Cockpit Cushions 101

Consider these basics if you're thinking of buying new cockpit cushions or sewing them yourself. "Hands-On Sailor" from our February 2010 issue

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Making sure you know what you are getting into is key to making your own cushions.Marianne Lee

It's a no-brainer, really. Several years ago, Christine Watson sought out a quote to have a dodger made for her Cal 34. The estimate-$1,200-was about $400 more than she wanted to spend. And she already had much of what she needed to pull off the job herself, with the exception of the right type of sewing machine.

So she bought one and, as she says, "I just had at it." The rest happened fairly quickly. Watson apprenticed at a sail loft in San Diego for a couple of years. Then she put up a sign for Kit's Canvas on her boat. A few more boats and multiple cruising grounds later, her business as boat seamstress evolved into the Rhode Island loft that it is today.

As I embarked on writing this primer on cockpit cushions, I turned to her and to several other experts, several of whom got started in the canvas and cushion business in much the same way as Watson: through needs that arose on their own boats.

Their trial-and-error experiences ultimately propelled them deeper into the evolving world of foam, cushions, canvas, and marine-grade fabrics, and today's sailor is much better off for it.

Using reasonably priced materials, you can cut 50 percent to 60 percent of the cost by making your own cockpit cushions. Factors that can influence your decision include sewing proficiency, the time needed toinvest in the project, materials cost, and the finish and look of the final product. But the DIY approach isn't for everyone.

Know Before You Sew
As it turns out, cockpit cushions aren't a bad place to start when it comes to a general introduction into the world of marine cushions and canvas, mainly because they tend to be the most straightforward of sailboat finery. But now read the hasty disclaimer: What follows here is by no means a step-by-step, encyclopedic technical guide to cushion creation.

"There are different ways to do all sorts of things," says Matt Grant, the vice president of Sailrite, a retailer specializing in canvas, sailcloth, fabrics, sewing machines, and thousands of products and instruction guides related to do-it-yourself projects. "DIY has definitely gained acceptance and favor in cruising circles," he continues.

The pros and, to a degree, the cons are fairly obvious: Once a cruiser makes the initial outlay for the sewing machine and other tools, she or he has complete control over the design, look, and frequency of any onboard upholstery project. The disadvantage remains the initial outlay for hardware and the level of sewing skills. Expect some trial and error and a few dry runs.

When it comes to cushions, Grant, Watson, and others in the business generally fall into two camps: those who encourage boat owners to make their own kit, and those who feel it's a task best left to the professionals.

Jane Vanse, called the "cushion queen" by her boss Bill Wright at marine-goods retailer JSI, falls into the latter camp. Clearly, her combined years of experience as a designer and seamstress on everything from airline interiors to 180-foot megayachts guides her: "When people say, 'I can sew,' I hear "Danger, danger!'" Vanse says. It's not as easy as it may look. "Then they see what the pros do next to what they do, and they see the difference. For the cost, it's worth it."

Choose the Right Foam
Great! So let's get started. Whether you're making your own cockpit cushions or thinking about buying them, the pros urge you to consider:

Comfort: When it comes to cushion foam, comfort is determined by such qualities as density and compression as well as foam's ability to retain shape and feel springy over time.

Cost: You get what you pay for. "Good foam is expensive," says Grant. "Inexpensive foam will sag over time and compress without expanding."

Cleanliness: Dirt and mold are the biggest problems. "Foam isn't something you can really clean," Grant says. "The issue always is how much dirt gets into it-once dirt gets into it, then you have a problem." Once mildew takes hold in foam, it's there forever. For cockpits and areas exposed to the outdoors, look for foam that repels moisture and allows it to escape.

Basic foam types: Over the years, both the technology and the materials have evolved. It almost goes without saying that the marine world isn't the source of the evolution of foam material; larger-scale industries, such as the airline and auto, provided broader proving grounds, according to Grant. (See "Foam Types," p. 65.) For cockpit foam, Grant and other pros recommend either closed cell or reticulated.

Fabrics
Endless fabrics and coverings exist, originating in everything from cotton to polyester and vinyl. For cockpits, Grant and others say they receive demand most for Sunbrella, Naugahyde, and Phifertex.

Sunbrella, which is 100-percent solution-dyed acrylic, is colorfast, fade-resistant, breathes, and can be cleaned, even with bleach, according to Sunbrella spokesperson Mark Brock. Advantages of Naugahyde, which is vinyl-coated fabric, are that it's waterproof and can be cleaned. Phifertex, mesh fabric with woven polyester and vinyl, is akin to webbing. It can be cleaned, dries quickly, and isn't affected by substances like suntan lotion.

Hands down, all the pros proclaim a preference for Sunbrella and Phifertex for cockpit cushions. Says Grant of the three: "I believe Sunbrella is a value-conscious material."

Tips from the Pros
It can't hurt to take a class, watch a video, buy a book, or entice a canvas loft to dole out some tutoring sessions. Short of that, here are some useful hints from the pros.

Buying foam: Purchase it in sheets according to pattern measurements. Glue smaller pieces together to cut down on waste. Fit foam into cushions like a jigsaw.

Choosing thickness: Industry pros advise against making cushions thicker than 2 inches.

Choosing fabric: Everybody wants fabric that will look beautiful for the next 20 years; unfortunately, such a wonder fabric doesn't exist. As you consider colors and material, remember that cockpit cushions aren't house furniture. People walk on cockpit cushions and abuse them. And they fall overboard.

Cutting foam with an electric carving knife: Use it on more than the entree of your next holiday meal. With an electric carver, "an amateur can cut cockpit cushions," Grant says; Watson and others agree.

Getting advice: DVDs are available for purchase; some businesses offer free streaming videos. Check out the photo gallery from my visit to Kit's Canvas at CW's website (www.cruisingworld.com/
1002cushions).

Inserting zippers: The pros advise making the zipper the entire length of the cushion, even adding a few inches to wrap around the unseen side. It doesn't cost that much more to make the zipper longer.

Marking pattern paper: If you're doing a large DIY cushion project on deck and below, conserve paper by using different colored inks to mark patterns for different cushions on the same piece. Make a key matching colors to settees, bunks, and cockpit so you won't forget. Retain paper for future reference when replacing or making new cushions. Watson and others also recommend Canvex patterning material; any paper that isn't too thick also works, from newsprint to craft paper and grocery bags.

Measuring: If you're buying the finished product, realize that some cushion makers, especially those who sell products that don't require fabric coverings, stock patterns used on production boats. Check first before you start tracing. If you're faced with making a pattern for someone else who's doing the sewing, or you're sewing the cushions yourself, add half an inch all around the template for cushion size. Then cut the material to fit the cushion; know that the extra half an inch is taken up when sewing the seams. The point is to force foam into a smaller area for a snug fit.

Stapling: Watson learned soon enough that fabric and zippers hold together better if she could temporarily staple them in place.

So there you have it. Once timid about an item as straightforward as cockpit cushions, I'm now emboldened by my new discoveries. Before long, you may find me huddled in the cockpit and contemplating an onboard sewing machine purchase of my own.

Elaine Lembo‚ CW's deputy editor, also writes about chartering.

Cushion & Materials Sources
Cushion-making components and finished products
in this story are available from these companies,
among others:
Almo Products: (410) 987-2121, www.almoproducts.com
BottomSiders: (800) 438-0633, www.bottomsiders.com
C Cushions: (800) 531-1014, www.ccushions.com
Foam Factory: (586) 627-3626, www.foamdistributing.com
Island Nautical Canvas: (888) 822-6827, www.islandnauticalcanvas.com
JSI, the Sailing Source: (800) 652-4914, www.newjsi.com
Kit's Canvas: (401) 269-6121
Sailrite: (800) 348-2769, www.sailrite.com
Yacht Canvas: (410) 268-7180, www.cfyachtcanvas.com