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The wear and tear that is interior repair

October 11, 2010
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Repair processes for leather, vinyl and fabric restoration have evolved significantly since the early 1970s. Repair is usually desired over replacement because of the cost the customer will incur.

Offering interior repair can significantly increase a detail shop’s profits, as well as save customers time and money; both outcomes will benefit a detail shop in the long run.

A detail dialogue

It’s not uncommon for a detail shop owner to hear a question from a customer similar to this: “While detailing my car’s interior can you look at the burn hole on the driver’s seat? Can it be repaired or do I have to buy a new cover?”

Rather than shrug his shoulders, if the owner offers interior repair service he can confidently reply, “Absolutely, that can be repaired here while we finish your car. No problem.”

The customer may be wary of this offer because of pricing fears. However, the owner can assuage any fears by saying that the price will range from $38 to $48 depending on the service needed.

Although the customer might be tempted, he or she may still be wary because of appearance concerns and ask if the repair will be obvious.

The detailer can answer honestly that the customer may be able to see where the burn was because he or she knows where to look, but someone else probably won’t notice.

The customer will most likely become curious about how this is accomplished and will want to know more information.

The detailer can explain the process by telling the customer that you reinforce the underside of the hole or rip with a back patch, then blend colored fibers to match the seat color and fill the hole and, finally, it is sealed with a clear coat for durability.

With a clear explanation, an affordable price, and a short waiting period, the customer won’t be able to refuse the extra interior repair service.

The convenience that counts

Interior work covers the vinyl top, dashboard, door panels, the headrest, seats and console. Many of these vinyl sections are far more costly to replace than repair.

Also, for the technician, it is challenging to find match-up material in a timely manner to avoid down time. Likewise, you can take that same concept with leather and multiply the replacement cost times three.

Again, with fabric seats, which are a majority of interiors, a patterned material can be just as costly and difficult to locate as some leathers. So, to provide an onsite repair service is a major convenience to your customer.

Leather living

Leather may last a long time, but it certainly shows. It’s not uncommon to refinish Cadillac interiors on a regular basis.

American leather is always vinyl coated, thus it can be refinished or re-colored successfully. Seats that looked cracked like a road map can be restored and increase the resale value of a car by hundreds of dollars.

Here are some suggested steps for leather refinishing and repair:

1. Completely clean all leather panels that will be restored. Water based and alcohol cleaners are best.

2. With 320 or 400 grit sandpaper, sand out all cracks, even down to bare leather if need be.

3. When you are satisfied with the surface smoothness, seal all cracks and sanded areas with water-based leather sealer or primer. Leather is very porous, if it is not sealed it will soak up moistness and stiffen.

Likewise, a water based leather and vinyl paint is recommended for a most flexible result. This step can be termed re-coloring or re-coating leather or vinyl, not dyeing.

4. Lastly, and just as critical as step one, finish with a clear-coat (non-aerosol). The gloss can be adjusted with a duller or gloss reducer additive.

The above is a formula for durability, not a crack and peel job. The other essential ingredient for superior repair results is the proper training.

Train away

Most vinyl interior work is best performed with some kind of a heat-weld method. This vinyl fusion process is set apart in its ability to re-grain or re-texture the repaired area, creating nearly invisible results.

This, however, also depends on a step called color matching. There are various color-matching guides and training videos to help or at least begin the quest.

Coloring example: The recipe for the number one automotive color — gray — is as follows.

Almost always start with the lightest color in the pigment structure. White, then yellow (in 90 percent of cases, or more, you will need yellow), then black.

Often, a detailer will need a little red or orange between the yellow and black, to help dirty up the mix. There is no substitute for matching by eye.

Detailers can visit an upholstery warehouse and request an auto vinyl sample book or find scraps at an auto trim shop. Then break out the red, yellow, blue, black and white and go for it.

Detailers can also go to a wrecking yard and spend a few bucks, get a seat or two, a console or headrest, and even a door panel. Then set up a table in a well lit area and get to work.

Practice makes perfect

It’s helpful to practice both colors and repairs. I suggest significantly vandalizing the items and then trying repair them.

Once the detailer has spent some time working with the practice object then he or she should move on to a friend’s car.

Even if a master detailer spends days training a person, it is still a good idea to use the junkyard routine or a friend’s car.

Training and practice is key. A detailer can invest in the best, most expensive franchised equipment, but without the right technique and proper practice, the pursuit will be profitless.

Paul LaMontagne is the owner of Trim Flex Vinyl Co, Portland, OR, a company that has provided interior detail training and repair services to shops and individuals since 1976. Paul can be reached at

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