Auto-upholstery is a bumper to bumper experience, encompassing all leather and fabric inside and outside the car. An upholstery project can be an easy endeavor involving simple tools, or it can be a complicated project involving heavy industrial equipment. With a few easy steps, you can learn to do auto upholstery on your own, from choosing tools to identifying materials and buying special parts for your project.
Learn about the tools used in auto upholstery. For simple projects, you can start with a sewing machine designed to sew through upholstery fabric. Types of sewing machines used in auto upholstery include single needle, double needle and chain-stitch sewing machines. The single needle machine is your standard sewing machine. Machines with stronger motors are often used in upholstery because more power is need to sew thickly-layered fabric. The double-needle machine is specialized to help you sew welts, a technique that gives the edges of cushions their corded look. A chain-stitch sewing machine is used by professionals to eliminate the need for changing the bobbin. A bobbin is a second spool that provides thread to anchor the sewing thread from the spool. A chain-stitch sewing machine allows you to use two equal-sized spools instead of a spool and a small bobbin.
Some hand tools are necessary for all jobs. Must-have hand tools for upholstery trimmers include scissors or shears, side or diagonal cutters, a tape measure, multiple yardsticks, tailor's chalk and washable marking pens for marking materials, trim pins and hog rings to help hold your upholstery materials in place, and hog ring pliers to shape the hog rings. You should also have a good set of mechanic's tools including pliers, screwdrivers, a ratchet set and a hammer. Projects that require you to shape foam are best done with a foam saw.
Dealing with staples
Get the right tools to remove staples and attach the new upholstery. Many older vehicles have fasteners securing doors and seats which are difficult to remove without the proper tools. When planning a restoration of an old vehicle's upholstery, get a window or door handle clip remover, as well as tack and staple pullers to detach the fabric from the seats.
For jobs with a lot of tight spots to staple, use a trimmer's staple gun, which is a special staple gun used to anchor upholstery in small spaces. According to "Automotive Upholstery Handbook," the trimmer's staple gun relies on a piston-type air compressor capable of 40 psi air pressure at 4.5 cubic feet of air pressure per minute. You can buy this kind of air compressor at hardware stores.
Plan to have some parts manufactured for you, especially if they are difficult or expensive to make on your own. If you have a special need, such as making custom buttons, contact an upholstery shop to see it can do it for you.
Applying vinyl requires some special tools and attachments. If you plan professional work, like spraying vinyl coating on your upholstery, use a paint gun with a #80 tip. Like the trimmer's staple gun, the paint gun also requires that you have the same type of air compressor. If you don't already have a compressor, a glue-spraying gun may be cheaper than buying the whole setup. When applying vinyl to your seats, you will also need a heat gun to dry and shrink the vinyl and to make it more pliable for molding around the seat foam.
- "Automotic Upholstery Handbook," by Don Taylor; 1993
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