All sewn up: Finding the right classic car upholstery shop
A classic restoration or customization project can be weeks, months or years in the making and easily cost tens of thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours in labor. But highly rated auto upholsterers and custom interior designers say it’s all too often that the final upholstering and interior work is the most overlooked component of any classic car project.
“People are willing to put $20,000 to $60,000 into a motor, but when it comes to upholstery, they’ll use some guy that does OK work because he’ll do it cheap,” says Dale McCleese, a trimmer at highly rated Paul’s Auto Interiors in Pontiac, Mich. “People assume it's cheap, but they end up getting what they pay for - a cheap job.”
Steve Bell of Bell’s Trim and Design Inc., a highly rated interior customizer and upholsterer in Gaithersburg, Md., agrees. “Normally, they haven’t budgeted enough,” he says. “Thinking about the interior at the end of the project, after massive body shop bills, installing a big engine, billet parts, and going overboard on everything else, they’re crunched for cash.”
McCleese says getting great interior or upholstery work is as simple as a shift in focus. “Just like the rest of the work you do on your car, it’s really just a matter of getting yourself educated,” McCleese says.
Plan and budget early for interior work
If your project is a total overhaul restoration or customization, find an upholstery shop early on in the process. Not only will you get a better idea of the cost, an experienced interior craftsman can also provide pointers on making sure body fabrication or paint work will match up with the interior work.
Bell says that because the upholsterer or interior fabricator is often the last man in the project chain, he often gets the short end of the stick. He says issues such as properly installing carpeting over bulging wire harnesses, accounting for paint that doesn't meet with panel overlays and inconsistent door gaps are expected, but they also add to the labor cost of an interior project.
"Being the last guy, it’s up to you [the upholsterer] to cover all the sins of the vehicle – nobody wants to have to take their car back to the body shop,” he says. "A good interior guy can work his way around a lot of things, but it takes more time, so you should put as much thought into the interior as the body or engine."
Factoring in the cost of a well-made interior is often overlooked, too. McCleese says an entry-level leather interior will set you back at least $4,500 and the average cost of custom interior can go as high as $15,000 to $20,000.
Bell says the starting point for a street rod interior will cost at least $6,500. The work can be done for less, he says, but you get what you pay for: "There's no way to make a $4,500 interior look like a $8,000 interior unless you're going to cut corners."
Depending on the shop and the project, you may pay for the project on an estimate basis or be billed for labor hours plus material costs. Shops interviewed for this article said their hourly labor rates vary from around $40 to $80 per hour.
Pick the right shop
“The first thing I would always look for is how clean the place is,” says Larry Hankins, owner of highly rated Village Upholstery in Highland Village, Texas. “You don’t want to take a $100,000 ride into some shop that looks like dog doo."
Bob Fuller of highly rated Fuller's Auto Upholstery in Haltom City, Texas, also recommends looking at the shop's tidiness as an indicator of quality, but also suggests thinking about how the prospective shop will care for and secure your vehicle.
"We use protective pads on the car when we're working on it to make sure it doesn't get scratched," he says. "And if you're leaving a high-end car at a shop for a few weeks, you want to look at the building's security."
Also important: Having a shop that will work with you. "Make sure the shop owner is going to let you in while they’re working on the car so you can check on the progress," Bell says. "I usually don’t want to work on a car if the customer isn't going to be involved."
Evaluate the experience and look at past work
Like many classic car restoration and customization trades, there's little formal training or certification for upholstering or interior work, so it all comes down to finding a professional with the right experience. "Ask them about how long they've done this stuff," McCleese says. He also suggests asking about any car show awards a shop may have won and asking to see photos of past work.
"Ask about who’s actually going to be doing the work," Bell says. Since upholstering and trimming is a hands-on trade learned on the job, it's often handed down from master craftsmen to apprentice - so make sure you know who will be performing the work on your vehicle and how much experience they have.
"There are hardly any schools or training for this type of work - when I hire someone, I'm the one who trains them," Fuller says, adding that his least experienced employee has more than five years on the job.
Use quality materials
Although you might save a quick buck by buying your own covering materials, if they don’t hold up, you’re on your own. “If you buy your covering materials through the shop, the shop will stand behind them,” Hankins says. “A lot of times people want to buy off the Internet, but if the material becomes a problem, it’s going to be [the customer’s] responsibility.”
If you do choose to purchase your own covering materials, make sure you're buying auto-grade materials that can stand up to UV exposure from the sun. "Quality materials, that’s one thing I really push," Fuller says. "You can’t just put furniture fabrics in cars, you have to use automotive-grade because it has UV-fade protection."
Bell adds that if you do choose to purchase your own covering materials, interior reproduction kits or even convertible tops, make sure you buy directly from a reputable manufacturer or brand. To avoid any parts delays, make sure you've purchased all the parts necessary before the interior work begins.
Want to know the best way to get the right brand and material the first time? "Ask for the shop’s recommendations on what parts you should buy," Bell says.