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Builder Spotlight

April 2010 Issue




Cover Story: Designing Men

You built an airplane, so why can’t you upholster the interior, too?

After all of the fun and satisfaction you have had building your own airplane, why would you pay someone else to do the soft parts of the interior? Of course, there are excellent answers to this question. You have no interest in doing aircraft upholstery. You are sick and tired of working on airplane stuff. Sewing is for sissies, and you’re no sissy. Or perhaps you would like to give it a try, but you don’t think you have the necessary skills and equipment.

If you’d like to try it, consider this: You probably developed the basic skills you’ll need to do aircraft upholstery when you built your aircraft. An old coach/builder once told me that of all of the skills needed to build a car, metal fabrication and upholstery had the most transferable skill sets. That doesn’t make sense if you think of metal as hard and fabric as soft; however, if you think of it as creating curved parts from flat materials, the similarities become more apparent.

Heavy-duty Singer machines that were made for home use are practical alternatives to industrial machines for occasional use by hobbyists. They’re easy to tote around in their handy carrying cases.

If you’ve ever wrapped a gift, you’ve completed a task that uses skill sets similar to upholstery. You measure, cut and join. After all, you can think of an aircraft seat-cushion as a box, and its upholstery as its wrapper. You can make the box and the wrapper as simple or complex as you’d like. Being able to make it exactly how you want is one of the best reasons to do it yourself.

Too Late to Consider It?

I know that by the time you get to considering what you want to do about the soft parts of your interior you’ve blown the budget on the engine and avionics, and the last thing you want to do is spend more money on tools and equipment that you’re not likely to use again after your interior is completed. But wait. Let’s stop for a moment and talk about the goals for this short series. I don’t want to merely offer the skills to inspect the work of others; I want you to think seriously about doing this task yourself. As a result of this focus, we’ll get into details that may just glaze your eyes; I’ll take that chance. Those of you who stick with me may discover a whole new skill set waiting to be developed.

On the subject of equipment, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that you possibly already have some of the tools you’ll need. The few exceptions may include specialty items such as curved needles, professional-quality scissors (also known as shears) and a sewing machine. And there’s more good news. Curved needles cost less than a buck each, and professional quality scissors retail in the neighborhood of $50.

The Pfaff pictured here, and other machines such as the Consew and Juki, are the workhorses of most upholstery shops.

Once you have a good pair of scissors, you’ll wonder how you ever got by without them. I’ve used mine to cut paper, tape, rope, cardboard, plywood, wire, sheet metal and even upholstery materials such as carpet, foam, cloth, vinyl and leather. They’re handy to have around, but I suggest you cut only upholstery materials with them.

There are almost as many types of scissors as there are types of homebuilt aircraft. Fortunately, the selection process for scissors is much easier. You’ll want a pair of Wiss W20. They’ll handle the most delicate tasks such as cutting thread, and they’ll handle the toughest tasks such as cutting carpet. You can probably get by with just one pair, but I like to have a pair in my tool bag, by the sewing machine and on the cutting table. I’m confident that you’ll get your money’s worth out of this purchase. I bought my first pair in 1976 and still use them today.

Sew? So!

The bad news is that a sewing machine can be expensive, in the neighborhood of $1000 for a good, used industrial machine. But there’s good news here, too. There are ways to work around the high cost of purchasing an industrial sewing machine.

Left: The Singer has a standard foot, which is the most common type. It’s considered less desirable than the walking foot, but works fine for most jobs. Right: The Pfaff has a walking foot, which maintains pressure on the material being sewn. This feature is helpful when sewing velvets, velour or projects in which several thicknesses are being sewn together at the same time.

Unfortunately, selecting a sewing machine is not quite as easy as selecting scissors, as there are numerous makes and models. Some are designed for occasional home use and are good only for sewing lightweight fabrics. Others are designed for heavy-duty industrial use, and are not good for sewing lightweight fabrics. Of course, like Goldilocks, we want the one that’s just right. A sewing machine designed for upholstery use is just right for sewing aircraft interior components, and a heavy-duty home machine will often get the job done.

Sewing machine needles (pictured here on the right) are different from hand-sewing needles (pictured on the top). Each type comes in a variety of sizes, and machine needles are often brand specific. Pfaff needles won’t work in a Singer.

Old machines in good condition often sew as well as new machines, and some people claim they sew better. Whether old or new, your machine must sew what you need sewn. Most of the old Singer heavy-duty machines will sew fine on heavy upholstery materials. My 1948 Singer model 15-89 does almost whatever I need it to do, and it has the added advantage of being portable. I bought it on eBay a couple of years ago for a few hundred bucks. It was reconditioned, with a new motor, light and electrical cord. It’s so much fun, I look for excuses to use it.

My old Pfaff 145, 1960s vintage, is a genuine industrial machine. It also does almost whatever I need it to do. My dad bought it used in the 1960s, and I’ve been using it since the 70s. So even though a new machine is nice, there’s nothing wrong with an old one that’s been maintained in good condition.

Now if either machine can get the job done, what’s the difference between the Singer and the Pfaff? Each has pros and cons. The advantages of the Singer are that it is easy to take somewhere, and it’s relatively inexpensive. Its disadvantages are that it does not have a walking foot, which is usually not an issue, and that it needs to be set up. A suitable table or bench can be hard to find. I’m not sure the motor would handle heavy-duty sewing all day long, but most custom upholstery sewing is only for a few minutes at a time.

Your interior project can be sophisticated, as in this RV-7A.

The advantages of the Pfaff are that it has its own table, a powerful motor and a walking foot. It will sew practically anything, and will run all day long if you need it to. Its disadvantages are its initial cost and lack of portability.

Thread comes in a variety of quantities and colors. A handful of beaver bobbins should be sufficient for most jobs.

If you’d like to get a new sewing machine, they are really nice. Nevertheless, old ones can do the same job and are much cheaper. Probably the least expensive would be a heavy-duty machine that was made for home use. Reconditioned industrial machines are often a few hundred dollars more than a heavy-duty home machine, and that’s usually a thousand dollars or so less than a comparable new machine.

If purchasing a sewing machine is not right for you, you might be able to rent one, which could be a good option if you don’t have somewhere to store one when it’s not in use, and don’t intend to use it much after the current project is done.

A sewing machine is an indispensable tool when you need it, but it’s not often needed, so I think it would be nice if every aviation club or group had a machine for its members to use. Co-ownership and club ownership works well for other specialty tools and aircraft, so why not a sewing machine?

Back to School

Perhaps the best way to become acquainted with sewing machines is to take a continuing education class on upholstery. Most communities have them, and they’re an excellent way to get started. You’ll have access to equipment, and you’ll also have an instructor to help you learn to use the machine and assist you with all aspects of your project.

The most popular scissors among professionals are the Wiss W20 pictured here, second from the bottom.

Buying a machine, or gaining access to one, is only the first step. Learning to use it is next. I’ve taught dozens of people to use a sewing machine over the last few decades. Most of them felt pretty comfortable after a few minutes of instruction and an hour of practice. You’ll want to practice sewing scraps together before you start on your project.

Begin by sewing straight lines, and practice managing the speed of the machine. You’ll want to sew fast occasionally, but most of the time you’ll want a slow or medium rate. For those times when you want to go extremely slow, such as when you are doing very precise work, use the hand wheel on the end of the machine rather than the machine’s motor. That way you can stop the needle exactly where you want it. That’s also useful for sewing around corners, starting and stopping.

Another option is to sew by hand, but it’s time-consuming, and I don’t recommend it for anything other than short seams or repairs. If you have access to both sides of the material, a straight needle works just fine. However, most hand sewing is done with curved needles, which allow you to sew when you have access to only one side of the upholstery. That makes hand sewing with curved needles an excellent way to make repairs on split seams.

One of the advantages of hand sewing is that it can be done anywhere. You can make a repair without removing the seat from the aircraft, or the seat cover from the seat. If you use a sewing machine, you have to take the seat out of the aircraft, remove the seat cover from the seat—and you need electricity. We take electricity for granted until we’re on an airport ramp hundreds of feet from the nearest electrical outlet.

Curved needles come in several sizes so that you can match the needle to the job. The author’s favorite is the 3-inch, 18 gauge, extra light round point.

Hanging By a Thread

Whether you sew with a sewing machine or by hand, you’ll need thread. I recommend that you use what the pros use, size 16 bonded polyester. I like the Sunguard brand because it is made for outdoor use. It comes in many colors, but most jobs can be done with just one neutral color such as beige or beaver. It’s sold in pound, quarter-pound tubes and in bobbins. Most small aircraft projects can be completed with a few bobbins. Just because thread comes on a bobbin, that doesn’t mean it can be used only as a bobbin. You can use it for whatever you’d like.

Perhaps you still think sewing is only for sissies. Don’t despair. It’s possible to do a nice job without sewing. You can design an interior using only no-sew techniques—we’ll talk about those in a future installment.

The other tools and supplies you’ll need are fairly common. Most people already have a sharp carving knife, an electric knife or a band saw, which you can use to cut foam. You’ll need a yardstick, or similar straight edge, and a square for the layout work.

Sometimes it’s necessary to backtrack if you want the job to come out just right. Use a single-edge razor blade. Oops! The author meant to say that he’s heard of people using a razor blade to take apart seams. Remember, sew with the right sides of the material together.

When it comes to making marks on your project, chalk usually works best. Everyone sharpens chalk, but styles vary. Some people like a blunt 45° end, and others like a long, smooth taper. Sometimes chalk won’t work. When that happens use a pencil or other non-permanent marker. If you must use a permanent marker, test it on a scrap to be sure it won’t penetrate to the other side of the material, smudge or transfer to other surfaces. A Sharpie usually works well, especially for marking foam. Ballpoint pens are usually trouble. They’ll do all of the bad things just mentioned.

At some point you’ll need to stick things together. A can of spray adhesive and a can of contact adhesive will take care of those jobs. Use the spray adhesive to hold large surfaces in place, such as when you’re installing fabric on the front side of a panel. Use the contact adhesive to secure the edges, such as the fabric on the back side of a panel.

Your Designs

Overall, interior design is one of the most enjoyable parts of aircraft upholstery. How do you want it configured: simple or complex? Do you want the seat cushions to be flat pieces of foam, or do you want some contours for enhanced visual appearance or lumbar support? Do you want the seams to be purely functional, or do you want them to be a component of the aesthetic design?

The raw materials of an upholstery project don’t look like much, but after some cutting and sewing, they can look quite good.

Material selection is another of the fundamental components of aircraft interior design. Do you want vinyl, cloth or leather? Vinyl and cloth cost less than leather, but leather gets you luxury and durability. I usually prefer a combination of vinyl and cloth. I like to use cloth for the seating surfaces, because it’s more comfortable than vinyl, warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. I like to use vinyl for the sides of seats and for the panels because I like the look of the contrasting materials.

I prefer to use materials that are made for automotive and motorsports applications. They can usually handle wear and tear, and hold up well to sunlight. Materials that are made for home applications usually have a short lifespan in an aviation environment. If you decide to use leather, be careful to identify the location of scars, and make sure they don’t end up someplace unsightly, such as in the middle of a seat cushion. What color do you want? You can choose a color combination that goes with practically any paint scheme, such as gray or tan. Or you can choose colors that match the paint scheme.

After all of those decisions have been made, you can start on the cutting and the sewing. One of the most common mistakes beginners make is that they forget to include the seam allowance when they do the layout and cutting. I recommend a 3/8-inch seam allowance, and when you sew the pieces together, remember to sew them with their right sides together. The right side is the front side of the material.

A 3/8-inch seam allowance works well for most seams.

When you make cushions you want the cover to be slightly smaller than the foam, about an eighth inch all around. Otherwise, the cover fits sloppily.

Upholstery does not have to be perfect the first time. You can always redo it. Single-edge razor blades, the same kind the big-box hardware stores sell, are useful for taking apart seams when the pieces didn’t go together as you expected. Be careful to cut only the thread, and you can reuse the same parts if you want to.

When you cover side panels remember to allow for the thickness of the material. I’ve seen many panels that were made to fit perfectly without the material installed, and did not fit when it was. As with everything else, a little practice goes a long way toward proficiency. And think of all the fun you’ll have. So why not do your own aircraft upholstery? If you think you can, you’re probably right, so go ahead and give it a shot! If you have any questions, let us know. Next month we’ll start laying out and sewing actual interior pieces.

If you have questions for Mike Manning, send an email to editorial@kitplanes.com with “Upholstery” in the subject line.


Mike Manning has been doing upholstery work for more than 30 years. He’s a private pilot, SEL and glider, and he’s instrument rated with all three launch endorsements for his glider ticket.

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