Perfect Leather Seating

Dec 3, 2009

Leather seating installation requires talent, training and time. Creating a plush interior for your customers is one of the times that every detail of your work will be on display every time that driver slips behind the wheel.

Do you want them smiling or scowling at the leather you’ve installed?

Nothing can take the place of skill and experience, but hopefully these pointers and suggestions can take the headache out of your next leather seating job.

“Every interior is different; every seat has its own characteristics,” says Miles Hubbard, marketing director for Katzkin, Montebello, Calif.


It all starts when you place your order. With the countless configurations of vehicle interiors over decades of auto production, it’s easy to wind up with the wrong pieces.

Every manufacturer has its own way to combat the problem, from online ordering systems to including extra pieces in the shipment.

At Alea Leather Specialists, New Hudson, Mich., Doug Heath, CEO, says, “We have a chart or graph that calls out each vehicle’s interior. It describes all the components of the seat, a complete layout and schematic of the interior, so installers can compare the vehicle to our diagram and make sure they are getting the right kit. We guide them on the colors we believe are the correct match by recommending to the customer what the top three colors may be. We have an internal parts approval process that walks them through whole thing, to make sure we make the right product to match OEM standards.”

Katzkin offers a piece of software allowing restylers to design their interior before committing to an order.

“Restylers can go straight to our website and use the Interactive Seat Color Selection Tool,” says Hubbard. “We offer this tool on a disk to all restylers. They can call up and ask for the selection disk, and put it on their own computer, take the disk to local dealerships, even install it on the desktop for the dealership sales department,”

All Katzkin installers can get a copy of the program on disk to use at their shop, as well as show customers or even take to dealerships to show them the options available. Galpin Ford has even installed a copy on an interactive kiosk in its showroom, allowing the customers to play with color combinations and design their own interiors.

“It’s a small program but proprietary. We hand it out freely, “Hubbard adds. “A lot of dealers even put it on their own websites, such as Superior Auto Restyling, Westbury, N.Y. Galpin Auto Sports, Van Nuys, Calif., has it on a very large kiosk in the showroom, where customers can walk up and play with it.”

Roadwire also takes steps to eliminate incorrect orders: All Roadwire leather seating orders ship with the pieces included for all possible configurations of the vehicle.

“To make it easier for our customers, even if they order wrong, they still get all the pieces,” says Todd Abraham, international sales manager for Roadwire, Commerce, Calif. “We’re adding the extra material and labor to make the kit complete for either one. A lot of times dealers don’t know exactly what car the customer has, and that ends up being a big problem.”

With different styles of bucket and bench seats, that’s a lot of extra parts, but Roadwire calls it worth the expense to ensure its installers aren’t waiting for parts they’ve ordered.

“For instance, the old Altimas could have one or more headrests, so we include four in the kit. Every kit has all the parts just to help out our customer. A lot of times, everybody waits until the last minute to order, and that’s just reality. Our extra material makes it easy for the customer,” Abraham notes.


Installing leather seating is a craft that requires skill and experience. Even if you and your employees have been at this for some time, a refresher or update might help. Many manufacturers offer training programs.

“We provide basics on an installation disk, with standard operating procedures, a video that shows how to do basic installations. We also provide a basic install kit with things like hog rings, hog-ring pliers, things like that,” says Hubbard.

Some may even be local; inquire with the manufacturers you install to find out what they offer. Some training may even be free of cost to you, while other more involved training could require travel or other fees.

“We’re looking at a couple of options in the future; in their areas, some reps have already set up preferred shops that they can bring new installers in and show them how it works, so we’re looking into utilizing that on a larger scale. We’ve got bulletins to let installers know if there’s a tech alert or if a kit has specific instructions,” says Abraham.

However, it may be worth it if you bring home a technique to smooth out your installs or allow you to service more vehicles in a day. Keeping up on new methods, equipment and tools can keep you ahead of your competition.

“It’s just a matter of caring what you’re doing,” says Hubbard. “I think most people out there do. Installing an interior in a vehicle is a time-consuming task and it does require skill. Guys who do this are highly skilled technicians. Finding a good one is the best thing a shop can have.”

Katzkin works to harvest brand new technicians fresh out of school, and says the program has been very successful.

“We’ve also had success with our Wyotech Graduate Program; we attend all their fairs and graduations, and grab graduates who have just graduated with training in interior installations. We find out where they want to live, and hook them up with restylers in that area. We have placed dozens and dozens of graduates with restylers,” says Hubbard.


Most of the tools you need are already in your shop. But are there things that can streamline the process even more?

If you’re not already using a steamer, you might consider it.

“A steamer put directly on the leather can leave a steam burn that looks like a little scar. But if used properly, it’s a huge benefit. The Jiffy J4000 steamer is the average one that a lot of installers use. The best thing to do is get the optional wand; the one that comes with it looks like a rake, and I don’t really like it,” says Abraham.

Steamers give a finished look to a new leather installation. The leather stretches during the installation, resulting in creases and puckers. Those do usually shrink back down and vanish after a certain amount of time, but seeing their brand new leather interior with creases may give customers a bit of disappointment. Steamers allow the installer to shrink the leather back down right away, resulting in a showroom-perfect installation.

“Steamers are the number one tool not used correctly,” says Heath, adding, though that “they help get rid of wrinkles and puckers on the first day instead of 30 days later as it shrinks down. It gives a little more integrity of fit and finish to the product.”

A headrest machine is another staple for a shop doing large quantities of leather installations. Headrests are one of the trickiest bits of the install process, involving sometimes excessive time and the occasional sore finger or two.

Most headrest machines that are currently available shrink the headrest by encasing it in plastic and sealing it, then vacuuming the air out to shrink it down, allowing installers to easily slip the small opening in the headrest cover over the shrunken foam.

“One of the hardest things to install is a headrest. Getting the tiny opening of a sewn headrest cover around the big foam can take 10 to 15 minutes or more and a lot of sore fingers. The Headshrinker is a pneumatic device that covers the headrest in a plastic bag, seals it, sucks the air out and shrinks the headrest. Your time goes from 15 minutes to 14 seconds,” says Hubbard.


The materials you use are equally important to the quality of your work. Today’s top leather manufacturers take steps to ensure their products are durable as well as beautiful.

“Some cars have steel listing rods, and we’ve replaced them with plastic rods that are already sewn in. You save time because of that. The primary stitch used for the decoration stitch is called a double stop stitch or French seam, depending on what part of the country you’re in. That’s a strong stitch,” says Roadwire’s Abraham.

“Leather, by nature, shrinks, so in between the side bolsters we add a double stitch on there and take the seam allowance, fold it under, and double stitch both sides of the backing tape to get to the point where in three, four or five years when it has stretched out, it takes the stress out of the seam,” he adds.

Leather kit manufacturers understand that the quality of their work shows in the quality of yours, and most offer details that allow both a better finished product and a little easier time installing.

“What we call scrim is attached to the foam on all of Katzkin’s kits. If you have foam on the inside of the cover, and you don’t cover it with scrim, then you end up trying to pull foam over foam and that’s very difficult. It makes installation a nightmare. We use a high-quality, durable scrim that makes it easy for the cover to slide over the foam of the seat,” says Hubbard.

Alea ensures that all leather kits meet OEM specifications where airbags are involved.

“One of the[important] things in the industry is airbag stitching; we have a special airbag machine that the OEMs use. The Doc U-Seam measures the airbag stitching so it has a pass or a fail, and we ensure the covers will be 100%certified. The machine measures stitching tension.”


It all boils down to taking the time to do a good job. Professional restylers know this; your work can’t be sloppy or rushed.

“It’s [about] just taking care with what you’re doing,” says Hubbard. “It’s not treating it like it’s just a piece of meat. You have to really care about doing a quality installation. Most people who do this, do it because they like it and they do take the time.”

Even when you have a packed schedule, it’s important to give yourself enough time to finish the job without feeling too hurried. If you know a project might take you three hours, don’t tighten your schedule down to just two; the rush and stress you’ll feel as you try to hurry and finish could show in the end result.

“It’s a unique business,” says Heath. “It can tell on you either way: if you are experienced or inexperienced, if you have the right tools or the wrong tools. It shows in the finished product.”


What’s new in the world of interiors?

Leather interiors haven’t changed a lot until lately, but new trends have emerged that may stick around for a while.

Smooth leather was always the No.1 pick for leather interiors. But with vinyl products becoming more and more foolproof to the untrained-or even trained-eye, customers seeking the distinction and luxury of leather may look for something harder to duplicate.

“The fashion is changing today even in automotive leather; it used to be all smooth leather. Now different grains are coming into fashion,” says Simon Kamali, owner, Kamali Leathers, Manhasset, N.Y.

Vinyl can mimic the look and feel of smooth leather, but grained leathers are harder to emulate, he says. Similar to high-end ladies’ handbags, leather seats with a pebbled or other type of discernable grain appeal to customers who want the real thing.

“That smooth leather today is not so popular anymore,” Kamali says, “because now they are matching vinyls that are so similar to leather that people do not realize it’s vinyl, and sometimes it does not make a difference to them if it’s leather or vinyl. That is why today grained leather is becoming very popular in automotive seating with many people.”

Suede-look interiors are also popular, but they often aren’t real suede, Kamali adds. Ultrasuede is most often used because suede isn’t always the best choice for automotive seating. “The reason that suede leather is not used,” he says, “is because it’s very difficult to prevent it from trapping dust, or bleeding color onto people’s clothing. Suede is difficult to control. That is why even though people like suede they usually use Ultrasuede.”

You might find yourself looking at wilder leathers, too; some of the more exotic leathers may also be just what a customer is looking for to set his or her car apart from the rest.

“We also sell a lot of exotic leathers such as ostrich. They are made from cowhide but are an imitation hornback, ostrich or alligator-embossed leather in a variety of colors. These are used for street rods and custom cars, antique cars,” says Kamali.

And don’t forget to look beyond automotive seating. With the popularity of custom choppers sweeping the nation, motorcycle riders are looking for custom seating to match their custom ride.

“Motorcycle seats are a big trend in leather,” Kamali notes. “Some of the leathers are waterproof and UV proof-they will not change color after sitting in the sun for days.”