Making new boat cushions

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February 2009 --

Well, here's a picture of the portside double quarter berth,
taken back in 2001.

This plaid fabric has actually grown on me. (smile.)

Because of my sudden surge of frugality,
I had decided to live with the old cushions, and maybe just have them done later.

However, after making this bench conversion in the main cabin, and sleeping on the boat four days a week for a few months, it was clear that the cushions
simply can't wait.

The main cabin foam is worn out, and one basically sinks straight down to the wood.
I was starting to get numb arms and back pain from sleeping on a plywood board.

I've been sleeping
on a futon for the last twenty years,
but this was
a bit too much.

So, new cushions.

In 2008 I bought a yard of this fabric
It just didn't look right, though, once it was on the boat.

I had always wanted something "blue-ish."
At one time, the pattern to the left seemed good, but when I went back to get more, it was out of production.

Wow. The old foam was really shot.
It was actually starting to crumble
along the edges, and crumbs
would stick to my hands.

I took the old foam blocks to
"Bob's Foam Factory" in Fremont, CA,
which was conveniently on the way to the boat.

The old cushions were sewn together, so they were carefully disassembled. I'm saving the old covers for reference,
so that the new cushions will fit.

At the same time, I purchased a yard of this brownish fabric, made by Glen Raven.

My first reaction was negative,
as it just seemed too brown.

But after living with it on the boat
for a month, it suddenly started
looking good.

There's a good texture, and enough variation in the pattern that stains won't show up. It's also heavier weight.

So, enough shopping around. Time to do it.

Fabric selection is important, of course. Many folks swear by Ultrasuede, but after thinking about it,
I decided to go with a patterned fabric. I'm going to need a fabric that hides stains and dirt, especially for living on the boat and cruising. I prefer a "busy" pattern, with visual and physical texture.

Over the years, I've purchased a yard of different fabrics, and draped them over the main cabin benches to see how they looked inside the boat. I have probably spent $200 just evaluating fabric.

Bob's Foam Factory has been around for 30 years, and it turns out that they supply and cut the foam for a few big boat cushion shops.
I saved a lot of money
by going to them directly.

They knew exactly what I was talking about when I mentioned the challenges we'd have cutting new foam to fit all the weird angles
in a boat.

Also, they were really nice, friendly folks.

They also glued a one inch thick batten of dacron matting over the top and exposed sides of the new foam blocks.

This will allow the new cushions to look soft, and avoids sharp corners.

Bob's Foam Factory stocks a number of different types and grades of foam. They put huge blocks of foam, set them on the floor, and let me sit on them, take a nap,
and bounce up and down.

I ended up getting the top grade of
"Medium Density" foam, which is very firm.

I also went with five inch thick foam, instead of the old four inch. Originally, I'd been planning on six inches, but the top grade of five inch foam seemed more comfortable than a six inch slice of the next lower grade.
I was a bit concerned that it might be too firm, since the foam will actually seem firmer once it's slightly compressed
inside the new covers.

Using the old foam as patterns, the folks at Bob's Foam Factory cut the new foam to match. This was great, and
saved me hours of work.

I would definitely recommend
searching for a local foam shop that understands boat cushions.

I'm using a vinyl fabric for the bottoms and backsides of the cushions. The vinyl has a textured back, which made it easy to verify that the lines were straight.

This is the backside, obviously, but you can see a bit of the brown front side here.

This inexpensive hot knife, from SailRite, is also an essential tool. I've had it for nearly ten years now.

By melting through the fabric, instead of cutting it with scissors, the edges are sealed and don't unravel.

It helps to have a huge glass coffee table.

Note that all the marks and cuts are made from the back side of the fabric.

Tools -

A yardstick, carpenter's square, and tape measure were essential tools for this job.


Of course, you need a machine.

This machine, from SailRite, is really great.
I've had it for 12 years, and have beat it up mercilessly. It has plowed through multiple layers of Sunbrella and Leather without complaint.

Before starting this project, I replaced some small parts that had been worn down over the last 12 years. I put in a new case and a new shuttle hook for the bobbin mechanism underneath the foot. These two parts had been bashed up pretty well over the years, as needles broke or were deflected out of true when plowing through
too many layers of leather.
Total cost for that was $25, which is all I've spent on maintenance and repairs for this machine
over 12 years and two boats.

One of my handiest "tools" for canvas projects, for years, has been a cheap piece of aluminum channel stock from Home Depot. It's 1/2" on the short side, and 3/4" on the wide side.

This saves an enormous amount of time, as you can quickly add an extra 1/2" on the sides of a pattern for the hems.

A red Sharpie marker made it easy to mark out the dimensions on the back side of the fabric. It provided good contrast, to speed things up when cutting.

An ordinary stapler was also essential.

When making a seam between sections of fabric, or fabric and the vinyl bottom panel, the staples held the sections in place so that they didn't "creep" while sewing.

It's a real drag to have two pieces of material that are the same length, and have an inch or two of
mismatch at the end of a long seam.

I'd staple the ends together, hold the sections of fabric taut and add staples along the seam, starting from the ends and working back in to the center.

Materials used for this project:

17 Yards of 54" wide fabric (note: I wasted about 3 yards on mistakes.)
10 Yards of vinyl backing material
60 feet of unfinished zipper stock
20 zipper sliders

A bunch of V-136 weight thread (the heaviest thread made, normally used for sails)
One #22 needle (the biggest made for this machine)

Time spent on this project:

I averaged about five hours per cushion. With 18 cushions on the boat, this job took a long time.
Most of that time was spent measuring, thinking, measuring, thinking, measuring, thinking.

I did the quarter berth first,
since both the quarter berth and V berth are usually covered up with stuff,
and if I screwed up it would be a lot less noticeable than the main cabin benches.

This is the bottom section of my port side double quarter berth.

I took this opportunity to make a modification that I've always wished for. A small 12" by 36" section is cut out and will be a separate cushion.
I have an access door to the engine compartment at that location, and I've always wished I could just remove a small section of this cushion, so that I could open the hatch and work on the engine easily.

Having never made boat cushions before,
I spent a lot of time measuring and thinking.

For those odd corners that went up against the hull, I found it easiest to set the foam down against the vinyl backing and then wrap it up against the foam.

The size of this "wedge" cut will need to be added onto the other end,
so that it wraps cleanly.

This measurement was compared
with the original covers.

After a few cushions, I began to rely mainly on the old covers, since there's no guarantee that the foam is cut at the perfect angle.
After all, it doesn't have to be.
It will compress to fit the cover.

I spent a great deal of time measuring the old covers, to verify that all the edges and angles would line up.


I kept forgetting measurements.

Eventually, I started up a worksheet to keep my head on straight.

With the first cushion, I made a drawing of the top panel.
After that one, it was easier to visualize.

The finished result
was very gratifying.

This was the first one.
After this, I made the stitches smaller, triple sewed the corners, and also
made the stitching a bit
cleaner on the zippers.

But, heck, I don't worry too much about how the bottom looks,
as long as it's strong.

I learned something important on this first cushion. Normally, to start or end a line of stitching, I'd go back and forth three or five times to sew over the thread. You can't do that with vinyl, as you'll just poke a big hole in the material.

The entire project consumed 60 feet of #5 zipper. This all came from SailRite.

I added the zipper to the longest vinyl section on each cushion, and measured it the entire length of that panel.

Usually, that meant the edge that was against the hull, unless the cushion only had vinyl on the back.

Using bulk zipper, one just cuts the section to length, and then carefully fits a slider on.

Then, both ends are wrapped with thread so that it won't come apart while being sewn
onto the material.

Still, getting my first "weird" corner right was a real hair ripping experience. I kept finding new measurements that I hadn't thought of, and redrawing it.

After this first one, though, it was a lot easier to get the rest of them right.

Still, they all took a lot of measuring and thinking.

Then the zipper was unzipped and the vinyl cut.

Putting the zipper through a vinyl panel meant that I didn't have to do anything fancy to
trim the edges.

Besides, no one ever
sees the zipper.

I own a special "zipper foot" for my machine, but have never used it.

The zippers were double stitched onto the vinyl, using V-136 thread and a #22 needle.

The end with the slider was tricky, and required moving the slider and doing a separate set of stitches
for one end.

Every seam is double stitched, with the second set of stitching done in a single unbroken strand of thread, from the fabric side of the cushion, using medium sized stitches.

The second set of stitches is smaller, so that I know for sure that they'll have different holes and stress points through the vinyl.

The Vinyl is cheaper than fabric, but is also not as strong. Too many holes,
too close together, and it can rip.

Sewing the seams was easy,
once they were stapled together every six inches or so.

I used large, long stitches for the first set of stitches, doing each seam separately to keep the corners square and neat.

The foam was cut slightly oversize, which is good. I measured about a 3 per cent compression of foam, to keep the cushions really tight.

The fabric will stretch over time, so it's good for the foam to keep it under tension.

We had a bit of miscommunication on a few of the cushions, regarding which side would be exposed. No big deal. I can't expect the foam guys to know how my boat is laid out.
Perhaps I should have drawn a picture.

In any case, I still had some Dacron batting and spray foam left over from my
Nav Station cushion, four years ago.
So, I could add padding where needed.

If making your own cushions, I would definitely recommend having a few extra yards of the batting and some spray glue.
I used it in a few places.

So, here's the quarter berth.

I discovered something about fabric "grain," after
looking at this picture.

Although the fabric has the same pattern from top or bottom, it clearly has a "grain" that reflects light differently.
That's probably from the weaving process

So, I'll need to remember to make inside/outsides edges of cushions from the same
edge of the fabric roll.

You really don't notice it, except from a flash photo.

I'm really glad I went to the trouble of making that little removable section.

It will be a *lot* easier to access and work on the engine, now, without having to take everything out of the quarter berth
and remove the
entire cushion.

Here's the starboard bench.

Note that I didn't bother with piping. I never really saw much use for it, and it wouldn't make them look any better.
It was a lot easier to just wrap the fabric over the foam and call it a day.

I've been told that I'll have to use buttons, though, to keep the fabric from moving around.

We'll see.

I don't like buttons, but will make up a bunch and
add them later if I
really need them.


So, to recap. the total cost was less than $2,500 for materials.
$1600 for foam, $600 for fabric, $150 for vinyl, $40 for zippers, $35 for buttons.

Total time was about 100 hours.

Port double quarter berth.

Hooray, it fits.

Here's the port bench, forward.

There's one thing I wish I'd done differently.

I have a lot of things stashed behind the bench backs,
and I could have made the bottoms an inch or so narrower, so that stuff can fit back there easier.

Too late to think of that now.

Here's the rest of the port bench.

I hope I don't need buttons, but after sitting on this spot for a week or so I can see the fabric starting to move a bit.

As long as I was into it,
I recovered the nav station cushion. This was my first cushion experiment,
a few years ago.
It was fine, but I added another inch of "regular" foam so the fabric would be tighter.

The first time, I hadn't over stuffed it, and the fabric was getting looser.

It has plastic D rings on the back, to hook it onto the bench.

The vinyl bottom is slippery, and it needs help to stay in place.

Cool. This works perfectly.

I've crashed on it a few times, and the whole setup
stays in place and feels
like a single cushion.

I had anticipated this,
and had installed four nylon straps on the cushion back.


The port bench converts into a very comfortable twin sized berth.

However, because I used thicker foam for the new cushions, the bench backs are an inch narrower.

Also, the vinyl back is slippery, and the cushion needs help to stay in place.

Here's the V Berth.

I did these last,
and didn't get fussy for two reasons:
1) These cushions have been covered with stuff for the last eight years, and no one ever sees them.
2) I was really getting tired of making boat cushions.

So, the fabric is actually cut so the lines are straight, but it just wasn't important to me to spend the extra time being fussy stuffing the foam.

I made the long cushions in two sections.

They're a lot more manageable in two sections, and make it a lot easier to access the storage under the berth.

Another snap fastener is attached to the berth platform.

It's positioned to hold the cushion about a half inch over the edge, which should mash it up tight against the
other cushion.

By leaving a few inches of nylon "flap," it's easy to attach and detach the snap fastener.

I'm making up a bunch of buttons, and will save them in case I want to install them later.

I think that'll need a long eight inch needle or something similar.

The 1-1/8" buttons came from Sailrite.

The button face has little sharp hooks, to hold the fabric
in place.

I think they require a special installation tool.

The hole saw made a mess of the button back, but who cares?

The hard part was getting everything lined up right. If it was off a bit, the button back wouldn't go straight down,
and would be ruined.

I suppose I could have made something
out of a piece of pipe, but this worked.

There's no way I'm going to buy a special, single purpose tool just to make a bunch of buttons that I might never use.

The backs need to be evenly pressed into place, and the thick fabric means that some force is required.

I took a hole saw that was a close match to the round groove in the button, and put it in a cheap drill press.
It wasn't perfect, but it worked.


I actually haven't seen the V Berth this empty in years. It's a storage shed, full of sails, stuff and whatever.
For a brief (funny) moment, I considered the consequenses of *not* making cushions, and actually
turning the V Berth into a storage shed. However, common sense prevailed.
I am sure that at some time in the future I'm going to need to provide a sleeping space up here.

To paraphrase an old Grateful Dead (Weir) tune --
"Sewing, got my chips cashed in, keep sewing, like the doo-dah man
together, more or less in life, just keep sewing on."

Just to be safe,
the button backs were glued in place with some
really thin epoxy.

It just took a few drops, and the epoxy worked down through the button back.
Hopefully, it soaked into the fabric a bit.

The wire loop is attached to the button face, so it's now glued to the back.

Now, I'll put them in a plastic bag and wait to see if they're really needed.