What’s Your Type of Upholstery Shop?

Published by Naseem Muaddi on October 2nd, 2012

Auto upholstery isn’t a uniform industry where all shops look the same, work the same or even charge the same. It’s comprised of independent businesses – mostly mom and pop operations – that put in long hours and a lot of hard work to stand out.

While some shops do general repairs, others focus solely on restyling, hot rod interiors or motorcycle seats. Most operate out of garages, but others do just as well being mobile or selling their products online.

All successful shops, however, have one thing in common – they’ve chosen a niche and serve it well.

In fact, The Hog Ring community features a number of shops that cater to specific niches. These, of course, are based on the type of work each shop’s owner or lead trimmer enjoys doing and the types of customers he/she is able to attract.

For the most part, these shops can be placed in one (or more) of the following eight categories:

1. Repair Shops

Interior repair shops are the most common. Trimmers who work here have vast knowledge and experience in repairing nearly all makes and models. These types of shops do a little bit of everything – including headliners, carpets, leather work, custom sewing, classic restoration, fabric tops and much more. Many even dabble in marine, aviation and furniture upholstery.

2. Mobile Repair Shops

Like traditional brick and mortar repair shops, mobile shops do a little bit of everything. The primary difference, however, is that they operate out of a van and do their work onsite. These trimmers can often be seen at used car dealerships and auto repair shops. Some even make house calls. Of course, all their tools and a small inventory of materials must be carted wherever they go.

3. Restyling Shops

Restyling shops mainly cater to new car dealerships. They specialize in cloth to leather conversions, sunroof installations, mobile electronics and other cabin upgrades. Given the nature of their business, trimmers who work here don’t do much in the way of repairs, custom sew work or fabrication. Their primary concern is to re-outfit a car’s interior and send it on its way.

4. Online Shops

These trimmers make shift boots, door-panel inserts, seat covers and more – selling them online to customers who either install the products themselves or take them to repair shops to have the work done. Those that offer installation services require customers to mail them interior components – like steering wheels – to be trimmed and returned. Given the nature of their business, there is no geographical limit to their customer base.

5. Hot Rod Shops

Hot rod trimmers specialize in designing and building custom interiors for classic show cars. Their work is extremely niche and involves knowledge and experience in several disciplines outside of upholstery – such as carpentry, sheet metal and fiberglass fabrication. These shops tend be low volume, completing a limited number of interiors per year. Established ones usually have long waiting lists, attract customers from afar and charge tens of thousands of dollars per car.

6. Restoration Shops

Restoration shops are like hot rod shops in that they’re niche and low volume. However, they don’t do much in the way of custom work. Instead, these trimmers focus on restoring vehicle interiors to exact factory specifications. Shops go to great lengths to find, restore or fabricate missing pieces; and spend a lot of their time working on highly exotic and rare automobiles.

7. Custom Shops

These shops focus solely on custom work – churning out show-quality interiors for domestic and import vehicles new or old. These trimmers sew, fabricate and even install mobile electronics. Their work isn’t as low volume as hot rod shops, but also not as high volume as repair shops. They float somewhere in the middle, working hard to make their customers’ visions a reality.

8. Motorcycle Shops

Many trim shops across the globe only service two wheelers and other motorized bikes – upholstering seats, saddle bags and accessories for motorcycles and scooters. An enthusiastic and dedicated clientele has made motorcycle upholstery a steadily growing market. In addition to pattern making and sewing, the skill set of these trimmers include leather carving (tooling) and braiding.

On a personal note, my business is primarily an upholstery repair shop. I do classic restorations, custom interiors and motorcycle seats as well; but repairs have always been my bread and butter.

When I first started out in the industry and was a bit naïve, I only wanted to upholster show cars. In fact, I was so anxious to work on them, that I’d often charge less than what the work required just to guarantee that I got the job.

As I grew older, however, I began to realize that there just wasn’t any money in it. Where my shop is located, customers can’t afford to pay the thousands of dollars I need to charge in order to make focusing solely on show cars worth it.

I eventually shifted my attention to repair work, where I’m able to get cars in and out of my garage quickly and turn a more rewarding profit. I still satisfy my craving for custom interiors, but on a limited basis and only for customers willing to pay the true cost of my skills and labor.

But that’s just my shop. I’d love to hear about yours…

Tell us: If you’re just starting out in this industry, what type of shop do you hope to run? If you’re an established trimmer, how would you categorize your shop? Did you choose to create that type of shop or did market constraints choose it for you?




15 Responses

  1. Sueann Sueann says:

    Well, we would be a repair shop. dabbling in a bit of everything and keeping customers car’s looking nice- sort of recycling there car so they can learn to love it again.

  2. Trimmy Trimmy says:

    We are a repair shop, but we dabble in a bit of everything. I have one trimmer who concentrates on the custom/hotrod/resto work and another that does mostly repair/tonneaus/leather kits. We do a lot of new car stuff and car yard repairs. It seems to work out pretty well. If I had to depend on one part of the industr, I think we would struggle. I would love to do just hotrods, customs and resto work but this is the real world and I don’t think our location would support it.

  3. clifton says:

    One and three

  4. Great post Naseem! Outsiders don’t often see how varied this industry really is. This article does a great job of highlighting that.

    I’ve always been intrigued by shops that are able to focus on one thing – and one thing only.

  5. RETIRED… WHEN WE WERE IN BUSSINESS WE DID A LITTLE REPAIR ON FURNITURE AND WHEN I SAY REPAIR WE COMPLETLY TORE DOWN AND REBUILT FROM THE FRAME UP, THIS WAS WHEN WE WERE STARTING OUT. WE ALSO IM ASHAMED TO SAY DID REPAIRS FOR CAR DEALERS THE SCUM OF THE EARTH, JUST KIDDING THEY KEPT US AFLOAT A LOT OF TIMES BUT WE REALIZED AFTER A WHYLE WE WERE DOING AS MUSH WORK ON A REPAIR AS WE WERE ON A COMPLETE REBUILD OF A SEAT WHICH IN TURN DEVELOPED VINYL REPAIR BUSSINESS WHICH WE TOOK IN BUT FARMED OUT TO A SPECIALIST. WHICH THEN LATER WASNT TAKEN IN BECAUSE WORD GETS AROUND OF WHOS DOING WHAT . WE STARTED COMPLETE RESTORATIONS OF MUSTANGS TO OLD PACKARDS OLDSMOBILES ANYTHING WITH FOUR WHEELS AND TWO WHEELS. WE DID BOAT SEATS I REMEBER ONLY ONE AIRPLANE, THERES A LOT OF LAW TO FOLLOW IN AVIATION REPAIRS WHICH WE NEW NOT OF AT THE TIME. IF YOUR IN UPOLSTERY LONG ENOUGH YOU WILL DO IT ALL.THERE ARE TIMES IN TRIM WORK WHEN WORK WAS SLOW. WE WOULD BUY A CAR THAT NEEDED WORK AND I MEAN ALL WORK MECHANICAL BOSY AND INTERIOR BECAUSE AFTER A WHYLE UNLESS YOU WANT TO SHIP IN FROM OTHERE STATES OR COUNTRIES THERE WONT BE A LOT OF WORK TO DO UNLESS YOU MOVE INTO REPAIRING TANKS OR MILITAY VEHICLES WHICH OLD JEEPS WE HAD DONE.WITH THE USA CONTROLING THE WEATHER TODAY THERE IS MORE WORK BECAUSE OF WELL FLLODS WILD FIRES AND SO ON WHICH THIS HAS BECOME DRASIC IN MOST CASES. LOOK UP WEATHER MODIFICATION OUR GREAT GOVERNMENT CONTROLS MORE THAN YOU THINK. MOST OF US OWN OUR OWN BUSSINESS BECAUSE WE LIKE WHAT WE DO BUT THERE ARE SOME WHO HAD ALWAYS RATHER BUY A NEW CAR THAN TO GET ONE REPAIRED.

  6. stitcher_guy stitcher_guy says:

    We’re a general mix, like most others. I like to do the hot rods, but as Naseem said, there just isn’t that market around here and our name is not a national moniker that has people flocking to us from all parts of the world. Cars, boats, motorcycles, furniture,restsaurant outfitting, the odd handbag or two, bounce houses, everything comes through the door.

    One mindset for being so general is that no one else does it. Alteration shops send leather customers to our door because their machines are too small. The furniture stores use us for warranty work. Everyone comes to us for their needs ,and if we turn it down, those customers won’t have another avenue. Plus, if we help a customer with one job and they are happy, chances are greater that they will come to us when they dust off that XK140 and finally decide to finish it out.

  7. barnmama says:

    Repair. I would like to specialize in more custom work, but the market here won’t support it. There are times, it is all auto, and times it is all furniture. And times it is a mesh of both with a boat or airplane thrown in!

  8. cpr customs says:

    Just starting out right now so at the mercy of my local market . but so far mostly restyling on restorations and lots of repair work!

  9. rich says:

    I am a hot rod trimmer. One man shop, take a ton of time on each car. Maybe too much. And even though the word on the street says I am expensive, I often find out that I was cheaper than the local upholstery hero. But my passion is hot rods. Been doing it since 1985, studied under pretty notable West Coast NorCal trimmer. Learned a lot, spent 10 years there, then out on my own in 96. Love the cars, choose not to follow this economy, scrape when I have to, but thanks to God, I have a few billet cup holders we manufacture to fill the mailbox with money once in awhile. Good Luck to all! Keep thinking out of the box. Rich

  10. Oddball13 says:

    Well I’m just starting out. But so far I have done almost anything someone will pay me for that is legal. Last year I made a custom cover for a 14 foot air stream trailer with zip on doors and windows, I spent way to much time for what I got paid. I do repair work for a film production warehouse that I worked for a couple of summers. My last job was to recover some bench seats for a honey wagon film set truck. I have a couple of jobs lined up that are car seats, motorcycle seats, wave runner and cover for a 4 wheeler. Oh and I still have a 7-5 job that is not upholstery related.

    But some day I hope to be able to support my family by running a hot rod upholstery shop.

  11. George says:

    We’re a repair shop. We do pretty much anything that walks through the door.

  12. Eric's Auto Upholstery says:

    This is a great article. We are a all of the above shop. Complet auto interior. We cater to what ever our customers want, well most of the time. There’s still a few extreme customers who want it all for pennies. Not many people realize how much money it takes to customize a interior of a vehicle. It boggles my mind when the customer will spend thousands on thousands for paint jobs & hopped up motors. Then when it comes to the interior, budgets are run low. They want us to cut them a deal or give them a break. It’s outrageous at times. I like to tell them at times, you wouldn’t want to send Cinderella to the Ball without her gown…. Why would you want to enter your car in a show or cruise night with out a beautiful interior! The interior is usually what everyone looks at first, besides the paint job snd then under the hood. That’s just my opinion!

  13. Stitch says:

    We do it all in the shop I am at now. I specialize in custom work – I came up in the trade working on high-end mini trucks (several features under my belt) and hotrods (barret jackson, and several good guys winners), however, the new shop I am running does mostly repair and restorations, with a custom interior thrown in once in a while. And LOTS of bikes and boats. I’m originally from AZ, so bikes and boats were nearly a year-round business down there.

  14. S-T-I-T-C-H S-T-I-T-C-H says:

    As a newbie I can’t really tell yet what category I’m in. Although I would like to run a combination of a Hot Rod, Custom and Motor Shop. Because I’ve been a furniture maker (no upholstery thou) back in the days, I still like to use those skills. And Motor Shop because I really like to work on bike seats.
    But above all I like a challenge over a repair. I think completing a custom interior is far more rewarding then repairing a seat back to original. Even thou the last is probably more rewarding financially…

  15. We are a marine canvas and upholstery shop we started in doing recovers and custom interiors but have moved on to doing boat manufacturers and awnings, is there a section of this site for that kind of upholstery or possibly another site thanks


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