Along with black holes and where missing socks go, one of the great mysteries of the universe is how to pick the right shop to do a mega-dollar upgrade on old Dobbin.
Engine overhauls cause the most agita, followed by ferreting out a paint shop and, last, finding someone to redo the interior.
In some ways, the interior choice is less anxiety laden. For one thing, unlike engines, upholstery redos arent always all or nothing. You can do just the seats and carpets, or the carpets and the sidewalls or some other spruce-up short of the full Monty.
You can do the entire job yourself or farm it out to a competent local upholstery shop, using materials from a kit or off-the-shelf automotive fabrics. (Yes, we know about the legalities. Thats addressed in the sidebar on page 7.)
So We Asked
To ease the strain of this eternal quest, last fall, we asked Aviation Consumer readers to write us with their experiences with interior shops. Our survey asked for the shop names, how much the work cost and how the quality rated on a scale of one to 10. As usual, we asked for a warts-and-all impression of the work done by these shops and thats what we got.
Between phone calls, faxes and e-mail, we heard from about 100 readers, most of whom sent positive reports. Frankly, this is common sense stuff and if you apply the same logic you would to selecting an engine or avionics shop, you wont go wrong with an interior shop, either. Still, there are some standout shops.
How to find them? Get direct, recent references and take the bother to actually look at the work the shop turns out. Your crosstown pals idea of a perfect 10 with careful attention to detail might not square with your own. The survey responses revealed that some owners arent especially picky about carpets that dont fit perfectly or a little pucker in a seatback. But others expect-somewhat unreasonably-a $3000 aircraft interior to rival the quality of a Lexus, to which we say: forget it.
We see three ways of looking at interior redos. The low-end consists of major repairs and spruce-ups to basically serviceable fabric and plastic, the middle consists of custom jobs by dedicated shops using sensibly priced materials (not cost-is-no-object leather) and the upper strata is high-end work where luxuries such as silk-screened panels, custom seats and rich leather are the rule rather than the exception.
Judging by the survey forms, its possible to put dollar numbers on these levels. Typically, the spruce-ups seem to cost $2000 or less, the middle-range redos for a four-place aircraft cost between $3000 and $7000 and the high-end stuff can be $10,000 and up; sometimes way up. Cabin-class twins can easily run into the teens.
Since repairs and spruce-ups vary widely, we cant really say what should go into such work. Its strictly eye of the beholder. But a mid-range upholstery redo typically involves stripping the interior, tending to any minor repairs required behind the panels, new carpet and sidewalls, repair or replacement of plastic interior parts, stripping, inspecting repairing and recovering the seats, repairing or replacing seatbelt webbing, repairing or replacing the headliner and glareshield and, as a nice attention to detail, painting the door and window jambs.
The work should also include the appropriate logbook entries and approval paperwork for the fabric, either in the logbooks or on file and available. Generally speaking, interior redos dont address more than minor cosmetic items on the instrument panel so ask the shop what the quote includes.
Average cost: About $5000, according to our surveys, but this can vary widely by shop and materials used for the upholstery. You might get a custom leather interior for that kind of money but more likely, itll be decent quality fabric or even an Airtex kit job done by a good shop.
Following the example of paint shops, some interior shops are offering flat-rate pricing for four- and six-place singles and twins. We like this idea because it gives the buyer a firm number to work with and reduces the chances of squabbles over pricing later on, a common complaint among owners.
One of the top-rated shops, Interiors by Steve, in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, quotes a $5600 flat price for a four-place airplane done in fabric (optional leather trim), $6600 for full leather. Six placers are $6600 and $7600 respectively. Interestingly, Steve Hardwick, the shop owner, quotes these numbers sight unseen, figuring that airplane-to-airplane, there simply isnt enough variability to impact the bottom line.
But not all shops look at it that way. Dennis Wolter of Air Mod, another top-rated shop which we would say offers premium custom interiors, bids jobs on an individual basis, depending on customer wants and needs.
Finding a Shop
The list were publishing here includes shops that got at least one good recommendation from readers. Other than to pass on positive comments, we cant vouch for any of these shops firsthand but we think theyre a good starting place. Again, most readers found these shops through recommendations of others.
Having found the shop, now what? It helps to know what you want. I found myself looking at the work of aircraft interior shops and asking Why doesnt this $100,000 airplane interior look as good as a $20,000 car? wrote Brian Coppola of Bulger, Pennsylvania. I expected my aircraft interior to look every bit as good as our family mini-van. Consequently, thats where I started.
Coppola looked at automobile fabrics and colors then took his ideas to Ohio Aircraft Interiors in Zanesville, Ohio, a shop which does airplanes, autos and trucks. Coppola redid his Cessnas plastic parts while shop owner Paul Workman did everything else. Total cost: $7500 for a job Coppola rates as a 10+ but with this caveat: Trying to redo the interior yourself just for the sake of saving a buck may end up costing just as much as you would have paid a shop and the results may not be what you expected.
On the other hand, there are advantages to at least helping with the work: While the aircraft was wide open, we did a lot of work on items that arent easy to get to. This is one of the big advantages of doing it yourself with an A&Ps help, says Keith Bryan of Waterford, Michigan.
Wrote another reader: Find out if youre going to be charged extra because you helped. No joke. I helped out with upholstery and things went pretty quickly, since I did some of the work. In spite of that, the time charge was high.
Roll Your Own
Speaking of do-it-yourself, how about Airtex interiors? This company is well-known, long established and essentially owns the ready-made interior business, selling kits, full upholstery sets and some custom work. If youre nearby, Airtex has a shop at Trenton, New Jersey and will install what it sells.
Its a misnomer to call Airtex products off-the-shelf since the company takes each order individually and manufacturers it to the customers specs from a selection of fabrics and leather spanning price and quality ranges. Got your own leather? Airtex will work with that, too, from literally thousands of stock interior patterns stored in the companys Fallsington, Pennsylvania plant.
Airtex owner Don Stretch, whom we visited last month, agrees with Coppolas caveat about tackling an interior on a DIY basis. Many owners do take on this task successfully. But he warns it takes patience, lots of time and tolerance for frustration. And unless you have a hangar available with electricity and heat, plan the work for spring or fall, when its neither blistering hot nor freezing cold.
Airtex does offer over-the-phone support but it may be less skin off your knuckles to negotiate an owner-assist arrangement with a local shop or even your A&P.
Airtex gets generally high marks from owners, but a couple of complaints as well, one on a custom leather job which the owner wasnt happy with and another from a buyer who was displeased with the Airtex fit and finish. Stretch told us that there are frequently fit problems with Airtex interiors because despite having accurate patterns, airplanes tend to be dimensionally inconsistent and often asymmetrical, even within the same model and year.
Stretch explained-and buyers confirm-that Airtex will take any materials back into the shop to adjust the fit, requiring some back and forth shipping and extending down time. And you may have to provide Airtex with additional information, such as sketches with corrective dimensions. Based on our survey, Airtex seems to sincerely resolve customer beefs.
However, having said that, if you expect a $3500 Airtex interior to rival a $10,000 high-end custom job, youll be disappointed. By design, Airtex tends toward mid-range materials, not cheap vinyl but not hand-tooled leather, either, thus its interiors are competent and presentable if not always spectacular.
More Shop Notes
Some readers report good results with local auto or furniture upholstery shops. But to pull this off, youll have to stay in the loop with A&P or I/A advice on line, if needed.
If I had it to do over again, wrote Dale Eisenman, of Hilliard, Ohio. I might look harder at a name brand aviation firm that did a greater percentage of their business in aviation, particularly if the price were more competitive. Tritex discovered things about the seats and RAM placards, for example, that a more aviation-oriented firm might have known from the beginning.
Many owners do consider and then reject doing the interiors themselves: I debated long and hard about using an Airtex-style interior or something similar or to seek out a custom interior shop. I came to the conclusion that given that my airplane is rapidly appreciating, I deserved to further spoil myself with a complete custom leather interior. The interview process encompassed seven companies located throughout the U.S. I ended up selecting Ron Madda from Aviation Creations, based upon his willingness to customize certain areas of the retrofit, said Todd Smith of Howell, Michigan.
We thought the most exhaustive method for finding a shop came from Jeff Lord of Louisville, Kentucky, who wrote I had some criteria going into this process. Heres his list:
Shops located within no more than 1/2 to one day flying time and one-days drive.
Shops located close enough to each other that paint and interior can be coordinated.
Shops with national reputation; that is, those with articles previously published about them, and/or who had sufficient references for assessment.
Shops that werent exclusive or focused strictly on the corporate aircraft level of refurbishment.
Having selected Air Mod, Lord offers further pointers:
Good shops are busy and dont compromise on the time it takes to get quality work done. Theyre booked months in advance. Plan for that and be flexible and open minded.
Dont let your enthusiasm outrun your wallet. It will do no good to plan the work, get hyped up and come up short on funds.
Make sure the shop(s) are on good terms with the Feds! Custom work can and will require a lot of field approved 337s and inspections. A good reputation and relationship with the local FSDO is vital.
Allow a full day for the delivery. All of that paperwork checking, systems familiarization, checkride and handling of as many squawks as possible while youre there cant be done casually or quickly. Agree on follow up punch list clearly and definitively! These are quality shops. It doesnt make any sense to have them-or you-frustrated over who was going to do what, when.
Mistakes to Avoid
Beyond picking a bad shop, many owners gave us short lists-okay, some werent that short-of mistakes to avoid when doing an interior.
Unless youre doing a quickie repair or fix-up, dont skip removing, repairing and reupholstering the seats, to include replacing broken or questionable parts and rewebbing the seat. The track and adjustment mechanisms should be painted.
Replace the seatbelt webbing. The old stuff is probably dirty and will clash with refurbished seats. This is also a safety-of-flight item.
Dont let the shop talk you out of painting the door and window jambs to match the exterior paint. This should be standard detailing. If the existing insulation is ratty and water stained, replace it while the interior is out. Insulation is cheap, labor isnt.
If youre contemplating autopilot, GPS installation or other major work, have it done ahead of the interior job. You may save a few bucks on removing the interior and the new stuff wont get beat up during removal.
If the interior shop cant do a careful inspection of tubing, wire bundles and so on behind the sidewalls, hire an IA for an hour or two to do the inspection. Its cheap preventative maintenance.
If youre obsessive about details, dont deal with a shop thats 500 miles away. Pick one that will make a supervisory trip or two convenient. This is a recurring if-only-I-had-known complaint among owners.
Think very carefully about repairing versus replacing plastic parts, such as door panels and headliners. Repairs may look acceptable for a year or two, but after that, they may look ratty compared to the new fabric. Get a price quote on replacement so you can make a judgment call.
Dont accept the shops delivery date as a hard deadline against an important trip. Even the best shops get a day or two behind and some very good ones get weeks behind. This is a consistent complaint.
Writes Mike Palmer: Watch out for the art-teeste. While there must be some artist in an upholsterer -they need a good eye for color matching, and some creativity for design-you dont want the prima-donna type who insists they know exactly what you want. If theyre not asking, but telling, run.
Tips We Like
Several readers mentioned used an elastomeric coating called SEM to treat the interior plastic and seat parts. Its tough and easily touched up. (Source: 800-831-1122.)
Inspect interior tubing and apply zinc chromate to any corroded areas.
If you contemplate installing a four-place intercom or stereo, run the wires during interior work, even if the avionics work is still in the future.
New plastic parts can be bought from Kinzie Industries (580-327-1565). Kinzie makes nice stuff, were told, but it may require quite a lot of fitting. Another plastic source is Heinol & Associates at 903-534-1897.
Reader Keith Bryan mentioned three good tips: Cover a manual flap handle with 1-inch heat shrink tubing. It takes a beating and always looks nice. Aircraft Seat Belts, Inc. (800-847-5651) can redo seatbelt hardware and webbing. Moody Aero-Graphics (800-749-2462) supplies interior placards and can do custom work on placards.
You might get by with no work on the panel but consider powder coating or painting the yokes, a relatively cheap but rich looking detail.
Beech wanted outrageous prices for new interior placards so I made new ones on our office decal machine; they look better than the originals! wrote a Seattle reader.
The Mooney glareshield is of poor design to start with-you have to lift a brittle plastic flap to clear the center post-and after years of exposure to the sun, it becomes terribly warped, reports Alan Duncan, of Rochester, Minnesota. Leather Tech will build up the glareshield in a sort of resculpting process and results are really quite striking. I would highly recommend this for other aircraft as well.
If we draw any single conclusion from our interior shop survey, its this: Think twice about doing the work yourself. You may save a few bucks but the results may be disappointing.
There are plenty of good shops that do excellent work at fair prices. On an older airplane, we think $4000 to $7000 is a reasonable price to pay for a full interior, with the higher price applying to leather or fabric trimmed in leather with some extra detailing thrown in.