Restoring the interior of a classic or collectible car used to be a daunting task, but thanks to a plethora of pre-sewn upholstery kits it’s now one of the easiest tasks. New seat covers, carpets, and door panels can be installed in a weekend or less by anyone with a little confidence and a handful of basic tools.
The necessary tools are absolutely minimal. Hog ring pliers and a box of inexpensive hog rings are the two main items used to install the new covers. These tools can usually be found where you get your upholstery kit, online, or locally at fabric stores and some hardware stores for less than $30.
Common diagonal cutters are used to remove the old upholstery. An extra tool that is an excellent idea for first-time installers is a digital or video camera. Carefully document the locations of various fasteners as the seat is disassembled. Trust us, things will be confusing when it comes time to reassemble the seat. A notebook is also a good idea.
Another safety net is to only do one bucket seat at a time. That way you have the untouched seat as a reference on the first seat, and the finished seat for the second seat. On bench seats, only do one cushion at a time.
Fasteners won’t always be obvious, but wherever the seat has a distinctive shape or recessed area is where you’ll find listing wires and hog rings. Listing wires–similar in gauge to coat hangers–are what hog rings are secured to. There are tight sleeves on the backside of seat covers where listing wires are inserted. Most of the time you will need to reuse the original listing wires. If they’re a little rusty, clean them with some steel wool or a Scotch-Brite pad.
Seat backs in two-door cars are hinged. These hinges are secured in a variety of ways. Many of the pivot arms are designed to be very tight. This type of arm will need to be pried off and pried back on. Be very careful when reinstalling the arms, and always protect the upholstery with something such as a thin piece of plywood. Otherwise the odds of ripping the upholstery are great. The centers of bench seats are typically secured with a pin and bracket arrangement.
A critical part of getting a professional-looking installation is to use new foam seat buns. It’s possible to repair the old foam, but it’s not a good idea. Patched foam will show through the upholstery. New seat covers are designed to fit full-size foam buns. The new covers should be very tight on the new foam. That is necessary for a taut, professional fit.
New seat cover kits usually come in very tightly packed boxes. It’s a good idea to spread out the covers in a warm room for a couple days, this helps relax box wrinkles. Install the covers in a heated workshop. As the covers are being installed use the palms of your (clean) hands to smooth out any wrinkles. A heat gun or hair dryer can be used as a last resort.
Professionals are adept with heat guns and they help work go quickly, but novices can do more damage than good. Hold the heat gun far away from the vinyl so it just warms it slightly. Keep the gun moving. Don’t focus on a particular spot–doing so will most likely stretch the vinyl and it will look far worse than the wrinkle you were trying to eliminate. If the seat is too hot for your hand, it’s too hot for the vinyl.
Getting the seat cover taut with perfectly aligned seams is your goal. If you’re not satisfied with how an area fits, cut the hog rings and try again. Hog rings are cheap. Just don’t hog ring an area so many times that the listing sleeve gets lots of holes.
Most other parts of an interior are even easier to restore than the seats. Hard-style seatbacks are typically held in place with spring-type clips. Door panels are usually secured with serrated “Christmas tree” clips. These nylon clips can sometimes be reused, but it’s best to get new ones. Carpeting is easy because there are so many top-quality molded kits available. The old method of cutting, fitting and seaming was quite difficult, but factory molded carpets eliminate those problems.
Dash pads can be more difficult depending on their design and how they’re secured. Many dash pads are fragile and can break around the center speaker area. Replacement seat belts are easy to install although many require a large Torx wrench. Anchor bolts can be rusted to the floor.
The toughest part of D.I.Y. interior restoration is headliners. They seem pretty basic, but getting a wrinkle-free installation in the corners is quite challenging. If your headliner is black you can get away with some minor wrinkles, but otherwise you should leave this task to the professionals.
The following photos illustrate some of the most common techniques used in do-it-yourself upholstery kits.
Contemporary do-it-yourself upholstery kits are so well made that it can be difficult to tell a kit from an original or a custom-sewn upholstery job. The range of products keeps expanding, but the biggest selection is for the most popular cars in the most popular color combinations.
The restoration industry keeps expanding their selections of seat cover kits. Even upholstery as wild as that found in 1958 Impalas is being reproduced.
It’s not uncommon for the seats in 40 to 50-year-old classic cars to have worn out upholstery. Very often the seams deteriorate and separate on vinyl covers. The seats also break down due to the deterioration of the underlying foam.
The first step in reupholstering a seat is to remove the old seat from the car and separate the backrest from the lower cushion. The pivot point is often underneath some decorative trim. A pry bar is often needed. When reinstalling the upper seat bracket protect the new upholstery with a piece of wood.
Seatbacks that are secured with large screws are generally easier to take apart and reassemble.
One of the biggest mistakes that do-it-yourself upholstery installers make is trying to reuse the original seat foam. Even if it’s not torn and shredding like this seat bun, the foam will still be too compressed to reuse.
The coarse burlap that sits between the seat foam and the springs is usually pretty shot, but it’s easy and inexpensive to replace.
The burlap needs to be removed in order to inspect the springs. It’s possible to get replacement springs, or even to repair the old ones. The seat frame should be restored at this time as well, but some quick jobs can be done if you figure that no one will see the grungy frames!
Upholstery components are generally held together with hog rings, but some manufacturers use a series of hooks and rods. In either case the fasteners can be found inside the foam.
Upholstery kits can be installed with common shop tools. About the only tool missing from most tool kits is a hog ring pliers, and they’re very inexpensive. This close-up of hog ring pliers jaws shows how the jaws are slotted to hold the hog ring during installation. Some installers use several large rubber bands to regulate handle pressure.
Here a new hog ring is being used to secure the new burlap to a listing wire. Listing wires are used throughout upholstery to secure large areas of material.
The burlap doesn’t have to be all neat and tidy. It’s hog-ringed to keep it from moving around. The new, factory correct foam seat bun is molded on the bottom to fit perfectly over the seat frame.
The topside of the foam is also molded. Hog rings are installed in the recessed areas. The pointed ends of the hog rings poke through the foam to close around the underlying framework.
The new upholstery has pre-sewn sleeves on the backside of the material. These sleeves hold the listing wires. Wherever there were listing wires on the original seat cover, they are on the new covers. The original listing wires usually need to be reused.
It helps to have a flat work surface than can be accessed from several sides. Seat covers can be installed alone, but they’re much easier with an assistant. The new cover is positioned on top of the new seat bun.
Wherever there is a distinct low area on a seat there should be a listing wire. The “horseshoe” part of this lower cushion uses a listing wire to provide the proper shape. Starting in the center of the seat a hog ring is pushed around the listing wire sleeve, but not closed. Without releasing the pliers the whole assembly is pushed into the foam until the hog ring hits the frame. Then the ring is squeezed shut.
After all the listing wires are secured, the seat cover is turned right-side out and wrapped around the outer edges of the foam. Here, Bob Becker holds the center of the cover while David Roberts pulls the corners into place.
The fit should be quite tight, because the new covers are designed to fit snugly over new foam seat buns. A flat work surface helps during the tugging and stretching process. Some installers place a small rug on the workbench to protect the upholstery.
As the seat cover is worked into place it helps to use your hands to smooth out any wrinkles. The idea is to work the material to the edges. The seams should be right at the edge of the foam. If the old seat buns had been reused the new cover would be too big.
A heat gun may be used to “relax” the vinyl and help eliminate wrinkles, but it should be used very cautiously. Too much heat will permanently stretch the vinyl and ruin it. If it’s too hot for your hand, it’s too hot for the vinyl. The best way to work out wrinkles is with your hands.
Hog rings are the most common method of securing the bottom edge of the cover to the underside of the seat frame, but some cars use large clips instead. The seat cover needs to be stretched as tight as possible before either the hog rings or clips are secured.
The wire clips that hold seatback panels in place can get bent. You can get replacement clips or use a needle-nose pliers to straighten the original clips.
When the seatback panel clips are aligned with the mounting holes, a piece of cloth and a rubber mallet can be used to pop the clips into place.
When the seats are out of the car it’s a good idea to service the seat tracks. White lithium grease can be applied to the movable parts of the track. Wipe off any excess grease so it doesn’t get on the upholstery.
The seats need to be out of the car to install new carpet. The great news about reproduction carpet kits is that they’re pre-molded. They fit the floor pan exactly. A little judicious trimming may be required around the sill plates.
Reproduction door panel kits are available for many collector cars. Armrest pads and covers are generally available, but deluxe trim items such as faux wood or stainless chrome trim isn’t always available. Never discard the old parts until the whole job is complete.