How to repair car seats yourself

How to repair car seats yourself

Rips, tears, and burns in your car seats can make your car interior look shabby and worn out. Make your upholstery whole again with our guide!

Having a tear or hole in your car seat upholstery can be incredibly frustrating. Unlike so many other problems with your car’s aesthetics, gashes in the upholstery don’t just go away with a simple wipe or easy swap out. They can make the interior of your car feel shabby and uncared for. Even worse, the longer they are there, the greater the chance is that they will get worse. A small hole turns to a small rip, which turns into a tear, which becomes a giant gaping gash with foam spilling out that you can’t take your eyes off!

Taking your car to a garage to get the upholstery repaired or changed can be very costly, but this is also something you can do yourself. It isn’t always easy to repair or replace car upholstery and you may need some tools to do it, but with a bit of patience and our comprehensive guide you can definitely get it done. There are a variety of options for renewing upholstery and there is a huge array of aftermarket kits available for replacing car seats completely or materials that will help to patch up any problems. Whatever type of material your car seats are and whatever the issue, we have some ideas and tips to get rid of your rips and get your car looking factory fresh again.

Types of Upholstery

Types of Upholstery

Before you can repair your car seat upholstery, it is important to know what type of material you are dealing with, as they all have different characteristics and need a couple of different approaches.

 Car seats are usually covered in one of the following materials. 
  • Nylon is one of the most common types of automotive upholstery and is known for its durability and its ability to stand up to hard use. Nylon is quite porous and will pick up dirt and debris every time you drive your car, so even without rips and tears you might decide you want to replace your nylon earlier.
  • Polyester is another popular choice for automotive upholstery and it is designed to look like suede. This soft fabric is quite comfortable but can rip and tear easily.
  • Vinyl has been a popular choice of upholstery for a long time due to its strength and how easy it is to clean. If it gets ripped or a hole appears, however, it can be a little harder to repair.
    It might look like leather, but it is a clever, animal friendly imposter: Faux leather upholstery is a popular choice for luxury cars, and it is relatively easy to keep clean, strong, and resistant to scratches.
  • Leather seats are often a sign of a high-end luxury car. Leather upholstery requires special care and cleaning products to keep it looking sharp, but it is extremely resistant and strong. It is, however, much more difficult to repair than other cheaper materials. Repairs to leather, especially new or light coloured leather, can also be very conspicuous if not done properly.

Common Upholstery Problems

Common Upholstery Problems

Some of the issues that people see most with car seats are tears or rips. These can come from clothing being caught on the seat or luggage or other items cutting into them with hard or sharp edges. Frayed seat edges or seams are also a common problem and come mostly from age alone. Seams can also become unstitched, though this is unlikely. Burns, often from cigarettes, can also ruin the surface of your seats. There can also be problems with car seat padding. If there is a rip that is deep enough the padding can poke out, or it can simply become too compressed and no longer supportive. Specifically for leather or for vinyl, the seat can start to ‘crack’ or have imperfections, such as small scratches, in it. All of these different problems will need to be treated in a different way, so it is important you correctly identify the problem before you start repairing.

Tools Needed

 The tools you will need differ depending on what needs to be repaired of course, but these are some tools you might find come in handy when making general repairs or maintaining car upholstery. 
  • i Clean cloth(s)
  • i Canvas patches to act as seat backing
  • i Fine or medium sandpaper
  • i Leather repair kit, paints, or pre/post treatment solutions (depending on type of repairs)
    Leather repair kit
  • i Tweezers
  • i Scrubbing pads
  • i Palette knife
  • i Rubbing alcohol
  • i Scissors

Repairing minor Issues

For starters, let’s tackle some of the most common minor issues such as rips and tears. Before we start though, it is important to acknowledge that if you do it yourself, a repaired seat tear will never be completely unnoticeable. If you want it to look like new, you’ll have to take it to a professional upholstery shop.

Small holes, tears, rips, or burns in cloth/fabric car seats

This best way to repair fabric seats is usually to use a patch on the seat cover to hide this kind of wear and support the remaining seat fabric. You will want to try and find a patch that matches not just the colour of the seat you are working on, but also the type or pattern, and find material that has the strength required to deal with regular use. It is worth asking for recommendations at a local garage or checking online to see if you can find specific fabric for this kind of repair.

You will need to cut the fabric to match the size of the hole in the fabric or the length of the rip before applying it to the seat. It should comfortably cover the hole or tear, but it is up to you how much excess material will join the current seat fabric. This can then be placed directly over the hole or small tear and will hopefully blend seamlessly into the seat cover.

You have two options when it comes to applying the patch: using an adhesive patch or sewing or stitching the material directly to the seat. Most patches can be attached using a contact adhesive, typically available in a spray. You can also use heat (from an iron or heat gun) to ensure a strong bond onto the material. Some people worry that if they don’t stitch, it won’t be as effective, but adhesive works just as well.

Tears in Cloth/Fabric Seats

For a rip or tear that’s larger than a couple of inches across, a patch isn’t going to be suitable; it will leave the seat looking ugly and mismatched. Professional repair is always the best bet from an aesthetic perspective in this situation, but there are some DIY options available, the first of which is stitching the tear back together.

Using a curved needle and thread, hold the two sides of the torn fabric together and stitch the tear using an X stitch from top to bottom. Over the top of this you are going to apply a larger patch, so this initial X stitch will hold the sides together underneath the patch. From here it is very similar to the process described above. Choose a patch that matches the fabric of the seat cover and use an adhesive to cover up the stitching. Here you won’t need to use too much adhesive; it is the stitching that holds the seat together and not the glue.

Tears in leather, faux leather, or vinyl

Tears to leather are slightly trickier than tears to fabric seats, not least because the material is different and requires a lot more different treatment.

When the seat fabric splits and it is not right up against the seams, we are in a good position as we have access to the back on both sides of the rip. Our solution is going to be to glue a piece of fabric (not leather, just ordinary fabric) to the back so that the two sides come together, and any gap can be filled in with specifically designed filler for leather seats.

The first step is to make sure that the fabric, be it leather, vinyl, or faux leather, is not connected to any padding in the seat or any other material that might be used to secure it; we just want to be able to access the fabric itself. If it is connected you might have to use a piece of plastic or a knife to free the material from the padding, though make sure to do this carefully.

Next, apply adhesive to the patch. you won’t need to do much here, but enough to make sure that it sticks to both sides. Slide it behind the seat upholstery and make sure that it is touching both sides. Take both sides of the rip and hold the gap closed while the glue dries (it isn’t as easy as it sounds). It is important to use a suitable patch fabric. A scrap of suede or heavy-duty duck cloth used for uniforms works well. The critical factor for woven cloth is that it does not stretch on the change shape when it comes under stress i.e. when you sit on it! If the color happens to be a close match to the seat, then this is a bonus.

Next, you need to apply consistent weight or pressure to the area so that the patch sticks with adhesive effectively, as it can take some time for the glue to dry. This can be done using any kind of weight or a pressure clamp to keep it in place.

The surface of leather is always curved, due to the padding pushing it upwards, so you need to press hard enough to flatten the curve. If the rip is quite big, make sure to use a weight that is big enough to cover almost the entire gap. If you do not do this, one side would be outweighed and this could mean that the gap stretches open again and becomes even worse. If possible, use clamps to narrow the gap at the same time as applying pressure. As for the adhesive that you use, it is best to check for a specific fabric adhesive. We’ll come to some good brands for this later on.

If leather is thick, once the gap is closed you can use a filler to bring this back to an even surface. Various fillers will work and again see below for some product recommendations. The main requirements are that it be flexible, non-shrinking, and can be coloured or painted in some way.

Cracks, creases, and holes in leather or vinyl

Repairing cracks and creases in leather and vinyl is also a little more complicated than dealing with fabric seats. There are, though, a lot more products that can help in this process, so it is nothing to feel daunted by!

Cleaning products for car seats

The first step is to make sure the seats are totally clean. Using specific leather seat cleaning products will ensure that any of the fillers or sealants used are really going to stick and apply well to the surface of the leather seats.

For small cracks, a temporary solution can just be to use a leather colour restorer or restoration product. These are widely available and will simply add colour back to faded leather. They will not change the surface but will give the appearance of the leather being new. This is, however, only a very short-term solution.

For small holes, a leather and vinyl compound or filler can be used to fill in the gap. These can then be painted on so that it blends in with the leather seat (though for this to be effective the whole seat should really be coated). Some are heat activated meaning you will need something to heat the liquid. Using a small trowel or spatula, you can insert and spread the filler into the holes. You should do this in stages and layers to create the best finish and strongest repair. Layer by layer slowly fill the hole until it is flush with the surrounding leather. Feel the surface with your fingers to make sure it is truly flat and level. Different products will need to be applied in different ways so check the instructions that come with each product. Once you are happy that the layer is relatively flush with the rest of the seat, you can use a nonstick silicone pad to create the smooth finish and then paint this to match the rest of the seat.

For anything that is more than discoloration and more serious cracks, more heavy-duty repair is required. Use masking tape to cover any parts of the seat which aren’t leather, for example the plastic fixture used to adjust the seat incline angle or any fabric below the leather, and then use soft sandpaper to level down the existing damaged leather and remove any loose or compromised leather, create a uniform and level surface. There can be lots of peaks and valleys or leather coming lose, but it is important to get the surface as level as possible either through sanding or cutting these protruding pieces off. If we get the surface as even as possible, we won’t need to use as much filler and it will look much better and last a lot longer.

As with small holes, for our cracks we are going to use a leather or vinyl filler. Lots of these are designed especially for reducing the appearance of cracks and can take around 20 to 30 minutes to dry and seal. They often aren’t heat activated, but a heat gun can speed up the process of course. Spread the sealant or filler evenly across the cracks and try to make sure that it blends seamlessly with the surface, wiping away any excess. Apply only a small amount at time using a spatula and your fingers in tight areas and make sure not to overdo it. After you are happy that the gaps have been filled as much as they can and the seat looks relatively even, lightly re-sand to remove any tiny crests or uneven surfaces created by the filler. You can repeat this as much as you want to get the best surface.

If cracks have worn down the seat to nothing, especially on the curvature of the seat, it might have to be restitched and replaced. There are limitations of what you can do with products designed to repair small cracks, but these can still be smoothed out using fillers and painted to make it fit in. The end result won’t be perfect, but will be cosmetically and aesthetically better than before and it can strengthen the area to prevent any more damage.

Painting leather

Painting leather

Once the cracks and holes have been repaired it is time to paint. Use a top-coat selector to help choose a shade to paint the seat. There are a variety of products to do this, but Global Smart Repairs offer a particularly good range to help you mix and match/find the right colour.

Once you have selected your colour, use a spray gun to paint the whole seat, not just the affected area. This will make sure that it isn’t obvious that an area has been repaired. Apply the paint evenly and not too thickly, keeping the air gun close to the surface so that the paint is smooth and still wet when it hits the surface. You should aim to find a good distance and keep moving as you paint, aiming for a light but adequate coating. The paint must be specifically designed for leather and normal water-based paint won’t cut it. Water-based paints have a poor durability and will not contain chemical and UV resistant properties, like specific leather paints should. After you are satisfied with the paint job, you can apply a protective coating to increase the durability even more.

Leather Repair Kits

When it comes to repairing leather, lots of kits are available with everything necessary to do the job, including the fabric, adhesive, and even the paint or primer that you will need to use to make it match your current leather upholstery so that it doesn’t stand out. How you apply the coating or paint will depend on which product you use, so make sure to check the instructions for whichever one you choose as the methods can very.

There are online specialty retailers such as Leather Magic, MagicMender, and LeatherWorldTech that sell to professional shops and also to private customers. Some other highly recommended brands would be Global Smart Repairs, who offer a range of products to help you repair leather and vinyl, as well as Fortivo, Strongman Tools, or Mastaplasta, who also sell temporary adhesive ‘plasters’ to cover up tears quickly and cheaply.

Repairing Padding

Repairing Padding

One final area of repairs would be to the seat padding. In cloth seats this is fairly easy, but you will need to remove your seats in order to get to the padding underneath the seats and this takes time.

Sets of padding can be ordered from garages and online retailers. Be generous when installing car seat foam. Make sure to add an additional inch to the amount of old foam already in the seat to take into account the compression that has occurred and leave yourself an extra inch of foam at each side to account for any shrinking or tucking that might occur during installation. Essentially, you are going to want more foam than it appears like you will need. It might feel quite tight and difficult to fit and it should do as it must support the weight of the passenger or driver sitting in it.

Repairs you shouldn’t do yourself

Repairing upholstery yourself can save a lot of money, but it isn’t always the best choice.

 Unless you have a lot of experience, there are certain situations in which a professional is always the best option: 
  • ! You want your car to look brand new. Every repair you make is going to be a little bit visible, no matter how careful or skillful you are.
  • ! Your leather upholstery has a deep tear, hole, or scratch. Often very deep holes in leather are hard to repair with filler or repair products and the results never looked as good as you hope.
  • ! Damage to the upholstery is excessive. You can make small repairs yourself, but larger ones are likely to cause you a lot of problems and end up not looking as you want them to.
  • ! Your car has damage to a seat belt or other safety equipment. For anything that relates to safety equipment, you should seek professional help. If is never worth the risk.

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