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Vinyl Fever

It was astonishing, really—the near-total absence of useful information on the Internet concerning the renovation and/or replacement of marine vinyl cushions. Sure, there were plenty of canvas and upholstery shops listed and some were even conveniently near where I keep my boat. But the related Web sites were pretty unsophisticated and, when I telephoned them, the results were often less than confidence-inspiring. After working through only a few listings, I could see why a friend had recently warned me: "Be careful, Bill. There are lots of untrained folks out there these days. They get laid off, buy a $1,500 sewing machine, set it up on the kitchen table, and presto! They're in the marine vinyl biz!"

1. Removing foam. 2. Cutting patterns (after renewing shape with steam). 3. Sewing with UV-rated thread. 4. A “new” cushion.

Dockside scuttlebutt often works when all else fails. A day or so after I'd chucked Google, I drove over to my marina, and in surprisingly short order, managed to tap a knowledgeable acquaintance for the name of a modest (most custom canvas and upholstery shops are small, mom-and-pop affairs) but solid marine upholsterer. Upon calling the folks at Jones Upholstery & Furniture Repair in Tallahassee, Florida, I discovered that they had way more going for them than just a solid reputation.

First, their prices seemed fair: The replacement of eight vinyl cushions would cost me about $600 if they were able to use the existing interior foam. This figure was in line with several estimates I'd already gotten from other shops in the Florida Panhandle. Only one I'd checked, by the way, had quoted a significantly anomalous figure, perhaps due to high overhead costs related to its large, flashy building and equally flashy vans. Its quote was almost twice what the others proposed, although no extraordinary vinyls or threads were involved.

Second, Jones' methods also seemed trustworthy. Thanks to some conversations with folks at marine canvas and upholstery shops in South Florida (one of the world's most challenging environments for marine vinyl cushions), I was totally convinced that when it comes to vinyl work, price and quality are determined by craftsmanship, not raw material. And it seemed that craftsmanship was what Jones was all about.

In addition to the use of UV-resistant thread, stainless steel staples (not rust-prone steel), and Delrin or nylon zippers (with sliders of the same material), proprietor Randy Jones touted the replacement of interior foam only when necessary, saying that swapping out old foam for modern, easy-draining reticulated material typically adds about 40 percent to the total. He also abjured simply patching and re-seaming my old vinyl. "An inexpensive approach," he summarized, "but seldom worth it—the cost of the work's gonna come close to brand-new and you'll still have something that is essentially worn out."

One final virtue surfaced a week or so after I'd delivered my old cushions to Jones' facility to be used as templates. With the project going along nicely, I decided to stop by to check on some details and take a few pictures. And although my stay was short, I nevertheless picked up on a raft of proprietary, time-saving, cost-cutting, quality-boosting measures Jones uses to make old cushions look and feel like brand-new."I've been in the upholstery business now for 30 years," Jones told me with a smile at one point, "and my father 30 years before that." As with so many things nautical, there's no substitute for experience.

Jones Upholstery & Furniture Repair (850) 878-6973.

This article originally appeared in the March 2010 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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