How To: Quick and Easy Car Upholstery

If you’re anything like me, you always have more projects than either time or money allows. Not to fret, this quick upholstery how-to won’t cost you much of either – it’s also a great way for beginners to practice or a short-term fix for a car whose interior is falling apart but not yet ready for its next big plans.

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Interior was the first job I tackled on my own after I’d bought my Studebaker. I knew the fabric I chose to reupholster with wouldn’t hold up to time (Hawaiian barkcloth which I reinforced with cotton backing) – it did however serve its purpose of helping me learn and providing a number of years of good use. Although I’ve been planning on re-vamping the interior of my Studebaker for awhile, I still have to spring for new rubber window sills/weatherstripping, C-channels, and cats whiskers  - until I do, a new interior would just be ruined by the next big rainstorm.

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So until I have the extra money to spend on all that stuff, a recent outing to a car show lit enough of a fire to hop me into action early in the morning with my Studebaker. My calendar has been very slim on car shows this summer, as Stude needs a little engine work and I’ve been keeping more than busy at my job. But when my pal Mark at Gasoline Gallery threw his annual shin-dig, California Screamin’, at a nearby dig – I couldn’t help but show up. Of course, Stude needed a good washing before going to meet up with her classic car friends…

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Since I’d woken up at the crack of dawn and decided to go ahead and wash Stude before the sun got hot…I had plenty of time left before leaving for the show. I just kept looking at Stude’s backseat and package tray (yes, that’s what that thing above the rear seat is called)…and they both looked so sad. The seat was horribly sun-bleached with a few tears, and it appears the glitter in the glitter-vinyl package tray had became rusted.

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Having a ream of spare coral-colored vinyl in my garage, I decided to give the interior a quick makeover before leaving for the show. First the package tray. Flat, heavy cardboard is all a package tray is made of. You take whatever fabric you want and wrap it around, affixing it to the underside with short staples. Here are all the tools you need:

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(Note: The last staples I’d bought at Home Depot were 1/2″, the shortest they had. I was under the impression this was the shortest I could get – which when stapling through a cardboard panel comes out the other side. I made my current package tray at a friend’s upholstery shop who’s nice enough to let me use his tools – his power staple gun has the perfect little staples for the job. However…I was out of staples this early morning and ran to my local ACE Hardware…and was extremely pleased to see 1/4″ staples for my hand-held staple gun, the perfect length for this sort of work!)

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For this job, I just used my current package tray as-is and wrapped new vinyl around. Staple a long length of new fabric to one side, then wrap it around and pull until taut, stapling to surface. Continue this, stapling about 4-6″ apart, until you’ve finished the second long side.

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Ends are the most difficult part of this, as they curve more and have corners. Vinyl is nice, because it has a stretch to it. Don’t be afraid to give it a good tug before stapling down – using the head of the stapler to pull it a little extra tighter before putting the staple in helps. Continue adding staples until you’re able to make everything smooth, saving the corners for last.

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Before I do corners, I cut the extra fabric off – don’t cut too much, because you want enough to still wrap around the edge and secure your corner with. My example is by no means perfect, but okay for a quick job. This is an art that can take a little practice before getting right…so if you haven’t done this before, be patient with yourself!

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Once I was pretty happy with it – I filled in my gaps with a few more staples (you can’t really have too much)…

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…and wah-la, a new package tray!

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Since I liked this look, and because it had only taken me 30 minutes, I continued with my impromptu upholstering and set my sights on my back seat! With about 30 minutes more before friends arrived, this was going to be an extremely simple job (and is in fact, the only way I would’ve convinced myself to not give it at least a couple of sewn seams)!

I laid my back seat out on the fabric…

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Used my hog-ring pliers and rusty hog-rings I had sitting around (I picked these up when I started thinking about reupholstering…that’s how long it’s been!) You can get these tools from any upholstery shop – I’m sure you could improvise with something, but I wouldn’t suggest it!

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I went to work on attaching the top, straight portion of the rear seat fabric.

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Next I moved to the bottom – this is where it got a little more difficult as there’s an inlet to the seat back which allows for my car’s transmission tunnel. There was no way getting around the fact that parts of that inlet were going to show…so I did my best and covered what I could (this part faces downward anyway).

Moving to the sides, I had to decide how to fold and/or cut the corners. Opting for the easiest choice, I just made a simple fold – similar to how you’d fold sheets on the corner of a bed when making it.

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My  hopes weren’t very high for the end-result of this project, but once I replaced my rear seat in my Studebaker I was pleasantly surprised! For an hour’s total worth of work, I transformed my back seat from something falling apart to something neatly “under-progess”.

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So until my little Stude is ready for a “real” reupholstering – this works as a better-looking, more useful, option than a falling apart seat! Driving to the car show, I felt a little better at what I was “presenting” – a work-in-progress as she is right now. After an awesome day with cars and friends – the sun was setting on the drive home, weather was perfect, and I couldn’t ask for a much better Saturday.

how_to_quick_car_upholstery_22Until next time, Happy Trails. Leave me a comment and let me know what progress you’re making with your car!

12 Responses

  1. jpkalishek

    Heh … I was just poking around a bit earlier here and at MyRide , wondering how you were doing and what was up and a few hours later. New Post!
    Got three upholstery projects coming myself … all three are motorcycle seats. I picked up a Honda 400T to mess about with and I’d like a Dirt Tracker style seat for it.
    The other two are my two ST1100 Hondas that need recovering and I’d like to gel/memory foam the saddle on the one. I have a cover in decent shape on the one, it just has a bit of cracking that will soon grow to be rips, and it is the one I’d like to gel. I may send it off to be done.
    The other is already gelled, but the cover was a cheap replacement and has started to come apart at the seams. I think I shall sew up a new one from either leather or hunt down some Naugas for skins to make a quality Naugahyde cover. Guess I should get some better thread for the sewing machine.

    Reply
    • greasegirl

      Memory foam seat…say what?!? That sounds splendid…perhaps when I re-foam Stude’s seat I should use memory foam…hehehe.

      Reply
      • jpkalishek

        there are insert kits on eBay. I will try to remember to look up the latest I found (like a fool, I forgot to bookmark the seller) .
        When you refoam, you would carve out an inch or so of foam to the shape of the insert, and put the gel in place, then memory foam over it then final shape and a layer of “smoothing foam” ( about and 1/8th inch thick bit) then cover as normal. The alternative is just a layer of memory foam alone. Still quite nice, and far cheaper. The right foam though is needed, some will collapse and look wonky.

  2. Race Gentry

    Very impressed and good to here from you and the car I am in the process of learning to sew small things before I start on my 52 belair.Thanks for the write up!

    Reply
  3. Spanner Bird

    I love the colour of the upholstery Kristin! I’ve used hog rings and pliers before, and know first hand why hog rings (even though somewhat more pricey than stay regular staples) are the best way to go. Use a staple, expect it to pop, or fly in my case, straight out of whatever you stapled. I found the ones I used before at West Marine somewhat near me. I was also thinking that memory foam would be nice as it compresses when you sit on it probably making you feel a bit more secure when you’re driving. Much like artificial bolstering.

    Reply
  4. Danni

    An excellent mini tutorial here! Am about to embark on my very first upholstery project of my own…

    Reply

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