Car Upholstery Problems: 5 Most-Common Issues & Solutions

Your car’s upholstery can make your drive better or worse depending on its condition.

Great fitting seats, soft surfaces, and comfort are keys to a great interior, but they can also have major issues that need to be solved.

If you need upholstery help, we’ll cover the most common issues and then how you can solve them to create an interior you’re proud of.

#1 – You Have Tears In The Materials

One of the most common issues with car upholstery is a tear in a material. The seats support the driver and passengers, and they take a lot of abuse over time.

The driver seat on the outside edge is one of the most common areas that tear due to repetitive flexing of the seat foam and seat material as the driver gets in and out of the vehicle. Over time the material can fatigue and develop a small hole that will propagate into a larger tear if left alone.

Other tears can happen from objects carried in pockets such as knives, pens, and keys. All it takes is one sharp edge of a harder object contacting a softer cloth or leather and a hole is formed.

The same goes for objects being loaded and unloaded from the rear of the vehicle. Something simple like a board,  heavy travel bag, or even large jewelry on a finger can snag a soft cloth or leather material.

That simple “oops” can cause a tear that will grow over time.

How to Fix It

Fixing car upholstery can range from simple and economical to complex and expensive depending on where the tear is located and what material is torn.

For the example of the driver seat edge, the upholstery that is torn should be replaced before the tear grows into a much larger problem.

Many aftermarket companies offer replacement upholstery and foam for newer cars and trucks that can be changed by a professional in less than two hours. Some may take slightly longer depending on the seat design, and if the seat has airbags, it may trigger a trouble code with the computer that will need to be reset after the upholstery is replaced.

For seats that don’t have an aftermarket replacement option, a local upholstery repair shop may be able to remove the seat upholstery and replace just the torn section. It’s not an easy do-it-yourself fix but replacing a small section of material can be economical and done in under a day.

For upholstery tears in other areas of the car, the material in question may be able to be replaced by replacing the part torn. Console lids, door panels, headliners, and carpet may be a simple replacement to a new or used part rather than a restoration.

#2 – You Have Stains

Stains in the upholstery are a common problem.

We eat and drink in our cars while driving to work or on a weekend getaway, so it’s no surprise that a blob of ketchup gets on the upholstery.

Leather tends to be a little more resistant to stains, but fabric material is usually the worst culprit to stain and change color from liquids soaking into the material.

How to Fix It

Fabric seats can be cleaned with a steam cleaner and upholstery attachment. It sprays a light amount of soapy water on the fabric and then uses suction to remove the dried stain from the material.

Most over-the-counter stain removers are safe for car upholstery, but always test a small amount in an inconspicuous spot before covering the whole visible surface in cleaner.

Leather can be cleaned with a leather cleaner that uses a liquid to soak into the stain. This will break it up and you can wipe away the stain from the surface.

Both fabric and leather can be treated with protectant sprays that provide a resistant barrier to keep stains from setting into the material surface.

The best way, though, to prevent stains is to invest in high-quality car seat covers.

#3 – There are Burns In The Soft Materials

Burns don’t happen as often as they used to, but at one time they were a real problem. Obviously, a burn occurs when a hot object touches a soft surface like carpet, a headliner, or seat upholstery.

Cigarette and lighter burns were often a trademark sign of a smoker in a car, but with the reduction in smoking the number of burns in upholstery has also reduced.

How to Fix It

Burn damage isn’t easily fixed. If the burn damages a floor mat, the mat can be replaced.

The carpet can also be replaced, but it will require the seats, consoles, and anything else on top of the carpet to be removed and reinstalled after the new carpet is put in position.

Seat burns can often lead to more damage than just the fabric or leather having a hole. Burns often melt into the seat foam, which can lead to an uncomfortable seating position.

Most cars have replacement foam available that can be changed, but if nothing aftermarket is available it can be custom-made by a qualified upholstery shop.

One of the more difficult replacement jobs in your car is a headliner. It requires all of the pillar trim pieces to be removed, may require overhead consoles to be removed, and may be attached to a sunroof module if your car has that option.

Once the headliner is removed, the fabric can be removed and replaced. It’s a very large job to undertake and often better left to a professional upholstery shop to tackle.

#4 – You Feel And See Wear And Degradation

As your car interior ages, the materials tend to wear and degrade.

  • Carpets develop wear marks where your feet rest.
  • Armrests develop wear marks where your elbows sit on long drives.
  • Seat foam starts to take the shape of your rear end as it wears over time.

Beyond wear spots, materials will degrade over time and with use. Foam will start to break down and soften, and glue will lose its strength to keep materials bonded together.

How often have you seen a sagging headliner flapping in the wind on the highway?

How to Fix It

There isn’t a solution to reinvigorate worn and degraded materials in your car’s upholstery.

The best option is to replace anything that is worn and degraded. Carpets, consoles, and armrests that develop wear patterns can be replaced with new original manufacturer parts, a similar aftermarket option, or something custom-made can be done by an upholstery shop.

Degraded materials are a similar story. They can’t be reinvigorated or restored unless they are replaced. Foam density degrades over time and needs to be replaced.

Seats that are uncomfortable to sit in may just need the foam replaced to restore their original comfort.

Headliners that sag because the glue has degraded can be removed and the fabric replaced with new glue and foam backing.

#5 – You See and Feel Sun Damage

The sun’s rays can cause damage to the fabric, vinyl, and leather surfaces inside your car. Sunshine dries the materials, and they can lose flexibility and degrade over time.

Convertibles are more prone to sun damage due to the removable top but don’t discount UV rays damaging interior surfaces for hardtops.

How to Fix It

Normal car upholstery doesn’t have UV protection. The glass, such as windshields and door glass, has a UV barrier film inside the glass to provide UV protection.

The thread that holds interior pieces together doesn’t have UV protection either. Leather will dry out in the sunlight and crack. The best option for leather is to keep it moisturized with a cleaning and moisturizing kit.

If the leather dries out, it may need to be replaced if the moisture level can’t be restored.

Upholstery fabric can also dry out and lead to degradation of the fabric and thread. Fabrics can start to turn to dust as the material degrades, adhesives will lose their structure due to UV rays, and thread can lose integrity leading to splits at the upholstery seams.

Thread can be replaced if the material will still hold together, but fabric may need to be replaced if it has degraded too much.

Other surfaces like dashboards can dry out and crack as well. They can be repaired if a replacement surface isn’t available. Some owners chose to buy an aftermarket cover for the surface to keep the sun’s UV rays from causing damage.

Again, I highly recommend using car seat covers. Depending on your budget, you can buy universal or custom-fit covers. And, more often than not, car seat covers are pretty easy to wash and dry.

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