Professional Carwashing & Detailing

Proper leather repair

February 4, 2009

Editor’s Note: This article is included in the May 2007 issue of Professional Carwashing & Detailing®. If you would like to submit an article or topic idea for the Management Tip of the Week, please e-mail Editor Kate Carr.

Over thirty years ago, I learned the interior repair and refinishing trade in Brooklyn, NY with an organization called New Life Service, which promoted mobile detailing.

I spent three days in Brooklyn cutting holes in the same seat we had rescued from a wrecking yard. I spent hours cutting and fixing and repeating the process before I ever went out to try my skills on a customer’s car.

Practicing leather and vinyl repair on a couple of pieces where it won’t hurt to be destroyed is the best way to learn.

Most of the work I do is mobile, but I also own a seat repair shop. I think there are two different methods to get business: You can put a sign out and hope for the best, or you can get out there and secure business by selling your services.

When someone comes to me for advice, I make sure to give them real-world experience. I make sure to give a student a piece of material they can really practice with like an old seat from a junk car.

Allowing them to cut holes in the seat, burn and repair it yields the best results. I know that when these students get to the real world, they will be prepared and will know what to do.

Leather repair

It is important to know that leather is more expensive to repair and replace than vinyl. Its manufacturing process is highly involved. We often charge twice as much to repair leather than vinyl. My approach is to do as little as possible to the leather. If too much product is applied, it will stiffen the seat cover.

Common repairs consist of scuffs, cracks, tears, rips, holes, and worn areas. There is a procedure to follow for each repair. A scuff mark may only require sanding and painting whereas cracks require sanding and filling.

Sandpaper, 400-grit, is commonly used for these repairs. It’s important to know that the more sanding you do on the cracks, the less you’ll need to fill.

Think of leather like a face wearing too much makeup. Now imagine that the person wearing the makeup smiles, causing the makeup to crack. This will happen to leather as well. Putting too much product on leather will make it crack.

The more you sand out cracks and damage, the less you’ll need to fill. Water-based repair products are my choice because they are more flexible. Heat-cured products are a secondary choice because they burn, not melt.

Two types of leather repair

There are two types of repair leather may undergo: cold-patch/air-dry and heat cure that can also be textured. The method of repair is based on the damage. The only time I would recommend using a heat weld repair is if there is a hole big enough to put my finger through.

To repair a hole in leather, place a patch behind the hole. Next, fill thin layers of heat cure compound over the hole. Heat cure compound can be used on either leather or vinyl.

The compound consists of a blend of vinyl resins and oils that will meld and fuse to the material with heat. It has the consistency of paste and once heated, becomes clear and solid.

Once that is heated, it will melt the surrounding vinyl to weld and fuse together. After that step is complete, the patch is textured and painted to match the surrounding material.

It is important to avoid solvent and silicone based products because they will dry out the leather.

Also avoid conditioners that claim they “clean, condition and protect.” Anything that says it does it all is not a valid claim. Have one product to complete each step.

Make sure that you use adequate protection: ventilation, thin neoprene gloves and protective eyewear are just a few of the precautions to take.

Dos and don’ts

Do use fewer repair products for leather, the less product, the better.

Do keep it simple.

Don’t use too much product on leather.

Don’t use solvent based paint on leather because it will stiffen the surface.

Do use a surface primer on leather (normally polyurethane product).

Don’t use solvent based primer on leather.

Don’t sell yourself short on the amount of time necessary to complete the job.

Don’t take on something that should be replaced.

If the material is brittle and cracked, don’t try to repair it.

Don’t risk your own reputation on a “just fix it for now” type of repair.

Vinyl repair

The industry refers to vinyl as vinyl coated fabric. Vinyl is made of a blend of oils and resins and is a petroleum based product. Replacement costs of vinyl have only increased based on the costs of petroleum.

Vinyl can successfully be repaired with a heat weld, heat fusion compound or heat repair process. Either a hot air gun or a hot soldering iron can be used in this process. I tend to use both: one in each hand.

Successful business is more than skin deep

A professional can get started for less than $1,500. Remember, buying a pre-existing $15,000 business does not ensure success. Packages and training may be offered but if you don’t know how to secure business, failure is eminent.

Training and securing business are the most important aspects with this industry. Anyone interested in interior repair should speak with industry experts to learn the trade. Learning from a mentor will teach you the correct ways to go about things based on their success.

Paul LaMontagne is the owner of Trim Flex Vinyl Co, Portland, OR, a company that has provided interior training and repair services to shops and individuals since 1976. Paul can be reached by phone at: 888-740-0347, or via email at