Fish Wagon


Introduction: Fish Wagon

About: I re*make mobility devices and materials and give them new lives. I re*use often. And sometimes I staple drape.

The Fish Wagon is a decorative cover I made for a little red wagon. It lives in the pediatrics ward of Huntington Hospital now.The vinyl came from leftover scrap in upholstery stores that would have otherwise gone into landfill.

Re*using is my thing. So is making mobility devices amazing. If you want to find out more, go to

I jumped through a lot of hoops to make this wagon hospital safe. Unless you're making something for a hospital too, you don't have to go that far. However, it's easy to wipe down, which makes it a good choice for children's items, wheelchair or walker accessories, and other items that will need regular cleaning.

Here are the tools I used:

Work table

Old photo backing paper for making patterns

Quilting and safety pins

Sharp fabric scissors and utility shears

Pencils and pens (Sharpies and ballpoint)

Scrap vinyl from upholstery stores

Sewing machine, heavy-duty nylon sewing thread, and several size 14 universal needles

A jar to hold broken pins, needles, and blades

A little red wagon

2 bottles of tent seam sealant (Tent Sure by Gear Aid)

And many consultations on infectious disease, cleaning procedures, and sample testing.

Used but not required for the complete project: wire cutters, snap setters, a hammer, and snaps.

Check out my other Instructables to make some mobility art of your own. Take a peek at Opulent Mobility to find out why I make such fancy scooters, walkers, and wheelchairs, or check out the DIY workshops I offer for altering, patterning, and crafting your own projects.

Step 1: Fish Samples and Safety

I make wheelchairs, walkers, and mobility scooters into sculptural works of art. But I wanted to make some casual mobility vehicles too. I talked to the Huntington Hospital about making decorative covers for their wheelchairs. They steered me towards the pediatrics ward and asked me to dress up a little red wagon for the kids.

This was not as easy as it sounded.

My first move was to submit design drawings and to contact the infectious disease people at the hospital about their policies. The plan was to make something fun, child-friendly, and useful. Ultimately, the hospital chose a tropical fish design (see the drawing in the previous step), and it was my job to make that drawing come to life- and to make it as safe as possible.

After some research, I chose upholstery vinyl for the cover because it's non-porous, wipeable, and durable. According to the National Institute of Health, materials used in hospitals must be new. Since I prefer to reuse materials, I looked for upholstery stores that sold remnants. (When upholstering furniture and cars, there are usually lots of leftover ends of vinyl.) I got a big box full of scraps and got to work.

Tropical fish come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. I researched fish, did some drawings, made a few patterns, and cut out sample fish from the brightly colored vinyl scraps. The samples were sewn together with heavy-duty nylon thread. The eyes were sewn on with a close, tight zigzag stitch, the bodies were put together with straight seams and then top-stitched, and the fins and tail areas were quilted with decorative lines of stitching.

My first plan was to make padded fish toys and attach them to the wagon using Velcro or snaps. I cut foam inserts and stuffed them into 2 different fish samples. These samples failed. The first fish was sealed on the inside with a non-toxic seam sealer which wasn't really waterproof, and the infectious disease folks did not like Velcro because it's hard to clean. I added snaps to the second fish and used a silicone sealant on the inside. That didn't fly either. They weren't sure the snaps could be fully cleaned and didn't trust the sealant. Kids put everything in their mouths, and we didn't want the kids to eat the silicone. We decided to go with a sewn-on design instead, which was less likely to get chewed.

For my final sample, I sewed up a couple of purple and orange fish. After sewing the pieces together, I sealed one fish from the back using a waterproof tent seam sealant. I let it dry overnight, trimmed off the outside seam allowance, zigzag stitched it down to a vinyl backing, and sealed the back of that stitching too.

That sample was approved, so I was ready to move on.

Step 2: Making Waves

I wanted the wagon cover to look like ocean waves, so I needed to make a lot of wavy fabric. To get started, I pulled out the vinyl scraps and chose the largest pieces of aqua, blue-grey, and purple vinyl. I cut wave shapes from the aqua and used them as templates for the next set of waves.

There aren't any pictures of using the first wave as a template, but it was pretty simple. I traced around the top edge of the aqua wave onto the purple yardage, and then pulled the aqua piece up so it overlapped the line by 3/4". I then drew the top edge of the purple wave and cut it out. Turning the purple wave over to its backside, I pinned the bottom edge of the purple to the top edge of the aqua and sewed the waves together using a straight stitch with a 3/8" seam allowance. After sewing, I finger-pressed the seam up towards the purple and then top-stitched the seam 1/4" from the sewn edge. (See pictures 3-5.)

I followed the same steps for the second set of waves and then cut out my next pieces from the blue-grey vinyl. Those pieces were sewn to the purple and aqua waves and then top-stitched down. After that, I checked the sizes of my waves against the wagon. The plan was to use the longer pieces on the wagon's sides and to make shorter panels to cover the wagon's front and back. The side pieces needed some filler so they would be long enough, so I pulled out more scraps and made some more waves to fill in the gaps.

Once the sides were mostly ready, I made front and back panels using the same method.

Step 3: Seam Sealing and Fishmaking

After sewing the back panel to one of the sides, I pulled out a sample fish to see how it would look on the waves. This was a purple and orange fish with set-in snaps, dating back to when I planned to snap the fish to the wagon. Using a wire cutter, I cut the snaps off and peeled away the small rounds of plastic that stabilized the snap holes. I then trimmed off the seam allowance around the outer edges of the fish.

Since I had lots of fish to make and seam sealant takes time to dry, I decided to do some sealing before moving on. According to dedicated campers, Tent Sure tent sealant is the most durable solution. It's good stuff, but it needs to be used with proper ventilation and it should dry overnight for optimal waterproofing. I took the wave panels and the sample fish outside, turned them backside up, coated the seams, let the pieces sit for a couple of hours, and brought them back inside to dry completely.

In the meantime, I pulled out more vinyl scraps and my fish patterns. Working with one pattern at a time, I cut out the paper along the design lines, chose a vinyl color for each piece, drew the patterns out onto the back side of the vinyl, added 3/8" seam allowances where needed, and cut out the pieces. After cutting out each fish, I stapled the patterns to a piece of cardboard for safekeeping and moved on to the next fish. This kept me from getting the pieces mixed up.

For each fish, I sewed the seams together where needed and top-stitched each seam down. I then zigzag stitched down the eyes and fins and sewed quilting lines in a decorative pattern over the fins and tails. After all the fish were ready, I sealed their seams too.

Step 4: Wave Fitting and Fish Placement

The next day I pulled out the wavy panels and fitted them over the wagon. I draped the long panels over the sides and the short ones over the front and back. One side had a small gap at the bottom edge and overlapped by about 2" on the top. Since I planned to add a filler panel to the opposite side, I didn't worry about the gap. I sewed the edges together with a 1/4" seam allowance on the bottom and angled up to a 1" seam allowance on top. I trimmed and top-stitched the seam and fitted the full panel over the wagon again.

The far corner was a bit short. I cut, sewed, and top-stitched a wedge of purple vinyl to one side of the panel. Then I fit the entire piece around the wagon and pinned it in place. There was an area at the front of the wagon that needed extra length, so I cut and pinned in a curved piece to fill in that gap. I then checked how the vinyl fit on the inside of the wagon. It was a little loose, but I planned to fix that when I put in the wagon liner.

I then took out the fish and pinned them to the waves on the sides, front, and back. They looked adorable.

I made patterns for the fish, but not the waves. Since I was working with scrap vinyl and the pieces were so irregular, I wasn't sure how the wave shapes would work or if I had enough material to do the job. This turned out to be really good news! The waves had a more natural and organic feel because they weren't plotted out. Working with what I have, instead of insisting on following a set formula, makes me think more creatively and makes the final product more enjoyable.

Step 5: Wagon Liner

The wagon liner required a pattern.This part was going underneath a foam pillow insert, so it wouldn't get seen much. It did have to be smooth, well-fitted, and well-sealed because it would cover the inside of the wagon. It was guaranteed to get dirty, and it needed to be easy to clean.

Since this wagon was going to be used by young kids at the hospital, I could expect leaky diapers, spit-up, and possibly vomit or worse getting onto the cover. The pediatrics staff needed to be able to clean any spills easily and thoroughly. This is true of any kids' stuff, but it's much more crucial in a hospital environment.

I made a pattern for the liner and cut my pieces out of the vinyl. Each of these pieces had a 3/8" seam allowance added all around. I sewed the pieces together with a straight stitch, trimmed each seam evenly down to 1/4", and zigzag stitched the seam edges for added security. I then put the liner inside of the wagon and pinned it to the decorative wagon cover, starting with the side panels and then pinning the fronts and backs together. After making sure that everything fit, I pulled the entire cover off of the wagon.

It was heavier than I thought.

Step 6: Prepping and Fish Stitching

After removing the wagon cover, I put it on the coffee table to prepare it for sewing. The plan was to stitch the fish down first. Since the cover was really heavy and awkward to handle, I wanted to sew it together in stages to cut down on the weight and to avoid being scratched by pins. My next step was to mark the lines where the liner met the outer cover.

Using a ballpoint pen, I marked the vinyl on either side of each pin (see the second photo). I unpinned each side after marking and labeled the liner so I could tell how to put the pieces together later. The easiest way was to label it with the colors of the fish. I then used a yardstick to draw in clean sewing lines on both the liner and outer cover, using the pen marks as my guide. After drawing in sewing lines, I added a 1/2" seam allowance to each edge and trimmed off any excess. Then I moved on to the fish.

Starting with the purple and orange fish, I zigzag stitched it down all the way around its edges. To cover the old snap holes, I cut out a crescent shape of yellow vinyl, pinned it into position, and stitched that down too. I then sewed the rest of the fish, taking out the pins as I went. Not surprisingly, this process went faster and faster with each fish.

PS: My coffee table is old and scuffed and I don't care if it gets scratched. If you're concerned about ruining your tables, broken-down cardboard boxes make an excellent protective surface.

Step 7: Lining the Liner

My store of colorful vinyl scraps was running low. Thankfully, a friend gave me some large chunks of thin black vinyl he had left over from a project. It was a great choice for the lining.

I cut panels of the black vinyl to cover the wagon liner: one big rectangle for the bottom and narrow rectangles for the sides, front, and back. I pinned the bottom lining down first, then pinned the narrow panels in place, and then zigzag stitched the lining together at the seams. This method didn't make beautiful seams, but it was very secure. After that, I cut out the outer cover's lining. This was pieced together because I was running out of long strips of vinyl, but there was just enough to do the job.

I decided to sew the wagon liner to the outer cover first, and then to line the outside. That way I could still reach all of the seams that needed sealant. I pinned the liner to the outer cover, using the fish colors as my guide to match up the pieces. For security's sake, I sewed each seam twice, and then trimmed the seams down to 1/4". I then sealed ALL the seams with tent sealant: the lining, the wagon liner, the seam attaching the liner to the outer cover, and the back side of each of the fish. The pieces were then left outside to dry overnight.

Every seam and needle or pin-poke through the vinyl was an opportunity for germs to get through, so I used a lot of tent sealant. Maybe it was too much, but I figured it was better to be safe than sorry.

Step 8: Fitting and Hemming

Before sewing the rest of the lining, I test fit the cover again. It looked good, although one side was a little long. I knew that might change once the lining went in, so I took the cover back off and zigzag stitched the top edge of the lining in place. Then I test fit the cover once more.

The lining was cut to hang 1 1/2" below the edge. I trimmed the outer cover's edges where it dipped down below that 1 1/2" mark and then pinned the cover to the lining all the way around. After checking the fit on the inside of the wagon, I removed the cover one last time and sewed the hem. The lining was folded up so its edge butted up to the bottom edge of the cover, and those edges were zigzag stitched together. The final coat of seam sealant was applied to the lining's hem and seams and the entire cover was set aside to dry.

By this point, I didn't take pictures at every step. Hopefully, you can still tell what I mean. The hemstitch looked just like the zigzag stitching around the edge of each fish.

Step 9: Pillowcase and Delivery

By this point, I only took 3 more pictures. Hopefully, the steps are clear enough without them.

The wagon had a foam slab insert inside for the kids to sit on. This was originally covered in a fabric pillowcase, but it really needed an easy to wipe down cover. I used my remaining scraps of colorful vinyl and sewed them together into a single rectangular panel, top-stitching and sealing each seam. I made the entire piece 4" wider and twice as long as the foam plus 8" at the top and bottom.

To be extra safe, I lined the vinyl pillowcase too. I cut a lining out of plain white vinyl, sewed it to the colorful vinyl at the top and bottom, and sealed all of the seams from the inside. Once those were dry, I folded the rectangle in half lengthwise with the lining facing out and sewed the outside seams together with a 3/8" seam allowance. I then zigzag stitched the edges, sealed those seams, and let the whole thing dry overnight.

The next day was delivery day. I turned the vinyl pillowcase right side out and tried to put it over the foam insert. At first, I removed the old pillowcase, but after struggling with shoving the foam into its new cover I realized I could make my life easier by leaving the pillowcase on. Once it was back on, the entire insert slid right in. I put the pillow in the wagon, shoved it all into the backseat of the car, and delivered it to Huntington Hospital.

For the sake of the kids' privacy, I can't take photos of them using the wagon. But the last picture is me delivering the finished piece. Apparently, it's a big hit with the kids and the staff in the pediatric ward.

On to the next project!

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