The tan corduroy upholstery that came stock in many 1986 Vanagons was a really lousy material. It is notorious for shredding and falling apart. When we purchased our Vanagon the front bucket seats already had been reupholstered by a previous owner in a very nice, much more durable tan corduroy but the back bench and seats were the original fabric. They were in decent shape when I first brought the Vanagon home but after just a couple of camping trips with the boys the material was quickly torn and shredded.
Initially I had thought about just replacing the fabric on the bench and jump seat with some Sunbrella-type material but when I began to look at prices for that fabric versus what was available from Sewfine I started thinking more about just spending the money for Sewfine’s highly-regarded replacement covers.
A bit of research and I found a few pictures on thesamba forums of a similar Vanagon re-upholstery project with the same color scheme and I was sold on the Sewfine product. This thread from samba forum member joetiger is invaluable if you’re thinking about tackling a Sewfine Upholstery project on your Vanagon.
To just do the back seats was pricey but within my budget, but as with everything Vanagon, once you’re in for a penny, you’re in for a pound so I bought the covers to do the front seats as well. A couple of weeks after placing my order, a large box arrived from Sewfine and as I unpacked the new covers I was glad I didn’t go the Sunbrella route. There is a lot of padding built into the Sewfine covers that I wouldn’t have been able to replicate doing it on my own with a few yards of fabric.
Breaking Down the Vanagon Westfalia Upholstery Project:
I looked at this upholstery job as two distinct projects: the front bucket seats and their two-way armrests as Part I and the rear bench and jump seat as Part II. We planned on having a professional do the buckets and arm rests and we’d try to tackle the rear seats as a DIY project at home. As with most Vanagon-related projects, it didn’t go quite as planned but as usual, it worked out in the end with me coming away feeling grateful for the Vanagon community and more confident in my skills to maintain and repair our family’s freedom vessel.
Part I – front bucket seats and two-way armrests
Much of what we read about doing the upholstery work ourselves at home scared us from trying to tackle the buckets and arm rests. Mostly it was the stories –both from customers and from Sewfine — about how hard the arm rests are to do that prompted us to scout out a local auto upholsterer to do the work for us.
We easily removed the front seats from the Vanagon [here’s a quick HowTo video] and drove them around to different auto upholsterer shops getting quotes which ranged widely so if you go this route, make a few calls and you may save a few hundred bucks.
A day after dropping the seats off at the upholsterer he called to say they were done but there was no way that the material would ever go on the arm rests so he’d cut us a deal and give us the seats back without doing the arm rests. Seeing as how the whole point of having a pro do the work was so that we would not have to struggle with the arm rests we were a bit frustrated.
We called Sewfine who gave us some tips and decided to tackle the project ourselves. We knew that we could pay Sewfine to get them on for us if we got too far over our heads but figured we might be able to get the job done ourselves with a bit of Polish engineering and grit. After much cursing, sweat and mashing of fingertips we got them on. The reward of doing the work ourselves went way beyond just saving the money to pay someone else to do it. It was a challenge and we did it. Here’s a video that explains how we got the material on to the two-way armrests. If you ever need to do this, watch the video, you’ll be glad you did!
part II – rear bench and jump seat
We vaguely knew what we were getting into with the rear portion of this project and figured it was something that we could tackle with the right tools. Frankly, the most difficult part was removing the rear bench without cleaning out all the crap out that we had stored underneath it. If we’d taken the time to prep a bit more, it would have been easier to take out the back bench parts but it was cold as hell out when we did this job and I was more thinking about just muscling through the work and getting back inside.
I put together a short video on the steps involved in removing the bench cushions, removing the fabric and reupholstering. You might find it entertaining or maybe even useful:
Once out of the van, the most difficult part was removing the old material. Several hundred staples are used to hold the material on, they need to be removed. I used a fence/staple puller that I bought from Harbor Freight ($9) in combination with a very slim flathead screwdriver. You might could maybe use regular pliers but having multiple hand positions with the bigger tool makes it less tiresome. Putting the new fabric on was pretty easy, especially since I’d already done the armrests so I knew that working the foam and squeezing it while wrapping the fabric around was key to getting everything done right.
A few tips on installing new seat covers from Sewfine onto the bench cushions of a Vanagon:
- Use an air compressor and a pneumatic staple gun ($20, Harbor Freight)
- Mark the top/front pieces of the back and bottom of the bench so that you can align the new fabric correctly
- Mark the dead center of the back and bottom of the bench and the center of the fabric so you can line them up correctly
- Before you put in your first staple, stop. Grab a beverage and walk around the cushion, look at the cover and make sure it’s positioned correctly and make sure that you can pull the fabric around each edge of the board you’re stapling the material to. Then start stapling.
- I used about 700 staples to do the jump seat and rear bench
Putting the benches back in was fairly easy. As far as time goes:
- 1 hour to remove jump seat and bench parts
- 1.5 hours to remove the staples from the back and bottom parts of the rear seat bench
- .5 to staple the material to jump seat
- 1.5 hours to staple material to rear bench parts
- 1 hour to reinstall the jump and benches