Taking one look at the cracked and splitting car seat, we figured the upholstery was beyond repair. That probably meant an expensive re-covering job, which didn't seem likely, given the age and value of the vehicle. Then we heard about Fibrenew, specialists in auto interior vinyl and leather repair, which claimed to live up to the "renew" embedded in the company name.
Not happy about the costly alternative mentioned above, we decided to give it a try, though we had our doubts. Timothy Fannin of Fibrenew NorthBay, a regional franchisee based in Northern California, wasn't very optimistic either about the repair job, due to the damage in the seam area. Turns out, though, that wasn't the hardest part, as we'll reveal shortly. But the results were well worth the effort, as this repair cost only $150 to $200, much less than a new leather upholstery job.
First, Fannin did his best to clean up the old upholstery. On leather seats, usually the flat panels on the bottom and back are made of genuine animal hides, and the sides are color-matched vinyl, because of its better flexibility. We discovered that some of the apparent dirt in the grain was actually cracked and damaged leather, which would require a re-dye or color coat (which we might attempt at a later date).
Prior to proceeding with repairs, a thorough cleaning is necessary to remove other types of chemicals that might have been applied to the surface. Note that in contrast to Fibrenew's water-based treatments, Fannin explains that, "Silicone-based or petroleum treatments are the enemy. That's because water and oil don't mix."
Once the material is thoroughly cleaned and scrubbed, the first stage of the repair involves applying thin layers of a repair compound with a palette knife between the torn edges of the vinyl, directly onto the white backing material. The edges are not actually joined together, as in stitching together a torn piece of fabric. Instead the repair acts as a filler/patch. After a brief warming from a heat gun to cure the patch, Fannin applies a piece of flexible material with a grain imprint that imparts a matching texture to the smooth surface of the patch.
Once that dries, he cleans the surface yet again, and then applies a vinyl- prepping compound to ensure the color will adhere properly. To verify that, he does a "tape test" (using a piece masking tape) to make sure the surface is sufficiently tacky, and will accept the dye.
Spraying on the color topcoat proved to be the trickiest part, since our beige upholstery, "is the hardest to match," Tim admits. He experimented with a few different combinations of tints from his bottles of dye before getting the exact hue. Part of the challenge is because the old upholstery is actually a variety of shades of beige, so while one area looks exactly the same as color of the repair, another might appear slightly different. What helped to blend the colors together was a slight amount of intentional overspray onto the seat.
So this type of repair, which can be done on a variety of soft and hard plastics, along with leather upholstery, is more than just a stitch in time. It also requires a bit of color sense and artistry. And we were frankly amazed that the repair looked as good as, well, Fibrenew.