How To: Mount Overhead Headliners

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, many sailboats were finished with foam-backed vinyl headliners glued directly to the underside of the deck and coachroof molding. If you own such a boat, you’re likely to be well acquainted with the problem of the headliner coming adrift as the glue and foam interface breaks down.
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Back in the 1970s and 1980s, many sailboats were finished with foam-backed vinyl headliners glued directly to the underside of the deck and coachroof molding. If you own such a boat, you’re likely to be well acquainted with the problem of the headliner coming adrift as the glue and foam interface breaks down. Those with newer boats whose interior is finished with panels instead of vinyl liners glued to fiberglass should read on as well if only to learn just how lucky they are.

The problem usually starts with a small bulge of headliner that has separated from the overhead—ours began in the forward cabin. You will undoubtedly investigate these bulges by peeling back the edge of the headliner to see what is underneath. Act surprised when a thick layer of gray dust falls from the ceiling onto your wife’s pillow. You may wonder what this toxic-looking stuff is and why the boat manufacturer stored some of it between the headliner and the hull. Don’t worry about that for now.

Go to the local marine or auto-parts store and buy a can of 3M Super Trim Adhesive. It is expensive (around $25), so just buy one can for now. If you want, use a brush to clean the fiberglass and the back of the headliner. Don’t scrub too hard, because none of this will work anyway. Spray some glue onto both the fiberglass and the headliner, press the two together, and then resume sailing, content that you’ve checked another boat project off your list. This fix should hold for three to 12 months. You will be grateful for this extra time once you realize how difficult it is to fix the headliner correctly.

A year later, once you notice that not only has your repair come unglued but that your headliner is also coming adrift in other parts of the boat, it is time to get to work. If you scour the Internet, you’ll find many discussions of this problem, but few easy solutions. That is because there are none. For the same reason, you’re unlikely to find a professional willing to take on the job. At least by now you’ll have discovered what the gray dust is—the foam that was glued to the back of the vinyl and which has disintegrated over time. Because glue will only stick to a clean surface, you’ll need to remove all of the old headliner, thoroughly clean the fiberglass underneath and then glue on a new headliner.

Try to convince someone else to prepare the fiberglass for you. Give him a vacuum to remove most of the gray dust, small brass brushes to scrub the fiberglass, a gallon of lacquer thinner to remove the old glue and a box of rags to apply the thinner. The thinner was recommended to us by our local hardware store, despite a warning label that said: “Do not use this product for any use that requires quantities of product to be spread over large surfaces.” You might want to look for a less flammable alternative, or at least give your recruit a respirator and make them promise not to sue you. The only recruit I could find was my wife, Alina, who declined the respirator but offered to bring her mother to help.

Before buying a new liner, ask the various suppliers on the Internet to send you samples. In our case, “Capitano Foam-backed Vanilla” from Gary’s Upholstery was a perfect match. Once you have the material in hand, you should first cut your new headliner into the right shapes using the old liner as the pattern. You might need to move some furniture before spreading out a 10-yard roll of material at home, especially if your boat is bigger than your Manhattan apartment. Next, you’ll need to sew the edges of the new liner sections, a process called “binding,” for a professionally finished appearance. Your mother’s sewing machine is unlikely to be able to penetrate such thick material. After a friend broke her industrial sewing machine trying to help us, we turned to professionals and found a specialty shop in midtown Manhattan with many foreign women sewing buttons in the back. I don’t think they understood what the long rolls of foam-backed vinyl were for, but it probably was the easiest $100 they ever made.

To mount our new headliner, we needed 15 cans of 3M glue (we spent $250 buying these online at wholesale prices), masking tape to control the mess and about five adjustable spring-loaded curtain rods. Since we needed those last items only briefly, we borrowed them from our neighbors’ showers. I don’t think the workers at the factory used curtain rods when they glued on our original headliner, as they probably mounted the liner before the deck was installed, thus, they could use gravity to their advantage. In our case, we found that positioning the large sections of headliner on the overhead was impossible without using the rods as supports. Once we figured out how to glue the overhead pieces, mounting the sidewall pieces seemed a piece of cake in comparison.

Nearly a year later, the headliner in the forward stateroom looks great (see before and after photos above), and we have almost forgotten the 10 weekends we spent scrubbing and gluing last winter. I estimate the process took some 70 hours, working 3-4 hours a day. The total cost of the project was around $700 in materials. The problem is that now the headliner in the aft cabin is falling down. We are thinking of offering free room and board on our First 375 (usually moored within swimming distance of Manhattan) to anyone willing to fix it for us.

Photos by Joe Kogan

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