Intro: Leather Car Steering Wheel and Shift Boot/knob
Given that I drove the same car for over 10 years, certain parts are getting a little worn around the edges. For instance, my shift boot is a piece of vinyl. It's been coming apart at the seams and started to get annoyingly stiff up around the neck. I've started to look for replacement leather shift boots, and as expected found tons of them all over the Internet. I picked out ones that specifically claimed to fit my car, but then it occurred to me that it may not fit right. I don't use the OEM shift knob and the original boot never cinched at the neck right for my shift knob anyway. So a pre-made shift boot may fit well to not too good ugly. Given that most likely, I'll need to modify ones that are premade, why not just sew one together myself. Just need to cut and stick together 4 pieces of material. How hard could it be?
Well, that single question to myself started this whole leather thing, and I eventually ended up with a leather wrapped shift knob and steering wheel in addition to the original project, the shift boot. I have never thought about a leather steering wheel, and my plastic wheel was just fine, however most cars today at least have leather as an option for the steering wheel. So figure why the hell not.
Unfortunately, I didn't take any pictures while doing the boot and shift knob, but those where easy compared to putting together the steering wheel.
Step 1: Practice, Practice, Practice
It is generally a good idea to practice on a couple pieces of leather scraps prior to cutting and working with the actual pieces that are to be used. If using a sewing machine, definitely test out the stitching and note how's the tension, consistency of the stitching patterns, signs of skipping, etc. I've read most household sewing machines will handle leather, but that doesn't mean that it will be trouble free and work as good as heavy industrial machines. Found out that the one we have lying around the house worked for the most part, however the leather doesn't advance well because it's soft. Taping a piece of tracing paper or wax paper on both sides took care of that issue. Using leather machine needle also turned out to be a must. Heavy duty or jeans needles didn't make even stitching on this machine.
Leather is a natural material, therefore its firmest, thickness, and tendencies to stretch varies even within the same piece of hide. Picking carefully and arranging the pieces to be cut will result with better results than trying to randomly group the pieces.
This project took a fair amount of time because of the work involve. Professional custom leather upholsters aren't cheap because of this and, the material isn't a bargain either. However, this is my absolute first time working with this material so with patience, times, good old trial and error it is possible to end up with good results.
Okay then, with that said, here we go.
Upholstery grade leather,
Leather sewing machine needle,
Hand sticking needle(s),
Nylon or polyester sewing thread,
Box cutter blades, x-acto knives, or rotary knife (highly recommended for cutting leather)
Double stick tape/contact cement,
Wax or tracing paper,
And lots of time.
Step 2: Removing and Preping the Steering Wheel
First step is to remove the steering wheel, this makes it a lot easier to work on. Since there are numerous articles on how to remove the steering wheel floating on the web and auto forums, we'll get into the next step.
Definitely us caution when taking off an airbag equipt steering wheel. Things can happen, bad kind things. I took the precaution and even touched exterior door panel incase there was static electricity. My car has a red connector conveniently stored by the airbag disconnect. This red connector shorts out the contacts to the airbag and reduces the chance of an accidental discharge.
Step 3: Cut and Piecing Together the Leather
Paper was used to get patterns for the basic shapes needed. The paper pattern is used as a guide only. The paper will not stretch and give the way the leather will, therefore the final leather pieces need to be slightly smaller to get a tight and snug fit. For example, the wide of the leather was reduced by 1/4" as compared to the total diameter of the steering wheel. I just used chalk to outline the leather just like in any school project.
This particular wrap was done in 4 separate pieces. I barely had enough leather to work with so I had to settle and included defects in the hide and combined slightly different texture. If I had a bigger piece or more pieces of leather, I could have been a little more selective.
Step 4: Skiving the Seams
Now that I've cut out all the pieces I need, I clipped all 4 pieces together and placed it around the wheel to see how it fitted. With the test fit appearing to be good, the ends needed to be shaved down. Once the stitches are sewn together, this will allow the overlaps to sit flush with the thickness of the adjacent leather. The better this is done, the smoother the outside top of the leather will be. Skiving knives could be found is certain craft supply store or ordered through the Internet. I just bent a piece of bracket I had lying around. It's simple a box cutter blade held on by a screw on one side and a clip with the handle on one side bent back. A couple pieces of index stock paper are used to space the blade from the bracket. I've practice on a couple pieces just to get a feel of what it was like. While doing the actual pieces, I took my time peeling little by little. If I cut though, there's no going back. Cutting leather this way appears to dull the knife really fast. However, my setup uses cheap box cutter blade, so not a big deal.
After skiving the leather ends on all seams to be joined, the next step is to permanently sew and glue them together end to end then flatten with a roller or a plastic credit card will do.
Step 5: A Little Addition
Since I'm at it, I also decided to modify the steering wheel slightly. I include thumb rests at the 2 and 10 o'clock positions. These were shaped from a rather thick pair of ladies flip flop. As I shaped these, I realize these were the same material and density as craft foam. Could have glued together a couple of layers I had laying around and ended up with the same results. I only considered the flip flops because I thought it was a denser and stiffer material then craft foam, but it was the same thing. It took a little work to get two pieces relatively symmetrical. Simple just kept sanding until I was happy with the shape. I actually installed the one at the 10 o'clock position for a week prior just to see if it was something I wanted to go with. It turned out to be comfortable so it made it in the project and got glued on. Additional thoughts were spent figuring out where I wanted the stitching to end up along the rests and the corners directly below. The seam was planned so it ended up on the outside of where I'll usually grip the wheel. Directly below the rest is where I tend to power spin the wheel with my index finger when parking. Here, I kicked the seam towards the back of the wheel to keep it away from rubbing off my skin on my finger.
Step 6: Preparing the Leather Peice
With all the 4 pieces sewn together, the entire length is about 1 inch less the outside diameter of the wheel, this stretched the outside of the leather for a nice snug fit. The objective is to stretch the outside radius so the inside radius do not need to be gathered as much. If there is too much material on the inside radius, it may cause loose and crinkly waves.
To get the leather to stay on the wheel, I decided to use an euro stitching pattern. I think it looks more interesting and will keep the leather on the wheel tighter than the standard baseball stitching. The bad part is that it takes more steps and longer to do. In order to do this type of stitching, a running stitch needs to be sewn on both edges for the leather seam. The spacing I used for the running stitching was about 6 stitches per inch place 1/8" from the outside edge of the seam. These stitching will be used to bring the two sides together in the next step.
Step 7: Stiching on the Leather Piece
Now, to actually stick the leather on the steering wheel. To give me a free hand, I mounted a quick-grip clamp to the desk and tied a socket wrench with a 6" extension bar to the side of the clamp. this allowed the steering wheel to turn and stay upright by itself freeing both my hands to do things.
To bring the two sides together, it's simple going around the stitching placed by the sewing machine. The hand stitching is simply a spiral weave between the two running stitches. After the first pass, I went back with a hook to tighten and space the tread. To visualize the pattern, it can be found on the wires pattern of a chain linked fence. It's the same concept and creates the same pattern. Note, there's a continuous piece of clear double stick tape running the whole outside circumference and a couple of pieces on the inside to keep the leather wrap from twisting during use.
Step 8: Finishing Touches
To finish off the ends of the spoke, it was simply apply contact cement to the leather and the corresponding part of the steering wheel, wait until both sides are tacky and press together. Due to the horn buttons on this particular car, the buttons needed to be set into the leather. I initially thought this would be an issue and may possibly need to shave the steering wheel openings with a dremel to get the horn buttons to go back in. Also, the airbag sits flush to steering wheel spokes, thought I'll need to shave the sides of the spokes as well since there is absolutely no play in between. After all was done, I was pleasantly surprised the material of the steering wheel gave enough so the horn buttons and the airbag squeezed in for a nice fit. I've waited to cut the holes and excess leather at certain areas because I really wasn't sure where some parts of the piece was going to end up. An "X" was carefully cut out in the middle of the hole. Before gluing the piece down, I picked at the overlaps with a nail cutter to thin out the leather here. since the flaps will not be visible, it didn't matter that this was a little sloppy, The skiving knife would be too difficult to use with the piece partially on the wheel already.
With the leather wrap completely installed and all ends of the treads pulled tight and terminated, the only thing to do was to install the wheel back on the car and enjoy.
Step 9: Final Thoughts
As you can see, in terms of looks, barely any noticeable difference from the stock finish, (except the thumb rests). However, compared to the bare molded rubber finish, the leather definitely feels richer and provides a slightly better grip. I wrapped it pretty tight so the firmness is practically the same. There are different colors, textures, and even perforated leather to choose from, I imagine the combination of possibilities are endless if someone decides to go a bit more colorful or wild. For me, I just went down to a local auto upholstery shop and the owner sold me two sheets of plain black leather scraps. I paid him $20. All together, treads, needles, and misc items were another $10 at most.
The shift boot turned out perfect. The texture on all sides are even, the thickness and softness are consistent, even the creases in the neutral position ended up symmetrical looking on both sides. The shift knob is a billet aluminum Razo. Decided to wrap it since it is scratched up from over all these years of use. The only thing I didn't like about the Razo is that it gets scorching hot when it's in direct sun for a little. Wrapping it in leather solved that problem. The top sticks took a little extra planning since it needed to correspond to the sticking on the sides. Anyway, the shift knob turned out as expected, leather is tight to the knob, and the shift boot is exactly the right size transition at the neck of the knob. The steering wheel, unlike the other items, didn't turn out so perfect. Since I was tight on material the spoke by the horn actually fell a lillte short. This is irritating after all that work. Also since I had to settle on using different quality of leather, certain parts didn't stretch as much as the rest, this caused the left thumb rest to deform a little. All in all, it took me a 3 day weekend to do the steering wheel. It took a good amount of time, but considering this is my first experience working with the leather, learning how to use a sewing machine, shaping a pair of thumb rest from a pair of flip flops, I actually got a lot done.
Hope this process I've been though maybe of use in some way to those thinking about trying to work with leather.