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CAR RESTORATION HOW TO

Design and Construction of a Headliner for your Classic Car

By Chris Wantuck

Let's start with the definition of a headliner: Simply, it's the fabric trim fabric on the inside of the roof of an automobile. It typically consists of a fabric facing inward and may include cloth layers or possibly a foam backing. Headliners can be made of multilayered materials that bring together multiple functionalities, including mounting provisions, insulation, sound deadening, and the look, feel, and stiffness required to be consistent with the vehicle's other upholstery. The layer facing inside could be a fabric that is napped to provide a soft touch and uniform appearance, again keeping with the style of the other upholstery. An important part of the process of creating a headliner is the careful selection of materials. In this article, part of our upholstery series, we take the reader through the concept, design, and step by step procedures for fabricating a headliner for one of the more difficult installations. If you can follow along with this type of headliner, chances are you'll be able to tackle other simpler types as well.

There are many mounting methods for a headliner. They include, but not limited to: 1) cloth strips sewn to hang the headliner down (this project), 2) stiff wires that slide into carefully fabricated fabric layers or pockets, or 3) directly glued to the roof (as done on yachts, foam-backed vinyl is often used and may have trim strips across to hide fasteners). This article examines the fabrication and installation of a headliner as used on automobiles ranging from the teens through the 1930's that use wood bows across the body (as depicted in Photos 1 - 4). Since the headliner is not the only upholstery component in a vehicles interior, Photos 5 & 6 are presented to show the relationship between the headliner and panels, both with and without the use of welting. To help you to better understand other types of headliners, like the rod method concept of mounting, original headliner pics of a 1952 Cadillac sedan are shown in Photos 7 through 10. While this article is rather specific, a reader can easily adapt the principles here to later era headliners and applications.

In this article, we will show you our process, through making a prototype headliner before the final version is fabricated. The use of making prototypes in upholstery is encouraged to better understand the significance of the items and steps shown.

Steps to follow

  1. Analyze and understand the anatomy of the headliner for your project by studying our diagrams and create your own diagram (Photos 1-4) for your project. If you can get pictures of a headliner from an original vehicle, all the better, like we did in Photos 11 & 12. Details to consider:
    • Does the headliner use stitching? Assuming it does, do the stitches extend all the way across or do they stop several inches from the edge?
    • Where are the stitches located in relation to other objects like windows or door edges (Photos 11 & 12).
    • Where the headliner meets the side body panel, is there welting? Some cars used a continuous welting all the way around the headliner's perimeter and others have the covered body panels meet the headliner directly.
    • Verify your dimensions and include marking the center on the bows.
    • When purchasing your materials, consider the width of it. Since this is a one-piece trim, the width of the material should span the entire width. Some wools and/or cottons may only be 58 inches wide. Make sure you have enough plus a little more for pulling it tight.
    • Seriously consider making a prototype for your project using inexpensive or scrap materials. Study the sequence of our photos and understand that every aspect of the headliner has meaning and can affect the final appearance.
  2. Layout your prototype material and square off the top edge. This will ensure the marks you put along the side for the seam and listings are perpendicular and will not skew the headliner as its installed (Photos 13-16).
  3. Mark both the back and front side edges of the prototype material where the listings are to be sewn. Cut listing strips out of 100% cotton and size up to the intended seam. Tape the listings in place using blue masking tape. As was determined in our prototype, make the listings somewhat longer than needed and fold back on itself so the fold is right on the edge of the line. The listings are strategically placed so the seam goes into the listing, but not the tape. Don't forget to mark the center of both the material and the listings.
  4. Roll the material onto itself, good side in. Using a straight edge, lay down a long length of blue masking tape along side the straight edge. This will be the guide to sew on the listings. Mark the correct side of the tape and also the end points.
  5. Select the right thread color for your project and wind bobbins as appropriate. If you are doing a prototype, thread color doesn't matter, just use black. Sew the listings in place on the top (good side) of the material. The first few stitches can be done slowly using the hand wheel. When stitching, run along side of the tape, but not into it. Pick a point on the presser foot to use as an edge guide. As you approach the end of the seam, stitch slowly using the hand wheel. Remember to leave ample amounts of thread before cutting. This is a situation where the seam is visible so no lock stitching here. You will tie the ends in the back like we showed you in previous articles.
  6. Install the headliner listings beginning in the front center and work your way out to both sides of each bow before moving on to the next listing and bow. In this project we used six listings to hang our headliner. You have to tack them in order and cannot get to a previous one without removing the subsequent ones.
  7. Since the headliner is just one component in vehicle's interior, understand and plan for how it will integrate with panels. This will likely have you planning ahead on how you will fabricate and install your panels.

Notes

  1. Make a prototype headliner using cheap material to prove out your installation dimensions and get a feel for how it's installed. Make one or two prototypes using $3 per yard material before using the $50 per yard final material. This cannot be emphasized enough.
  2. Up to this point in this upholstery series, we have encouraged practicing sewing in straight lines. Since this headliner has stitching shown on the visible side, the need for straight stitches is as important as ever. Even a matching thread color will show a crooked seam. Review our tip on blue masking tape as a guide.
  3. The banner above says it all: Your headliner is a layer covering the ceiling (metal or bows) and no two are exactly alike. Headliner material is pulled, tugged and fastened to provide a uniform panel across the ceiling.
  4. Some headliners have edges that are fastened to the body and side panels cover the excess while other installations include a welting between the headliner and side panels.
  5. Remember to approach a headliner as looking up. Some dimensions might make your headliner project irregular and must be taken into account when sewing listings or other mounting provisions (example: loops sewn to accept stiff wires).
Legend:
Photo 1 — Top view diagram of a typical early roof with wood bows. The wood bows are dual purpose: they provide a means to support the exterior top material as well as a means to hang the headliner on the inside. Dimensions taken are shown for each bow's width and between each bow. These will be critical when designing and fabricating your headliner. The dimensions are intentionally taken to the rear of each bow as this it the order it will be installed. You must have access to the area to tack the headliner to each bow. A center line down the middle is a reminder that much of installing a headliner is to keep it centered.

Photo 1 — Top view diagram of a typical early roof with wood bows. The wood bows are dual purpose: they provide a means to support the exterior top material as well as a means to hang the headliner on the inside. Dimensions taken are shown for each bow's width and between each bow. These will be critical when designing and fabricating your headliner. The dimensions are intentionally taken to the rear of each bow as this it the order it will be installed. You must have access to the area to tack the headliner to each bow. A center line down the middle is a reminder that much of installing a headliner is to keep it centered.


Photo 2 — This composite diagram provides the most graphic representation of the headliner. The upper graphic is a slice of Photo 1 with a side view below it. It shows the spacing between bows and the vertical pieces of cloth (called listings) in two forms; 1) as the listings are fastened and the headliner left to hang and 2) with the front to back ends pulled tight.

Photo 2 — This composite diagram provides the most graphic representation of the headliner. The upper graphic is a slice of Photo 1 with a side view below it. It shows the spacing between bows and the vertical pieces of cloth (called listings) in two forms; 1) as the listings are fastened and the headliner left to hang and 2) with the front to back ends pulled tight.


Photo 3 — Another composite diagram this time showing the relationship between the listings and how the headliner is viewed from the inside. Though the listings are shown as black, they can be any colour to blend into the headliner fabric. The dotted lines are black for the purpose of the graphic, the thread color should be matched to hide the stitches into the material.

Photo 3 — Another composite diagram this time showing the relationship between the listings and how the headliner is viewed from the inside. Though the listings are shown as black, they can be any colour to blend into the headliner fabric. The dotted lines are black for the purpose of the graphic, the thread color should be matched to hide the stitches into the material.


Photo 4 —   Here headliner listing material is tacked into place onto the cross bow. The use of tacks versus staples permits the listing material to sway side-to-side when the headliner material is pulled. If staples had been used the two points of a staple would have reduced the amount of sway versus single tacks.

Photo 4 — Here headliner listing material is tacked into place onto the cross bow. The use of tacks versus staples permits the listing material to sway side-to-side when the headliner material is pulled. If staples had been used the two points of a staple would have reduced the amount of sway versus single tacks.


Photo 5 — Cross section concept diagram of the headliner meeting the edges and a welting is employed to transition from the headliner to the interior panel board.  The headliner is attached first followed by the welting. The panel board when fastened into the body's wood frame is pushed up to the welting and covers the weltings tail.

Photo 5 — Cross section concept diagram of the headliner meeting the edges and a welting is employed to transition from the headliner to the interior panel board. The headliner is attached first followed by the welting. The panel board when fastened into the body's wood frame is pushed up to the welting and covers the weltings tail.


Photo 6 — Another cross section concept diagram of the headliner meeting a panel board, this time without welting.

Photo 6 — Another cross section concept diagram of the headliner meeting a panel board, this time without welting.


Photo 7 — Concept cross section view of a headliner using stiff metal rods to suspend the material. Here the material has a continuous loop or pocket sewn into the material to permit a stiff rod to be inserted. The rod is wedged into place on the vehicle's roof where the ends are against the body. Since the rod is only slightly bent, there is constant pressure of it against the roof and the headliner is hanging down. The headliner's edge is pulled tight under trim. This design is typical of a headliner of the 1950's and later.

Photo 7 — Concept cross section view of a headliner using stiff metal rods to suspend the material. Here the material has a continuous loop or pocket sewn into the material to permit a stiff rod to be inserted. The rod is wedged into place on the vehicle's roof where the ends are against the body. Since the rod is only slightly bent, there is constant pressure of it against the roof and the headliner is hanging down. The headliner's edge is pulled tight under trim. This design is typical of a headliner of the 1950's and later.


Photo 8 — Picture of a 1952 Cadillac original headliner that employs the stiff wire mounting method. Note important details like how the dome light is flush with the headliner. The dome light is neither proud or recessed. Also note the amount of arc in the corners. This may impact on how you design and fabricate the seams and the depth of the loops or pockets.

Photo 8 — Picture of a 1952 Cadillac original headliner that employs the stiff wire mounting method. Note important details like how the dome light is flush with the headliner. The dome light is neither proud or recessed. Also note the amount of arc in the corners. This may impact on how you design and fabricate the seams and the depth of the loops or pockets.


Photo 9 — Another view of the headliner shown in Photo 8. Note the clothes hanger above the door and how & where it attaches over the material. These are details that you must pay attention to when designing and fabricating your headliner.

Photo 9 — Another view of the headliner shown in Photo 8. Note the clothes hanger above the door and how & where it attaches over the material. These are details that you must pay attention to when designing and fabricating your headliner.


Photo 10 — Side view of the original headliner shown in Photo 8. The roundness of the headliner into the

Photo 10 — Side view of the original headliner shown in Photo 8. The roundness of the headliner into the "pocket" is more noticeable in this photo.


Photo 11 — Now that we know the anatomy of a headliner of this era, this picture of an original auto provides a wealth of information: 1) the use of a welting, 2) the relative location in relationship to the door's window of where the seam (and therefore the bow & listing) are located), 3) the seams do not go all the way to the side, and 4) the seams appear symmetrical about each other, which doesn't always happen.

Photo 11 — Now that we know the anatomy of a headliner of this era, this picture of an original auto provides a wealth of information: 1) the use of a welting, 2) the relative location in relationship to the door's window of where the seam (and therefore the bow & listing) are located), 3) the seams do not go all the way to the side, and 4) the seams appear symmetrical about each other, which doesn't always happen.


Photo 12 — Like Photo 11, original pictures help guide us in designing our headliner by placing seams in the right places.

Photo 12 — Like Photo 11, original pictures help guide us in designing our headliner by placing seams in the right places.


Photo 13 — The prototype headliner is being made from material of similar weight to the final material. It was purchased from the local fabric store in the bargain pile at $3 per yard. Much better to practice on the cheap material than ruin the expensive cotton material. This pattern resembles exploding ketchup packets. No wonder it was in the bargain pile.

Photo 13 — The prototype headliner is being made from material of similar weight to the final material. It was purchased from the local fabric store in the bargain pile at $3 per yard. Much better to practice on the cheap material than ruin the expensive cotton material. This pattern resembles exploding ketchup packets. No wonder it was in the bargain pile.


Photo 14 — Prototype material is laid out on the cutting table and squared off using a large right triangle and long straight edge. Using a large right triangle is one method. Another is creating an imaginary box the full width and adjusting end points so the diagonal dimensions are equal. This is important so that each of the listings are sewn absolutely perpendicular to the material.

Photo 14 — Prototype material is laid out on the cutting table and squared off using a large right triangle and long straight edge. Another method is to create an imaginary box the full width and adjusting end points so the diagonal dimensions are equal. This is important so that each of the listings are sewn absolutely perpendicular to the material.


Photo 15 — The prototype headliner material is laid out on the work table face down and marked with the lines for sewing the listings. These are the dimensions derived from a diagram shown in Photo 1.

Photo 15 — The prototype headliner material is laid out on the work table face down and marked with the lines for sewing the listings. These are the dimensions derived from a diagram shown in Photo 1.


Photo 16 — In this prototype, heavy canvas like material is cut into strips to be sewn into the prototype headliner were used as the listings. The strips are generously wide for purposes of sewing and could be cut down later. One of the lessons was that a thinner cotton material will stretch better than this heavy material.

Photo 16 — In this prototype, heavy canvas like material is cut into strips to be sewn into the prototype headliner were used as the listings. The strips are generously wide for purposes of sewing and could be cut down later. One of the lessons was that a thinner cotton material will stretch better than this heavy material.


Photo 17 — Listings for the prototype are aligned with the dimensions marked down in Photo 15.

Photo 17 — Listings for the prototype are aligned with the dimensions marked down in Photo 15.


Photo 18 — Listings were held in place using cloth clips and pins. As was later determined, there is a better way  of keeping listings in place while sewing using simple blue masking tape.

Photo 18 — Listings were held in place using cloth clips and pins. As was later determined, there is a better way of keeping listings in place while sewing using simple blue masking tape.


Photo 19 — Center of the material and all listings are marked with the letter C. Marking this now will be important while later installing the headliner.

Photo 19 — Center of the material and all listings are marked with the letter C. Marking this now will be important while later installing the headliner.


Photo 20 — Listings for the prototype are sewn onto the material. While this photo shows the use of clips, there is a better way.

Photo 20 —Listings for the prototype are sewn onto the material. While this photo shows the use of clips, a better way is to simply use blue masking tape to hold them till their sewn.


Photo 21 — A view of the bows for this project headliner. Sometimes it's a good idea to make a sanity check of the dimensions you established for your project. In this view, there are more bows installed than were needed. Selecting which ones to use is part of your design.

Photo 21 — A view of the bows for this project headliner. Sometimes it's a good idea to make a sanity check of the dimensions you established for your project. In this view, there are more bows installed than were needed. Selecting which ones to use is part of your design.


Photo 22 — The prototype headliner is stapled into place starting with the front and progressing to the rear. Note the listings extending beyond the material. This will be corrected in the final version.

Photo 22 — The prototype headliner is stapled into place starting with the front and progressing to the rear. Note the listings extending beyond the material. This will be corrected in the final version.


Photo 23 — Close up view of one of the listing stitches on the prototype headliner. Despite marking the line with chalk, it is still not straight. Another reason to justify making a prototype.

Photo 23 — Close up view of one of the listing stitches on the prototype headliner. Despite marking the line with chalk, it is still not straight. Another reason to justify making a prototype.


Photo 24 — View of the prototype headliner in the rear area of the project vehicle.

Photo 24 — View of the prototype headliner in the rear area of the project vehicle.


Photo 25 — Side view of the prototype headliner. Note the use of push pins to temporarily hold it in place to establish the correct height.

Photo 25 — Side view of the prototype headliner. Note the use of push pins to temporarily hold it in place to establish the correct height.


Photo 26 — A lesson from the prototype was the use all cotton material for the listings. The lighter material will permit better side to side stretching. Here the material selected (also from the bargain pile at the local fabric shop) has a nice built in feature, its own cutting lines.

Photo 26 — A lesson from the prototype was the use all cotton material for the listings. The lighter material will permit better side to side stretching. Here the material selected (also from the bargain pile at the local fabric shop) has a nice built in feature, its own cutting lines.


Photo 27 — A level line is established across the bottom of the bows. This is the dimension at the center of the bow and is necessary when tacking the listings in place.

Photo 27 — A level line is established across the bottom of the bows. This is the dimension at the center of the bow and is necessary when tacking the listings in place.


Photo 28 — The cotton material for the final headliner is unrolled and found to have wrinkles. They easily ironed out using the proper cotton temperature heat setting.

Photo 28 — The cotton material for the final headliner is unrolled and found to have wrinkles. They easily ironed out using the proper cotton temperature heat setting.


Photo 29 — One of the first tasks is to determine the center of the back of the roll. Here two tape measures are used side-by-side and in opposite directions.

Photo 29 — One of the first tasks is to determine the center of the back of the roll. Here two tape measures are used side-by-side and in opposite directions.


Photo 30 — Close up view of the two tape measures. Where the numbers are equal is center (32 3/8 in this case). Use tailors chalk to mark the center.

Photo 30 — Close up view of the two tape measures. Where the numbers are equal is center (32 3/8 in this case). Use tailors chalk to mark the center.


Photo 31 — The cotton material for the final headliner is squared off at the beginning of the roll. A number of methods can be used, like we did for the prototype and the large right triangle. Here a Tee square and long straight edge were used. Fortunately the roll was delivered nearly perfectly square.

Photo 31 — The cotton material for the final headliner is squared off at the beginning of the roll. A number of methods can be used, like we did for the prototype and the large right triangle. Here a Tee square and long straight edge were used. Fortunately the roll was delivered nearly perfectly square.


Photo 32 — Light weight listing material is unfolded and ironed smooth.

Photo 32 — Light weight listing material is unfolded and ironed smooth.


Photo 33 — An advantage of this cotton material is the repeating pattern which makes it easy to cut into strips.

Photo 33 — An advantage of this cotton material is the repeating pattern which makes it easy to cut into strips.


Photo 34 — One of the lessons from the first prototype is clearly establishing the end points for the seam. Here the listing material is marked with pencil and will be cut at the ruler line (in essence 6 niches past the line) and will be folded back onto itself to add durability in the stitched seam.

Photo 34 — One of the lessons from the first prototype is clearly establishing the end points for the seam. Here the listing material is marked with pencil and will be cut at the ruler line (in essence 6 niches past the line) and will be folded back onto itself to add durability in the stitched seam.


Photo 35 — Listings are taped to the back of the headliner material. The two straight edges side-by-side permit the seam line on the ends of the fabric, just like we did during the prototype. The listing is strategically taped and the ends that were folded back are also taped to ensure that while sewing, the ends don't get bunched up. Note that no tape is will be sewn.

Photo 35 — Listings are taped to the back of the headliner material. The two straight edges side-by-side permit the seam line on the ends of the fabric, just like we did during the prototype. The listing is strategically taped and the ends that were folded back are also taped to ensure that while sewing, the ends don't get bunched up. Note that no tape is will be sewn.


Photo 36 — Close up view of a listing with the end folded back and ironed flat. No tape is on the seam line.

Photo 36 — Close up view of a listing with the end folded back and ironed flat. No tape is on the seam line.


Photo 37 — Thread colour will be important to blend it into the material. The seam will be visible, but doesn't have to stand out. Here cone #3 was selected as the best color match.

Photo 37 — Thread colour will be important to blend it into the material. The seam will be visible, but doesn't have to stand out. Here cone #3 was selected as the best color match.


Photo 38 — One of the important lessons from the prototype was the placement of the seam into the material and the listing.  Affix the length of blue masking tape following the straight edge and marking which side of the tape to sew the seam. Also mark on the tape where the end of the seam is located. Due to the headliner material being three yards long, rolling it as the listings are applied is the only way to work in a confined area. As the material is rolled with the good side inside, the listings are visible as it's rolled. Long lengths of blue masking tape are applied on the visible side of the headliner. It is a guide to sew the seam straight.

Photo 38 — One of the important lessons from the prototype was the placement of the seam into the material and the listing. Affix the length of blue masking tape following the straight edge and marking which side of the tape to sew the seam. Also mark on the tape where the end of the seam is located. Due to the headliner material being three yards long, rolling it as the listings are applied is the only way to work in a confined area. As the material is rolled with the good side inside, the listings are visible as it's rolled. Long lengths of blue masking tape are applied on the visible side of the headliner. It is a guide to sew the seam straight.


Photo 39 — Close up view of the guide tape showing the arrows for the seam. The furthest edge of the folded portion of the listing can be felt through the material. This is where the seam ends.

Photo 39 — Close up view of the guide tape showing the arrows for the seam. The furthest edge of the folded portion of the listing can be felt through the material. This is where the seam ends.


Photo 40 — The seam is sewn onto the material and listings. Generous amounts of thread are provided for at both the beginning and end of each seam. The material is rolled to expose the blue guide tape for each seam.

Photo 40 — The seam is sewn onto the material and listings. Generous amounts of thread are provided for at both the beginning and end of each seam. The material is rolled to expose the blue guide tape for each seam.


Photo 41 — The headliner is finally tacked in place, beginning in the center and working out on each side. Remember to keep the seam at the height measured in photo 27.

Photo 41 — The headliner is finally tacked in place, beginning in the center and working out on each side. Remember to keep the seam at the height measured in photo 27.


Photo 42 — Side view of a single bow and a listing. This demonstrates the success of taking good measurements, folding the ends of the listings, and sewing the seam exactly where it was needed.

Photo 42 — Side view of a single bow and a listing. This demonstrates the success of taking good measurements, folding the ends of the listings, and sewing the seam exactly where it was needed.


Photo 43 — Inside view of the headliner after all the listings have been tacked. Note the sides nor the front or rear ends have not been stretched. Even though not complete, the final version shows remarkable improvements over the prototype.

Photo 43 — Inside view of the headliner after all the listings have been tacked. Note the sides nor the front or rear ends have not been stretched. Even though not complete, the final version shows remarkable improvements over the prototype.


Photo 44 — Installation of this headliner calls for a welting between the headliner and panels. Here 35 feet of wool material was cut off the edge of the roll of the panel wool material and using a welting foot and appropriate thread color for this new material, a full welting roll was prepared.

Photo 44 — Installation of this headliner calls for a welting between the headliner and panels. Here 35 feet of wool material was cut off the edge of the roll of the panel wool material and using a welting foot and appropriate thread color for this new material, a full welting roll was prepared.


Photo 45 — Installation of the welting over the headliner while keeping the headliner material pulled taunt is a tricky operation. Here a special tool was devised to allow the installer to apply pressure of both the welting and headliner (actually tugging the headliner) while the installer uses his other hand to staple it in place. The cut out portions were necessary for the staple to fit against the base of the welting.

Photo 45 — Installation of the welting over the headliner while keeping the headliner material pulled taunt is a tricky operation. Here a special tool was devised to allow the installer to apply pressure of both the welting and headliner (actually tugging the headliner) while the installer uses his other hand to staple it in place. The cut out portions were necessary for the staple to fit against the base of the welting.


Photo 46 — Side view of the welting and headliner. This is where it is important to monitor the straightness of your welting.

Photo 46 — Side view of the welting and headliner. This is where it is important to monitor the straightness of your welting.


Photo 47 — Another side view. Note there are some wrinkles which were later removed as the headliner was fastened on the opposite side and the front. Note the black marks on the headliner where the body has metal. This alerts the installer to avoid stapling there.

Photo 47 — Another side view. Note there are some wrinkles which were later removed as the headliner was fastened on the opposite side and the front. Note the black marks on the headliner where the body has metal. This alerts the installer to avoid stapling there.


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