Sorry for the delay you guys, things have been hectic this past week with finals and the holidays, but I'm finally ready to get this how-to guide up and going. After 25 years, many of our steering wheels have begun to show signs of the dreaded brown ooze. While many choose to use an aftermarket wheel or try to hunt down an original wheel in acceptable shape, I opted to try something a little more ambitious...
In this guide I will be going over how to recover an 86-88 GT style steering wheel using both euro-style stitching and the original baseball stitch. I tried to take as many relevant pictures as I could while recovering my first wheel, but I realize that there will be a few parts that may not be crystal clear. I will update this guide with new pictures as I work on recovering additional wheels (I have a few more lying around). If you have any questions or find something unclear, feel free to leave a post or shoot me a private message.
------------------ "The Twins" '87 GT 3.4 pushrod daily driver '88 GT 3.4 DOHC swap in progress
Before I get too far ahead of myself, there are a few sites that I would like to direct you to. If there is anything college has taught me, it's to always cite your sources. I did quite a bit of research online before I decided to move forward with recovering my wheel, but these three proved to be the most useful. I encourage any of you that wish to recover your wheel on your own to read/watch all of these, as the information contained in each is invaluable.
First of all, you'll need to remove your steering wheel from the car. This is fairly straightforward, and I'm sure it has been covered on this forum a dozen times over. Once the wheel is free, you're ready for the first big step; removing the old leather from the wheel.
Find yourself a nice, sharp razor blade or x-acto knife and begin by cutting the stitching on the back of the wheel spokes.
Once the stitching on the spokes has been cut, begin cutting the stitching that runs around the inner circumference of the wheel. When all the stitching had been cut, I removed the old leather from the wheel and set it aside. With the old leather removed, the real fun begins. Time to get all the brown goop off the wheel.
Using a razor blade with a scraper handle, or even just a paint scraper or putty knife, scrape as much goop off the wheel as you can. Depending on how bad your wheel was oozing, the consistency of the goo on the wheel will range between a gummy putty or a solid, cork-like consistency. Be careful not to accidentally carve a chunk out of the core of the wheel, but don't fret if you nick it here or there, as it will all be covered eventually.
With the wheel completely cleaned, its time to cover the wheel in new padding. For this, I used a thin layer of felt that I purchased from the local Walmart. The felt was thick enough to provide adequate padding that wont break down over time, but not so thick that it increases the thickness of the wheel. I would recommend using felt similar in color to whatever color leather you plan on using to cover the wheel. In case you make a mistake and there is a gap in your leather seam, it will be less noticeable this way (although this shouldn't be an issue if you're patient and cut your leather carefully). To secure the felt to the wheel, use upholstery contact adhesive similar to what you would use when installing a headliner. I used a can of Action Upholstery spray adhesive that came with my Mr Mike seat covers, but the 3M adhesive available at your local Autozone will work just fine.
Its getting late, so I think I'm going to call it quits for the night. I'll be back at it tomorrow after work. Hopefully I can get this guide finished tomorrow, but at least I managed to put a dent in it tonight.
Sorry for the delay guys. I've been working full time during my Christmas break, while still trying to visit with my family while I'm home. I'm almost done with a baseball stitch wheel, and I've been taking pictures through the process so that I can detail both types of wheel. I've got Sunday off, so I'm aming to finish up then.
------------------ "The Twins" '87 GT 3.4 pushrod daily driver '88 GT 3.4 DOHC swap in progress
Time to get this show back on the road! Using the leather as a rough guide, cut out two pieces of felt. Depending on the initial shape of your wheel, the old leather can be nice and pliable, or may be cracked and stiff. In order to more easily use my leather to make a template, I laid it out on a large sheet of paper and ironed it flat. The heat from the iron will likely soften up the brown goo on the back of the leather, causing the leather to glue itself to the paper (make sure to cover the leather with a shop towel or rag while ironing, as you do not want any of that brown goo to get on the iron).
Stretching the felt around the outer circumference of the wheel will prevent the material from bunching up along the inner circumference. I'd recommend cutting these strips of felt a little long, as you can always trim away the excess once it has all been glued in place. I trim away any overlapping felt at the seam where the two edges meet to prevent lumps under the leather once the wheel is finished.
Once the felt is glued around the outer circumference of the wheel, you can glue down the flaps that will cover the three spokes of the wheel. Be careful not to accidentally spray any glue on the center hub or the part of the spokes that will be showing once the wheel is completed!
When both pieces of felt are in place, and the wheel is completely covered, take a second to trim any excess away from the two grooves above the thumb notches on the left and right spokes. It is important that these grooves remain open to accommodate the seams in the leather that will wrap the wheel.
Many other types of steering wheels require "skiving", a process in which the leather at the seams is carefully shaved thin prior to stitching so that there isn't a lump in the finished wheel. These grooves are quite handy, as it allows you to forego this difficult process. When you stretch the leather over the wheel, the seams will sit nicely in these grooves, giving you a nice smooth transition between the upper and lower sections of the wheel (it also provides a handy reference point for lining the leather up properly).
Now that you have the wheel wrapped in felt, its time to begin work on wrapping it in leather. When I wrapped my wheel, I went through a lot of trial and error using some scrap vinyl in order to get the template for the leather just right. Rather than put the rest of you through this process, here is an image of the template that I use to complete my steering wheels.
By looking at this picture, you can see the dimensions that I used for the lower portion of the wheel. The vertical black lines break the template in to sections (ie. each individual spoke and the space between each spoke where the stitching will be located). The vertical red lines represent the locations at which the upper and lower leather sections will be stitched together (once they are stitched together, most of the excess will be cut away). The blue lines along the bottom of the template represent the holes/stitching that will be used to hold the wheel together. As you can see, I like to leave 0.5cm of space between the end of the stitching and the end of where the leather will be cut. This allows me to have a slight room for error when aligning the leather on the wheel.
As with the bottom template, the red lines on the top template represent the location of the seam between the two pieces. Unlike the bottom section however, the stitching/holes will run along the entire length of this top strip, hence the lack of blue lines.
[This message has been edited by Irrationable (edited 01-04-2015).]
For my wheels, I chose a black leather that would match the black/grey theme of my interior. When choosing your leather, make sure to select an automotive upholstery leather that has been treated to be UV resistant. After all, it would suck to go through all this work just to find that your wheel has faded within a few months. Additionally, try to select a leather that is at least 1mm thick as it will undergo a lot of pulling and stretching during the stitching process (trust me, you don't want it to tear on you)
For my first wheel, I purchased my leather from Mr Mike and was quite happy with the results. Mike carries a variety of leather colors, and if you have a set of his custom seats you can recover your steering wheel to match them. You can also check to see if your local upholstery shop has anything that fits your needs.
One last bit of advice before I proceed: finding yourself a good leather marking pen makes the rest of this process much easier.
This is the Tandy Leather marking pen that I used on each of my wheels. I purchased it on ebay for less than five bucks and couldn't be happier with it. The pen leaves nice silver markings that are especially easy to see if you are working with a dark colored leather. The best part is, the markings wipe away without a trace with just a rub of your thumb or a damp paper towel.
To start things off, I'm going to go through how to complete a wheel using a baseball style stitch. First off, you'll need to lay out your leather and trace your template onto it using your leather marking pen.
When cutting out the leather, I prefer to cut along the OUTSIDE of the line that I have drawn, resulting in a slightly larger leather cutout than what was pulled off the wheel. You must remember that the leather that was originally on the wheel has shrunk slightly over the last two decades, and cutting the new leather just a small bit larger will ensure that you don't end up with an unsightly gap when you stitch your leather in place. Additionally, make sure that you leave some excess material around the edges of each of the flaps that will cover the three wheel spokes (see the picture below). I recommend leaving around half an inch of excess, but you should leave as much as you can to make it easier to stretch and manipulate the flap around the spoke later on.
[This message has been edited by Irrationable (edited 03-06-2015).]
Here you can see the excess material left around the edge of the flaps. This is the absolute minimum that I would recommend leaving (I would have left more, but I was trying to maximize the number of cutouts I could get out of my cowhide).
To ensure that your stitching has absolutely perfect spacing (especially for those of you who are not experienced seamstresses) pre-marking the holes for your stitches makes a huge difference. Using your leather marking pen, mark the location of the stitches like so. I find that spacing each stitch 0.5cm apart looks best, and marking your holes 0.5 cm from the edge ensures that none of your stitches will pull through the leather, while still making sure that your stitch isn't too wide.
For the lower portion of the wheel, these holes can be marked and punched prior to stitching the upper and lower sections of the wheel together (its actually much easier this way, as you are less apt to get tangled up in your "leather loop"). Mark along the top edge of the strip first, between the flaps that will cover the spokes. Marking along this 21cm span will leave you with 43 little silver dots between each flap. Once you have the upper edge marked, mark the lower edge. Make sure that there are EXACTLY the same number of dots/holes on each edge and that the dots are directly across from each other as shown here:
[This message has been edited by Irrationable (edited 03-06-2015).]
Before marking the holes on the strip that will make up the upper portion of the wheel, you are going to want to sew the upper and lower sections together. Marking and punching the upper holes after the two pieces are sewn together allows you to adjust your spacing so that the seam is directly between two holes, as well as allowing you to make sure that each edge has the same number of holes. If you were to punch the holes first then stitch the pieces together, your pieces would have to be perfectly aligned as they pass through the sewing machine to ensure that your holes would align afterwards.
This is a picture of my leather after the two pieces had been sew together and the excess material beyond the seam was trimmed away. Take the time to measure the space between the seams is exactly the same on both edges of the top strip. Once the pieces are sew together at each seam, trim the excess leather from beyond the seam as close as you possibly can. The less material beyond the seam, the more easily the seam will sit in the groove on the steering wheel.
With the two pieces now stitched together, take care to mark the holes for your stitches. Make sure that each seam is directly between two holes, and that each edge has the same number of holes as the one opposite it. To aid me, I put a dash next to every tenth hole as I worked my way from left to right, then made sure that the dashes along each edge lined up before punching my holes.
On the short side of the seam (the side that leads up to the spokes), I have found through trial and error that 7 holes is the perfect number. Any more than 7 and you'll end up with holes on the face of your wheel, while any less will result in a seam that doesn't extend close enough to the spoke. I will explain why this is important in greater detail later in the thread.
If you haven't already done so, now is the time to punch all the holes that you have marked using a small/medium sized needle. As tedious as it may be, double and triple check that you have the exact same number of holes along each side. Punching the holes now is important, as the leather marking pen has a tendency to rub away as you handle the leather (getting silver on your hands and clothes sucks, but losing your carefully measured marks sucks even more).
With the holes marked, you can now move on to the tricky part: stretching your leather loop over the wheel. For this, you may need a second set of hands. I find the best way is to loop the leather over the bottom of the wheel, then grab the upper portion of the loop and stretch it up and over the top of the wheel. Once you get the leather in place, it should look something like this:
Before you start sewing your leather into place, take some time to make sure everything is situated in place properly. Take care of these in particular:
-- Make sure that the leather is stretched evenly all the way around the wheel. If on area (ie. the top section) is stretched tighter than others, you will likely end up with a gap when you try to sew the edges together. Stretching the leather evenly ensures that you will end up with a nice even stitch all the way around your wheel.
-- Make sure that both of the seams above the left and right spokes are lined up with their corresponding grooves in the wheel. You want these seams to lay nice and flat for a factory-quality look.
-- Make sure that the leather is centered on the wheel. ie. when you bring the two edges together, they should be centered along the inner circumference of the wheel. This will give you a seam that's centered and doesn't stray toward the front or the back of the wheel.
As you can see in the picture above, I built a stand to hold the wheel while I did my stitching. I knew I was going to be doing multiple wheels (I've done six in the past two months), so this was a pretty good investment. However, this is by no means a necessity and I assure you that a wheel can be sewn perfectly fine without a setup like this.
Now on to the stitching! The method that you use is up to you. If you wish to perfectly replicate the OEM stitching, this video does a great job illustrating the technique that you should use (you can also adjust your hole spacing to match his if you wish).
For my wheels, I prefer to use what I call my "modified" baseball stitch (I'm sure there's a proper name for it, but I couldn't find one for the life of me). I chose to utilize this stitch because it only requires one needle and thread end as opposed to the genuine baseball stitch method, which requires two. This stitch reduces the likelihood of getting your threads tangled up, and is generally much easier for a beginner. Well, I thought so at least
These pictures illustrate the stitch patterns that I use. The first picture simply illustrates the string that will be visible once the stitch is completed. The second picture includes arrows to show the stitch direction, as well as dotted lines that represent the stitching that will be under the leather and therefore out of sight.
If you do opt to use this "modified" stitch, let me save you a bit of hassle. For the two shorter sections of stitching, you're going to need roughly 4ft of thread. For the upper section spanning from the thumb notches of the left and right spoke, you'll need at least 7ft of thread to complete the stitch. Depending on the weight of your thread, it may be a good idea to double up for strength.