STUDIO 103 @Sand Sea and Air Interiors

Upholstery for Yachts, Aircrafts, Home, Hotels and Office

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Foam failures and how to prevent them

Moldy Mattress Liner & Foam 2 copy

Exterior mattress that sat next to a Jacuzzi. An exterior mesh cover over Dri-Fast® foam could have prevented the deterioration of the vinyl cover over polyfoam. Stagnant water grew mold and the seams allowed the water and mold to seep into the polyfoam.

Terri Madden’s July/August 2017 article for Marine Fabricator Magazine.
Check out Sand Sea & Air’s amazing work with foam at

All marine fabricators who provide products for cushions, bedding and headliners face decisions on the best foam for the application. The right decision ensures quality projects and happy customers. The wrong decision contributes to foam failures.

Cheaper can cost more

Less expensive foams may seem like a good deal until you realize they can deteriorate far more quickly than pricier foams because they may include fillers and additives such as sawdust and soybean oil.

I saw this firsthand some years ago during the oil crisis when prices for petroleum-based products (like foam) shot through the roof. One supplier offered a less expensive marine foam that was not yet “captain” recommended—a definite red flag. Two years later we were contacted by a new customer to replace the deteriorated foam from that supplier.


Here is one situation where a liner may have diminished the effects of sunlight. This image shows a commercial acrylic material on an exterior cushion where the polyfoam shrunk in the areas where the fabric was the lightest color. Interestingly, the foam was not affected where the dark stripes absorbed the sunlight. Photo Credit: Devin Genner

To prevent this sort of foam failure, only deal with reputable foam suppliers, ask a lot of questions and educate your customers who may not immediately understand why a more expensive foam product may be more cost effective in the long run.

Case study of cheap foam breakdown

A five-star resort hotel asked us to replace exterior cushions and daybed seating that were only two or three years old. One of the cushions looked like a former balloon that had been popped, another looked as if a wild dog had chosen it for a nesting spot and a third looked as if it had gastric bypass surgery!

Fortunately, we had not provided the original cushions and it was obvious the failure was due to a “budget” foam. A quality marine foam would have lasted twice as long. These cushions did not have liners—only exterior covers in an outdoor fabric.

Fabric liner considerations

Would a liner have prevented this issue? I don’t believe so. This

Lounge Seat Foam Shrinkage

This exterior daybed foam was one of several similar pieces at a resort property. It was a shocking example of foam shrinkage when inferior marine foam was supplied by a low-budget vendor.

was clearly a case of the cellular structure of the foam deteriorating in a commercial setting where the seating was used more frequently than on a private vessel. Fabric liners can prolong the life of exterior cushions in some marine settings, but there are important things to consider when using them:

  • Fabric type: Some liner fabrics are magnets for mold and mildew when used in an exterior application, and this will also affect the underlying foam. If a liner material is used, make sure it is mold and mildew resistant.
  • Application: If frequent cleaning will be required, foam placed inside a liner makes it easy to remove and reinsert into an outer cover.
  • Foam type: I generally always use Dri-Fast® marine foam here in the tropics where exterior cushions are frequently subjected to moisture. However, manufacturers offering water-resistant fabrics often question the necessity of using marine foam with their products. If your customer is on a tight budget and will be storing the cushions indoors when they are not being used, you might be able to use a less expensive foam.
Wet Seating under Cover

Asked to replace these old bow cushions, I was surprised to see how wet the cushions were underneath a protective cover that did not appear to be torn or broken. To prevent this, a water-repellent finish could have been applied to clean cushions at the first sign of water seepage. A breathable, water-resistant cover would allow for water runoff.

Good cushion foam choices

Open-cell reticulated foam has extremely open pores that allow water and air to flow through it easily and is available in soft, medium and firm densities. These foams are comfortable and stay cool when used for seating cushions and mattresses. Dri-Fast (sometimes called marine foam) is a high-quality open-cell reticulated foam formulated with an antimicrobial agent to prevent mold and mildew. When paired with an outdoor cushion fabric for the top and sides with a mesh base, it creates a virtually maintenance-free all-weather cushion that is easy to clean without removing the foam, making it an ideal choice for most boat cockpit cushions.

Closed-cell PVN foam (also known as flotation foam) is three times firmer than polyurethane foam and is a more expensive option. Its buoyancy makes it a great choice for flotation applications like floating cockpit cushions and life vests. It is also a good choice for commercial boat seating or other seating that will be used as a step for getting on and off the vessel. PVN foam resists water absorption, so you can safely cover it with any type of fabric. Thin sheets of closed-cell foam are often glued to the bottom of other foam, adding additional support to a cushion, like a box spring to a mattress. When using it with Dri-Fast foam, cut holes in the closed-cell foam for drainage.

Supposedly Marine Foam Breakdown

These two-year-old exterior cushions were provided by a well-known manufacturer. Perhaps budget constraints determined the use of polyfoam and the fabricator thought a water-repellent liner would keep water out. Verify the specifications of the materials you use to avoid this situation. We omitted the liner and used Sunbrella® fabric with Dri-Fast foam.


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The art of project management on contour cushions

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The horseshoe-shaped seating for an aft cockpit required an elaborate checklist to ensure that all the customer’s requests were fulfilled.

Terri Madden’s July/August 2016 article for Marine Fabricator Magazine.

You can browse the PDF, or read the text version below.

Marine fabricators are a unique group of craftspeople and business owners. Many of us are familiar with the notion that creative pursuits are right brain activities, while math and logic are left brain activities. As marine fabricators, we utilize the right sides of our brains for design solutions that meet customers’ aesthetic and practical expectations. At the same time, we utilize the left sides of our brains for business activities like managing shop operations, doing complicated mathematical calculations, and making sure that all project specifications are completed.

The two sides our of work come together through good project management skills, so each person on the team knows what he or she is responsible for and the corresponding deadlines. My business has been fortunate to have an inspiring coach who repeatedly stresses, “Any project that we don’t plan will take us to hell!” Most fabricators would agree with this motto.

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Sketch and measurements for seven seats and four bolsters

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The pattern for the cockpit cushions

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The side view and front view of a single aft seat

Detailed spreadsheets

We use an Excel spreadsheet to list the job details from start to finish along with realistic timelines. The details we include are:

  • Travel to the job site.
  • Patterning at the vessel with all cushion perimeters marked and all identifications noted as well as photos.
  • Materials needed. If necessary, include your research time to identify customers’ preferred choices. Check for stock items, submit purchase orders. Follow up with local suppliers or on items being shipped.
  • Production card planned with name of team member(s) and their respective tasks and processes.
  • Team review with photos to discuss scope of job, time frame, and assigned tasks.
  • Examine the patterns for all necessary indicators such as notches, zippers, seam joins etc. For the project described in this article a non-skid backing was included.
  • Layout diagrams for materials and foam.
  • Cutting directions for material.
  • Sewing details, including any training, if required.
  • Inspections and daily review to insure accuracy and timing.
  • Foam cutting and Dacron toppers.
  • Foam inserted into covers.
  • Inspection of new cushions before delivery
  • Transportation and installation at vessel.
  • “After” photos to post on Facebook, other social media sites and newsletters.
  • Job review with team members

Reviewing this list of everyday responsibilities can be eye opening. Depending on the size of your business, you may have separate personnel handling these tasks, or some employees may have multiple tasks.

Verify that all of the details are noted on the final pattern, to insure that each component of your project will be delivered in a timely and profitable manner. As you know, any forgotten detail will cost you time and employee frustration.

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6-7. Early and final patterns for a single seat cushion. 8. Notched contour area for accurate joining of top and bottom faces. 9. Bottom face with non-skid fabric and zipper installed.

Planning sleeker contour cushions

A recent fabrication project involving contour cushions for a 43-foot catamaran drove home the importance of project management. For this seating project, the scope and sequence of the project was complex. By thoroughly detailing every aspect of the job, I could accurately project the time needed for the production schedule, including the purchase of materials.

Our creativity was unleashed on this project as we experimented with a sleeker contour for the new catamaran cushions. The captain of the vessel had forwarded sufficient details with an area layout along with material preferences and requirement dates. That was enough information for us to provide an estimate.

We commenced to pattern the horseshoe shaped seating of the aft cockpit, which we learned is the most used seating area of this vessel.  We prepared a checklist to review with the captain during our visit to confirm the details for the following:

  • Cushion design. See sketches and final pattern indicators for a sleek contour at tubing locations.
  • Total number of cushions.
  • Materials for top and bottom material.
  • Thread type and color, topstitching details.
  • Zipper color, size and slider location. We like to place slider tabs on the inside for cushions that won’t be opened frequently.
  • Foam type and density.
  • Dacron toppers.
  • Nonskid base.
  • Piping, ties, snap tabs, Velcro and other components.
  • Starboard base. For the captain seat we supplied a new ½-inch panel of starboard.
  • Bolsters and accent pillows, including quantity and sizes.

All of this information was used as the guideline for filling in our job spreadsheet. We entered all data and updated the spreadsheet for a final accurate job cost. Keep in mind that job sheets can act as templated guides on future projects; we can tweak similar spreadsheets for new projects with just a few changes.

We include the following:

  • All job materials.
  • Separate pricing for all components and percent mark up.
  • Quantities.
  • Shipping costs.
  • Task times for each phase (total labor hours) for a final accurate job cost.

After the seating project was started, the boat owner requested the patterns with the job. In the past we have been asked to retain patterns, and we keep a 2 percent inventory of material in case the owner needs an emergency replacement. Currently, many projects are digitalized and it is easy to maintain or provide a duplicate for any item. Company policies vary for storing and providing job patterns. Terri, what is your policy? Only one design co has asked us to retain patterns for  1 year.

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10. Inside view of notch indicators at contour and zipper detail. 11. Outside view of cushion at a corner contour for tubing and topstitch detail to hold seams in place. 12. The first step involves sewing the outside edge of the zipper tape to the inside of mesh. 13. For the second step, on the outside of the mesh, cut open the mesh along zipper teeth. For the third step, fold the mesh toward the tape edge and top stitch.

Encouraging your employees 

Project management includes encouraging and coaching your employees. Shop owners and managers need to ensure that employees have the skills to thrive under pressure, and that requires communication, training, and recognition. We need to cultivate new employees by exposing them to small projects where they can gain confidence. All employees, no matter what their length of service, need to be recognized for their skills that result in a well-executed project.

At the end of a project, ask your employees what their biggest learning experience was. Point out aspects of the work that you appreciated. Build on their strengths and coach them on their weaknesses. It is essential that team members feel satisfaction for contributing toward a successful project.

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14. Don’t be fooled by the clean look of new cockpit cushions; the elegant outcome is the result of detailed planning and execution.

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Upholstered Wall Panels

Terri Madden’s May/June 2015 article for Marine Fabricator Magazine.

You can browse the PDF here, or read below.

Most likely you will be reading this article as warmer weather streams across your state and your customers delight in contacting your marine business with new challenges.

If you have never had the opportunity to fabricated wall panels, consider a customer request as an opportunity to add to your skill set – toolbox.  Why? Boat interior hulls of every size and shape have some type of surface treatment that require finishing detail. The visual surface most likely will be in wood, laminate, wallpaper or padded panels.  Padded wall panels are esthetically pleasing; they can provide protection as well as sound/heat insulation. Panels can be easily removed for repair &/or replacement if they become damaged. Generally no sewing is required.

This article will be a guide in determining where to start, what materials are necessary and how to provide solutions for a timely and profitable product.

As with most marine projects a request for new wall panels is either cosmetic, such as when a boat is bought or sold or when an owner realizes that the materials are moldy, discolored or abraded.

We have had requests for all types of panels including accent topstitching on the perimeter of the panel.

A major consideration is budget, what “look” your customer envisions vs. what you can offer for their vessel. Yacht designers showcase vertical panels one year and horizontal panels the next.  Recently panels have been separated with handsome wood trim.  Determine if the panels will be flush mount, side by side or will they be set individually within a frame?  Will you need to replace only the covering on the existing panel, replacing water damaged panels and the surface material, or patterning to fabricate and install new panels for the first time on the vessel.

Our very first wall panel project encompassed replacing wallpaper with horizontal panels down 5 steps from the Salon to a curved hallway with 4 cabin doors on a 50’ Bertram. The unforeseen obstacle was removing the handrail, as the visible cap nuts and screws would not detach and it required access to remove them from a portside guest cabin wall. This alone added significant hours to the project.

Tools to Have on Hand

  • Circular / Jig saw
  • Tack / Claw hammer
  • Staple gun / staple puller
  • Stud finder

Basic Wall Panels – Approach and Evaluate

Traditionally a padded vinyl is wrapped and stapled around ¼” wood or PVC panel. These panels are held “in-place” via heavy duty Velcro or Panel Fasteners. Velcro allows for easy removal / installation / replacement when access to electric cables, AC vents etc. is required. When using panel fasteners consider the spacing, size and weight of the panel to hold up against the jostling / size of the boat.

Determine who will prepare the area if you are making new panels and verify if other contractors are working inside the vessel in order that your access is coordinated. Decide which system you will use to adhere the panels to the surface. Make a small sample to verify height next to doorframes or trim as this can prevent any unforeseen obstacles. Consider the difference between a thin silk vs. leather or a 30 oz. vinyl; add foam height and each sample will be slightly different. Perhaps a 1/8” panel is needed or a 3/8” would be a better fit. It is a good idea to display these samples in your shop and use them to show new customers!

Vinyl with foam backing is frequently used over panels. Vendors such as Covin Sales and Majilite offer an extensive selection of vinyl patterns that can be laminated with stock foam thicknesses in a range from 1/16″ to 3/4″, with a 5-yard minimum order.  *Do not attempt to laminate material to foam by yourself as it is practically impossible to get 100% contact and any separation will bubble and be quite noticeable when the panels are mounted.

Let the Project Begin

If you are making new panels, schedule sufficient time to prepare the area by removing all furniture or trim if necessary. Use a stud finder to locate studs in areas that may prevent installation of panel fasteners.

Pattern areas and record details and measurements for all areas/double check/ record a number sequence for Port / Starboard panels.  Frame out the areas for Velcro or fasteners and indicate these locations on your patterns. Determine the spacing between panels as 1/8” foam + vinyl = thickness on a panel edge – when the panels are side by side – you need to multiply the thickness by 2 to get the space you need to allow in-between panels. This may require ¼” spacing or more between adjacent panels.

Consider ordering PVC panels pre-cut from your supplier for accurate edges or be sure to check the cutting blade on your saw and how it will affect the finished edge, which your space requires.  An extra trip to the boat is recommended after panels are cut to verify multiple panels for adjustments and final fit of all edges prior to covering.

When ordering and cutting vinyl or fabric add +2” on all sides of the L + W for sufficient material to wrap and pull to the back of the panel for stapling.  Practice corners by folding and notching the material at panel edges so that there is no overlap.  If you are using heavy duty 1” Velcro on the panel back consider using 2” heavy duty Velcro “on-site” for 100% contact. After stapling, cut any extra vinyl away so that the Velcro is mounted next to the vinyl in order that the finished panel mounts as flush to the wall surface as possible.  Occasionally decorative screws are used to secure panels “in place” on a vessel yet we have never used this system.

During your evaluation the fastening system was determined and now mounting fasteners like Velcro are stapled on the back of a panel after the panel is covered whereas other mounting fasteners like fast mount and Christmas trees need to be in place prior to the panel being covered.  Be aware that the spacing between your staples is important as most manufacturers do them almost side by side to keep consistent tension.  Check that the size and length of the staples you are using are adequate/correct for the finished project. Staples that are too long could pierce thru the face of the vinyl when pressed against. If you are using 1/8” PVC be aware that a ¼” staple may be too long and needs to be stapled in at an angle. A 1/8” panel is not a typical size yet on a lo-profile door project we covered with fine silk we had to be extremely cautious to place staples one right next to the other to prevent visual ripples and insert the staples at an angle to hold the material “in-place” as well as prevent the tips of the staples from protruding the fabric surface.

Understanding, researching and applying various wall panel systems for a finished “look” will provide an additional level of expertise as a marine fabricator.  Additionally other applications with the same techniques above can be utilized for upselling as a project for your customers on locations such as headboards – residential padded walls for sound systems and door panels.  The “skies the limit” and there is numerous information and “How To” videos on the Internet. I am an email or phone call nearby to assist you for any questions or concerns.  May a dose of confidence and your craftsmanship guide you on a new adventure!

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