Restoring Leather Upholstery on Classic Cars
A lot has been written about “patina” and originality.
To me, nicely
restored upholstery looks a lot better than “well patinated” cracked and
downright shoddy old leather. Trouble is, it can very easily be overdone so your
vehicle looks like a corner of a 1950s ice cream parlour. Hopefully the story of
my experiences with restoring leather trim will help you avoid some of the worst
Before I set about restoring the leather on my XJS and
Silver Shadow, I searched high and low for good solid information on how to go
about it. I saw lots of vague references to “re-connolising” but I
couldn’t find any useful specifics on how to actually do it. One product which
got mentioned regularly was the Gliptone so-called “Liquid Leather”,
and there were some articles on the web saying how wonderful it was, so I
decided to give it a shot.
First, a description of the condition of the leather seats.
The 1983 XJS driver’s seat was, very typically, worn through on the lower part
of the seat back, where you would tend to rub against it entering or exiting the
car- so much so that there was a hole in the leather at this point, and the
piping was also worn through. The seat squab was equally worn, had been damaged
by water where the soft-top leaked, and was also well scuffed and cracked. The
water damage was, I think,
responsible for making the leather hard and unyielding. The passenger’s seat
was reasonably OK, not cracked, just a bit scuffed and the original colour
finish had worn off in places. The rear seats were in good condition (probably
because the back of the XJS is so cramped that they were rarely occupied!). The
Jaguar colour is a light tan, or biscuit, colour.
The 1970 Rolls Royce Silver Shadow seats were, to a first
glance, not bad. There was the usual age creasing, not yet cracked, and only in
places was the leather hard to the touch. When I bought the car I thought the
leather finish was original, but it subsequently became clear that it had been
re-coloured at some stage in its life. The colour of the Rolls seats is doeskin-
a sort of beige.
The key to successful restoration seems to be that you must get the leather to a soft supple condition to work with. If your leather is already hard and cracked, you are not likely to succeed, if my experience is anything to go by. I tried to “recolour” cracked leather, and failed miserably.
My first effort was on the XJS driver’s seat followed the manufacturer’s instructions, which are to clean the leather with the supposedly “special” cleaner and then condition it with the equally “special” conditioner. After a lot of rubbing it didn’t seem to be a lot different to before I started. So I decided to get tough with the leather, threw away the “special” cleaner, and used cellulose thinners to clean off as much of the original colouring as possible. Now, the Gliptone people told me that if the original finish could be removed by thinners, then it wasn’t original- if you see what I mean. I don’t believe this, because later experience showed me, to my own satisfaction at least, that cellulose thinners will remove any colouring- at least on the Rolls and Jaguar. Anyway, after a lot of very hard work the leather looked reasonably uniform. I then went at it again with the leather conditioner, which is I think a glycerine-based product, and sure enough after several applications, all rubbed in thoroughly, the leather became noticeably more supple.
After applying the conditioner, and letting it soak in for
several days, I again cleaned the seats with the “special” cleaner, and was
ready for final colouring. By the way, when you use the thinners to remove the
old colour, it makes a very gungy mess which must be very thoroughly removed.
Use tooth brushes and nail brushes for this, particularly on the stitching and
the pleats in the leather. I was a bit concerned at the effect of the thinners
on the stitching. I consoled myself that applying the conditioner immediately to
the cleaned areas would compensate. I suppose only time will tell whether any
lasting damage was done.
On to the recolouring. The “Scuff Master” colour is a
water-based material, which must be diluted with water before application. I
made the mistake of believing the manufacturer’s instructions which said that
it can be applied by brush or sponge, or of course by spray. I didn’t have
spray equipment at the time, so I used a brush. Big mistake. I found it
impossible to get an even finish by brush, and ended up putting on far too much
material. I was also trying to colour in the cracks in the leather as described
in the manufacturer’s instructions, which also led to over-application of
product. The result was a glossy, plastic appearance on the seats, especially in
the very worn areas where I felt I had to apply a lot of colour to cover the
underlying defects and scuffs in the leather. When the job was finished it
looked reasonably OK-from a distance. It was certainly a lot better than before-
but it did not look natural or original. Another problem which arose, and which
I still don’t have an answer for, was that the finish on the “Scuff
Master” dye gets dirty very easily indeed.
Later experience showed that applying colour by spray gun
produces a far superior finish.
Things rested so for a couple of years, but I never warmed
to my “plastic leather” seats. So I bought a complete set of trim for a
later model (1989) XJS on e-bay which was in better, but far from perfect,
condition. The intention was to use the front seats only. The “new” seats
were a doeskin colour, darker than the original biscuit. A key factor was that
the leather, though worn and creased, was not hard or cracked. So again I got
out the cellulose thinners and started scrubbing- but not before removing the
leather covering to the drivers seat back, which as usual was worn through on
the offside, with the piping exposed. I sent this off to Aldridge Trimming in
the UK where they replaced the worn section and piping for £35. After many
hours- many days- work the seats cleaned down to a natural leather finish, most
if not all of the original colouring having been removed. Again out with the
conditioner, applying several coats and rubbing it well in over several days.
I’m sure I spent 20 hours or more on each seat. Then a final clean with
methylated spirits to remove any trace of grease before colouring, which I
applied this time by spray gun. A huge improvement in finish was achieved by
spraying- and I had learned the lesson about applying too many coats, so the
leather turned out reasonably supple.
The Rolls restoration followed the XJS, so some but not all
of the lessons were applied. Again a very thorough cleaning with cellulose
thinners to remove as much as possible of the old colouring. It is absolutely
essential to be meticulous about cleaning the seams and folds where the various
leather panels join together. You need plenty of clean cloths, because they get
clogged with stringy gooey softened lacquer, and you need to keep renewing them.
I even used wet-and-dry sandpaper- 400 followed by 800 grade- to smooth down
some very rough hard patches, and then applied lots of conditioner as before.
The leather definitely softened and became much more supple- not probably as
soft as the original, but nevertheless much softer than it had been when I
acquired the car. After cleaning and conditioning, the leather was a natural
yellowy cowskin colour. Of course it is not possible- or so I found anyway- to
completely remove the original colour dye, but so long as you have a good clean
finish to key the new colour, you should be OK.
Spraying followed, this time light coats and few of them,
at the recommended dilution. Two to three coats were sufficient. It’s a
strange phenomenon, when you apply the first coat you think you are getting very
poor coverage. But as the finish dries it seems to become more opaque, so
don’t judge the final effect when the colour is still wet, and don’t be
tempted to apply more than absolutely necessary.
I was very pleased with the final result. It’s not as
good as the original, but it is clean, even coloured, supple, smells great, and
looks nicely aged but not worn.
To sum up- it’s all about being meticulous about cleaning down the original seats. Dismantle the trim as far as possible. Don’t even think about doing it in the car- take everything out. If your leather is very cracked, you are unlikely to get a good finish: try getting a spare if at all possible- usually for example you can use a passenger seat cover for the drivers seat, which is likely to be the most worn. Get the leather clean and supple before colouring. Make sure the stitching is clearly visible and well cleaned, restitch if torn. Clean the surface meticulously to remove any grease or oil before spraying the finish. Don’t try to brush the finish- it’s too difficult to get an even coverage without applying excessive thickness.