Rivets are everywhere. Airliners have rivets. The pockets of your Levis® have rivets. Frogs make the sound, "rrriiiiiivvvet." That last example probably isn't applicable, but it kinda makes you wonder, doesn't it? Not only are rivets ubiquitous, they look super professional when used on a sewing project. Rivets also have a very logical purpose: they hold lots of thick layers together at points where it would be impossible to stitch with a sewing machine.
For sewing applications, you often see rivets attaching heavy straps to bags, holding belt buckles in place or reinforcing the corner stress points of a pocket or pouch. Rivets are the smooth, cool, tough guys of sewing. But here's their secret: with the right tools, they're actually quite easy to apply.
Heavy duty tools
Many riveting tutorials we reviewed left out this important tool. Or, perhaps they assumed everyone had one of these wacky hole punches. We kind of doubt that. But, this tool is one of the keys to making the process easy, especially with heavier fabrics, faux leathers and vinyls, and real leather. You can find punch tools online from Amazon as well as locally at traditional hardware stores; Habor Freight is a good option.
A hole punch is a plier-like tool with a rotating wheel of variously sized sharpened, hollow spikes. Squeeze the plier, and the selected spike strikes against the opposing anvil. When your layers of fabric are in between the spike and the anvil, a clean hole is cut.
Awl or small sharp scissors
We have had very good luck with the hole punch on a variety of the heavier wovens into which rivets are placed as well as in faux and real leathers. However, If you can't find or don't wish to purchase a heavy-duty hole punch, you can make holes using a sewing awl.
An awl is also a good option when working with lighter-weight wovens. For these fabrics, you'll get a much stronger rivet by carefully prying a hole between the threads of the fabric with an awl than by cutting the threads with the hole punch. The lighter the weight of the substrate and the smaller the hole (and rivet), the more careful the cut. That said, if you still have trouble inserting the rivet, it's okay to use a pair of small, sharp scissors to clean up and slightly enlarge the hole. This is true when using either a hole punch or an awl.
"Always" and "Never" are hard to use when it comes to creative processes. As usual, we recommend testing any process on scraps of the project's fabric prior to trying it on the final piece.
Plastic or leather hammer
The really fun part of riveting is the fact you get to whack something with a hammer. It's what ultimately seals the deal, locking the rivet post and cap. But it's also a great stress reliever, and if you're like me, it allows you to take out a bit of frustration on what might be an otherwise uncooperative project. Don't use a regular metal hammer as it could damage the setting post and/or your rivet. Look for a plastic mallet (shown above) or rawhide hammer. You can find either of these online (using our links) or in the woodworking department of your local hardware store.
Light duty tools
Setting post and anvil
Much like how a snap is applied, you need to press together two pieces to create a finished rivet. Due to the thickness and quantity of layers you are usually working with, this can take quite a bit of pressure. You need an anvil to help support the base of the rivet and a setting post to hold the top of the rivet in place and on which to strike your hammer. These tools are machined with one side concave (on the left above) and one side flat (on the right above). This allows you to match the surfaces of the anvil and post to the surfaces of your rivet pieces. Many rivet sets come with a post and anvil tool. The Rapid Rivet brand is a good option we've used often.
Dritz® makes a plastic setting tool that allows you to place a rivet back/post in one cup and a rivet cap in an opposing cup. You can find purchase the the tool by itself, but you are more likely to find it in a kit with rivets.
The layers of fabric go in between, against the tool's hinge, then you gently hammer cap to post. This option would be fine for lightweight riveting, but we would suggest the more traditional post and anvil for most thick applications.
Both the Dritz® tool and most post and anvil tools are considered home options. If you are planning to do a lot of riveting, you might try looking for combination piercing and setting tools, commonly found for leather working. EZ Rivet makes an affordable option.
There are MANY options for the rivets themselves. Most rivets are metal, and usually come in either gold (brass) or silver (nickel). The cap of the rivet sometimes offers a bit of decoration. You can find engraved decorative rivets, and there are even rivets with crystal or semi-precious stone caps. Remember, you are striking the top of the rivet with a hammer, so the more decorative options do require extra protection (covering with a cloth or leather) and care when inserting them.
The size of the head or cap varies as does the length of the post. The size of the cap is going to be important decoratively as it is what you see from the front of your project. Choose a size that looks good for your application.
Even more important is the length of the post. It has to be long enough to penetrate through all the layers of fabric.
The back of rivets are traditionally either flat and plain, revealing the hole that forms the post, or a covered curved back that matches the top.
A good overall resource for the rivets and all their setting tools is Tandy Leather.
Ready to rivet
- Your first step is to determine the length of the post required to make it through the layers of your project. Hold up the rivet next to ALL the actual layers and depress the fabric slightly between your fingers. The post should just barely clear the fabric.
- Test the post of your selected rivet in the hollow spikes of the hole punch. You want the smallest hole into which the rivet post will slide. If it won't slide in, that hole is too small. If it slides in and swims around, that hole to too big. Pick the hole that is just right.
- With a fabric pen or pencil, mark the exact point where you want the CENTER of your rivet to fall. Make centering marks on both the front and back of your fabric.
- Align the hole punch over the centering points. Be VERY careful to make sure the center of spike is directly over your mark. Squeeze like heck! If you're going through a particularly thick set of layers, you can also rotate the punch slightly, while closed, to insure a clean punch through all the layers. Release the punch and carefully remove the fabric. If you are not satisfied the hole is clean through, you can flip your project over and punch again from back to front. Or, as mentioned above, clean the hole with a pair of small, sharp scissors.
- Push the post of the rivet through the hole from the back so the top of the post just comes through on the front.
- Place the anvil directly under the back of the rivet. The back of our rivet was flat, so we made sure the flat side of the anvil was facing up. Place the cap of the rivet on the post.
- Place the setting post carefully over the cap of the rivet. The cap of our rivet was curved, so we made sure the curved side of the setting post was facing down. Holding the setting post firmly at the base, whack the post with the hammer four or five times to set the rivet. Use smooth, strong blows, and be careful not to let the post slip to one side or the other. If you are using a decorative rivet cap, you will need to protect the cap with a cloth or small piece of thin leather. As always, of course you are testing your rivets first and so can determine exactly the type of protection needed, if any.
- Ta-da! A finished rivet front and back
There really isn't any great way to take a rivet out of a sewn project; they are designed to be permanent after all. We have had some luck carefully cutting them out, then filling the hole with a fabric and interfacing patch -- trimmed very closely -- you can then install a larger rivet, a snap or a button to cover up the repair.