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How do I Repair Auto Upholstery?

Malcolm Tatum
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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Repairing auto upholstery can be somewhat complicated, and as such you’ll need a careful approach to get good results. The first thing you’ll want to do is identify what sort of material you’re working with. Upholstery in most cars is made of synthetic fabric blends, but vinyl, leather, and microfiber are also common, and each requires a slightly different approach. Next you should try to get a sense of how bad the damage is. Small rips and tears need different treatment than stains or burns, for instance, and knowing exactly what you’re dealing with will help you identify the right products to buy and will also guide your repair plan. In some cases, though, it may make the most sense to get professional help. Not all auto upholstery problems can be fixed without specialized equipment and tools that you probably won’t be able to find on your own, and professionals are often able to make repairs so effectively that your car may feel like new.

Identify Your Material

Your first task is to determine what type of upholstery you are working with, since this will guide your repair plan. If you aren’t sure, your vehicle owner’s guide will probably be able to tell you the specifics of your fabric, but in most cases it will be leather, vinyl, or a synthetic fabric blend. Many auto supply stores sell home repair kits that are designed for use with each of these three types of upholstery, which is one of the reasons identification is so important. Even if you don’t buy a kit, knowing the specifics of your material will help you make more informed choices when it comes to actually implementing any sort of repair.

Assess the Damage

Most prepared kits are designed to fix all sorts of damage, but getting started is always easiest when you know both where the blemish is and, if possible, what caused it. You wouldn’t want to use a product designed to treat burned leather on a fabric seat with a stain, for instance, since this could actually make the problem worse. You should usually try to get the area as clean as possible before beginning, which may require dusting, vacuuming, or lightly washing the affected area. This is important so that you don’t get dust or other debris into the repair, which can alter the results or make treatment less effective.

Rips and Tears

Repairing upholstery tears usually requires a heavy duty needle and thread that is about the same color as the surrounding material. These are commonly found in repair kits, but can sometimes be bought on their own at auto supply or some fabric stores, too. It’s usually best to sew the torn area with a simple “X” pattern, effectively closing the gash. With leather and vinyl, you may also want to spread an upholstery gel over the stitching when you’re finished to seal it into place.

Depending on how big the damaged area is, you may also want to use patches. Some kits come with a selection of colored patches along with a clear adhesive, or if you happen to have swatches of your exact material these will work well, too. The object is to cut the patch to fit into the rip or tear without making the rip any larger. Once fitted into position, apply a strong adhesive like leather glue to the underside of the tear and the top of the patch. Use a small weight to press the two materials together, creating a strong bond between the patch and the upholstery, then let it dry for usually about 24 hours.

Burns

Small burn holes in upholstery like those caused by cigarettes usually require a sealant rather than stitching, but this often depends on the size of the hole and how much of the material has been impacted. When the burn is in a woven fabric blend, the process may involve little more than sealing the hole with a specialized sealing gel that is tinted, either by you or by the manufacturer, to match the predominant color in the upholstery. Leather may require a bit of treatment around the edges to prevent the charred material from flaking or spreading. In either case, start by filling the hole with the gel and then smooth the surface with a small, blunt tool like a tongue depressor. Most kits include a variety of gels and tools that can be useful. Once the gel hardens, it adheres to upholstery and basically disguises the damage.

Staining and Discoloration

If staining or discoloration is your problem, you may want to start with a simple soap and water solution to see how much of the damage you can lift off on your own. This tends to work best with stains that are fresh, but a mild soap may help dislodge even really old spills. Next, you’ll want to look for a specially formulated auto shampoo. These come in many kits and are also for sale at hardware shops and car repair dealers, and are usually more effective than anything you could make at home when it comes to gently lifting stains without damaging the surrounding material.

Specific instructions vary from product to product, but the process usually involves a series of lathers and rinses, and towel drying is usually preferred. Depending on what caused the discoloration and how long it’s been sitting on the material, you may not be able to lift it all out on your own. If the stain seems really stubborn it’s usually a better idea to get professional help, since continuing to scrub — even with the appropriate soaps and products — can actually cause more harm.

Getting a Professional Opinion

While it is possible to repair auto upholstery so that the damage does not spread and is less noticeable, in most cases it isn’t possible to fully restore the original look of the material on your own. Auto upholstery repair shops can evaluate the damage and can often make repairs that are superior to what you can accomplish. They are also well suited to reupholster individual seats or sections if the damage is extensive. If you aren’t sure how to proceed or aren’t getting the results you want with a home repair kit, it may be worth asking around and getting estimates with professionals.

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Malcolm Tatum
By Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing to become a full-time freelance writer. He has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including WikiMotors, and his work has also been featured in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and newspapers. When not writing, Malcolm enjoys collecting vinyl records, following minor league baseball, and cycling.
Discussion Comments
By anon347725 — On Sep 09, 2013

I highly recommend doing this yourself. It is not brain surgery.

By scottyrose — On Oct 21, 2010

I don't recommend trying to fix auto upholstery yourself either.

Some of the kits on the market are OK for very minor damage but for the most part you should probably seek a professional.

The BBB is good place to start but I've also found by simply visiting the shop and speaking to the owner I can usually get a good feeling about them.

I'll usually take a look at their shop, see how much work they have going on and what type of cars they are working on. If they have any classic or upper end cars this is usually a good sign and it's also good if they are busy and have been in business a long time.

I went to Avila's Auto Upholstery Repair and he actually did a great job. He had a few classic cars on the lot that he was working on from everything to completely re-upholstering the entire anterior to replacing the rag top on a classic convertible low rider.

He was busy and the types of cars he was working on gave me a good feeling so I decided to give him a try and it was well worth it. Finding someone with experience to work on your classic is important.

By lawnmower — On Aug 31, 2010

travel28- I agree that repairing auto upholstery can be very difficult. However, I advise being very careful when hiring an upholstery shop to do the work for you.

Check with the Better Business Bureau to see if there are any complaints against the shop. You can also ask the shop if you can speak with previous customers before you decide if you want to hire them or not.

By travel28 — On Aug 31, 2010

I do not recommend trying to repair auto upholstery yourself. This task can often be very difficult and upholstery can rip again quickly if it is not done correctly.

I recommend hiring an upholstery shop to do the work for you. Hiring an expert does not need to be expensive. Shop around and read reviews of local shops online. Ask for referrals from friends or family members.

Once you have found an upholstery shop that you want to work with, get an estimate from them. Most shops will offer you a free estimate. Do not pay for an estimate.

You will also want to obtain a written guarantee from the shop. That way, if you are not happy with the job, you can get it repaired at no cost.

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing...
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