Check out this awesome guide on how to upholster a steering wheel, submitted by Joseph Pavich of JPM Coachworks in Tracy, California. This how-to guide was originally published in our Auto Upholstery Forum.
Ok, since this has been a hot topic lately and I had a steering wheel project, I figured I’d take the time to document the steps of the build to give those that haven’t done this before a better understanding of the process.
Keep in mind that this might not be the best way to do things, it’s just the technique I’ve developed for myself over the years. Other folks might do things differently or have other ideas that make their wheels come out well.
The wheel we will be working on today is a Nissan 370Z. It is a representation of what most modern wheels are like. This how-to should cover most of the bases on how to recover a wheel that already has a leather cover.
We start by removing the original leather cover. Be careful not to cut the leather or stretch and pull it as you’re taking the cover off.
This wheel is made up of four sections. Be sure to label where each section goes as it’s not always evident after you separate them. Now it’s time to make your pattern. We start by getting some chip board or thick paperboard. Something that is stiff but cuts easily. We then glue the leather pieces down onto the chip board being careful not to stretch it but rather letting it go down naturally. I draw a line for reference on the chip board so I am laying it down straight.
There will be bubbles in the center of the piece. This is from the leather stretching around the wheel. Do not try to work these out or make the piece lay perfectly flat, that will just distort the pattern. The edges where the stitches are usually don’t have any stretch so those should lay flat.
After your piece is down, outline it with a pen and remove the piece.
Cut the pattern out smoothing out the edges as you go. Wheel patterns are nice and even and rarely have crooked or uneven edges. Keep this in mind when cutting. If the piece is symmetrical (like the top and bottom piece), place it on another piece of chip board and trace it again. Then, flip it from left to right and trace it again. This will cause you to have two overlapping images exposing the areas that are not symmetrical
Split the difference between the lines to even everything out and cut out your final pattern. This will leave you with a pattern that is symmetrical and even. Repeat this step for all symmetrical parts.
The left and right sections are usually not symmetrical so a good eye and lots of practice are what make that portion of the pattern come out well. You only need one pattern for the sides as well since they are mirror images.
This wheel was requested to be made slightly thicker so I glued the original leather back on before I covered it. The rest of the techniques are the same whether or not you’re covering over the stock leather or the stock rubber core.
If you are covering over the stock leather, be sure to trim the material on the inside of the spokes so clearance is retained for controls and horn/airbag movement.
If your wheel has concave areas (usually along the back), be sure to sand them down a bit so the glue will grip better. I like to use a 40 grit paper to really get some bite.
Next, we start cutting the pattern pieces out of the material. For this wheel, the top and bottom will be red leather and the sides will be pure black Alcantara. Go ahead and cut pieces out of your material just a bit larger than your pattern. The stretch of the material should go lengthwise around the wheel. You may have to feel around the leather hide a bit to find the direction of maximum stretch. If the stretch goes in the wrong direction, your wheel will have wrinkles.
In case you were wondering, the pieces shown in the following pictures all have a grey backing to them regardless of leather or Alcantara. This is my secret sauce if you will. This ensures me that the panels will have consistent and even stretch and helps to eliminate wrinkles. This is by no means necessary to complete a wheel or to even have a very nice wheel. You’ll pick up your own tricks along the way.
Start by cutting a small strip from whatever section you wish to start on first. This is the straight top section.
Next, take the strip and cut it so that it goes around the perimeter of the wheel perfectly.
Now, turn your material over and trace the sides and bottom of the pattern.
Then, take the strip you cut and measure out how wide the cut needs to be to wrap evenly around the wheel. Because this wheel is thickened, it measures about 1/2″ wider than the pattern is normally.
Finally, line up the top of your pattern to the reference marks and complete the outline trace.
Here’s a comparison with the entire outline versus the pattern piece. You should always do this step even when the wheel is not thickened as it ensures the material you are using will wrap evenly around the wheel with no gaps or excess.
Finish by cutting the piece out. Use a straight edge and a razor when you can to ensure an accurate cut. Be sure to cut inside the line as that’s where all the measurements were taken.
I always test fit the piece by wrapping it around the wheel in its intended spot to make sure it covers the wheel properly.
Repeat this process for the rest of the sections. By test fitting each after you cut them, you can cut away excess if needed before it’s too late. Up to this step, every section can be fixed or redone by itself if necessary. After you start sewing, the entire wheel gets ruined as a whole if you mess up.
Now starts all of the stitching. Begin by sewing the edges of the wheel sections together. I use the foot width as a guide. Since this wheel has recesses for the seams, skiving and folding is not necessary. If the wheel did not have recesses, the leather is usually skived although I end up cutting channels in the wheel as I feel the recess method is easier and provides a cleaner look with no chance of material show through from underneath.
To stitch the wheel together, I use a T-92 weight thread. You need something with strength but not too thick. It is all sewn on a relatively short stitch length as well. I back tack three stitches at the beginning and at the end of each seam with the first and last thread overlapping the ends.
After the sections are stitched together, angle the corners a tad so the top stitch stays even over the seam.
All of the sections together should be smaller than the actual diameter of the wheel. The key to a nice fitting wheel is a tight pattern. You can see here how much smaller the actual cover is than the wheel itself.
Now its time to make the perimeter stitch. For this, I use a T-138 or T-207 weight top thread with T-138 bobbin thread. The bobbin has a harder time with the thicker threads so I keep that smaller. Anything less won’t have enough strength to withstand any sort of tension once you start hand sewing it though. Again, I use the foot as my spacer from the side. It ends up being about 1/8” away from the edge.
The beginning and ends are back tacked no more than two stitches. These are usually covered up by plastic trim pieces. Some wheels require an exact starting and end point as they are visible.
Work your way around both sides of the wheel until you have put a stitch along each edge.
Now it’s time to fit the cover to the wheel for the final time. It should be a tight fit as mentioned before so that the edges of the pattern naturally want to stay inwards. This is always a balancing act between too tight and too loose. You’ll get the hang of it with practice.
Line up your seams with your recesses and make sure the wheel is on straight and the edges fall in where they are suppose to. If squeezed together, all of the edges should butt up against each other.
Now, take your favorite glue (I’m using DAP Weldwood HHR) and spray the inside of the spokes. The spokes are always glued or stuck on to keep them from shifting and because they’re not always held down with just tension.
Then, press the edges in making sure everything butts up properly and evenly.
Now comes the fun part. You’ll need a straight blunt tip needle (sometimes called an upholstery or tapestry needle). It has to be large enough to grip comfortably but small enough that it can pass through the thread you just stitched on. Make sure it is not a sharp pointed needle. I’ve sanded down the points on some of those in a pinch.
Take a length of thread roughly 2.5 times the length of the section you wish to sew (you’ll get a better idea of the length once you do this once or twice). Tie a lasso loop on one end and pass the other end through the needle.
Next, start stitching the bottom sections of the wheel. Begin by threading the needle through the first two stitches on the edge of the wheel and inserting it through the lasso end to create a firm knot. Then, slowly advance up the wheel going from one side to the other. I’m a righty so I so from right to left with the left stitch being oriented slightly higher than the right stitch. This ensure my stitches end up looking nice like little boxes or diamonds.
The top section of the wheel is a bit different as you don’t start from one side or the other but rather the center of the wheel.
This is because it makes the longer length easier to sew and it keeps the thread from fraying as much as the more you sew, the more your thread will end up fraying in the process. A good bonded thread works best.
At the end of each section, tie your thread off on the last few stitches so that it’s not visible once the trim pieces are back on the wheel. You’ll see different techniques for this on various OEM wheels. I always burn loose thread with a lighter to keep it clean.
Finally, sit back and admire your work.
With practice, your stitches will come out nice and even over large lengths. This takes time to learn though so expect your first few wheels to be a bit off until you get the hang of it. Some sections of the wheel will also require you to double stitch a section to keep the pattern looking even or if you go around a corner.
I hope this was informative to those that have been wondering about wheels. As mentioned in the beginning, this is just the way I’ve learned. There is no wrong way so always keep an eye out for what methods work and don’t work for you. Also, always study OEM wheels as much as possible before completely taking them apart. They have invested a lot of money into wheel patterns and techniques so anything you can pick up from their hard work is a bonus.