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Common Tread

How to reupholster a motorcycle seat: A few pointers

Jul 18, 2019

I’m a pretty big fan of aftermarket seats.

They are the best seats made by companies who have much more leeway to produce a quality product without the nearly comical price constraints the OEM seat people gotta deal with.

Yeah, we sell them here at RevZilla, and yeah, I’ll give you a jillion reasons to buy one. However, they’re not always readily available for every bike on the road, and even when they are, sometimes the cost is prohibitive. In that case, reupholstering your stock saddle is often just the ticket. (RevZilla’s gonna sack me. This article’s bad for business.)

Joe Zito and I have been working on a 1996 Suzuki Intruder for a little video project we've been doing. When we picked up the bike, it was clear it was worth a little time and elbow grease, but given what we paid for it (and what it’s likely to be worth to the next owner!), an aftermarket saddle was just out of the question. If you find yourself in a similar scenario, perhaps some of the following tips and tricks might help ya.

Old seat
This seat is sacked. Aside from looking atrocious, if this level of neglect is left unchecked for much longer, the foam is going to succumb to deterioration. RevZilla photo.

Remember that the seat cover exists to both make the motorcycle look nice and to protect the seat foam. Let a bad cover go for very long, and you’ll be learning to cut foam, too, which is both a different article and sort of a pain in the ass.

For this article, I’m assuming you have a standard marine-grade vinyl seat cover over normal foam built on a plastic seat pan — the recipe for most modern saddles found in motorcycle showrooms today (and for the past 30 years or so).

Understand the material

I have a few yards of black marine-grade vinyl I keep in the shop for quick surfboard-seat recovers. If your seat is relatively flat with few contours, cutting your own cover using your old cover as a template can work splendidly.

If your saddle is stitched, recognize that laborious step was not undertaken lightly, and replacing it with a flat sheet of vinyl is likely to look... uh, like shit. On our example seat here, we replaced a button-tufted cover with a stitched cover. I did not make this seat cover. Some people got that talent, and I ain’t one of ‘em. Instead, we bought new covers for about $33, which is money-well spent in my book.

Here's the covers we scored. They're sitting here cooking away in the summer sun — more on that in just a moment. Photo by Lemmy.

Another item of note for you cruiser riders: button tufting is usually used on very deep, pillowy saddles, because it allows the cover to be pulled taut without all the tension coming from the edge, which sort of negates the idea of the deep foam. Our replacement cover was a pleated-style cover, so I was a little nervous when it showed up, because keeping it looking nice was likely to be a little difficult without those buttons in the center helping me out. (I was also bummed out that we only got covers for the rider and pillion saddles. The sissy bar back rest was apparently chopped liver. Ours was still in OK shape, but still… pleats and tufts? On the same bike? The custom-bike guy in me wept.)

One staple
A quick depth check is usually a prudent idear. Photo by Lemmy.

Pull out one staple first

Before you go buck wild, yank out a single staple to determine the depth of the legs. (Technically, your cover is not stapled. Stapling involves bending the legs of the fastener. We’re actually tacking, but I’m still gonna call the fastener a staple.) If your staple’s legs are too long, you can punch back through the cover or your seat foam or you may end up with staples that stand proud of the cover. Both situations are no bueno.

One note here: Depending on the foam situation (does your new seat cover have any foam in any sections?) or pan situation (does the molded plastic vary in thickness, or is the flange meant to receive the staples uniform along the whole pan?) you may find a need for more than one staple length to fasten the cover effectively. I have a pile of different depth staples in my box o’ junk for this task, and often need ‘em.

An assortment of staples is nice to have on hand. Photo by Lemmy.

Work on that tan

You have all your equipment assembled? Great. Lay your covers out on the driveway or something in the sun. Why? So they move and stretch easily, and the vinyl is as pliable as it can be. Your saddle will see sun, and if it’s taut when it’s pliable, your cover will look extra awesome in milder temperatures, when it constricts just a bit.

The Arrow T50 is an icon of an American product. I bought these at different times in my life when I was a kid, and they simply never die. I've recovered a friggin' ton of seats with 'em, so whatever low yard sale price I paid has long since been recovered. These don't owe me anything. But seriously, an air stapler is easier. Photo by Lemmy.

Pick a tool

An air stapler, preferably with a long nose, is the ideal tool for moto saddle upholstery. Electric staplers work, too. And your garden-variety hand stapler gets the job done, as well. Because I’m a tightass extraordinaire, that’s what I normally use — at least part of the time. Even if I drag out an air stapler for a big job, I will usually have a manual stapler at hand. Why? Remember what I said about having multiple length staples? Loading two lengths back and forth into your stapler is a righteous pain in the ass. Having a separate stapler loaded up and ready to go makes life easy.

Fire a warning shot

If you’re running a pneumatic stapler, don’t just start cranking staples into your new cover. You need to get your depth set right, and that’s going to involve playing around with your pressure reg on your compressor. If you’ve got an owner’s manual for your stapler, read it and follow their instructions. If not, 80 pounds is often a good ballpark. Start at 70 and work your way up. Shooting up the pan in a test area away from where the cover will actually sit is usually practical.

As discussed earlier, there’s a sweet spot. Too deep and you’ll damage the vinyl when the crown of the staple penetrates it. Too shallow and the crown won’t secure the vinyl because it won’t be touching.

Pick an anchor point

I’m no pro at this upholstery deal, but for years, I have centered my cover on the foam (if necessary), gunned in a few staples in an easy-to-secure spot, and then I work outward from that point. The reason is that you need one spot you can really pull against and “reef” on the cover. Why? A seat cover is your seat’s skin. No one wants to see saggy, wrinkly skin.

Two stretching tips: First, use the stapler to help you stretch. Don’t rip the vinyl, obviously, but you can use the stapler’s nose to really help you draw the cover tight. You also can squish the saddle. I usually upholster on a chunk of carpet, so as to not abrade the vinyl as I am wrestling the saddle and moving it hither and yon as I cover. If you throw some weight into it, you can compress the foam, allowing you to draw the cover tighter. It’s a little like rolling a… cigarette. If you know the trick, you can get things comically tight; tighter than you’ll ever need.

Anchor point
Here's my anchor point. This is at the rear of the rider saddle. My staples here held good and solid while I drew the cover taut. Note their orienation, too — perpendicular to the direction the cover wants to pull. Photo by Lemmy.

Position the staples correctly

For maximum holding power, the staples need to be perpendicular to the direction the cover is being pulled. This maximizes the surface area of the staple’s crown that is securing the vinyl and places it perpendicular to the direction the vinyl’s being tugged.

Pillion seat
I'm probably being a tad nitpicky given the cost and effort I put into this job, but those little wrinkles you see are the reason tufts are used as opposed to the stitching you see here — when wrinkles appear neat and uniform, they don't draw your eye like they do here. Photo by Lemmy.

Don’t freak out if it’s saggy

You can tighten back up. Remove a chunk of staples and try again. As long as you’re not too tight (rarely a problem), you can simply gather up more material and gun in fresh staples. Don’t be afraid to trim excess vinyl. I normally use a razor for this step. Be careful! A sharp blade near a taut piece of vinyl can inadvertently cause mayhem.

All done
I think the finished product turned out pretty well. A budget refresh for a budget bike seems perfectly reasonable to me! Photo by Lemmy.

You play like you practice

And if it turns out like shit? Give it another go. Yeah, it might be time consuming, but even if you rock through a whole box of staples and a few yards of vinyl, you’ll still be spending lots less than you would on a whole new saddle. If you want to practice without worrying? Scoop a banged-up saddle on eBay and give it a go — you can likely turn it back around for more money than you have into the project. If you want to start simple, dirt bike saddles are about as easy as it gets.