UpholsterCycle DIY Upholstery

How To Replace Boat Upholstery: 3 Options Compared

replace boat upholstery

Cracked, torn and faded boat upholstery can bring down the look and feel of your entire vessel. Here, we share 3 options to replace boat upholstery, and explain what each option will cost you in time, effort and cash.

When it comes to updating an older boat with upholstery that is cracking, ripped, or faded, you really only have 3 choices to choose from. If you are good at working with your hands and are willing to put forth the effort to do it yourself, then you can save a lot of money by reupholstering your boat yourself. If you don’t have the time to invest in reupholstering the boat yourself, another option is to use premade cushions that can be easily sourced. If money is no object though, you can always seek the assistance of a professional marine upholstery service.

In this article we discuss all three options, to help you decide which is the best for your situation and budget. Keeping in mind, that if you do decide to go the DIY route, UpholsterCycle is here to help you learn to do your own upholstery; simply head to the home page to view our marine upholstery DIY articles.

DIY replace boat upholstery

Difficulty Level: Difficult, Challenging

Time Required: Months

Overall Cost: Low

One of the hardest yet cheapest ways of reupholstering your boat is to undertake the entire project on your own. It is the most difficult way of reupholstering any boat and could take you months to complete. But, since you are doing all the work on your own, and learning in the process, the overall costs are extremely low. If you are a crafty or DIY type of person, it can be very satisfying to upholster it yourself.

If you decide to DIY replace boat upholstery, make sure not to work on all the pieces simultaneously, instead work on one piece at a time. By removing one piece at a time and covering it with a new skin, you are actually making the project easier. If you removed all of the pieces simultaneously, then you have to remember how all of them go back together. By working on a single piece at a time, it’s easier to remember how to reassemble everything.

We’ll cover DIY boat upholstery in greater detail in a future article, but below is an overview to give you an idea of the time, work and cost involved. In order to do all of the upholstering yourself, you’ll need to:

  • Disassemble. Start by disassembling parts of the boat and removing any existing cushions or fabric. But before you even pull out a screwdriver, start taking photos of everything. The last thing you want to happen is to forget where something goes when you’re done. Properly documenting each piece with high-quality photos, ensures that everything is put back together properly.
  • Remove Old Staples & Nails. While it may be tempting to simply cut all of the old fabric off and leave the old staples behind, do not do this. If there are any staples left in the original wood, they can actually mess up the final product. Rather than cutting off any old fabric, use a screwdriver to dig out all of the original staples. Make sure to have a jar or bowl handy in order to place all the staples in. The last thing you want to happen is to step on a rusted staple while you are barefoot in your boat. Although not difficult, this is a tedious job, and will take a bit of time to work through.
  • Choose & Buy Material. Next, you’ll need to order the marine vinyl or fabric, such as this marine upholstery fabric from Sailrite. The fabric that is used on boats, is different from the fabric that is used for outdoor furniture, clothing or inside the house. It is specifically designed to stand up to the rigors of life on the ocean. Not only has it been designed and treated to be waterproof, but its waterproofing is also designed to withstand saltwater. Moreover, because boats are out in the sun more than lawn furniture, the UV-resistant capabilities of marine-grade upholstery fabric are much higher.
  • Create the Pattern. Assuming that you were able to cleanly remove all of the old material, you can use this to create patterns for the replacement. Unlike outdoor furniture, boat upholstery is more complicated. A single cushion is not composed of simply two or three pieces of fabric, rather it can be composed of a number of different pieces as well as beading along the edges. You will need a good seam ripper in order to open up all of the seams to create new patterns for your replacement.
  • Purchase, Measure & Cut Foam to Size. You may also need to ensure that the foam itself is still usable. It’s possible for the foam to go flat, rendering it useless on a boat. If the foam is heavily damaged or is no longer retaining its shape, then you’ll need to replace it with high-quality marine-grade foam. Each piece will need to be custom cut, slightly larger than the original size because the skin will actually compress it once it is attached.
  • Assemble the pieces. Once you have all of your patterns and your foam in order, it’s time to begin laying out all of your material, cutting it up, sewing it together, and stapling it to the seat. In order to accomplish this:
    • You will need to make sure that you are using needles and threads that are specifically designed for working with marine-grade materials. While it may be possible to hand-sew all of the parts, a sewing machine will help a lot.
    • If you are applying fabric over the top of holes, do not cut the holes until the fabric is already installed. This is crucial because you need to stretch the fabric around and into the opening.
    • You also want to make sure that you use a grease pencil rather than a pen, as it will not damage or discolor the upholstery. A grease pencil is also a preferred tool when laying out any cording or welts.
    • Lastly, before you cover the foam with your newly sown upholstery, you want to separate the two layers with a slip film. Not only does this help to slide the fabric over the foam, and compress it down, but it reduces the amount of friction created when you start sitting on the finished product. It helps to speed up the process considerably, and also makes the final product look a lot better.

That is probably a whole lot more information than you need at this stage of your research, but it is good to lay out the steps so you have a very clear and accurate picture of the work involved. This way you can make an informed decision about whether you realistically have the time and capacity to DIY replace boat upholstery yourself, or whether you should choose one of the other options instead.

Premade Boat Upholstery Sets

Difficulty Level: Medium

Time Required: Weeks

Overall Cost: Medium

If you don’t have the time to make all of the pieces yourself, it’s also possible to completely reupholster most boats by using premade cushions. When compared to doing it yourself, it is a lot easier if you simply replace the cushions with premade units such as the ones from Great Lakes Skipper. That link is not an endorsement, just one example of the type of premade sets we mean. The time it takes to complete the overall project is shortened dramatically, but the overall cost is increased substantially.

To use premade cushions, you’ll need to first check to see if anyone makes any cushion kits for your particular boat. However, if you made the boat yourself, or if the previous owner had made the boat rather than purchased it from a manufacturer, then you probably won’t find any premade kits. If the premade kits are available, it will be the best option.

For those who are reupholstering boats that were custom-built, you will need to measure every single cushion. From here, you can look at the different cushion manufacturers, and try to find something that is as close as possible to the original size as possible. Chances are you might not be able to find a perfect match, which means that you will need to modify some of the mounting brackets in order to make it fit.

Custom replace boat upholstery

Difficulty Level: Easy

Time Required: Depends on upholsterer availability and schedule

Overall Cost: Very High*

Last but not least, is to seek out the assistance of a professional upholsterer in order to completely redo your boat. As a boat owner, a custom reupholstering job is the easiest way to go, but it is also the highest costing option. The time it takes to complete the reupholstery job will depend on how complicated the designs and patterns are, how many cushions need to be reupholstered, and the upholsterer’s schedule.

There is no shame in letting somebody else complete the reupholstery project for you. Let’s face it, not everyone has weeks or even months to spend on redoing all of the upholstery on their boats. Not everybody has the necessary skills to do it either. When looking for an upholstery service, ask around and try to find companies that have experience with working on boats. Boat upholstery is very different from car upholstery. It may even be a good idea to shadow the specialist while they are working on your boat so that you can learn how to do it yourself next time.

*For an idea of how high the cost is, head over to Caribou Upholstery CA where they discuss this in detail – in their post, they mention one person as being quoted $1,500 for one boat seat (presumably from their competitor, nonetheless, it gives some insight…). Talk about ouch.

replace boat upholstery conclusion

We hope this article has helped give you some direction on how you can replace the upholstery on your boat, yacht or other marine vehicle. The decision in most cases is going to come down to time vs money. If you have the money to spare and have no interest in learning how to upholster, then the easy option is to simply hire a local upholsterer to do the job for you.

However, many of us simply don’t have that much cash to spend on a custom upholstery job. Premade kits offer a good middle ground, but it really depends on whether kits exist that will fit your particular boat, and for that you will simply need to shop around to see what is available.

And then, of course, there is always the option of upholstering your own boat cushions. This is the more time-consuming and challenging way, but can be quite fun and satisfying if you don’t mind learning some new skills. Don’t expect a professional finish when DIY’ing it, after all there is a good reason the professionals charge so much and that it because they are awesome at it. But for many boat owners, that level of professional work just isn’t necessary in which case it’s worth giving the DIY boat upholstery route a try.

We will continue to update the marine upholstery section of this website with tutorials to DIY the task, but in the meantime you can pick up of one of these great beginner upholstery books suitable for boat, car and furniture projects.