DIY Reupholstering

A new interior might be cheaper than you think

WE ALL WANT OUR airplanes to fly faster, go farther, and, for some of us, navigate safely through more challenging weather conditions.

But we also like the innards to look sharp. After all, it’s the part of the airplane that we spend the most time looking at. And we surely want the seat of our pants to be comfortable along the way. Still, I admit, in the overall mental checklist of priorities, redoing the interior of my vintage Bonanza has lingered pretty low on the list.

But a shoddy interior is one of those nagging non-priorities that erodes your flying enjoyment, and worse. Frankly, I balk at volunteering for Young Eagles flights or flying missions for Patient AirLift Services (PALS). I feel uncomfortable asking new passengers—or their parents—to trust themselves or their children to my airplane when the interior looks shabby. Maybe you’re in the same predicament?

And are you shy about admitting it, like I am?

Fve decided to do something about my interior, and started looking into a refurb. What really pushed the issue was my headliner disintegrating in front of my eyes, literally. Strips of the deteriorating fabric were drooping dangerously into my line of vision. Maybe I can’t afford to replace the entire 1980s interior just now, but to stay safe, I had to do something about the headliner.

There are custom shops that can perform wonders with interior upgrades, making a decades-old airplane look like a brand new Lexus. But they were way above my pay grade. I contacted Dodd Stretch at Airtex Products Inc. based in Fallsington, Pennsylvania. The company was founded by Dodd’s grandfather Al Stretch in 1949 with budgets like mine in mind. With a family name like that, it makes poetic sense that its first do-it-yourself products were pre-sewn fabric envelopes for re-covering fuselages of Taylorcrafts, Cubs, and other tube-and-fabric flivvers. In the following years, Airtex began making prop, engine, and wing covers—then branched into interior refurbishment kits for light aircraft. That’s where it found its stride.

Dodd’s father, Don Stretch, started work in the family business when he graduated from high school in 1962, and took over the company when Al died in 1981. Don brought Dodd into the family business at age 25 in 1995. Tragically, Don was killed in a flying accident on the way to Oshkosh in 2001, and Dodd took over the family business, which he intends to keep in the family. He’s had several offers to buy Airtex, but said, “I can’t rip them up fast enough.” His level of commitment to the company shows in his enthusiasm and expertise.

“My grandfather was dedicated to the do-it-yourselfers,” Dodd said, and fortunately, the FAA has cooperated. He said that under Appendix A of Part 43 of the Federal Aviation Regulations, it is still legal for an aircraft owner to refurbish his or her own interior, provided he or she complies with the restriction on altering any other aircraft systems in the process. In other words, once you have the old interior ripped out, resist the temptation to mess with flight controls or other structural elements without the supervision (and logbook documentation) of a certificated mechanic. “Windows and upholstery are the last frontier of what aircraft owners can do on their own. And that’s kept us in business for more than 60 years,” Dodd said.

Airtex keeps an expansive inventory of paper patterns for seats, side panels, headliners, carpets (and more) for just about any aircraft out there. Need a side panel for the baggage compartment of your Interstate Cadet? Carpets for your Mooney Mite? No problem. The 12,000-square-foot factory in Fallsington (a Philadelphia suburb) employs 19, and most of the employees have been with the company for “a while” Dodd said-many for decades. They pride themselves on their workmanship, and their methods are attuned to the do-it-yourself (DIY) market, which does more than save the aircraft owner money, Dodd said.

Taking the time to disassemble and rework an interior invariably leads to a better understanding of your airplane. He said, “Customers are always telling me, ‘Now I know what’s under that hump in the carpet,’ or ‘I never knew the fuel line ran behind the side panel like that.’”

The other advantage of doing it yourself is that, after stripping down the inside to bare metal, you’ll be discovering on your own the horrors that lay beneath the interior. Somehow, that’s not as bad as receiving a dreaded phone call from the shop informing you that countless generations of mice have completed their life cycles within your spar center section, and you’d better consider a rebuild before taking off again. Somehow, bad news like that is less devastating—and more credible— when you uncover it yourself.

Don’t panic, though. Dodd said that nine out of 10 of his kit customers discover, at worst, a bit of surface rust that needs to be removed (kind of like your flying skills?). Imagine the comfort in seeing, with your own eyes, that all those potential trouble spots have been accounted for.

But it’s hard to disagree that the most significant benefit to the DIY approach to aircraft interior refurbishment is saving money. Dodd said, “We install some of our kits ourselves in our shop hangar [at Trenton Mercer Airport (TTN) in New Jersey], but that represents less than 3 percent of our business. The do-it-yourselfer pays $4,000 to $5,000 for an interior it would cost $8,000 to $9,000 to have installed in a shop.”

Dodd is pretty clear in his assessment of the skill level required to pull off an interior installation. “This is not brain surgery. Usually, in a 10-minute conversation I can pass on all the expertise a customer needs to install a headliner, for example. After that, a little common sense and a cordless drill should be enough.”

And time. Dodd acknowledges that it’s important to take your time and keep your eyes open for how the old interior was installed, and the best way to reinstall the newly refurbished materials. The Airtex staff is always there for consultation, and in the age of digital photography, a picture can save thousands of wasted words. But don’t over think it, either. Dodd’s perspective harks back to when he first started work at Airtex. He said, “On my first job, I sat for way too long staring at the inside of the airplane thinking about what to do first. Then I asked one of the guys in the shop, ‘What’s the best way to install this?’ He said, ‘You get started.’”

Airtex has three levels of materials for its interiors: standard fabric (Duralast), premium fabrics (choice of Duralife or Duraweave), and leather. The company introduced a new line of fabrics at AirVenture last summer, and Dodd said he’s really excited about the improvements. He said about 70 percent of the kits he ships are fabric, but leather is catching up as the economic downturn has owners of aircraft like Bonanzas upgrading what they have rather than trading up to a more expensive airplane. Dodd said you can expect to pay about $1,000 more for leather in a four-place aircraft interior.

Improved soundproofing is another result of redoing your interior. Dodd said most manufacturers used fiberglass insulation behind their interior panels. “It works well in a house, but not an airplane that is likely to be subject to lots of moisture.” The water soaks into the insulation and promotes surface corrosion. Airtex uses closed-cell soundproofing foam with foil face on one side and self-adhesive on the other. With that and new door seals, customers see significant improvements in cabin noise levels—not like a business jet cabin, he said, but one Cardinal owner reported he’d measured an improvement of 10 decibels.

Talking with Dodd has me anxious to get started ripping out my old headliner, and I’ll update the results of my new one in a later issue. I expect to become a satisfied customer. And there have been thousands before me over the years.

Dodd told me about a letter from one customer, Richard Harmon, who recently ordered a new interior kit for his Swift. He still had the invoice from the kit he bought for the same airplane in 1958. The price? “Twenty dollars,” said Dodd, who then laughed, “He asked if there had been a price increase since then.”

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