Upholstery is a dying art with few people willing to put in the time and effort necessary to properly learn the trade. Schools teach the basic skill set, just enough for young people to get their foot in the door. With youth often comes an overabundance of confidence and I’ve seen countless young people with drive and determination get swallowed by the lure of starting their own business.
I strongly urge those with high business drive to start their own business, but to first find a successful mentor and listen to them. Nothing can come close to hands-on real-world experience under a master tradesman. If you want to be successful, you’ll want your career to start with the proper knowledge and skill set.
The correct equipment and materials are also essential to the trade. Your first step to success is choosing the correct sewing machine. My daily machine of choice is the Consew 20RB-5. You must use a similar machine that has compound feed walking foot and I highly suggest a reverse to have a lock stitch capability. I’ve found Seiko to be a carbon copy of Consew.
I recommend using a No. 69 or No. 92 UV-stable thread that’s specifically made for auto/marine applications. If your thread doesn’t have UV stabilization, it won’t last a year with sun exposure.
Selecting the correct materials is another essential component to finding success in this industry. Most reputable material distributors will help steer you in the right direction in what materials to carry in your shop or for general automotive use.
A good rule of thumb in choosing the correct types of materials is that if it’s available at your local super center store, then it isn’t suitable to use in our industry.
Research your foam. Foam is a broad market with many applications. In auto upholstery there are two primary types of foams used, roll and sheet. Roll foams are generally ¼- and ½- inch-thick and used for quilting and sewing.
The foam used for seat decks is a critical choice. Almost any 1⁄2-inch quilting foam will work initially in making an attractive seat.
The wrong choice will cause premature failure, wear and aesthetic defects. Foam that’s too soft won’t fill the needed space; foam that’s too firm generally won’t have proper rebound life and will flatten out. Using a foam with no backing will allow the thread to work through and will not look right.
Street rod-style interiors use closed-cell foam. Closed-cell foams have very low rebound count and the uses for them are limited. They’re the base of most sculpting techniques.
Sheet foams are available in almost any size. Upholstery generally needs 1–3 inches in thickness. I suggest keeping a wide variety of foams on-hand to achieve professional results in your work.
Adhesives play a major role in upholstery. I recommend DAP Products’ Weldwood Landau Top & Trim High Heat Resistant Contact Cement. It’s a solvent-based adhesive that has to be applied to both surfaces being glued together. Ample time for the adhesive to flash is required for the glue to work properly; generally 30 seconds to 10 minutes will work.
Working in an area with warm temperatures and low humidity is ideal because the cooler it is, the longer it takes to flash. The glue can be applied by roller, brush or, most commonly, an HVLP pressure pot spray gun. Aerosol applications are available but they offer nowhere near the quality or longevity.
The solvent-based adhesive can carry health risks associated with prolonged use. Proper ventilation and solvent masks are required as immediate risks are possible and long-term effects can be fatal.
Experience is really the only way to learn to glue or sew. There’s no substitute for learning under a master. Humble yourself, respect the many years put in by the old-timers and learn from them. Learning all of the industry’s new ideas and innovations won’t matter if the proper skill set isn’t in place to be able to translate them into a real-world application.