This article was first published in 2004.
Have you got a steering wheel that's a bit ratty? Maybe
you have an airbag-equipped wheel that's illegal to replace with a conventional
aftermarket job. Whatever the case, you should definitely look into having the
original wheel covered in new leather to a style and colour of your taste. And while
you're at it, it's also the perfect time to get the gear knob covered in
matching leather. For a relatively small outlay, we reckon you might as
To demonstrate what can be achieved with leather coverings, we
took our demo Mitsubishi Galant VR4 to Adelaide's ATUC (Automotive Trim and
Upholstery Contractors). ATUC specialise in steering wheels and are responsible
for the leather wheels used by some domestic and overseas car manufacturers - yep,
they're a top-quality OE supplier.
ATUC has a range of 20 leather colours (from mild to wild!),
plain and perforated leather, a variety of thread colours and two different
stitching styles. This photo illustrates the difference between the two styles of
stitch - baseball stitch (done by hand) is on the left and Euro stitch (done by
machine) is on the right.
In the case of our Galant we wanted a fairly subtle aesthetic
lift so we decided to keep the original charcoal wheel colour (to match the rest
of the trim), but with a combination of plain and perforated leather and an
eye-catching red baseball stitch. We also gave the original gearknob the same
treatment - charcoal plain/perforated leather and red baseball stitch.
Now let's take an in-depth look at how the steering wheel and
gear knob are trimmed.
Leather Wheel Covering - A Step-by-Step Overview
The first step is to remove the steering wheel from the
vehicle. Note that both the steering wheel hub and shaft are marked with a line
to ensure it can be refitted in exactly the same position.
With the wheel now removed from the vehicle, it is mounted onto
a swing-arm on the corner of a desk - this arm makes the wheel accessible from
all angles. Before our Galant steering wheel could be re-covered, the ratty
looking factory leather cover needed to be removed. This began by cutting the
existing leather stitching (as seen here).
This photo shows the rubber soft grip that is usually glued
between the steering wheel and the leather cover. After more than 10 years of
use, the rubber grip broke apart while our cover was being peeled off. Don't
worry - this rubber is later replaced.
Where applicable, the old leather cover is handy for creating a
template for the new cover. As seen here, the original cover is first glued onto
a sheet of cardboard that is cut to shape. Note that our wheel was being done in
combination of plain and perforated leather, so the template was divided into
two different sections - a template for the plain leather section and another
for the perforated section.
The newly formed cardboard template is then used as a guide for
cutting out the new leather. In this case, both the plain leather and perforated
leather patterns were cut using their respective cardboard templates. The
cardboard is ideal in its role as a template - workable but stiff enough to hold
Non-Leather Factory Steering Wheels
mentioned, our Galant steering wheel came factory-fitted with a leather cover
that was used to create a template. But what if the steering wheel isn't covered
in leather from the factory? Well, this means the wheel has to be thoroughly
measured up and some trial and error is required to get the correct leather fit.
It can be a relatively time consuming process.
So now we have all the leather cut to shape - what next?
Well, our plain and perforated leather sections need to be
overlapped end-to-end and sewn together; this creates the cover that wraps all
the way around the outside of the wheel. However, to avoid creating a hump at
each overlap, a small strip needs to be skived from the end of each leather
section. The skiving machine (seen here) shaves the end of the leather to around
half its original thickness, which allows the ends to remain flush on the
steering wheel when overlapped. Neat, eh?
After being skived, each end-to-end section of leather is sewn
together on a sewing machine. A line of small holes is then punched through the
leather along each opposing edge. These holes serve to make the baseball
stitching process (which is done by hand) much easier.
Now comes the preparation of the steering wheel.
Preparation involves removing any parts of the original rubber
grip and glue that is left behind. With a clean steering wheel surface, a
replacement rubber grip can be fitted around the rim. The rubber grip is cut to
length and is glued directly to the steering rim (as seen here).
With the rubber grip glued on, the new leather cover can now be
fitted to the wheel. The cover is first glued into place on top of the rubber
grip with care taken to ensure there are no kinks. Following this, the leather
edges that meet on the inner diameter of the wheel can be stitched together.
We preferred the look of the baseball stitch, which must be
done by hand. The stitching for our wheel took about an hour of labour - this
pic shows how it's done.
Each line of stitching must terminate at the innermost end of
the centre spokes - the stitch terminates by simply cutting, looping and tying
the end of the thread. This thread is then hidden behind the leather, which is
now glued down at the end of each spoke (as seen here).
With the wheel fully stitched together, the final step is to
wipe clean the leather surface and apply a heat gun around the wheel. This
shrinks the leather to give a tight fit.
Refit the wheel to the car and that's it! Now let's look at the
matching leather gear knob...
Leather Gear Knob Covering - A Step-by-Step Overview
Interestingly, the process for covering a gear knob in leather
is very similar to a steering wheel.
First, the gear knob needs to be removed from the vehicle. Our
Galant VR4's gear knob (like the steering wheel) comes leather trimmed from
factory, but it was beginning to look pretty tired.
Next, the existing leather stitching is cut with a blade to
allow the leather cover to be peeled off. The factory leather cover is typically
glued to the gear knob - any residual glue must be cleaned off the surface
before the new leather is applied.
The original gear knob cover - which is usually two-piece - is
then traced and cut from a sheet of cardboard. As before, this cardboard
template is used to cut the pattern from the new leather. In this case, the top
and rear section of the knob was cut from plain leather while the front section
was cut from perforated leather - a perfect match for our steering wheel.
The skiving machine is then used to shave the overlapping ends
of each section of leather before they are sewn together. (The same process as
The next step is to glue the new cover into position on the
gear knob. Again, care is taken to ensure the leather has smooth coverage of the
The final task is to stitch the opposing edges together. Again,
we used red baseball stitch to match what had been done on the steering wheel.
The stitch is cut and tied off at the end, the leather is tucked over and glued
- and the job is done!
The car can be driven immediately - no need to wait for the
glue to fully cure.
The Result - Before and After
These photos compare the Galant VR4's original leather steering
wheel and gear knob to the newies - any explanation needed?
The price for a leather steering wheel cover depends on the
stitching you chose, whether an airbag is fitted and the complexity of the wheel
(for example, some wheels have extra-long centre spokes that must be trimmed
A straightforward leather cover starts at AUD$150, but you'll need
to add AUD$20 for an airbag wheel and an extra AUD$10 if you want the time-consuming
baseball stitch. We reckon you might as well go the extra distance and get the
gear knob done to match - all it costs is around AUD$40 on top.
In the case of our Galant, the bill amounts to AUD$200 to have the
wheel and gearknob covered in a combination of plain and perforated leather and
with baseball stitching. Not bad.
The alternative is to go out and buy a brand new wheel and gear
knob - but the leather covering process is cheaper, guaranteed legal and you
have greater flexibility in styles and colours. If you own a car fitted with an
airbag steering wheel, you should note that this is your only option.
Leather covered wheels and knobs from ATUC come backed by a
12-months general workmanship warranty and, to keep it looking its best, you
should routinely treat it with high quality leather cleaner.
Go on. Treat yourself - and your car!
ATUC (Automotive Trim and Upholstery Contractors) +61 8 8243
Footnote: We paid AUD$180 for our Galant's steering wheel
and gear knob covering. This is AUD$20 less than the current retail price.