Professional Carwashing & Detailing

Leather & vinyl: The right to repair

October 11, 2010

The last time a customer came to you with damaged leather or vinyl did you have the expertise to repair the damage? If you answered No , you are not alone.

While there are thousands of professional detailers in the industry, only a tiny fraction of them offer vinyl and leather repair.

Leather and vinyl repair is a fantastic addition to your business and a golden opportunity to easily earn $50 per hour or more.

So, what s the problem?
The first step is to identify the type of damage. This will help give you a distinct plan of action for the repair.

Analyzing the condition of surrounding upholstery is also extremely important.

Newer vehicles will have far less wear and color fading, while older vinyl and leather may require dyeing in order to match or renew the color.

  • Normal wear
    Although this is not typical damage, it will need to be considered during every repair evaluation. Stretching from body weight on seats and rub marks from repetitive motions are common forms of wear.
  • Color differences
    Over time, interior upholstery is subjected to varying degrees of the sun's ultraviolet rays causing deterioration or fading of vinyl and leather.

    Furthermore, bodily excretions such as sweat and oils can be absorbed by leather; producing darker colored patches on the material.

  • Stains
    Body oils, sweat, food, beverages and ink can leave permanent stains. Leather is particularly susceptible to acidic products because of the pH in their alkaline color dyes.
  • Cracking
    Lack of proper care and conditioning can cause leather to dry out if left untreated for an extended amount of time. Once it has reached the point of multiple cracking or splitting, it is beyond repair and should be replaced.
  • Scratches
    This is one of the best and most frequent reasons for repair. With the exception of the newest vehicles, most interiors have some scratches; concentrate on parents of small children and pet owners.
  • Small holes
    Punctures from items such as pens and other sharp, pointed instruments are easily fixed.

Repairing for success
Assuming you are a novice, how do you know the time required to fix the damage? A simple solution is to tell your customer that he or she should be prepared to leave the vehicle for the entire day.

Even if your work takes only 15-20 minutes, it is necessary to let the area cure for a few hours to dry completely. A fresh repair can be subject to even further damage if it is stressed in any way.

When it comes to finding quality vinyl and leather repair kits, there are two simple guidelines to follow:

  1. Do NOT buy the cheapest kit to save money. You will be very disappointed, as will your customers. Quality kits run between $75 and $150.

    These kits contain enough supplies to do a minimum of 20 to 30 repairs. It is well worth the money.

  2. Your kit should include: a heating tool, leather and vinyl repair compounds, sub-patch material and adhesive, at least 8 to 10 base colors, color-matching guide, color tinting additive, dulling agent and finally, 10 to 15 texture/graining papers or molding compound for creating custom grains.

With rips and tears, you will need to trim away any loose threads or frayed ends with a single-edged razor. Cigar or cigarette burns typically have raised edges surrounding the holes.

Using very fine 1000 to 2000 grit sandpaper, carefully sand the edges down to a flat working surface. If there is tape covering the damaged area, gently peel it away and wipe off any remaining glue with adhesive remover.

Next, thoroughly clean all damaged areas with rubbing alcohol.

Leather dyes can be tricky so test a spot, such as underneath a seat, for color fastness. The alternative is to use a strong leather cleaner and water.

  • Fillers
    Rips and tears can sometimes have a depression underneath the damaged area. In order to make a consistent repair, you will need to add a filler to level out the depression.

    The filler should be supplied in your repair kit. A flat surface is essential for a quality repair.

    Oftentimes, common household cotton will suffice for softer padded spots. Harder areas, such as dashboards, will require a putty or filler for more stability.

  • Sub-patches
    Larger damaged areas need support for the repair compound. Sub-patches provide this needed support as well as helping to bind the damaged spot together.

    Start by cutting a patch about 1/4 -inch larger than the damaged area. Apply the sub-patch adhesive and carefully work the patch into the spot using a plastic knife.

    Believe it or not, iron-on patches, which are used for mending holes in pant legs, have been utilized with great success. They already have an adhesive bonded onto them.

  • Scratch removal
    For minor scratches from fingernails and scuff marks, you can purchase specialty creams which restore the original color to the scratch and make it nearly invisible. Some concentrated leather conditioners will also offer a temporary fix.

The secret to perfect repair compounds
It can be difficult to match the exact color for the novice. Even if you think you have the perfect color match, using your heating tool to cure the repair compound will cause it to dry slightly darker in color.

The solution is to apply the repair compound in thin layers building up the damaged area gradually. If, on the first try, the color is not exactly right, remix another batch of compound to a lighter shade and have another go.

Include a dulling agent in the mix if the vinyl or leather has a dull finish. The repair compound tends to dry with a gloss. You can always add or eliminate the dulling agent between layers.

Apply the compound thin enough to allow for two to three layers. This should be sufficient for finding the exact color match.

Please note, this only works with larger damaged areas. For smaller areas where you may have only one shot, you will need an extra piece of vinyl to adjust your color tinting.

Spread a very thin, even coat of compound on your repair spot. Take a piece of matching grain paper and lay it over the spot.

With your heating tool centered on the freshly laid compound, apply light, steady pressure directly on one spot while rotating the tool in a circular motion. Allow the grain paper to cool for a minute or two and remove it.

If you are satisfied with the results, continue this procedure until the entire spot is leveled out with surrounding upholstery.

Finally, if you would rather get an exact color match the first time and your customer will allow this, you can cut out a small piece of material from underneath the seat so it will not be noticed and send it to a specialty interior shop.

They will match the exact color for you and ordinarily provide a four-ounce bottle of compound.

This takes time, so inform your customer as to what you intend to do and make the necessary arrangements.

Matt Rice is the owner and author of  Having operated a mobile detailing business for nearly 20 years, he now offers his real-world knowledge and experience to aspiring professional detailers over the Internet. You can contact Matt at