Refurbish a Defender headlining


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This tired, old lining is in need of replacement : credit: © Trevor Cuthbert
Headlinings eventually become shabby and sag with age. Trevor Cuthbert sees how a specialist can rejuvenate them

Need to know

Time: 3 hours.
Cost: £150.
Difficulty: 4 out of 5 stars
Models: Defender Td5, 90, 110, 130.
Tools needed: Trim tools, spray adhesive, scissors, craft knife, heat gun.
Parts used: Defender headlining retrim, standard grey fabric, £150 from Arek Car Design.
Work safely:
• Wear face mask and ensure good ventilation when using adhesives, and when cleaning dusty, dirty surfaces.
• Take note of the adhesive manufacturer’s safety instructions.
• Take great care with sharp cutting tools.
Contact: Arek Car Design, 73c Queen Street, Ballymena, Co Antrim, BT42 2BE.
Tel: 07871 403 779, M: 02825 659207.

It is not just the Defender’s mechanical components that get old and worn. The interior deteriorates over time too, with seats getting torn and shabby, door cards battered and broken, and most of us have experienced the dreaded sagging and shabby headlining. A number of businesses offer replacement Land Rover headlinings, from the basic factory specification to high-grade fabrics and leathers of many colours and finishes.

These fine new replacement headlinings can be costly to purchase or to have custom made. Here in Ireland and Northern Ireland, we have always dealt with the added expense of shipping the product across the Irish Sea, which has risen significantly since Brexit –
particularly for Land Rover owners in the south of Ireland.

So it was great news to discover a business in County Antrim that specialises in the retrim of seats, headlinings, door cards and dashboards for vehicles of all kinds, including Land Rover Defenders, since 2002. Arek Car Design offers a service ranging from factory specification refurbishment to whatever quality level you wish for your Defender.

The original headlining in the Defender pictured here is a typical example of what I regularly see coming through my workshop. The fabric is dirty and stained after 30 years of use. It is sagging significantly and is beginning to separate from the substrate.

The owner of the Land Rover requested that the headlining be replaced or refurbished with something close to original factory specification. So I removed it and took it to Arek Car Design to see what they could make of it.


Removing the old headlining

Making space: The top sections of the front door seals are pulled clear of the frame to improve access to the headlining. Alternatively, they can be fully removed.

Visors first: The sun visors are held in place by two screws on each side, removed with a Pozidriv number 3 screwdriver. They help to hold up the headlining.

Under tension: The rear view mirror has a spring-loaded catch (shown) holding it into the metal baseplate. It’s removed by pushing upwards before easing it out.

Remove the mounting: The metal plate that the rear view mirror slots into has another job – as with the sun visors, it helps to hold up the front of the headlining.

Inexpensive tools: A trim removal tool is the best solution for removing the plastic fir tree clips that hold the headlining. Either of these tools will do the job well.

They can snap: The trim tool is inserted under the head of the fixing to lever it out completely, hopefully without it breaking, though it’s worth buying some replacements.

Remove every one: All plastic fir tree fasteners are removed to free up the headlining, plus any courtesy lamp and other fittings, leaving the headlining free to be lowered away.

Wiring harness: There is usually enough slack in the cable supplying the interior lamp to allow the headlining to be fully lowered before disconnecting the cable from it.

Tricky extraction: The headlining needs to be manoeuvred out of the vehicle without causing any further damage to it. Out via the rear door
was easiest in this case.


Preparing the Substrate

Old and tired: The headlining was taken to Arek Car Design’s retrim shop to be stripped and strengthened prior to having a fresh new lining material fitted.

Moisture ingress: The headlining substrate has already come apart at the rear corners, and is particularly soft here, probably due to leaks from the seals on the Alpine roof windows.

Removing the fasteners: On the workbench, the process of removing the fabric lining from the substrate begins by unpicking each of the staples around the hidden edges.

Ageing effect: The foam backing of the fabric is clearly coming away from the substrate, because the foam and glue have deteriorated with age and moisture.

Easy to separate: As anticipated, now that the staples have been removed, the fabric almost falls away from the substrate – little effort was needed to pull it away.

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Clean off the excess: After removing the fabric, a stiff scrubber is used to sweep the whole of the substrate to remove all loose foam particles and remaining glue.

Properly primed: Two coats of a thinned solution of wood adhesive is brushed onto the substrate to stiffen it and give a key for new adhesives to act upon.

Quite the sponge: This shows just how absorbent the headlining substrate has become: after two applications, the wood glue solution is still soaking into the material.

Fixing the damage: In the corners where the substrate had delaminated, the layers are soaked in wood glue, clamped into shape, and left for 24 hours to bind them together.

Reinforcement: Any areas of substrate that are still not firm enough are overlaid with glass fibre matting cut to shape. Strong resin is worked in using a cheap paint brush.


Re-covering the headlining

Almost factory spec: This light grey foam-backed vinyl fabric is the closest colour on offer to the original Land Rover fabric, and it will provide a great finish to the headlining.

Minimum waste: The new fabric is rolled out over the substrate and trimmed to the approximate size that will be needed to cover and overlap the base substrate.

One half at a time: Half of the fabric is folded back to apply contact adhesive to the substrate and the foam backing. The adhesive is allowed a few minutes to ‘go off’.

Here’s the skill: The fabric is now folded back again onto the glued half of the substrate and worked into the various contours of the substrate using fingers and suitable tools.

Act before the glue sets: The application of heat allows the fabric to be further stretched and manipulated. An extra pair of hands helps get the shaping done in good time.

Now to the rear: The other half of the fabric and substrate now have contact adhesive applied and the fabric is being stuck down, following all contours, onto the substrate.

Trimming and folding: At the tight contours of the substrate, triangular cut-outs are made in the edge of the fabric to help it fold smoothly over the edges of the substrate.

Not too much: Only a small amount of the fabric needs to overlap the substrate, so excess fabric is trimmed off, leaving about 40 mm to be folded over and glued down.

Sharp shapes: The fabric is folded and glued around the substrate, ensuring that the straight edges are accurately defined along the front, sides and rear.

Skill and experience: After folding, any excess fabric at curves and corners is pinched or gathered up, so that this excess can be snipped off with a pair of sharp scissors.

Finer details: All the screw and fir tree fastener hole positions are marked by piercing the fabric through the substrate. Fabric covering the mirror mount aperture is trimmed away.

Clean and finish: After lightly wiping the fabric clean using white spirit on a soft cloth, the headliner is now ready to be re-installed – a simple reversal of the removal process.


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