General Category

How to upholster a steering wheel

1. Remove and label the old cover

How to upholster a steering wheel
Photo by Mike on

Start by removing the original cover, if there is one. Be careful not to cut the leather or stretch and pull the cover as you’re taking it off.

This wheel is made up of four sections. Be sure to label where each section goes, as it’s not always evident after you separate them.

2. Create your section patterns

Get some chipboard or thick paperboard. Something that is stiff but cuts easily. Then glue the leather sections down onto the chipboard, being careful not to stretch it, but rather letting it go down naturally.

I draw a line for reference on the chipboard, so I am laying it down straight.

There will be bubbles in the center of the piece. This is from the leather stretching around the wheel. Don’t try to work these out or make the piece lay perfectly flat, that will just distort the pattern. The edges where the stitches are usually don’t have any stretch, so those should lay flat.

After your piece is down, outline it with a pen and remove the piece.

3. accuracy and cut

Section panels rarely have crooked or uneven edges. Keep this in mind when cutting.

If the section is symmetrical, place it on another piece of chipboard and trace it again. Then, flip it from left to right and trace it again. This will cause you to have two overlapping images, exposing the areas that are not symmetrical

Split the difference between the lines to even everything out and cut out your final section pattern. This will leave you with a pattern that is symmetrical and even. Repeat this step for all symmetrical sections.

The left and right sections are usually not symmetrical, so a good eye and lots of practice are what make that portion of the pattern come out well. You only need one pattern for the sides as well since they are mirror images.

4. Prep for covering

This wheel was requested to be made slightly thicker, so I glued the original leather back on before covering it. The rest of the techniques are the same whether you’re covering over the stock leather or the stock rubber core.

If you’re covering over the stock leather, be sure to trim the material on the inside of the spokes so clearance is retained for controls and horn/airbag movement.

If your wheel has concave areas, be sure to sand them down a bit, so the glue will grip better. I like to use a 40 grit paper to really get some bite.

5. Cut the material

Cut pieces out of your material just a bit larger than your pattern.

The stretch of the material should go lengthwise around the wheel. You may have to feel around the leather hide a bit to find the direction of maximum stretch. If the stretch goes in the wrong direction, your wheel will have wrinkles.

6. Ensure the size and fit of your pattern

Start by cutting a small strip from whatever material you wish to start on first. This is the straight top section.

Next, take the strip and cut it so that it goes around the perimeter of the wheel perfectly.

Now, turn your material over and trace the sides and bottom of the pattern.

Then, take the strip you cut and measure out how wide the cut needs to be to wrap evenly around the wheel. Because this wheel is thickened, it measures about 1/2″ wider than the pattern is normally.

Finally, line up the top of your pattern to the reference marks and complete the outline trace.

Here’s a comparison with the entire outline versus the pattern piece.

You should always do this step even when the wheel is not thickened, as it ensures the section panel you’re making will wrap evenly around the wheel with no gaps or excess.

7. Cut section panels from the material

Use a straight edge and a razor when you can to ensure an accurate cut. Be sure to cut inside the line.

8. Check that the panels are accurate

Test-fit the cut panel by wrapping it around the wheel in its intended spot to make sure it covers the wheel properly.

9. Repeat this process for all sections

Repeat this process for the rest of the sections. By test fitting each after you cut them, you can cut away excess if needed before it’s too late.

Up to this step, every section can be fixed or redone by itself if necessary.

10. Sew the panels together

Begin by sewing the edges of the section panels together. I use the foot width as a guide.

If the wheel did not have recesses, the leather is usually skived.

To stitch the wheel together, use a weight thread. You need something with strength, but not too thick. It is all sewn on a relatively short stitch length as well. I back tack three stitches at the beginning and at the end of each seam, with the first and last thread overlapping the ends.

11. Angle the corners and test fit

After the sections are stitched together, angle the corners a tad so the top stitch stays even over the seam.

All of the sections together should be smaller than the actual diameter of the wheel. The key to a nice fitting wheel is a tight pattern. You can see here how much smaller the actual cover is than the wheel itself.

12. Make the perimeter stitch

Time to make the perimeter stitch. For this, use a weight top thread with a bobbin thread. The bobbin has a harder time with the thicker threads, so keep that smaller. Anything less won’t have enough strength to withstand any sort of tension once you start hand sewing it.

The beginning and ends are back tacked with no more than two stitches. Some wheels require an exact starting and endpoint, as they are visible.

Work your way around both sides of the wheel until you have put a stitch along each edge.

13. Install the cover

Fit the cover to the wheel for the final time. It should be a tight fit as mentioned before so that the edges of the pattern naturally want to stay inwards. This is always a balancing act between too tight and too loose. You’ll get the hang of it with practice.

Line up your seams with your recesses and make sure the wheel is on straight and the edges fall in where they are supposed to. If squeezed together, all the edges should butt up against each other.

14. Glue the cover down

Take glue and spray the inside of the spokes. The spokes are always glued or stuck on to keep them from shifting, and because they’re not always held down with just tension.

Then, press the edges in making sure everything butts up properly and evenly.

15. Time to hand stitch

Now comes the fun part. You’ll need a straight, blunt tip needle. It has to be large enough to grip comfortably, but small enough that it can pass through the thread you just stitched on. Make sure it’s not a sharp pointed needle.

Take a length of thread roughly 2.5 times the length of the section you wish to sew. Tie a loop on one end and pass the other end through the needle.

Next, start stitching the bottom sections of the wheel. Begin by threading the needle through the first two stitches on the edge of the wheel and inserting it through the lasso end to create a firm knot. Then, slowly advance up the wheel, going from one side to the other.

The top section of the wheel is a bit different as you don’t start from one side or the other, but rather the center of the wheel.

This is because it makes the longer length easier to sew and it keeps the thread from fraying as much as the more you sew, the more your thread will end up fraying in the process. A good bonded thread works best.

At the end of each section, tie your thread off on the last few stitches so that it’s not visible once the trim pieces are back on the wheel. You’ll see different techniques for this on various OEM wheels. Burn loose thread with a lighter to keep it clean.

That’s it!

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