For some sewing applications, there’s nothing that works quite as well as a metal snap. They’re easier to use than buttons and more durable than Velcro®. That’s why they’re used in everything from mountain climbing jackets, to yacht covers, to baby clothes. Just think how long it would take an NBA player to jump up from the bench and get into the game if he didn’t have those “quick release” sweat pants with snaps running up both sides. He’d probably fall into the stands trying to pull his sweats off over his giant shoes. Installing snaps is pretty simple. You just take a series of tiny metal rings (which can be set up twenty wrong ways and only one right way) line them up within a millimeter of perfection, and then crush the whole assemblage together as hard as you can through several layers of fabric. What could possibly go wrong?
As you might imagine, plenty can go wrong. Take a look at some of the online forums for tales of woe, tragedy, anguish, and regret. But billions of snaps are successfully installed each year, and by taking a few precautions, you too can successfully install snaps!
If you like this article, you may also want to check out our step-by-step tutorial on the Babyville Plastic Snaps. Their bright colors and cute cover designs are great for children’s projects and more. And, they’re completely reversible!
Choosing your tools
Industrial Snap Press
If you’re going to be installing snaps 24/7 and have about $100 to spend, you should get a small industrial snap press. It looks something like a heavy duty stapler with an arm to give you extra leverage. You get good crushing force and perfect alignment.
SnapSetter And Other Hammer-Driven Tools
The “old school” way of installing snaps was with a wooden spool, a hammer, and a very sturdy surface. SnapSource refined this technique with an affordable tool called the SnapSetter that makes it simple to align your snap parts and only requires moderate tapping with a small hammer. It comes in a variety of sizes to accommodate the various snap dimensions, and they offer regular and long prong snaps.
Dritz Plier-Style Snap Tool
This is the tool that’s readily available at fabric stores (in store and online) and the one we’re using for the following instructions. Using the Dritz Plier Tool, you squeeze the handles to embed the two halves of each snap part. There is also a heavy-duty plier kit available and a myriad of plain and decorative snap options. Visit Dritz for the full selection.
Preparing your fabric
Metal snaps will not install properly if your fabric is too thin. Try the Babyville plastic snaps linked above for lightweight fabrics or consider a different fastener, such as a sew-on snap or hook-and-eye.
As you’ll see below, part of each snap is a metal ring with little spikes on it. These spikes penetrate your fabric and then are jammed into a groove on the other part of the snap. If your fabric isn’t thick enough (or layered enough times), the spikes don’t penetrate evenly and your snap doesn’t look right.
You can use lightweight fabric with metal snaps, but you must add a layer(s) of interfacing, both for thickness and to keep the little spikes from tearing holes around the snap.
For our example, we chose a medium-weight, cotton fabric. We used two layers – a single piece folded once and ironed flat.
The parts of a snap
A complete snap has four parts: the ball, the socket, and the two rings with spikes that attach them to the fabric. A decorative snap would have one solid back piece instead of a ring, such as the pearl snaps on a cowboy shirt.
Marking your fabric
Think through exactly where you want the ball and the socket parts on your project. Traditionally, the back of the socket will on the front of your project. Using a fabric pen or pencil, mark where you want the CENTER of each part of the snap. Make these centering marks on both the front and back of your fabric.
Setting up the Dritz pliers
Your pliers have a round metal holder on one side, and on the other side, a yellow plastic wheel with both a round plastic holder and a metal punch. The metal punch is for eyelets, so for snaps, make sure the plastic holder is opposite the other side’s metal holder. There’s a yellow wheel you lift and turn to position the punch/plastic holder.
Your pliers should come with two little rubber rings. Slide a rubber ring over each of the holders (the metal holder on one side and the plastic holder on the other side). Make sure each ring is pushed all the way on.
Installing the snap socket
- Take one of your rings with prongs on it and insert it into the yellow plastic holder with the prongs poking out. Make sure it’s pushed all the way in and is sitting evenly in the holder.
- Pick up the snap socket and determine which side is raised. You can feel it with your finger. Or, if you hold it sideways and squint, you can see one side protrudes a little more than the other.
- Insert the socket, with the protruding side OUT, into the metal holder.
- You’re just about ready to squish this half of the snap into place. Check your two snap parts one last time to make sure they’re all the way into their respective holders and sitting evenly.
- Hold your pliers so the ring with the prongs (in the yellow plastic holder) is facing over what will be the outside or front of your project. Then position the pliers so that mark you made on your fabric earlier is in the center of snap. On our sample, the front is the side with the fabric folded back to simulate the facing on a shirt.
- Holding your pliers level, squeeze firmly. I mean… really firmly. Then open up the pliers and see how you did. The ring should be evenly pressed down all the way around.
NOTE: If the ring isn’t perfectly flat all the way around, you can use a pair of regular pliers to gently ‘persuade’ it. Squeezing the ring with pliers can scuff the shiny finish. So if you do this, put a piece of fabric between the plier jaws and the ring to protect it.
Installing the snap ball
- Take your remaining ring with the prongs on it, and insert it, prongs poking up, into the metal holder on the pliers.
- Take the ball part of the snap and insert it, with the ball facing downwards, into the yellow plastic holder as shown in the photo below. Again, make sure both pieces are all the way inserted and sitting evenly.
- Find where you marked your fabric for this half of the snap. Remember, you want the ball part of the snap to meet the socket part of the snap you just installed. This is the part where you have to stop and think. The ball is facing down into the holder. You have to position your fabric so the ball will be facing up when it’s installed. That means, if you put your snap parts in the right holders, the yellow plastic holder will be on top again for this step.
NOTE: This is a bit of a brain teaser, because all of the other parts of the ball installation are opposite of what you did for the socket installation. Except, just like with the socket, your final plier position is with the yellow side of the pliers over your fabric. It’s okay… this is correct. Double and triple check which side is which on your project so the two layers will come together the way you want them.
- Center the pliers over your mark. Firmly squeeze the handles. Then release them, and see how you did.
With snaps, it’s rare to get perfect results the first time. Make sure you have extra snaps in the size you’ll be using for your project. Take a scrap of your project fabric, fold it and, if necessary, add interfacing just like you would for your project. Then practice putting in the ball and socket parts of the snaps. After you’ve successfully installed a few on your scrap, go ahead and install them on your actual project.