Leather Repair Tips and Tricks

Dec 3, 2009

Techs say that the leather repair process is one part skill and one part artistry, and it is considered by many to be among the most challenging of all the mobile auto reconditioning services.

With that in mind, we set out to talk to some leather repair pros to get their views on a range of repair techniques and broader issues facing the industry.

Dean Shaw, owner of Cornelius, N.C.-based New Image Cosmetic Auto Interior Repair, expounded on the importance of professional training, provided some neat ways to minimize drying time, and offered a cool trick for testing the durability of a repair.

Lynn Entrekin, co-owner of Finishing Touch Inc., Albertville, Ala., spoke of the dangers of using excessive heat in the curing process, taught about how to give yourself a raise by working multiple vehicles at once, and explained the importance of cleaning and prepping leather prior to making a repair.

Bob Burgess, owner of Mobile Tech Products, Houston, offered a unique trick for giving suede repairs a stealth look, told us of the importance of taking safety precautions with chemicals, and discussed the effect that sub-standard work has on the industry as a whole.

“We have a great base of professional restoration people that do some amazing work in this industry, and they never get the recognition they deserve,” Burgess says. “And the unqualified ones are making it tough for them.”

Here are 16 tips and tricks professionals can use as needed to guarantee top-quality repairs, and help earn more money while performing them.

1.) Clean and Prep Well

“Cleaning and prepping the leather prior to performing the repair is really a vital part of the process,” begins Entrekin.

She notes that any silicones or leather treatments must be fully removed to ensure an adequate bond between the leather and the new repair.

“You really never know what’s been used on that seat over the years,” she laughs. “So an appropriate amount of cleaning and prepping is going to make sure any repair that you do is going to adhere better, for longer.”

2.) Color-Match Early

Shaw suggest that techs get their dye matched to a vehicle’s interior as early in the process as possible, especially when working in the late afternoon when darkness is coming.

“You can have a phenomenal repair, but if your color-match is off, it’s going to attract the customer’s attention right to that area,” he says. “And if you wait too long in the afternoon to get a color-match, you might struggle to get an exact factory match. We’ll get the color-match first while we’re doing the prepping, and then the dye is ready to go whenever we’re ready for it.”

3.) Use Velour Flocking on Suede

Feeling adventurous? Try using velour flocking to tackle tough suede repairs. Burgess says he only knows a small number of people who can do it, but those who do get bonus points with customers.

“Some of the suede materials can be very difficult to repair,” he says. “So some people use a combination of the standard leather repair method and then combine it with the velour flocking at the end to create the suede effect. I’ve only seen a few people that have done that really well, but it’s the only way to put that suede back into it.”

4.) Use Thin Coats of Dye

When a repair has been made and the final texturing is finished, Shaw says special care should be taken to apply numerous thin coats of dye to ensure a smooth blending of color between the repair and the existing leather.

“Thin, even coats of dye are vital,” says Shaw. “Don’t put dye on in bulk if you can help it.”

5.) Use Sub-Patches Sparingly

The practice of using sub-patches behind a repair on major jobs in high-stress areas is debated throughout the industry.

Shaw, for example, approves of using heat-activated sub-patches, which is something akin to stitches in human skin, while Entrekin generally suggests against it because, “it has a tendency to, over a period of time, leave that impression in the leather,” she says.

Both Shaw and Entrekin use another similar product, however, to do much the same work: fiberglass reinforcement mesh. This product is layered and hidden into the repair compound itself, giving it additional strength while hiding any visible indication of its use.

5.) Give Yourself a Raise

Entrekin says that, whenever possible, leather repair techs should try to do repairs on multiple vehicles at once, as long as it doesn’t impact the quality of repairs. For instance, when an air-dried compound is drying on one vehicle, a tech can be mixing a color or prepping another vehicle.

“We consider it giving yourself a raise,” she says. “We teach people to take three cars and clean and prep them all first. Then start with the worst damage, and move to the next while the first is drying or curing. While you’re moving between them, you can be mixing the dyes.

“That’s a way you can essentially triple your income,” she adds. “It’s a system that is teachable, and that will definitely increase your productivity.”

7.) Mix Dyes in Bulk

With higher-volume dealership work, Shaw suggests techs mix their dyes in bulk whenever possible, as it allows them to work more vehicles in a shorter amount of time.

“In our training courses, we suggest that if someone is servicing, say, a Mercedes-Benz dealership where they’re going to see a lot of the same colors repeatedly, they should mix their dyes in bulk. They can move quickly from vehicle to vehicle, and then the next time they come out, they already have that exact color pre-mixed. That saves a lot of time and it doesn’t compromise quality.”

8.) Watch the Heat!

When using heat-cured compounds, techs should be extremely careful not to overheat the leather surrounding the repair, says Entrekin, noting that this is the step in the leather repair process where damage can occur most easily.

“That leather will buckle if you apply too much heat, and once that happens, it won’t ever come out,” she says.

Techs can alleviate some of the danger by using one of the low-temp compounds on the market, or by using a variable-temp heat gun and working slowly to avoid accidents, she says.

9.) Be Careful with Lacquer

Lacquer-based leather repair systems contain VOCs, which are thought by some regulatory agencies to be a cancer-causing carcinogen, and thus, techs working with these products should take precautions, says Burgess.

“If someone’s using a lacquer-based system they should be wearing respirators-”but most people in the industry are not. That will be among the most important issues in our industry over the next decade or so,” he believes.

10.) Keep an Eye on Regulations

Burgess says that some lacquer-based systems are on the brink of being regulated by law due to the aforementioned safety concerns.

“When you’re dealing with VOCs, there’s good reason to believe that somewhere down the line it’s going to be regulated. When that happens, more and more people are going to be forced to switch to water-based systems, regardless of their preference. I’m a little surprised we haven’t gotten there already.”

11.) Get Professional Training

Whether a tech is a seasoned pro or a relative newbie, they can benefit from participating in the formal training offered by many suppliers in the industry, says Shaw.

“This isn’t the type of work that can be done by anyone. This is truly an art form that, to be done right, must be taught in a class format by professionals.”

Entrekin agrees, noting that formal training gives a tech a competitive edge in his or her area.

“It’s a very competitive market out there today, and if you’re going to give yourself a chance to compete, you need to be properly trained,” she says. “It gives you self-confidence, and the knowledge that when you get your one shot to show a dealership what you can do, you will do it well.”

12.) The ‘Scotch Tape Test’

Because a long-lasting repair is the ultimate goal, it’s beneficial to test the durability of a repair before it’s turned over to a customer, says Shaw. He suggests using a measure dubbed the Scotch Tape Test.

“After you apply your first coat of dye, you can cut very, very fine cross-hatches in the dye, being careful not to go into the hide. Then apply Scotch Tape to the freshly dyed area, and slowly peel back that tape. If it’s cured and those little checkers come out, then the dye wasn’t applied right. It either wasn’t prepped right or applied right, and it’s most likely going to peel at some point down the road.”

13.) Use Combination Repairs

Entrekin says that many experienced techs will use the best qualities of both heat-cured and air-dry compounds in making a quality repair. For instance, on major repairs techs will use a heat-cured compound and a mesh to ensure a strong repair, and then come back over the top with a cold process material.

“The air-dry compounds feel more like leather, and it just gives you a more professional feel and look, so they’ll use that to finish the repair,” she says.

14.) Minimize Drying Time

According to Shaw, minimizing the time spent drying a leather repair is among the easiest ways for a repair tech to become more efficient, and thus, more profitable.

He suggests a number of ways to minimize that drying time, so a tech can get on to the next job and more profits.

“You can [dry and repair more quickly] with a blow dryer or just by turning the car on, closing all the doors and windows, and then cranking up the heater for a few minutes,” he says.

15.) Focus on Durable Repairs

One of the most pressing issues facing the leather repair business today is the over-abundance of shoddy work being done by untrained techs. Sub-quality repairs create a poor perception of the entire industry, Burgess believes.

“In the long run, they put a bad taste in customers’ mouths about the quality of work we all do, and that hurts the true professionals who devote their lives to doing this-”the ones that go to great lengths to ensure the highest standards of quality.”

16.) Keep Repairs Small

Shaw says that in all leather repairs, techs should strive to keep the repair area as small as possible.

That has two effects-”the repair attracts less attention, and less material is wasted in completing the repair.

“You want as little foreign product on the seat as possible,” Shaw explains.