I’ve wanted to do an auto upholstery essential tools list for the DIY group or upholsterers that are just starting out and just testing the waters. While doing my research on what’s already out there on this topic I noticed a lot of articles about upholstery tool must haves, including things like webbing stretchers and ripping chisels. Although these are essential upholstery tools for furniture, they are not much help at all when working with auto upholstery. The top ten for furniture will look somewhat different from the top ten for automotive interiors. The last thing you want to do is go out and buy a whole bunch of upholstery tools you will never need.
Upholstery is upholstery, right? Generally speaking yes, but each discipline has its differences. The main reason for this is because the frames are different in auto upholstery. When comparing auto upholstery and furniture upholstery, most of the time furniture is made with a wood frame whereas auto upholstery uses metal frames with the springs welded directly to it so there is no need for webbing. Differences in Technique The way auto upholstery and furniture upholstery is different too. Auto upholstery is put together to form one entire piece that will fit over the metal frame and a solid piece of foam that has been pre-formed by the manufacturer in the desired design of the seat, there are no removable cushions, it’s all one solid piece. Furniture upholstery is done in sections (cushions, frame, pillows, etc.).
Difference in Securing the Upholstery
Auto upholstery is typically secured using listing and wire that is sewn on to the bottom of the material and then fit over the seat. The wire, secured by the listing is attached with hog rings to the frame. This gives a nice secure finish to the seat. Furniture upholstery is typically stapled to the wood frame to secure it. Furniture upholsterers may also use hog rings if they are securing to the springs but it is more typical to see furniture secured by staples rather than hog rings.
Using furniture tools in Auto Upholstery
There are a few times that you will use furniture upholstery tools in auto upholstery but these are few and far between. If you are working on Model A or Model T’s, these older vehicle interiors were made using wood frame much like furniture. If you happen to be doing this type of vehicle make sure to account for any special furniture tools you will need to do the job.
Auto Upholstery Tool Essentials
Keeping all of this in mind these are my recommendations for someone just starting out with an auto upholstery business or DIY project.
An industrial sewing machine is the center piece of any shop. A home sewing machine just won’t cut it when you’re sewing through vinyl, leather, foam and seatbelts. The durability of the upholstery sewn on an industrial machine will always outlast a home machine, there is just no comparison. So do yourself a favor, invest in a good quality industrial sewing machine if you need your auto upholstery to be durable and long lasting.
2. Working tables
At least one working table set up in front of your sewing machine is a must. You will be working with large pieces of material and foam and the table will help support the material while you’re sewing. If you have space for a second table for marking, cutting and gluing try to buy or build one that is at least counter height to save your back, it will make a difference and keep you from straining too much.
3. Cutting shears
These are not just ordinary scissors. These things are used for cutting through leather, cloth, plastic, vinyl and even cardboard templates. They take a beating and they need to be strong. Make sure you get these from your upholstery supply shop or a specialty shop online.
4. Hog ring pliers
Used for attaching hog rings to the seat frame
5. Hand tools and rulers
- Measuring tape – for measuring seats
- Straight edge – make sure it’s at least 36”, you should also have these in other sizes longer and shorter but if your just starting a 36” straight edge will do the job. The strait edge will help you with finding centers, marking pleats and straight lines.
- Steel carpenters square – This is an important tool to have to help you keep your angles and cuts straight so that you’re not wasting material.
- Chalk – Chalk is essential for marking centers, tracing patterns and marking straight lines so that you have a guide while sewing.
- Seam ripper – to remove seams from old material to use as templates, you can also use a single edge blade for this.
- Dykes – for removing old hog rings from the seat frame
6. Industrial Steamer
A steamer is used to shape foam, and revives old collapsed foam. A steamer also helps for removing minor wrinkles from the finished product. I’ve also found that a steamer can help loosen material temporarily to make it easier to install on the seat frame.
7. Heat gun
If you don’t have a steamer you can use it to remove minor wrinkles from leather and vinyl. Disclaimer: be extra careful around leather and don’t put it too close to the material or it will burn. A heat gun also helps for temporarily making vinyl and leather material more workable. This is a low cost option if you don’t have the money to invest in an industrial steamer but my advice would be to invest in a good steamer as soon as you are able.
A compressor has several uses in an upholstery shop, you will need it if you have a pneumatic staple gun, air glue sprayer and it also helps to clean up minor debris from carpet and headliner work.
9. Glue gun
Siphon feed with a 1 quart pot is preferable so that you’re not wasting valuable time fixing clogs. A glue gun is a very low cost item you can pick up at Harbor Freight or any discount hardware store for very little investment. If you don’t have a compressor and a glue gun you can always purchase aerosol spray adhesive from the upholstery shop but this is an expensive option if you will be doing a full interior or even worse several full interiors. The compressor and glue gun will pay for themselves in not time when compared to the cost of buying adhesive in this way.
10. Staple gun
You will need a staple gun for headliners, door panels and some other trim pieces. Again as with the glue gun, if you don’t have a compressor and staple gun, you can get away with using a manual staple gun from Home Depot but trust me when I say that the investment in these pneumatic tools is well worth it.