Replacing a Sewn-Seam Headliner

by Auto Restorer On-Line

Imperial Home Page -> Imperials by Year -> 1960 -> Donn Reese

Replacing a Sewn-Seam Headliner

by Bernie Brown

If you are unsure about one of the steps in this process, or your vehicle appears to be different than described, feel free to give us a call and we’ll help you get your headliner recovered. You can reach us at (702) 656-1734.

IMPORTANT: Never install a headliner on a cold day. The rule of thumb is, the warmer the day, the easier it will be to install the headliner.

Tools Required: The following tools will help you install your new sewn-seam headliner:

Items That May Be Required:

IMPORTANT: If your vehicle’s headliner attaches with glue, be sure to use a petroleum-based contact adhesive, not a water-based contact adhesive.

Steps to Follow: Read all these instructions through at least once before beginning, to ensure you understand the process.

1. See if your vehicle has a sewn-seam headliner.

Most vehicles manufactured prior to 1973 have a sewn-seam headliner. To determine if your vehicle has a sewn-seam headliner is fairly easy. Simply open all doors, look up at the headliner. If the headliner has seams across from left to right and are spaced front to rear, then it is sewn-seam headliner. If you don’t see any seams, then you have a molded headliner panel, and the instructions in this article do NOT apply. (However, molded headliner panels can usually be recovered – see our article on recovering molded headliner panels for more information.)

2. See if you have to remove any glass.

Before you can remove the headliner, on some years, makes, and models of vehicles, the windshield and rear glass must be removed; with some vehicles, the rear quarter glass must be removed as well. To determine if any glass needs to be removed, you simply look to see if the headliner material goes under the rubber glass gasket. Usually, if your vehicle has moldings (metal or plastic) around the glass, then the glass does not have to be removed.

3. Unfasten your current headliner.

Remove all headliner components: visors, dome light, moldings, coat hangers etc., then reinstall all the screws (see Tip #6). On some vehicles, the headliner is either fastened with glue, staples, or tacks to the front, rear, and sides of the vehicle. Other vehicles have a tuck rail on the sides of the vehicle, where the headliner material is pulled up to and tucked under the tuck rails.

Glued-in headliners: If your vehicle’s headliner is glued in, simply peel the headliner loose where glued.

Stapled or tacked headliners: If your vehicle’s headliner is stapled or tacked in, simply remove the staples or tacks.

Headliners with tuck rails: Many vehicles from the mid-1940s through the mid-1970s used what are called “tuck rails” on the left and right sides of the vehicle. On the bottom under side and in back of the tuck rail there are metal teeth that will fasten/hold your new headliner in place when installed. DO NOT remove the tuck rails from the vehicle.

To remove the old headliner material from the tuck rails, simply cut the old headliner material about 3 inches above the tuck rail, and front to rear. Then fold the old headliner material down. You will now see the tuck rail, with the old headliner material going under the back side of the tuck rail. Take your headliner tucking tool (see “Tools Required,” above), starting from front to rear, and push the old headliner material, up and under the bottom rear of the tuck rail to release the old headliner material from the tuck rail’s teeth while pulling the old headliner material down and out of the tuck rail. Be careful not to damage the tuck rail teeth.

4. Remove headliner bows.

If you look up at the headliner you will notice sewn seams. Under the headliner material, each sewn seam will have a loop of material called a listing, that will contain a metal bow. The bows fit into a hole on the left and right sides of your vehicle. Some vehicles will have more than one hole that the end of a bow can fit into – in other words, a length of about 1 inch may have two or three holes that the end can fit into. Always mark the hole that you removed the bow end from. The bows MUST be kept in order from front to rear, as they are various lengths. The front bow is called the #1 bow, the next bow to the rear is called the #2 bow and so on. As you remove each bow, wrap masking tape around the bow and number it.

On some vehicles there may be two metal wires attaching the rear bow to the vehicle’s metal inner roof structure; other vehicles may have plastic fasteners attaching the bows to the vehicle’s inner roof structure. Disconnect any such wires or fasteners from the bow or bows. Other vehicles may have metal teeth that go through the listing and bend around the bows. If this is the case, simply unbend the teeth and the bow or bows can be removed.

Once all the bows are removed (and numbered front to back), remove the old headliner from the vehicle.

5. Install the bows into the new headliner.

  1. Lay the new headliner on a flat surface, bottom side up, so you can see the listings.
  2. Mark exact center front and rear of the new headliner, as well as exact center of each listing. Use a pencil or something that will not bleed through the headliner material.
  3. Starting from the front, insert the #1 bow into the front listing, the #2 bow into the second listing from the front, and so on to the rear of the headliner.
  4. It is extremely important to get each bow evenly centered in each listing. In other words, from the center mark on each listing, measure the length of each bow from center to left and right sides – the length MUST be equal. You will most likely notice that the listings are longer than the bows. If so, cut a notch in the listing, about 1 ½ inches back from the end of each bow, being VERY CAREFUL not to cut through the sewn seam. Let the end of the bow stick out of the listing through the notch.

6. Attach the front and rear of the new headliner.

  1. Find exact center front and rear on the inner meal roof structure of the vehicle and mark it.
  2. Starting from rear to front, install the bows, reinstalling any bow fasteners as you go.
  3. Now, line up the center marks on the front and rear of the new headliner to the center marks front and rear on the vehicle’s inner metal roof structure. Starting from the front and at center, pull the headliner material toward the front of the vehicle so that the #1 bow is directly under or ¼ inch behind the front seam. Now fasten the front center of the new headliner to the front center of the vehicle’s inner metal roof, approximately 3 inches from left to right from the center mark.
  4. Repeat this process on the rear of the new headliner.
  5. Now go back to the left front of the vehicle and pull the headliner material to the front and left, in other words, in a diagonal manner, and fasten the left front corner of the headliner material to the inner metal roof structure.
  6. Repeat this process on the right front side.
  7. Repeat this process on the rear of the headliner, starting on the left rear side, then the right rear side.
  8. You may notice that the front and rear centers of the headliner material is now loose. If so, unfasten the material and pull it tighter and refasten.
  9. Starting from the front, fasten the rest of headliner material to the inner metal roof structure so that the sewn seam is straight looking from the left to the right side of the vehicle.
  10. Repeat this process on the rear portion of the headliner material.

By now the headliner material should be taut from front to rear. If it is not taut, unfasten the material and pull in tighter, both front and rear.

7. Attach the sides of the new headliner.

Use whatever method of attachment used on the old headliner – glue, tacks, staples, or tuck rails – see below for special tuck rail instructions.
  1. Starting with the left front seam, pull it tightly toward the left side of the vehicle and fasten it to the inner metal roof structure.
  2. Repeat this process on the right front seam.
  3. Repeat this process on all other bows, going from front to rear and left to right.
  4. By now the headliner should be wrinkle-free. If not, unfasten the wrinkled area and pull it tighter.

Using Tuck Rails: The easiest way to attach the new headliner material to and under the tuck rails is to simply apply a light coating of contact adhesive to the sides of the new headliner material and on the areas of the headliner material that are to be attached to tuck rails, using an adhesive brush. You will now need to apply a coating of adhesive to the tuck rails. The most common way to do this is to tape off the tuck rails approximately 3/8th of an inch from the bottom of the tuck rail, as well as any windlace, using a good quality masking tape. Now see step #7a-d above for attaching the headliner sides. Once the headliner sides are bonded to the tuck rail/rails, approximately 1 ½ inch below the tuck rail, trim/cut off any excess material. Starting from front to rear, VERY carefully tuck the headliner material under the tuck rail/rails. Be careful not to push the headliner material so hard under the tuck rail as to damage the headliner material with your tucking tool.

8. Reinstall visors, dome light, coat hangers, and so on.

Find their screws under the new headliner and carefully use a utility knife to cut holes in the new headliner material, so you can access the screws.

Sewn Headliner Installation Tips: Here are some tips to remember while working with your new sewn-seam headliner:

Tip #1: Never install a headliner on a cold day, the rule of thumb is, the warmer the day is, the easier it will be to install the headliner.

Tip #2: If you are installing a VINYL headliner, you can use a hair dryer to heat and soften the headliner material. However, use EXTREME caution so that you do not burn the vinyl headliner material with the hair dryer.

Tip #3: If your headliner glues to the vehicle, make sure that you apply glue to both the headliner material and the area of the inner metal roof structure that the headliner material will be fastened to. Do not apply so much glue to the headliner material as to make the glue bleed thru the headliner material. Make sure the glue tacks off or is not wet before fastening to the vehicle.

Tip #4: Never pull the headliner material so tight as to tear it.

Tip #5: If your vehicle’s headliner fastens with staples or tacks, do not put them in so hard as to make them tear thru the headliner material.

Tip #6: Any visors screws, dome light screws, coat hanger screws, and so on should be reinstalled before you install the new headliner. The reasoning is, that the screws will show through under the installed headliner and can be easily found and removed so that you won’t have to guess where the screw holes were.

Tip #7: Remember to use your center marks – they are key to getting your headliner installed correctly.

Your new sewn-seam headliner is now installed. You may want to complete your vehicle’s new look by obtaining new floor mats, new kick panels, or a new dash cap. Be sure to visit ABC Auto Upholstery Auto Glass and Repair and see how we can help you restore your auto’s interior!

If you are unsure about one of the steps in this process, or your vehicle appears to be different than described, feel free to give us a call and we’ll help you get your headliner replaced. You can reach us at (702) 656-1734.

Disclaimer: These instructions are provided as a free service for the most common types of sewn-seam headliners. If in doubt, or if you have any questions about your particular vehicle's sewn-seam headliner replacement process, or your interpretation of these replacement instructions, it is your responsibility to contact for further information. Some headliner replacement instructions may vary depending on the year, make and model of your vehicle.

This page was last updated on 13 March 2007. Send us your feedback, and come join the Imperial Mailing List - Online Car Club