My cockpit cushions are ancient and brick hard. The zippers can sometimes grudgingly be coaxed into zipping or unzipping. So I decided to make new ones. But unlike cushions you might sew up some afternoon for your backyard, cockpit cushions are relatively technical. They are out in all weather (and no place to put them away!), are stood on as much as sat upon, and have to be really rugged. They also live in the most central place in your boat – the place you sit, the place you steer, the place you put your foot when cranking on the winch, the place you invite your friends while in harbor, probably the seats you sit on for most meals. They are worth a few thoughts about the appropriate materials.
Despite wanting to make my cockpit cushions lovely and soft, I knew I didn’t want something underfoot that would shift, or catch on my sandals, or slide out, so that limited my choices. So I settled for something functional and attractive and figured I could add softer pillows or a Sport-a-Seat when simply lounging. And by replacing the ancient closed cell foam with newer, thicker closed cell foam these do seem more resilient. And the zippers work!
And it should not be important, but the piping on the old ones was blue and we don’t have anything else blue! With a firebird boat our colors are red and light grey (and yellow when I go a little wild). Of COURSE I would never be so wasteful as to replace them just for that. But the ancient and brick-hard thing…
Are you thinking of replacing your cockpit cushions some day? Stay tuned for an article on the process of making them. But in the meantime here are some thoughts about the decisions you’ll need to make on your own set.
Choosing Foam for Cockpit Cushions
Cockpit cushions need to be very waterproof, so your choices are more limited than they are with interior (salon) cushions. For the foam you have two choices, really: closed cell or dri-fast or equivalent foam. For a fixed seat, such as found on powerboats, you will find regular foam covered in vinyl, but these will eventually absorb water through the seams unless you waterproof those seams yearly. For exposed cockpits in sailboats, which usually have removable cushions, regular foam is not a good choice.
Pros and Cons of Closed Cell foam for cockpit cushions
Closed cell foam will not absorb water at all. Closed cell foam floats – if your cushions go overboard they will not sink and can serve as floatation devices if a crew member goes overboard unexpectedly. Some people tell me they have used them as floats to lie in the ocean on! Closed cell is hard – not as cushy as you might like to sit on, but very stable for walking on when you go to reef a sail or adjust the awning. See closed-cell foam at FoamByMail.
Pros and Cons of Dri-fast foam for cockpit cushions
Dri-fast will not absorb water, but is mesh-like so water runs through. You may wish to set them up vertical after they get a soaking to speed the water running out. They cannot be used as floatation devices. They are quite comfortable to sit on, but, depending on the thickness, may cause uncertain footing as your foot sinks in while walking across. See Dri-Fast foam at FoamByMail.
Choosing Cover Material for Cockpit Cushions
Cockpit Cushions can be made of sunbrella, although sunbrella will eventually start to absorb water. If you like the softer feel of Sunbrella this may still be the choice for you. Vinyl is also a popular choice as it does not allow water into the cushion foam – however they can be quite sticky and hot in the sun – think hot car. Phifertex and particularly Phifertex Plus do not absorb water so are a good choice for either kind of foam. Phifertex Plus is made of a denser pattern of threads and feels smoother; some people don’t like the texture of regular Phifertex.
Other cushion choices
You might choose to wrap even your exterior cushions in a wrapping such as dacron to make them look fuller. Footing would be further compromised, so I would not recommend this in a working cockpit for a voyaging boat. For more decorative applications – great!
Piping or no piping?
Cushions look more finished with piping and it allows the alternative of adding a bit of color. The seams should last longer as well. If your boat allows cushions to be used face up or face down (such as a rectangular seat, or symmetrical seats on either side of the boat) then you will want to put piping on both faces so they are indistinguishable in either position. For cockpit cushions the ready-made vinyl piping is a great way to go – Sailrite carries both Seabrook and Naughahyde brands. See Sailrite’s Seabrook Vinyl Piping . If you choose to make your own piping, say in Sunbrella, Sailrite’s foam-core piping is a great way to go as it won’t absorb water.
Zippers are essential on cockpit cushions so you can remove the covers for cleaning or to remove salt water from the surface of the foam. Big-tooth plastic zippers make sense – the YKK #5 is a great, sun-resistant choice. I actually use the larger YKK 10 for my cushions because I use that for most of my projects and therefore only need to stock one size – and I like the bigger teeth. You will need to buy the continuous chain, cut it off to length, and add a plastic single locking pull in the same size as the zipper teeth. You will sew a placket over the zipper on either end to hold it in place. See the Sailrite #10 Pull and the Sailrite #10 Zipper.
Like all outdoor projects you will need a UV resistant thread. I use V-92 polyester realizing that I will probably have to restitch my cushions in five or ten years. It lasts well but not forever. There are also “lifetime” PFTE threads such as Tenara, but I find the price prohibitive. If you are younger than me it may be worth it!
Webbing or line
Your cockpit cushions should be secured to the cockpit in case of intense heeling or the cockpit suddenly filling with water (remember they float!). We have tiny pad eyes in the cockpit coaming down under the cushions that the cushions can tie to. I chose to add a small loop of 3/8″ webbing to the back of each cushion. A line, such as parachute cord or leech line will connect the pad eye and the webbing. You could just sew a length of leech line to the cushion. I thought the webbing looked neater and that’s what I had handy. If you choose to go with webbing, try to get polyester and it resists UV well. Strapworks has the best selection and decent prices on polyester webbing.
How much do the materials for cockpit cushions cost?
The answer, like all money questions, is it depends. On how many cushions, how thick they are, what material you choose etc. For my 6 closed cell foam cushions 2″ thick, approximately 20 linear feet of seating, covered in Phifertex Plus, with vinyl piping on both sides, with 6 zippers varying between 2′ and 6′ in length, the cost was less than $450.
I bought the closed cell foam online in two large pieces (72″x48″ and 36″x48″) for about $200. Shipping was free. I cut it myself with an electric carving knife I had bought some years earlier for cutting my interior boat cushions. You could choose to order the specific sizes pre-cut. I also glued up one of the cushions from several pieces using 3M Super 77 Spray Adhesive rather than buy another large piece of foam.
The Phifertex is about $19/yd (54″ wide) from Sailrite, and my project needed 7 yards. 150′ of the vinyl piping was $80. Shipping was $20. Zippers are about $1/ ft and sliders about $1.20 each, but I had all of that in my spares, but that would have added another $35 or so.
So get ready to sew …
The cushions are done. Next week I will post my how-to notes on making cockpit cushions in case you haven’t made cushions before, or if you haven’t worked with closed cell foam (which is definitely a little more difficult). The first step is making patterns. I just used a thick visqueen sheet from the hardware store and a sharpie to make the patterns, but this patterning material from Sailrite looks better (if more expensive). This just gives you time to make patterns of your cockpit before I share my process next week! Looking forward to your questions.