Make money on custom classic auto interiors

Capitalize on your design skills by turning clients’ ideas into one-of-a-kind interiors.

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When brothers Adam and Noah Howard began doing custom interior upholstery work for hot rod enthusiasts, they were surprised by the roller coaster of emotions exhibited by their clients.

Initially, customers were excited. However, as the project progressed, anxiety set in.

“We’re pretty good at managing it now, but at first we got nervous, thinking, ‘these customers are going to be disappointed, and then we’re going to get a bad name,” says Adam Howard of No Joke Upholstery, New Carlisle, Ohio. “It all turns around when the project comes to a close and they are happy with the end product. It’s a love-hate-love relationship.”

Jon Hantsbarger, client service manager at Precision Restorations, St. Louis, Mo., sees similar emotions. Hantsbarger updates customers daily by posting pictures to the company’s blog. However, it’s not unusual for him to get a phone call from an anxious owner if a few days go by without a picture.

“They are freaking out because they watch our website almost more than I do,” he says. “It is very emotional.”

For classic car and hot rod upholsterers, dealing with nervous customers who are turning over their pride and joy comes with the territory. On top of technical skills, artistry and a love for automobiles, success in this market requires a little psychology and great customer service.

Picking up the trade

Dan Salinas, owner of Hot Rod Heaven in Nampa, Idaho, turned a teenage hobby into a profession, learning through trial and error.

“I didn’t have much to work with growing up, so I would create my own tools and make something work the way I wanted,” he says.

A.J. Gisonda applied his architectural and design background to custom upholstery when he opened his street rod interior design business, Street Seats, in New Port Richey, Fla. Twenty years later, with one employee, his shop works on only two vehicles at a time.

“Getting known was the biggest challenge,” he says. “I needed to prove myself since I was the new boy on the block, and being originally from New York, it was all up to me. It didn’t take long to build up the new business. I just had to work hard, be honest and network myself constantly.”

Naseem Muaddi is a second-generation auto upholsterer—his father and uncles opened Delaware County Auto Upholstery in Holmes, Pa., more than 35 years ago and passed on their skills and experience to Muaddi, his brothers and cousins. He says the business never made a conscious decision to focus specifically on classic cars and hot rods, but that was the market that needed their services the most.

“Unlike mechanic and body shops, upholstery services are not always necessities,” he says. “Our clients tend to be restoring cars of value, most of which are classics and hot rods.”

When the Howard brothers launched their cut-and-sew shop out of Adam’s two-car garage in 2001, they intended to focus on the urban lifestyle market, dressing up later-model vehicles. But, like Delaware County Auto Upholstery, they found that the hot rod market was the true niche for their services.

Moving into commercial space in 2006 enabled them to work on up to four vehicles at once, although they prefer that only one job at a time be a full interior project.

“We fill in the other three spots with interior repairs, convertible tops, headliners, motorcycle seats—stuff that has a faster turnaround,” Howard says.

In contrast to these individual or family-owned shops, Precision Restorations is one of the larger one-stop restoration and customization facilities in the nation. The company’s 15 employees work in a 20,000-square-foot facility, with about 35 to 40 projects going on at once. About 25 to 30 percent of those jobs involve upholstery.

“A full interior restoration is one of the last things considered for a full restoration client,” Hantsbarger says. “They want their car to run, they want it to be safe, and they don’t want cancer [rust] in the body panels. They can withstand a faded interior or torn carpet for a while.”

Choosing materials

A typical customer for all these shops is a professionally successful man, age 30-65, who is fixing up a beloved vehicle dating from the 1930s to the late 1970s. Some vehicles are pure show cars, but many are driven for pleasure by their owners.

Even among customers with disposable incomes, budget comes into play when choosing materials. Options from Precision Restorations include vinyl, cloth and several grades of leather, from entry level to high-end European options. Hantsbarger says that the extent to which a customer will care for the interior can be the determining factor in material choice—leather will last longer than vinyl if it is maintained. Vinyl is a better choice if a customer is less inclined to put in some regular TLC.

Delaware County Auto Upholstery offers a large variety of leathers, vinyl, cloth and suede. In particular, Muaddi is a fan of Rave simulated leather.

“The touch, grain and appearance of Rave is virtually identical to that of genuine leather, yet it requires no conditioning or maintenance, has an excellent stretch capability and can be steamed for a perfect fit, unlike leather,” he says. “Rave vinyl is even cotton-backed, allowing it to be glued in place for a perfect fit.”

Customers often come into the No Joke shop wanting leather, but after Howard explains the difference in materials and shows them samples, they frequently opt for a vinyl, he says. The Morbern Allante collection has been especially popular recently.

“We’ve done a lot of that in hot rods in the last year and a half,” Howard says. “But then we do occasionally get the traditional guys who have to have the real leather, and we’ve done some work with stingray and alligator and some of the exotic hides as well.”

Staying ahead of trends in new materials is one way to set yourself off from competitors, Gisonda says, so he is always looking for new materials to incorporate into his designs. However, he warns that using a new material can run the risk of dating the job.

“It’s always best to use tried and true materials so the interior becomes ‘timeless’ in a sense,” he says. “If you infuse new materials, use them only as accents. Of course, show interiors are different. They live for the moment, and after they get all of the ‘ink’ out of the car, it is usually sold.”

For show cars that will be driven, Muaddi recommends thicker materials that will withstand abuse and won’t fade in direct sunlight. Customers who trailer their cars are more willing to sacrifice durability for style, he says.

One of a kind

Kits are available from manufacturers for the most popular car models if a customer wants a pure restoration. But if a customer wants to deviate from the original design, or if a kit isn’t available for a particular model, upholsterers design patterns from scratch. Also, OEM materials only work if a vehicle hasn’t otherwise been altered.

“If custom work has been done on the vehicle, then alterations have to be completed to make the appearance look good,” says Salinas.

Most customers have at least a basic idea about what they want, especially color. But experienced upholsterers know how to ask the right questions and how to take a customer’s idea and turn it into a design the customer will love. Muaddi says that function and practicality should never be overlooked or sacrificed for the benefit of design.

“The next thing we consider is what style the customer is hoping to achieve—retro, a sleek, modern style, or something in between,” he says. “Lastly, when designing the pattern, we use the body lines of the vehicle as a starting point and then get creative in designing a few freehand sketches to allow the customer to choose.”

Customers who come in with exact details of what they want risk getting less than the upholsterer has to offer, Howard says.

“They don’t realize some of the capabilities that we have and some of the ideas we have come up with over time, and they end up with a real basic interior when they could have gotten a lot more out of it,” he says.

The bar is constantly being raised regarding design options, Gisonda says, and it keeps getting more expensive. “You just have to be very inventive in finding ways to work ideas into the design, whether it’s adding a new design element or infusing a new material, that will let you achieve the look you want while keeping the budget intact.”

Hantsbarger sees many customers incorporating passions or business into the interior design of their vehicle. For example, one of Hantsbarger’s clients, a body piercing supply distributor, incorporated their business logo into the interior of their show car, a 1963 Chevy Impala 4-door lowrider.

“With these types of clients, you do see their business or passion playing into their interiors, because that’s how they got the money to do what they are doing,” Hantsbarger says.

New techniques

Expert upholsterers always keep an open mind and are willing to learn, Muaddi says. “With each year that passes we are faced with new and exciting challenges at our shop,” he says. “This forces us to try new techniques and take risks.”

Gisonda says that over the years he’s fine tuned his skills and learned to really listen to his clients so he can understand the look they are trying to achieve with their vehicle.

“You constantly try new ideas, you explore new talents you didn’t know you had, and then you push yourself just a little harder for that next great design or idea,” he says.

Whenever Salinas runs into a technical challenge, he tries to develop a new technique or customized tool to save time on future jobs. Turnaround times always depend on the extent of the work.

“If a customer wants a very trick custom job, it could take four to six weeks,” Salinas says. “If it’s a very basic job, it could be seven to 10 days.”

Howard is also always devising new techniques to do the same work in less time so that projects keep on schedule. Still, he would rather get everything right than meet a deadline, because a customer will see a mistake every time he or she looks at the vehicle, he says.

“They may be anxious because of the extra time to do it, but they quickly forget that once the vehicle is delivered,” he says.

Whether a job involves a Roadster from the ’30s or a ’60s muscle car or a late model luxury vehicle, successful upholsterers keep the client involved in the process as much as possible. It may sound like a lot of hand holding, but these clients are entrusting their very beloved—and very expensive—automobiles to these skilled artisans, often for the finishing touches of a larger customization or restoration process. And they understand all of the emotions involved in the process. After all, it’s the same passion that drove them to combine their love for American car culture with a profitable business.

Jill C. Lafferty is editor of InTents magazine and a freelance writer based in Burnsville, Minn.

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