One of the many things that Catalina Yachts did right in their boats was the upholstery: tough fabrics and bomber construction. You have to forgive the colors and patterns. Fashion is, well, fashion. It comes and goes and comes again.
The upholstery on Summer Dance was a brown/beige/orange/yellow plaid reminiscent of something Gabe Kaplan would have worn in the 80’s sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter.
It was in pretty good condition: no obvious stains, rips, or broken seams. There was some moderate mildew, though, but mere cleaning was out of the question. Even if the fabric would have withstood machine washing, every zipper pull was corroded from salty air and crumbled in our hands. The covers would never close again without new zippers. The first mate declared that she was not about to spend one night on them, of course. Replacing the covers became priority #1 and had they had to go immediately. Truth be told, I wasn’t looking forward to it much myself.
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Any color so long as it’s blue
You can purchase new C-22 cushions from Catalina Yachts for $1,650 but that’s about what most whole boats are worth. Like most first boat owners in our predicament, we hunted for a cheap fix: fabric store material, non-profit upholstery services, and online replacements, none of which were ideal. In the end, we decided to attempt making replacement covers ourselves with quality materials from sailrite.com. The folks at Sailrite just make the decision so easy: vast selection, mountains of free videos, and competitive pricing. No avid DIYer can pass that up.
We wanted a timeless fabric color/pattern with good resale value. We opted for Sunbrella True Blue furniture grade fabric. Their furniture fabric is a little softer and more comfortable to sit and sleep on than the marine canvas.
We chose beige underlining from Sailrite for the cushion bottoms and zipper plaques. The underlining has several advantages:
- Much less expensive than Sunbrella canvas
- Very porous to promote drying
- Vinyl coated, which reduces cushions sliding around
- Color closely matches the beige interior fiberglass and it complements the teak trim.
Sunbrella Ocean Blue marine grade canvas matches the furniture fabric perfectly for the exterior/utility pieces (mainsail cover, foredeck sail bag, engine cover, crib board bag, lifeline cushions, snap-on gear bag). Sailrite also supplied the complimentary thread, fasteners, and zippers, and some other supplies. Watch their videos, you’ll learn everything you need to know.
Being the frugal sailor that I am and Sunbrella costing what it does, I wanted to buy just enough fabric for everything we needed and not a yard more. Being the computer geek that I am, I drew a cutting plan in Visio to nest all the pieces in the most efficient arrangement to reduce waste. I got it down to 8 yards of 46″ wide interior fabric (with a little to spare), 7 yards of underlining, and 5 yards of exterior canvas.
In hindsight, I didn’t need to sweat the yardage so much. I’ve since placed two other orders for more canvas. Once you get started, it’s kind of addicting. It’s so easy to make great looking, functional canvas gear for your boat that you’ll be looking for more sewing projects and having remnants leftover from earlier projects makes the new projects no-brainers.
Most of the foam was still in good condition other than a little mildew, so we opted to reuse it. If we feel the need for firmer cushions in the future, we can replace the foam alone without any further sewing.
Work began by removing the foam from all the cushions and washing them in a mild bleach/detergent solution in a clean, 40 gal. garbage can. Wrestling the bigger pieces full of water in and out of the can was quite a match for the first mate but she prevailed.
When the fabric arrived, I verified my cutting plan against the actual foam pieces and drew each piece on the fabric with a soapstone pencil before cutting.
We chose to use the same construction techniques (welting, zipper installation, etc.) as the original cushions.
- There are a few fine points to watch out for when laying out the cuts. Only the seat back cushions are strictly rectangular. All of the other cushions have one or more angled sides to fit the hull’s horizontal curvature. What’s more, the curved edges of the V berth cushions are also angled vertically to fit the hull’s vertical curvature. If you don’t accommodate for that in your covers, you will either get an annoying gap there or the cushions will seem too wide.
- Make the boxing panels 1″ wider (two 1/2″ seams) than the foam height, not the same height as is sometimes recommended. This also leaves enough room for adding polyester batting, if you so choose.
We found some tools and gadgets very helpful to get the best results.
From left to right and top to bottom:
- Plier type stapler and staples instead of straight pins (much easier and more accurate than a desk stapler. A staple gun won’t work)
- Seam ripper (you WILL make mistakes)
- Soapstone marking pencil (for dark fabrics). A regular pencil works fine on light fabrics. Marks from both can be erased with a damp cloth or sponge.
- 3/8″ canvas basting tape (holds pieces firmly together while you sew). I used two rolls. The Seam Stick that Sailrite sells is crazy sticky, which is a good thing, unlike others we tried.
- Universal walking presser foot makes a home sewing machine work more like (but not equal to) a commercial machine. This helps to make longer, more consistent stitches through thick layers.
- Welting/piping foot (invaluable for making piping and straight, tight seams next to it)
- Seriously sharp scissors
- Hot knife made from a cheap Harbor Freight soldering gun (fuses edges as it cuts, eliminating fraying)
There’s always room for improvement
I elected to make one size change to an existing cushion and that was to the cushion that sits on top of the table when the settee is made into a bed. The standard equipment cushion’s inboard edge aligns with the forward seat cushion edge. You can see this in the first picture above. This leaves part of the table showing and makes an uncomfortable edge when climbing out of the bed.
I cut new foam for ours that is several inches longer to completely cover the tabletop and to align with the aft seat cushion corner (the triangular one) and the starboard edge of the keel trunk. The new cushion covers the table entirely for a more finished appearance. It also makes a better fit together with the other cushions to make a full-width bed in the salon. You can see this in the picture below.
The other change that I made was an 11th cushion to cover the companionway step. That makes it possible to put all the cushions together like a puzzle into a queen size mattress. The locker lids can be laid together over the center aisle to form a single, flat surface for the bed.
The solid color fabric makes the cabin interior look more spacious than before. To add a finishing touch with a bit of class, I took the seat back covers to a local printing company that does custom embroidery on sports and corporate wear. I gave them a digital file that I had made of the original Catalina logo and had them embroider it near the tops of the seat cushions in bright white thread. Below the logos, I added an arc of stitches. Together, these little touches give the seat backs a look reminiscent of the custom upholstery in muscle cars of the same era.
Pulling it all together
Before stuffing the foam into the new covers, I used 3M 21210 Super 77 Spray Adhesive to glue polyester batting to the tops of the foam. This helps to fill out wrinkles in the covers for a better fit and more comfort. I also sprayed the covers with 32 ounces of 303 High Tech Fabric Guard. It’s recommended by Sunbrella to waterproof and protect their furniture fabric.
I’m very pleased with the end product. The covers fit well, look great, and transform the cabin into a place where you want to spend time relaxing.
Following are plenty of pictures that I hope inspire you to take on this job for yourself. It took a considerable amount of time but I did it over the winter and I think it was well worth it. I’d do it again.
The bottom line
If you want to make your own cushions, you can get dimensioned drawings of all of the cushions shown in this project plus the cockpit cushions in my ebook Do-It-Yourself Small Sailboat Canvaswork. The drawings can save you a lot of time and worry about getting a good fit for your cushions and you’ll get eight more canvaswork projects as well, all for only $20 USD. Click the picture at right to order your copy for immediate download and get started today!
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