Reupholstering leather seats
The one thing that can spoil the look of a classic is a ropey interior. Recovering seats is not as easy as it looks and sometimes it’s worth forking out the extra to employ a professional to get the job done right
A shabby interior will let even the best cared for classic down. We show how to refurbish tired looking leather seat facings.
T he seats in my 1982 RMB Gentry were really in need of work and since they were being recovered, it made sense to include all the interior trim panels at the same time so the whole interior would match. However, it didn’t seem necessary to feature those panels in the same detail, as the process of stripping off the old material and recovering items such as doors panels is clearly far more straightforward than dealing with a seat.
When the covers have been removed, it’s not unusual to expect to find some corrosion damage on a 60-year old metal seat frame. Fortunately, the only corrosion we found on these seats was in one of the seat pans. The grotty area was sanded down, repaired and covered with the appropriate protective paint but if the metal cannot be properly repaired, it’s important that the seat frames should be replaced in the interests of safety.
You could of course opt for a set of ready-made seat covers that are available from various sources. Often these off the shelf items will come with vinyl border facings but in this case we required an all-leather product in a particular colour, so we chose not to go down that route. With the appropriate tools and skill level, this type of job could be carried out at home but we opted to use the talents of a professional trimmer and used Duncan West at Vamped Trimming. Duncan was keen to stress the importance of being economical when laying out the templates in order to avoid wastage of the leather hides if doing this job at home.
When selecting hides to recover a seat, bear in mind that certain curved areas of the squabs or backs may need to be stretched to make them fit, so the thickness and suppleness of the hide needs to be considered. Always check hides thoroughly, keeping an eye open for blemishes in the surface of the leather and remember that certain segments of a hide may appear different from others due to them coming from different areas of the animal. For these reasons, plus the lack of correct tools and facilities, the whole job of recovering the seats and trim panels was entrusted to Vamped Trimming. The finished job utilised quality leather throughout, including on the gear lever gaiter and the foot- well carpet edging and as well as the result being exemplary, the re-trim has also totally transformed the image of the car. 1 These seats originated from an MG Midget and had not been touched since 1989 when the black facings were replaced with brown vinyl. Over the years, some of the stitching had perished and the vinyl was worn through where the cars doors had been rubbing against the vinyl. 2 The old material was sympathetically removed, using a sharp blade to cut through the stitching separating each panel. Great care has to be taken not to damage the sections as they will be very carefully laid out and used as master patterns that will be accurately replicated in the new material.
3 Once the old covers had been removed, all the foam was carefully pulled out from the metal seat pan and back. Any corrosion was ground away and the holes filled before the repair was treated with anti- rust paint and a coat of Hammerite. 4 After all of the old foam material had been removed, a few remnants will often be found sticking fast to the metal seat backs and frames. In this case, the residue was cleaned off with a professional cleaning agent such as Acrysol. 5 Next, a layer of scrim foam was stuck on to the metal seat backs to provide the correct shape and act as a barrier between the covers and the frame. The foam will also help to avoid any sharp edges wearing through the new hide covers. 6 It’s always easier to re-use any foam removed from the old seats in order to keep the original shape. If some of the old foam tears during the stripping process and requires repairing, it can be glued with a contact adhesive from either a spray can or a glue gun. 7 Once all the old covers had been separated, they were laid out on the hide in preparation of replicating each individual section. It is important to use space economically when laying out the individual sections in order to make best use the amount of hide available. 8 Before any of the new hide was cut, each individual piece of the old material was laid out on white card and marked out as a pattern. Heavy- duty shears were used to cut the hide from the templates in readiness for stitching later. 9 Using a fine black marker pen, the centre line of each of the seat foams was marked precisely in order to help line up the flutes of the seat cushion and the squab. Doing this ensures the cushion and squab will look square when they are fitted later.
10 In order to replicate the original shape and style, a card was placed between the seat cushion and the old vinyl border section. This was to make template that can be used to cut the new leather to the precise shape of the original material. 11 The old white piping was going to be replaced with a new length in brown hide, so the old material was used to measure off a new length prior to cutting. Doing it this way will ensure the piping’s not too short and any excess will be trimmed off later. 12 Instead of using pre- covered piping, which can make the job easier, an industrial sewing machine was used to stitch a strip of matching hide over a length of new piping cord. This is going the extra mile, as uses it more hide and takes longer but the finished results are well worth it. 13 Here the scrim foam has been cut in readiness for sewing inside each individual segment of the stitch and roll fluting on the seat base and back. It looks easy but great care is needed to cut each section to the precise shape if all the seat pleats are to end up appearing uniform. 14 The finished section of stitch and roll fluting was laid out over the card template created earlier from the original vinyl material after it had been disassembled. Each of the fluted sections must be checked carefully for accuracy at this stage before proceeding. 15 Using a normal industrial sewing machine, each of the leather panels was stitched onto a Calico backing with scrim foam sandwiched in between. This will ensure the finished job has the desired soft and supple feel as well as the expected and essential durability.
16 At every stage the leather panels were checked carefully for fit before proceeding. Here the fluted centre panel of the seat is being laid over its base foam to double check all is correct before the surrounding panel was stitched permanently into place. 17 Whilst the newly made up piping was being very carefully sown onto the edge of the seat panel, a white pencil was used to transfer any lining- up reference ticks from below the material to the top surface as the piping was sewn into position. 18 Having completed the face panel for the seat cushion, it was now carefully offered up to the foam backing panels to check the materials all lay correctly. The marker pen lines around the foam were now especially useful to make sure the newly stitched panel were centred and square. 19 Instead of leaving an unprotected edge along the bottom of the metal seat pan like it was originally, a length of clip- on edging was used to provide a more finished appearance. This was easily tapped gently into place around the seat base with a tack hammer. 20 Although the original foam had been in place for many years it was found to be in excellent order and still perfectly usable. Old foam, however, can deteriorate with age so it is important to check it carefully prior to re- covering to make sure that the material has retained its original body. 21 Once all of the panels making up each seat cover had been sewn together, contact glue was sprayed over the entire centre panel then sprayed on to the foam itself. The glue was then given time to ‘go off’ before the newly made covers were carefully offered up. 22 Working from the back forward, the two components were placed together. Great care and patience was needed at this point to ensure the guiding tick marks on both the foam and the new hide cover lined up perfectly. Once the glue bonds, the cover cannot be repositioned.
23 The sides of the hide and the border were pulled down carefully but firmly all round the seat base, making sure that the surface of the leather remained quite smooth and without any visible creases in readiness the securing spring clips. 24 All new spring clips were attached to the base of the seat working from the centre outwards. It’s important to use the correct size spring clips and also to take great care not to damage the new soft hide with the head of the tack hammer. 25 Where the hide was folded under the metal seat base, there will be excess material at the corners. After ‘pinching’ the leather together between a thumb and forefinger, any excess can be trimmed away cleanly with large shears, ensuring no overlap remains. 26 Glue was then applied to the metal of the seat base and the surface of the excess leather that was to be folded back under it. After allowing the recommended period for the glue to cure, the leather was folded over and glued down under the seat pan. 27 Next, the pivot bolts securing the squab to the seat pan and its respective cushion were attached. The matching seat cushion, resplendent in its new hide was then carefully lowered into place and the newly reupholstered seat was now complete. 28 Both restored seats, together with the re-trimmed door cards, front foot-well cards, rear wheel arch cards, a complete set of rear body panel ledges and a matching gear lever gaiter all trimmed in the same matching brown hide laid out ready to fit and looking better than new.
The finished job with seats and all interior panels back in place. Reupholstering the interior has simply transformed the car. Whilst avoiding that awful ‘ too- new’ look that can ruin a classic car, the seats look good too and are now really comfortable. By using quality materials and appropriate expertise, the finished job is sure to last for many years.