How to Repair Leather and Vinyl Car Seats Yourself
The average hobbyist can do a passable DIY seat repair. Forget ugly duct tape or drawstring seat covers! I vary my repair techniques depending on the nature of the damage.
Rips and tears in auto seats can be divided into two types: Those that border on a seam and those that don’t.
For starters, let’s 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.
A professional can restore seemingly hopeless leather. In a worst-case scenario, he can completely recover it in cloth or vinyl, starting at approximately $200 per bucket seat and $250 per bench seat.
Leather materials, however, will cost considerably more.
Note that this article does not directly address accidental damage due to misuse, such as knife cuts or cigarette burns; however, similar methods do apply.
Nor does it cover repair of porous cloth or velour fabric seating—only leather, vinyl or cloth-backed vinyl.
By the time most cars reach the age that the seat coverings begin to split due to normal wear and tear, it’s usually not worth paying to have the seats professionally recovered.
At that point, most owners will either just ignore the damage or try some easy fix, which is usually ineffective.
Moreover, once a rip begins, it will continue to tear if not stopped, and any underlying foam padding that is exposed to sunlight will rapidly deteriorate.
Rips That Are Not on a Seam
When the seat fabric splits where it is not right up against a seam, we have access to the back on both sides of the rip. For this kind of damage, I glue a piece of fabric to the back of the rip and hold the gap closed while the glue dries. That’s easier said than done.
If you’re not sure whether your rip is of this type, gently probe with a screwdriver or similar flat blunt instrument to ensure that there is at least ¼ to ½ inch of clearance beyond the edge of the rip.
The ideal tool is a shirt stay, one of those little plastic stiffeners that often comes on the collars of men’s dress shirts. There will be layers of padding and perhaps other cloth under the ripped surface material.
You want to be sure those can be separated from the top layer—the one you want to patch.
Selecting Patch Material
It is important to use a suitable patch fabric. I find that a scrap of suede or heavy-duty duck cloth used for uniforms works well.
The critical factor for woven cloth is that it not stretch on the warp and woof (all weaves will stretch some on the diagonal). If the color happens to be a close match, it may make things easier.
The gray bolster from this Supra bucket seat shows what it looks like with the fabric tucked in, before gluing.
I try to orient the fabric so that the warp or woof is aligned with the direction of stress. The shirt stay is pointing to the patch, which is nearly invisible now because of the close color match.
Leather Adhesive and Gluing Technique
Next, we need to use weights or clamps to apply direct pressure to the surface in order to press the leather and glued backing together. This is not easy, so I work it out before applying the glue.
The surface is always curved, so you need to press hard enough to flatten the curve or use a curved pressure plate. Take care that your pressure clamps are not widening the gap.
If possible, apply clamps to narrow the gap simultaneously. I did not do that for the Lexus because the tan leather had spread apart from drying out and shrinking in the sun. The gray Supra spot is small enough that I didn’t bother.
There are many suitable adhesives, but the one I prefer is plain old school glue. It is easy to apply, dries clear, remains flexible when dry, and is water-soluble for clean-up, even after it’s dried.
Professional upholsterers use special water-based adhesives that set up quickly.
When the adhesive is completely dried, release the pressure and admire your progress. The gray Supra repair is finished at this stage.
For the damaged Lexus seat shown here (tan), the rips were so long that I chose to patch each end of the rips separately.
I cut two strips of cloth and overlapped them in the middle as I glued them in, tucking glue under each edge with the shirt stay. (The patch should really be about twice as wide as in this example.)
Leather Filler and Coloring
The Lexus leather is quite thick, so the repair needs a filler to bring it up flush with the seat surface. Various fillers will work. The main requirements are that it be flexible, non-shrinking and can be colored in some way.
In this particular instance, I used ordinary cheap caulking compound. It was easy to shape, and any excess cleaned up with water. (I had planned to use a professional product, but discovered at the last minute that mine had dried out.)
It will usually be necessary to color the repaired area to get it to match the seat color. Various companies sell kits which enable you to mix colors for vinyl and leather repairs. Getting a close match is difficult though, as you can see by the tan Lexus example here.
The colored medium is often of the heat-cure type. The technique is much like ironing. The challenge, of course, is to heat the patch enough to cure it without overheating the surrounding seat material.
There are companies that sell pre-mixed bottles containing an exact match to your car's seat color. See the last paragraph of this article for ordering information.
Rips That Border a Seam
In situations where the rip borders right up against a seam, it usually isn’t possible to slip a fabric patch under the seam. In this case, the solution is to patch over the top using a remnant of the same leather or vinyl used on the seats.
All seats have some excess material that is hidden from view beyond where it attaches to the seat frame. To access this requires removing a seat or some part of it.
Color-Matched Leather and Vinyl Patches
Many “all leather” seats will actually have leather on surfaces that will receive the most wear, but cloth-backed vinyl for the sides or other areas that will receive little abrasion. If you have a choice, the cloth-backed vinyl is preferable because it is thinner.
When I removed the gray bolster from the Supra, I found a nice big piece of vinyl, although I never found where this had actually been used on visible surfaces. Note the contrast between the thickness of the vinyl (0.0235 inch) and the leather (0.0570 inch).
I did not think of photographing this area before starting. Suffice it to say that the damaged area was nearly as long as the patch. It was not nearly that wide, though heavily worn.
Since I was patching anyway, I made it as wide as the scrap material permitted, thus reinforcing the weakened area that tends to take the most wear on this type of seat.
Gluing and Clamping Technique
If exposed open-cell foam may come in contact with glue from the patch, I insert a thin non-porous sheet—plastic, wax paper, etc.—between the foam and surface material.
If glue is permitted to saturate the foam and harden, it will ruin the sponginess and stiffen it.
Ensure that your pressure plate—the surface that will directly contact the patch and any glue that squeezes out around it—is less porous than the seat surface.
Otherwise, when you release the pressure, bits of the seat fabric may separate and adhere to the clamp. When I use a wood block, I wrap it with plastic cling wrap from the kitchen in order to release from the glue.
Metal clamps don’t need this precaution. Since I use a water-soluble glue, I can clean up any residue with a moist rag.
Positioning a patch that has to edge snugly up against a seam can be difficult because it will tend to slide around once glue is applied and because the pressure plate generally obscures vision. I practice aligning it a few times before applying the glue.
Kits are available with everything necessary to do the job. Typical contents include subfabric, adhesive and primary colors for mixing. Kits with a heat-transfer tool work better on vinyl and include a few leather-grain transfer papers.
Those that do not require heat work better on leather. The toughest part of most basic kits is trying to mix the colors for a good match. Unfortunately, you get what you pay for.
The discount auto stores sell only the cheapest kits, ranging from about $10 to $25.
Better quality materials are available locally from wholesalers that supply professional shops.
Online specialty retailers such as Leather Magic, MagicMender and LeatherWorldTech that sell to professional shops also have kits for about $60 that come with a bottle of pigmented leather top coat paint that you specify.
They stock hundreds of pre-mixed colors to match almost any production automobile seat. That may well be worth the cost in order to avoid the aggravation of trying to mix and match the seat leather from basic colors.