By on August 22, 2011


Cut from a different cloth?


TTAC commentator mistercopacetic writes:

Dear Mr. Mehta,

Big fan of TTAC and Piston Slap. I have a 2001 Honda CR-V with a cloth interior which I would like to switch out for a leather interior. I am doing this mostly because I am too cheap to buy a new car, but want to feel like I am driving a new car with leather seats. I found a store online selling a Roadwire leather seat kit for $595, on sale until June 15 from $962 list. It looks like this is a replacement interior, not just seat covers, so I will be pulling out the old seats, removing the cloth from the seat frame, and installing the leather. My question: is this something I can do myself, or is it better to get a professional installer? I would like to save some cash, but if it is a job that requires expertise I would rather pay someone who knows what they are doing. I’ve searched some forums online and my impression is that an aftermarket leather interior can either look terrible or meet or exceed a factory leather interior in look and quality, depending on the skill of the installer.

Sajeev answers:

You are right on all points, though I’m not touching that “too cheap to buy a new car” comment. Since you’ve done a fantastic job assessing the situation, I’ll tell you my experiences with seat material swaps. If you can dig it, give it a shot. If not, well…

So I’m with pre-LeMons fame Troy Hogan’s driveway with his a 1996 Ford F350 Crew Cab XL. It has a gray interior and those somewhat terrible XL seats. I only say “somewhat” because today’s benches in comparable trucks are just as terrible, even the King Ranches! So anyway, Troy shows me his junkyard score:  a pair of XLT benches finished in dark blue and another pair of XLT benches in the correct matching gray. The blue XLT’s had an intact seat frame and the gray ones had the right material, but were completely unusable because the donor truck was T-boned. Do you see where I’m going with this? Troy and I spent the better part of a day removing gray seat fabric (via snipping off thick metal hog rings), fiddling with seat foam to have the ideal bits on a single pair of benches, washing off gallons of milky-looking water from the gojo hand cleaner used on the dirty junkyard fabric and then, finally, we went through the pain of attaching the XLT material on various seating components (two bucket seats, one center seat, two arm rests, one rear bench) using…wait for it…zip ties!

Honestly, the zip ties worked like a charm, and have done so for the past 5+ years. While easier than the metal hog rings because it allows a loose fit before completely crimping them down, it was still a time consuming, nightmare of a project. One that is somewhat similar to your fabric dilemma. And now my advice: give it a shot, at least remove the seats/hog rings so you can save the labor at the trim shop. You can start attaching it with zip ties, carefully looking at the contours to make sure it’s fitting correctly.

If any part of this Piston Slap is making you the least bit excited, you have your answer: DO IT.

Send your queries to [email protected] . Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry.

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39 Comments on “Piston Slap: Zip Ties and the Love Of Leather?...”

  • avatar

    If you get Speed on your TV, you might want to look for the episode of Gearz that played this week. In it, Stacy David replaced the vinyl seat coverings with leather ones in a new Ram Truck (AKA the DragonWagon).

    The episode included what looked to be some useful tips on doing the job with a minimum of fuss. The only special tool was a set of hog ring pliers.

    Speed replays these episodes all through the week, so there’s a good chance you can catch it.

  • avatar

    Have you checked junkyards? I wonder how much a set of good looking used factory leather seats would run you. Certainly would be easier to swap than reupholstering the existing seats.

    • 0 avatar

      I hadn’t thought of that, thanks!

      • 0 avatar

        This is what I did in my car and I couldn’t be happier. Hit the forums and find out exactly which years and models are direct bolt-ins and then start checking eBay, the Honda boards and the junkyards. is where I found mine and a friend found new GTO seats for his old GTO there – both were cheaper than eBay or forum part-outs and in better condition than most too. In a few years I may be looking for a nice set of leather seats for my wife’s car too.

  • avatar
    Sammy B

    Best solution: Just find a leather driver’s seat. forget the rest. this is the cheapskate (and cheapest) route!

    note: this will only work if they made CRVs w/ leather then. perhaps they didn’t!

    note 2: this may have been a tip from Mr. Lang at some point.

  • avatar

    Thanks Sajeev for the insight. I actually went ahead and bought the hog ring pliers on eBay, and I even bought a set of seat heaters. I ended up deciding against purchasing leather seats right now, because even though I am itching to do something with this car (gearhead fever I suppose you can call it), I realized this is a 10-year old vehicle, which I will likely dump on a younger family member as soon as I can buy something better.

    I did however perform another modification over this summer, installing dynamat. I was planning to remove the seats to install some on the floor, but one bolt of the four that holds down each front seat has threadlocker. I used a lot of WD-40 but it wouldn’t budge. I am hesitant to apply heat to the bolt to release it, since I don’t want my obituary to read: “Local man burned alive inside car, removing a bolt.”

    • 0 avatar

      I doubt they have threadlocker. More likely it is just rusted from below.

      Forget WD-40, it’s not made for loosening bolts. Use a real penetrating oil like PB Blaster or Kroil. Spray the bolt every day for a couple of days.

      Then get the biggest breaker bar you can find.

      • 0 avatar

        I could try those, but I am pretty sure the bolt is threadlocked. I have the shop manual which has an illustration showing that one of the rear bolts on each front seat is threadlocked, but it just says in the instructions “remove the bolts.”

    • 0 avatar

      Seems odd that just one bolt would be “threadlockered”… You sure it’s not just rusty? If it has been treated with loctite or something similar, heat is about the best way to break it loose. Way back when I didn’t have a torch handy, I have muscled them loose, but it was not fun. Get a long breaker bar for sure, and a piece of pipe.

  • avatar

    I’ve put custom leather from Katzkin in 2 cars (a Miata and a Mazda 3). Both times I did it myself with zip ties. When I do it to my new Outback, I’ll be doing it the same way again.

    Honestly, it’s not that hard, just time consuming. What I did was tackle it a seat at a time by pulling the seat and bringing it into the house and sat on my couch swapping the material while watching a movie. Figure half a movie for each front seat, with the rear being much easier. The Zip ties are secure, and allow you to really get the material where you want and then get it nice and tight.

    Definitely tackle it yourself, it’s easy, looks great, and I got a lot of satisfaction in knowing that I did it myself.

  • avatar

    About a year or two before my Accord gave up the ghost, after a thousand trips to the dog park the front seats were wrecked. I picked up some vinyl seat covers that had the Honda H logo for ~$20 at Advanced.

    Probably didn’t look as nice as what mistercopacetic is talking about doing, but seeing as how it took 15 minutes to install both, cost ~500 less, and made the interior look significantly better, I’d advise taking a stroll to see if they still have them.

  • avatar

    It’s pretty much impossible to turn a car into something it isn’t, so I’d suggest taking stock of your wants and needs first.

    You might try this approach: look around the car, inside and out, decide how happy you are with its other, non-seat qualities. While driving, do the same regarding how it handles, rides, accelerates, etc.

    That done, are you satisfied with the vehicle? If not, you’re about to drop $600+ without gaining much mental benefit. It might even be the case that your interest in leather is symptomatic of a desire for more luxury or status, in which case an older CRV isn’t going to get the job done no matter how much you fuss with it.

    My viewpoint is biased. I’m a drive-it-into-the-ground guy, despite being able to buy a new car for cash if I want to. When you write “I am too cheap to buy a new car” I want to shout out “Good for you!”… and add that I hope you’re too cheap to throw an unnecessary $600 at your old one. But, different strokes. Do what makes you happy – as long as it actually will.

    • 0 avatar

      Thanks, I am also a convert to the drive-it-into-the-ground religion of car ownership cheapskatery. I always tell people, a car is not an “investment” it is an “expenditure.” The money you spend on a car will almost certainly not increase or return a greater amount of money to you upon sale.

      I look at the leather seat install as a recreational project, something that I could take pride in pointing out to others. I decided earlier this summer when making plans for what to do with the car to set a budget: total repairs should be no more than I would spend on a down payment on a new car. My theory being that at least I don’t have monthly payments to worry about. So far I am well under budget.

      And I would say the minor repairs and modifications brought me an acceptable level of happiness, in terms of being proud to do something at least somewhat productive with my free time, and in taking pride in the results of my efforts.

      • 0 avatar

        I hear ya. I’ve done a fair bit of tinkering and accessorizing for my motorcycle, making some of the parts and fittings myself, and over time I’ve got it to where it suits me and looks good. One of life’s little pleasures…

  • avatar
    Dan R

    If you are willing to spend upwards of $600, why not get a (secondhand?) aftermarket driver’s seat?
    Almost certainly more comfortable than the regular seat, even with leather.

    • 0 avatar

      Do you mean like sport seats? Since this is a somewhat high-riding small SUV I don’t think aftermarket seats would look right. Also on the off-chance that I have to sell the car in the near future I would guess aftermarket seats would reduce the resale value i.e.: “this car was abused by a boy-racer.”

  • avatar

    but want to feel like I am driving a new car with leather seats.

    Except you will be driving a 10+ year old car.

    I would advise against this. Put some affordable seat covers in it if you must, and get a proper manufacturer-installed leather interior in your next car, whatever it is. Except for classics, cars that have reached this age don’t warrant modifications like these (and classics should probably be restored to stock, anyway.)

  • avatar

    Is anybody specializing in comfort/long commute seats?

    I looked at acquiring a small car for a long commute — it almost made sense, since I was about up for a replacement car — but the unbearable thing was the physical pain from all of the small car seats.

    Is there anybody specializing in comfortable seats? I really doubt I want to be strapped into a racing harness, and so the things I could find were either racing seats or reskins.

    Buick doesn’t have the edge anymore; does anybody?

    • 0 avatar

      This is another good point. I started using an ergonomic chair in the office recently and it is a world of difference from cheapo office chairs. I soon noticed that there is no lumbar support in my car, and I always end up slouching. After less than 30 minutes of driving I get back pain. My temporary solution has been a $20 cushion from Advance Auto, which works surprisingly well. I have been thinking about installing some kind of lumbar support inside the seat cushion, since I will have access to it when removing the old cloth. I wish manufacturers thought more about driving position considering the amount of time we spend in our cars.

      • 0 avatar

        Most probably do. The problem is that everyone is different. You just have to find something that fits you. Greater adjustability can help, but it’s often not enough if the seat just isn’t right in the first place.

  • avatar

    I too would love to hear from someone about swapping out the seats in my Dakota. I HATE (yes capital H A T E) them. They are very uncomfortable on long trips. How hard would it be to swap in Volvo seats? My wife’s C30 has incredible seats. I don’t care for leather I just want comfortable: something with lumbar support and not a flat bottom. I’ve heard PT Cruiser seats bolt right in, and I assume finding such a seat would be easy.

    • 0 avatar

      The further you get from your make & model, generally the more work is going to be involved with swapping seats.

      In the case of my Mustang, anything from a 1974 Mustang II to a 2004 Cobra is a direct bolt-in with no hassles but all those seats – except for rare and expensive Cobra, Mach1 and SVO seats – are terrible so I put 2005+ Mustang (s197) seats in my ’96. That required either fabricating adapter brackets for the S197 seats or removing the S197 seat rails and attaching the rails off my old seats, which is what I did. That also required drilling new mounting holes in the seat bottoms and adding spacers to bring the height up to the correct level. I haven’t bothered with wiring up the lumbar controls yet but splicing wires is another step involved with swapping seats that aren’t directly compatible.

      Volvo seats are outstanding and if I could’ve found C30 seats, I would’ve loved to have used them but they’re far and few between in the junkyards because there just aren’t that many of them out there and there’s no take-offs on the forums ’cause nobody swaps them out since they’re already better than anything else you can put in and not many people are drag racing or autocrossing them. If you don’t need forward folding two door seats though, Volvo sedan seats are much easier to find.

      PT Cruiser seats shouldn’t be hard to find, if indeed they bolt right in and are a genuine improvement over your Dakota seats. Putting Volvo seats, or some other make’s, is going to involve at least some drilling and some wiring at a minimum and perhaps some real fabrication to make work. Scour the Dakota forums and see if anyone else has done a seat swap before and what was involved. You could find a ratty seat at the junkyard for cheap to mock up and see how feasible it would be.

  • avatar

    There is quite a bit of variability in the quality of seat construction and manner of upholstery fastening. I would recommend having a go at disassembling a similar seat in a scrapped car, or talking to a marque expert. In order to sell an old E30, I had to replace a broken driver seat frame. A BMW mechanic buddy of mine and I tore down my seat as well as a torn up but unbroken junkyard seat and reassembled the upholstery and padding from my seat onto the good frame using nothing more than a phillips head srewdriver and a flat blade screwdriver. The result was flawless too. Other cars, including later BMWs, are not designed with a thought towards servicability and working on their seats require special skills, machinery, and often a degree of fabrication. I would advise finding where on the spectrum your personal car falls before tearing into its seats.

  • avatar

    Although I hate leather seats with a passion, I really love the CR-V so far (bought a 2003 two weeks ago) And I’d say, keep it, find a scrapped/wrecked SE model with leather seats. Preferably a car that hasn’t been crashed. Both front and rear seats should be quite easy to take out and put in,(although there could be an issue with the airbags fault light on 2nd gen cars with side airbags, just turn off the ignition before dismantling) Like anything else in the CR-V it should be easy and accessible. :)

  • avatar

    Do what I did with my 92 Sable. The leather was toast but rather than go to a upholstery shop, I bought all the seats from a leather 2005 Taurus from LKQ online for $450 delivered. Front seats were a bolt-in swap…20 minutes and done. I left the airbags in the seats disconnected. The rears took a couple of hours because the 2005 Taurus has fold-down seats for access to the trunk. BTW, the move to a trunk pass thru added about 40 lbs to the seats alone. I suggest you try the same for your Honda. Get good quality seats out of a wreck and swap ’em. LKQ is awesome for those who like to add options to their car. Great website!!! Trust me, this is way easier and better than trying to swap fabric of dubious fit and quality.

  • avatar

    One thing to remember when it comes to seats in general, and I should know, is that once they have over 100K miles of “butt” time, they go flat, botht the seat bottom and will not be as comfy as they once were.

    My truck’s driver’s seat is like that. The seat bottom is broken down and sags to the door and the seatback is flat, though I doubt it had much of a lumbar support in it to begin with.

    I have the upgraded split bench with the integrated head rests in my extended cab truck and I also have the dubious disction of a stripped out seat back adjuster so a 2×4 holds it up. :-)

  • avatar

    Thanks everyone for the advice. I am going to check out some salvage yards and if I can find a good set of replacement seats that would be a much easier, faster, and probably cheaper job than replacing the upholstery.

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