Salon cushions are at the heart of most cruising boats. Although in warm climates you may spend most of your time in the cockpit the salon is there for you in cooler weather, at night, when underway, and the center of activity within the boat. But for that reason it can be intimidating to take on this central redecorating project. And it does take a fair amount of time. And you want it to last for years. Those are demanding criteria.
Maybe I can help.
Who is this article for?
I have just completed the salon cushions for my third boat. Along the way I learned a few things which is shorthand for I screwed up and figured out how to fix it! So maybe I can save you the screwing up part. I am much like many of you – I started by sewing from patterns and initially the thought of “starting from scratch” was scary. I’ve weeded through many different ways of making cushions but no one scheme was complete. For instance there are a ton of great videos out there but I found that they almost never talk about the kind of issues you will probably find on your sailboat – the “standard” irregularities such as non-rectangular forms. I will help you figure out how to deal with some of these irregularities.
And most self-help articles start with a particular design – how do you decide which type of design? If you are replacing the original cushions on your boat they may exhibit a very sophisticated design requiring shaped foams, buttons, pleating and the like. If you decide you have to have the same level of design, and yet this is your first project, you probably will be happier hiring out the design, or at least you don’t need my less-than-professional help. But after much hand-wringing I decided that my boat needed comfortable, well-made, easy-to-maintain, attractive cushions but that I could go with a modern stream-lined look. Call it Danish modern and it sounds fancier. Here are my decisions on some of the design “features” on my previous boats:
- No Piping. I love piping but it’s time consuming and, particularly for bias-cut takes a lot of material. They also can be bumpy to sleep on. I use piping on my cockpit cushions which are large slabs, (and the piping helps the cushions stay put) but for the salon I needed smaller cushions to make it easier to get into the bins below. Anyone sleeping on these cushions will be spread across several cushions so I’ve skipped the piping. If you don’t have bins below to worry about and so will have the piping around the extreme edges only, go see my article on traditional box cushions with piping . Otherwise stick with me and I’ll show you a faster, easier way.
- No Buttons. Buttons and gathers are obstacles to removable covers. Boats get wet and dirty. Sometimes really really wet. There’s nothing nicer at the end of a nasty wet storm or a tough crossing to get to a laundry machine and wash all those covers. Cutting and resewing the buttons? Not likely to happen on my boat. And yes there are ways to make the buttons easier to deal with, but either way they’re no fun to sleep on. Salons should handle sleeping guests and besides in our boat it’s our sea-berth while crossing oceans. No buttons for me.
- No Shaped foam. Good foam, which is the only kind that lasts, is expensive. I have found some very reasonable prices online but not for foam with neck or knee rolls. If you have a great shop near you that will shape the foam to these shapes, and you really want them, go for it, I’m not your guide on this. However if you just have trapezoids (don’t we all), quarter circles, or curved backs, I can help you with these. They are made from flat foam but can be assembled easily enough.
- Secured backs. I have not found good sources on securing the cushion backs to the bulkheads. Ok, I realize that normal people’s couches and window seats don’t go sailing around at exciting heel angles, but as sailors ours do, and we need to secure them. I’ll show you an easy snap method that you’ll be able to live with. Do your future self a favor and don’t use stick-on velcro, even the really robust kind. It makes a gluey mess eventually. Snaps are cleaner.
To look professional cushions have to fully fill the space they’re in, be plump and full with minimal wrinkles in the material, and be made of excellent materials. The first two criteria I help you with by providing the relative sizes of space, foam, and cover. The third criteria, top notch materials you will provide and I give you some hints on buying good quality foam. So if you want simple if irregular modern cushions without rolls or buttons and want to spend hours not days on each cushion, let me see if I can help.
Getting started and Ordering Foam
The basic design of these cushions is from SailRite. I’m sure if you’re a sailing sewist you know about Sailrite.com. Their “Easy Box Cushion” method is the basic idea for the cushions I made – and though they don’t cover irregular cushions it’s a great idea to view this video first so you can see exactly what I’m doing. This is a great video.
Making a Pattern
In the video they are making rectangular cushions so no pattern is required. However if you have any irregularities I encourage you to make patterns for each cushion. SailRite’s patterning material is excellent, but really a roll of brown paper for shipping or crafts is fine. Use one sheet for each area, even if it will end up as multiple cushions. For my L-shaped salon I used two patterns, one for the long run along the hull and a second for the shorter L along the bulkhead. I was very careful to mark where the junction between the cushion runs was.
For a fore peak or other extreme shapes you could order the correct shape from a company such as Foam Online or Foam Factory. But most salons are close to rectangular so if you have an electric carving knife you can order rectangular foam, saving a bit of cash, and make the minor edits yourself. On my boat the salon L makes a perfect quarter circle as it turns the corner so this was one irregular cushion that I ordered separately. Everything else was done with rectangles.
- Foam generally has to be ordered in one inch increments, so whatever sizes you determine will be ordered up to the nearest inch.
- Foam will be ordered 1/4″ larger than the pattern in every direction so that it makes a tight fit in the cover.
- Determine the foam thickness from your old cushions, measuring the side panels seam-to-seam and adding a 1/4″ or so. The foam may have squashed a bit so don’t measure it, measure the old cover. I decided that my original 5″ foam seat cushions were not tall enough for the table, so I decided 6″ seats would be more comfortable. This obviously affected the height of the back cushions, so I shortened them to account for that. My back cushions were 3″ thick and I stayed with that.
- Buy the best, longest-lived foam you can – they are more expensive but will retain their shape much longer. Salon seats are used heavily if you live-aboard. Weekend sailors could save money by buying less dense foam. I ordered 16-year HD36 foam for my cushions (see types of foam) and am very happy with them. The seats are very cushy but don’t bottom out at 6″ and the backs, only 3″, feel even cushier, but still supportive.
- Curves? My salon has a 90 degree turn that is done with a back cushion in a curve, and the seat cushion which is a quarter circle. The quarter circle seat can be ordered normally (a 22×22 quarter circle should be 22.25 x 22.25, or just cheat and order 22×22 and it will be good enough rather than trying to cut 3/4″ off the next largest size). The back however has to be built up of thinner layers so that you don’t end up with buckling foam in front. I built mine up with three 1 inch thick sheets and glued them one by one into the formed shape. The front-most sheet will have the most cut off, but I ordered them all the same rather than trying to guestimate this.
Measure the pattern and add 1/4″ to each side (1/2″ to each dimension), ignoring any cutouts you will do later (such as creating a trapezoid from a nominally rectangular cushion. In the image below the pattern was nominally 36″ x 18″, the foam needs to be 36.5″ x 18.5″, so I ordered 37 “x 19”.
Once the foam is delivered, cut it to the pattern size plus 1/2″ (36.5″ x 22.5″ in the example above) before laying out the bottom and top plates. You will use the foam as your pattern, saving a lot of time measuring and saving yourself measuring errors. Ok, I know you don’t make measuring errors but I do! Also mark the foam so you don’t forget the orientation:
- Mark the top of the cushion (the size you will sit on or lean against) with a clear FRONT indication so you don’t get it backwards. The top plate will cover the Front part of the cushion.
- Also mark the TOP of the cushion which will be the uppermost part of the back cushion and the rear-most part of the seat cushion. This will help in laying out the pieces if you have patterns or nap in your material.
Ordering the material and accessories
You will need the following items (some are optional) to complete this job:
- The foam from above. I have used FoamOnline and Foam Factory.
- A length of continuous zipper (I used #5 YKK) for each cushion, a few inches longer than the widest point of the cushions. Also remember to order one zipper pull for each zipper you plan to make.
- Dacron wrapping for each cushion (needs to cover the foam on all sides). I bought mine from Foam Online at about $5/yd but Sailrite also sells it as Polyester Batting for not much more. You can get cushions with the batting already applied, but since this easy method of making cushions involves using the foam as a pattern for some steps you will need a bare cushion at first.
- Silk wrapping (optional). This is nice stuff that provides some moisture protection to your cushion without making it crinkly feeling. It’s noiseless. If you want to use a shop vac to shrink the cushion for easier insertion silk wrapping makes that possible.
- Webbing (optional) and snaps (optional) for attaching snaps if you wish to hang the cushion backs so they don’t have to be moved when you need to get to bins under the seat cushions. It also keeps them in place while heeling. Either 1″ or 1.5″ webbing works fine and you’ll need a piece the length of each cushion you plan to hang. For the snaps I prefer the snaprite system and you’ll need a complete set of whichever snaps you prefer for every 6 to 8″ of each cushion you want to hang. The base of the snap will screw into the material behind your cushions and the button and socket will fasten to the webbing tape before you sew it on to the back of the cushion.
- Cushion underlining for the back of the cushion.
- The upholstery material for the fronts and sides of the cushions. Use the Sailrite Fabric Calculator to figure out what you need.
- Foam spray glue for gluing foam together (if required) and for applying the batting to the foam.
- Electric knife (optional) for trimming foam.
Sewing it together
This pattern requires that the bottom plate be made of cushion underlining or other non-shredding material. This material, at $7 a 54″ wide yard, is most likely less expensive than your upholstery, so will save you some money and make the zipper process MUCH faster. This will be the easiest zipper you’ve ever done! The bottom plate will be cut to the actual size of the pattern – slightly smaller than the foam – so just use the patterns to figure out what you need to order.
Cutting the material is quite simple and error free. Place the cushion down on the underlining with the top of the cushion facing up (you did mark the cushion with a FRONT?). Mark all around the cushion. Remove the cushion and mark 1/4″ inside each of the four sides. Cut on the inner line and mark TOP on the appropriate part of the plate so you’ll know that this is the inside of the bottom plate and where it goes.
Now cut a piece of continuous zipper slightly longer than the length of the longest side of the bottom plate. Make it a few inches longer so that you can trim it to size later. Making sure you are on the inside of the bottom plate and use seamstick to stick down the zipper. Sew around most of three sides (I always hand turn the wheel as I cross the zipper teeth – saves needles), remembering to stop before you sew that fourth side! Now insert the zipper slide making sure the pull tab is facing down to the material, not up to the zipper tape. Move the tab up past your needle position and finish sewing the fourth side.
Turn the bottom plate over and cut right down the middle of the zipper strip revealing the zipper and zipper pull.
For the cushion backs or any cushion that you want held in place, create a snap strip with webbing and snaps. I like to use the Snap Rite system from SailRite – the rivet tools requires little force and no hammering and is quick and easy. Here are the tools
First make the snap strap. Cut a piece of webbing as long as the longest edge of your cushion. The first and last snaps should be placed about 1.5″ inside the outer edge of the bottom plate. Between these two snaps place snaps every 6 to 8 inches at even intervals (this makes it easier to accurately place the snap base which will be screwed into your bulkheads). The picture above shows the first snap being placed into the webbing.
Next secure the strap to the back of the cushion. Make sure the good, finished side of the bottom plate is showing. You should see the zipper teeth but not the tape where it is sewed on. Place the webbing strip down on the material MAKING SURE THE SNAP BASE IS SHOWING. You do not want to see the snap cap, it needs to be facing the bottom plate material. Sew the end of the snap tape and between each two snaps, leaving room for about three fingers to slide behind the snap for fastening.
The top plate and the edges will be cut in one piece, then you will sew the four corners of the top plate, then attach the bottom plate. Then you’re done!
Lay the roll of material out with the finish side down and the nap (if any) pointing in a known direction. Place the foam face down (so you can’t see the FRONT marking) and with the TOP in the correct position for nap (if any) or pattern (if any). Nap should run from the back of the seat cushion forward or from the top of the back cushion down. Make sure you have enough material to cover the thickness of the cushion on all sides. Mark all around the foam. This is the top plate, exactly the size of the foam, but we still need to add the sides before cutting.
Take the thickness of the foam and subtract 1/4″; e.g. a three inch thick foam will have sides of 2 3/4″; a 6″ foam cushion will have 5 3/4″ sides. Measure out this size all around the edge you marked in the step above. You now have two rectangles drawn on the cloth. Cut out the corners to make a cross-shaped piece. If some of the sides aren’t at 90 degree angles, just make sure they are perpendicular to the side. Another way to think of this is to raise up the foam on its end and draw around it; then repeat for the other three sides. It should end up like this:
Cut out the material in the cross shape.
Sew the four corners together, being sure to reverse at beginning and end of the (very short) seam. Right sides together!
Sew the four sides to the bottom plate (right sides together). Marking the center of each side and seam-sticking the edges together before you sew will keep everything as precise as possible. Use 1/4″ seam stick only as the seam allowance is only 3/8″. If the corners are hard to sew around you can just sew each side together, getting as close to the corners as possible.
Your top and bottom plates are done! If you don’t have any curved areas you can jump ahead to Assembly. But if your salon curves around the L, read on.
Variation for curved cushions
If your salon curves around the corner rather than taking a square turn, you will need to deal with two different curve issues as shown below:
Curved Back Cushion
If you have a curved back cushion where your L or U shaped settee turns the corner you’ll need to make a few adjustments to this method. First you need to pre-curve the foam. One inch thick layers will do this much better than thicker layers. Cut the first layer to the size of the pattern plus 1/4″ each edge. I sewed the corner one last so that I had finished the other backs and had them in place when I started the final one. I squooshed the first layer in against the curve of the settee. Then I laid the next layer into that curve and marked the size. After removing and cutting it to size (each layer turns out slightly smaller) I spray-glued both pieces and gently pressed the second layer in against the first. I then repeated this for the third layer (and however many you need). The edges of these three glued pieces will be a little messy but nothing that the batting won’t hide.
The top and bottom edges will be made separately from the top plate because they are cut in a curve. Lay the now curved foam onto the wrong side of the cushion material and make a pattern, leaving extra on the ends to attach to the side plates. Make the thickness equal the foam thickness – 1/4″ + 3/8″ seam allowance. So my 3″ cushion required top and bottom curved plates at 3 1/8″ thick. Only add one seam allowance to account for sewing the top plate to this side plate. The curved top and bottom plate will hold the cushion in a good shape without being twisted themselves.
Make the top plate in three pieces so it can more easily take up the slack of the curved inner side. Measure the front face and write down the dimensions. Divide the horizontal distance into three pieces. Add 3/8″ seam allowance to top and bottom of each piece, and to the inner edges of each piece as shown in the image below. Then add standard edge pieces to the outer edge of each of the two edge slices as shown below. Once you have the diagram measured completely, transfer the diagrams to the wrong side of your material, cut the three pieces out and sew together into the top plate.
After the front face is sewn together, sew the curved top and bottom edge-pieces on, sew the four corners together, then sew the top and bottom plate together as usual.
Variation for circular seat cushions (flat but shaped like part of a circle)
The seat cushion under the curved back cushion described above is a quarter circle shape. Two edges are straight and the third edge is a quarter circle. The top and bottom plates are quarter circles as well. This cushion cover needs to be made in three pieces: the bottom plate, the top plate with two size edges, and the third edge for the curved part. Measure the curved edge and add 6/8″ for the two seam allowances on either end. The width of this rectangle of material will be the foam thickness – 1/4″ + 3/8″ seam allowance. So my 3″ cushion required top and bottom curved plates at 3 1/8″ thick. Only add one seam allowance to account for sewing the top plate to this side plate. Unlike the curved back cushion this plate can be made completely rectangular, but will be sewed to a curved top and bottom plate.
Other than these details this pillow is made the same as the others. I suggest that the zipper extend from corner to corner just under the curved edge – this will be the largest edge you can get.
Prepare the cushion by gluing on the padding. I like to start at the back of the cushion, spray the bottom of the cushion with spray glue, wrap the padding around to the front, and now spray the top of the cushion and gently stretch the padding over it. Leave a little extra to go around the back of the cushion. This ensures that the padding in the front will be nice and smooth and the back won’t matter so much. Make sure there is also a little extra to drape over the edges. Let the foam sit for a couple of minutes so the glue can dry.
Turn the completed cover right-side out and open the back zipper fully. Make sure you know where the top and front of the cushion is with respect to the cover. Grab one corner of the cushion and force it into the cover. Repeat with each corner. Once the four corners are in (this is tough with a 6″ cushion but can be done – be firm!!) then you can smooth and straighten the edges and the padding which might ride up around the edges. Zip and you’re done!
Alternate method. If you bought the silk cushion lining you can cut an overlarge piece (don’t skimp – the overlap is what allows a vacuum to form), drape it over the cushion, insert the vacuum mouth into the edge, secure the lining around the vacuum tube, and turn it on. Gently but firmly press the air out of the cushion to assist the vacuum while keep the tube pressed firmly against the cushion. Then with your third hand insert the cushion into the unzipped cover. Yes, another person is useful. Note that I got some assistance from this method but either my foam was too rigid or my shop vac (on the boat) too weak to really do a good job. Watch the SailRite video at the top of this post to review how to do that.
The cushions are now done and all that is left is to screw snap bases into the surface behind the seat backs and mount the cushion backs.
I hope these instructions helped you make sturdy, beautiful simple cushions for your boat. Please let me know where you might have needed more help or fewer words. May your sewing by relaxed and straight.