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Automatic upholstery

Upholstery | March 1, 2015 | By:

Giving cars a winning look.

The best meals are cooked from scratch, the wildest adventures take place off the map, and some of the most impressive auto upholstery restoration projects are done without a template. Two entries in the upholstery category of the 2014 International Achievement Awards were just such projects, transforming torn, tattered and otherwise unusable auto upholstery into better-than-new final outcomes.

Winning restoration

Automobile restoration is a project that requires time, attention to detail and careful planning. Fully reupholstering the interior of a vintage 1955 Chevy Bel Air required all of the above, and then some.

“Being an older vehicle, it can be hard to replicate exactly how things came apart and are supposed to go back together,” says Owain Jones, owner of Hawkes Bay Trim & Canvas Ltd., Hastings, New Zealand. “This also made [the project] difficult, as the car turned up partially stripped so we didn’t get to see how some components were fitted originally. Clips and screws were replaced with modern alternatives where necessary, and some of the finishing was a case of making it look mint as opposed to being exactly like the original.”

The restoration project (which won the Award of Excellence) included the restoration of door panels, seats, and carpet. Jones used UltraMarine vinyl from Auckland, New Zealand-based QCD Ltd. for the seats and door panels, and Autex Performer carpeting from W. Wiggins Ltd., also of Auckland.

“The colors were chosen by our client, but [we made the vinyl fabric choice] for its high quality and soft finish,” Jones says. “Being a marine fabric, by nature, it is more than capable of withstanding an automotive environment. The carpet we used, which is also a marine grade product, was chosen due to its quality and proven performance.”

Realistic expectations

The restoration project was a straightforward one, but it did come with some unique challenges. “We were only a two-man operation at the time, and a new business as well,” he says, “which meant that extra trips to and from the panel shop for trial fitting things like door panels took up some valuable time. Getting the details right is crucial to getting the job done right, however.”

Jones also used several alternative fasteners for the restoration instead of exact replacements. “We used ‘Christmas tree’ fasteners to fix the door cards and other panels, which were originally screwed on,” he says. “This was done to hide the fixings instead of having ugly screw heads around the panels. A lot of the original screws were rusty and no good, so we replaced them all with new ones.”

The finished product pleased the client, whose realistic expectations allowed Jones some room for creativity. “We always use high quality products in our restoration and customization jobs,” he says. You do get a client now and then who wants everything just like it rolled of the factory floor, but more often than not, clients are happy to use more modern materials if it means a better job at the end of it. [Most] customers want to be able to drive their vehicles as well, so it’s no use making it look nice and pretty if the materials used won’t stand up to reasonable use.”

Convertible rebuild

When a client came to Mark Peterson at Sugar House Awning Industries in Salt Lake City, Utah, with a limited edition 1985 Honda CRX in need of a new convertible top, he had to start almost entirely from scratch.

“The ’85 CRX is a very rare kind of sport convertible, so we didn’t have many examples to draw from,” Peterson says. “We needed to strip off the entire top and throw it away before we began any work because it was almost entirely destroyed. That left us at a starting point with zero pattern to work with. We had to rely solely on experience [to create a suitable replica].”

In just five days, Peterson and his crew measured, cut and sewed a top that fit and functioned perfectly on the convertible. The project didn’t come without its challenges, however. What remained of the old fabric had to be removed, and the framework of the top had to be thoroughly cleaned and prepared for the installation of new material. Without an existing top to use as a pattern, the Sugar House crew had to take precise measurements to ensure a snug fit.

“We started by making sure all the ribs were lined up and in working order so that every part of the new top would be symmetrical once we installed it,” Peterson explains. “Then we set the framework up so we could get accurate dimensional measurements.”

The Sugar House crew used fiber tape to hold the frame in its upright position. The tape remained during the installation to ensure a perfect fit. Before the installations took place, Sugar House built and sewed pads into the fabric areas that made contact with the frame to help the top hold its shape.

“We built the pads for the inside of the top, took pieces of material and then stretched them over the frame so we could cut it to fit,” says Peterson. “Then we sewed the pieces together. Anybody can take an existing piece of material and stretch it out and cut it to size and have a good starting point for what was there originally. This project required us to take our own measurements and recreate the top from square one.”

Three-ply fabric solution

Peterson relies on the Stayfast® line of three-ply toppings designed for convertible top applications, manufactured by the Haartz Corporation, Acton, Mass., for nearly all of his convertible top restorations. The material is designed with square weaving face fabric, is weatherproof and has a nice interior finish.

“In my experience, I’ve seen this fabric easily have 10, 15 or 20 years of life in the weather,” Peterson says. “It was an easy choice for us.”

Putting it all together

Peterson’s lead technician, Bruce Lee, was in charge of the fabrication and installation of the top. Getting a perfect fit and the right aesthetic required Lee to perform a partial installation of the new top to make sure everything lined up before permanently attaching it to the vehicle.

“[Lee] partially installed the top and stretched it out to put the rear window in, and then the front part of it was glued with Keyston Brothers ADH105P adhesive contact cement,” says Peterson. “On the backside of the top, we pop-riveted down the wire-on trim around the perimeter of the back. That all had to be stretched and put in place to ensure the proper fit. He hand-riveted 50 1/8-inch rivets in all, and then folded and pounded the trim over with a mallet to give the fabric an outer trim that meshes aesthetically with the fabric itself.”

Lee also had to incorporate a rear window into the top. The 40-gauge, double-polished plastic pane was sewn directly into the fabric. “Part of the challenge of [the window installation] is making sure the window and all of your seams are fully waterproof,” Peterson says. “We used a really aggressive automotive double stick tape that goes between the seams first, then stitched it in, and then top stitched with UV-rated Solarfix PTFE thread from Quality Thread & Notions [of Solon, Ohio].”

For the final installation, Lee used clamps and a series of pop rivets on each section he was working on to hold tension and make sure the top stayed in place. “I would rate this project an eight or nine in terms of difficulty on a scale of one to 10,” Peterson says. The challenge was well worth it, as the end result exceeded the customer’s expectations.

Jake Kulju is a freelance writer based
in Minneapolis, Minn.

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