, or as a decorative element. Often antiques are recovered using tacks to replicate the original covering style. Copper tacks can also be used for the colour, or practicality in high humidity or seaside applications.

We came across an interesting fact when looking for information about nails and tacks; tack comes from the old Northern French ‘taque’ meaning nail or fastening. So linguistically nails and tacks are pretty much the same thing. Functionally they’re quite close also.

The Hanover Armchair finished with gimp pins along the arm face edges

Gimp pins are fine steel pins, slightly smaller than tacks. They are painted and come in a wide range of colours. These small pins are traditionally used to fix down gimps and braids, hence the name. They are also frequently used where a finer finish is required, mostly minor exterior fixings, fixing down arm facings, or for a decorative and functional finish along exterior seams as can been seen in the armchair pictured above. Gimp pins are excellent for creating subtle details, reflecting the craft of traditionally upholstered pieces. Their small size and colour means they easily blend in to most fabrics, and the detailing is only evident upon close inspection.

Jaipur Headboard with nailed edge detail

Upholstery nails are the larger domed head nails commonly associated with traditional upholstery. These are often also referred to as studs, due to the domed head shape. There is a plethora of nail head finishes and sizes available, suitable for any need or design. Most common is a simple domed head nail finished in brass. Nail heads may be finished in plain metal coatings, coloured enamel paint, or intricate embossed patterns.

Upholstery nails have a range of functional and decorative uses including, to fix and finish an edge, to cleanly finish a stapled or tacked edge (hide the raw edge), to fix facing pieces, or as a purely decorative detail to accentuate furniture forms and add aesthetic interest.

TP Ottoman with upholstery nail detail

Close nailing is commonly seen along upholstered edges. This method fastens down the material and provides a decorative trim at the same time. Close nailing refers to a continuous line of nails with all the heads just touching, some skill is required to ensure a perfectly even line.

Our TP Ottoman (pictured above) includes a line of close nailing along the leg join, this is a great way to add an accent to a piece, and could be applied to sofa or armchair legs. We’ve recently seen a lot of  interest in decorative nailing, such as framing the front arm faces or front face with a delicate line of nails. It’s a good idea to look at nailing options if you’re recovering dining chairs or timber framed chairs such as Bergères, because nailing provides a beautiful finish along the fabric timber join.

Many upholsterers use a modern trick, upholstery nail strips, which are strips of nail heads to be applied as a decorative detail. Here at Lorfords we only use traditional full nails, and all of our detailing is genuinely handcrafted.

We hope this has given you some insight into the detailing available through the use of tacks, nails and gimp pins. We welcome custom detailing on any of our made to order furniture, and are always available to discuss what is possible on particular pieces.

Bespoke orange sofa with small nail detailing