Don't Spill! But If You Do . . .

Taking care of your upholstery and keeping it in near-perfect condition is a little like taking care of Humpty Dumpty. It’s easier if there are no accidents.

But, unlike all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, if you do have an accident on your upholstery, you can put everything back together again.

Prevention, then, is the first rule of keeping your upholstery like new. Knowing how to clean a stain – and each one virtually demands its own, specific care – is the second rule.

Jeff Walters, truck product manager and fleet sales manager at National Seating, says, “Most of what stains the upholstery in a truck is using the seat as a down-the-road restaurant table.” Owner-operator Fred Lapp, who is leased to Landstar Express America, sums up the situation well: “Don’t sit there in a $1,400 seat eating chili or a chocolate sundae.” So, if you don’t want stain trouble, don’t eat – except over a table in the sleeper that can easily be wiped clean. And, if you drink coffee or sodas while driving, make sure you use only a cup that will effectively prevent spills even when the cab lurches.

If you can’t avoid spills, you need to know what to do to remove them before they become a permanent addition to your interior.

Keep a white towel or paper towels handy, along with water for dilution, to pick liquid spills up before they get a chance to set. The most basic stain removal kit consists of a dull scraper, clean white cloths, a spray bottle full of water, a professional spotting brush (available in a janitor supply store), and a nylon scrub pad (for hard surfaces).

Lapp carries water as well as a liquid soap. He uses them with his electric toothbrush (with a spare brush installed) to grab up stains. He also knows the areas of his truck where his clothing may pick up grease (especially after a service) and he stays clear of them.

You can do a lot to retard soiling of vinyl upholstery by simply vacuuming it or frequently brushing it lightly. In general, use mild soap (like saddle soap) and water, or a good, commercial upholstery cleaner, to clean your vinyl. The Mack owner’s manual reminds you not to use a strong chemical solvent such as acetone or lacquer thinner.

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The Freightliner manual allows use of a household cleaner intended for washing walls on vinyl that is seriously stained, but recommends against any kind of abrasive cleaner like those made for tile. Don’t use carbon tetrachloride or anything else toxic, and make sure to ventilate the cab well while working. Jeff Byler, of Jeff’s Large Truck Detailing in Reading, Pa. says that, in his experience, spray cleaner and a rag will usually lift spots before they set.

To make vinyl easier to keep clean, Freightliner recommends you just go ahead and wax the upholstery with any hard wax, such as one you would use on the finish of your car.

Fabric (velour) upholstery can be cleaned by vacuuming, or by using any upholstery cleaner formulated for such use. You can use good old safe soap (like saddle soap) and water, and its effect will be enhanced if you soak with the solution first, leaving it wet for a few minutes, and then use a soft bristle brush to scrub.

Holly Armstrong, marketing coordinator at Bostrom Seating, provided specific cleaning instructions from the manufacturers of several of the materials used on the upholstery of their seats:

This Mack interior uses mostly vinyl. While it’s easy to clean off more common staining, special care is needed for stuff like ballpoint ink

Vinyl: For everyday soil, use a gentle mixture of any mild soap and water. Wash the area with a soft cloth or sponge, rinse thoroughly, and dry. If dirt remains in the grain of the vinyl, use a soft brush to scrub. A little cleaning powder may be added if necessary.

Ink needs to be removed quickly. Ballpoint ink or permanent, solvent-based markers affect pigment, and become very difficult to remove as soon as they set. A solution of water and rubbing alcohol should be applied with a soft cloth as soon as possible. Hair spray that contains alcohol may be effective in an emergency; spray it on and then wipe immediately with a soft cloth.

Nail polish and polish remover contain active solvents that will immediately damage all vinyl-coated fabrics. Remove the spillage as soon as possible to minimize the damage.

Remove paint as soon as possible, using naptha for oil-base paints, and attacking latex-based paint stains with mild soap and water. Do not use paint remover, paint stripper, or brush cleaner.

Tar and asphalt will stain vinyl if allowed to stand. Clean with kerosene or naptha.

All these solvent-based cleaners must be washed off with soap and water and thoroughly rinsed after use. Do not use steel wool or harsh abrasive cleaners.

Cloth: For coffee, tea, fruit juice, milk, soft drinks, Tabasco sauce, wine, or urine, blot with mild detergent and water, rinse, and blot again.

Catsup, chocolate, or blood should be cleaned with detergent and water, blotted, rinsed with ammonia, blotted, rinsed with water, then blotted again.

Yellow mustard should be washed with detergent, blotted, flushed with vinegar, blotted again, rinsed with water, and, finally, blotted dry.

Spicy mustard with turmeric, and Kool Aid should be cleaned with a solvent (1,1,1 triclorethane cleaning fluid), blotted, washed with detergent and water, blotted, rinsed with water, and blotted dry.

Oily stains such as cooking oil, crayon, lipstick, mayonnaise, motor oil, shoe polish, or salad dressing should be cleaned with a solvent, blotted, washed with detergent and water, blotted, then rinsed with water and blotted dry.

For furniture polish or permanent ink, clean with oil-less paint remover, then blot, then use a solvent, then blot, use detergent and water and blot, then treat with 3% ammonia solution and blot, use vinegar and blot, and, finally, flush with water and blot.

Furniture polish that won’t come off with the paint remover, and shoe polish, should be handled by a professional.

Ultra-Leather: Most stains can be safely dealt with using a solution of mild detergent and water, and then blotting, flushing with water, and blotting dry. This would include most food stains from coffee, tea, red wine, ketchup or steak sauce. Removal of stubborn, oily stains like mayonnaise, butter, salad oil, chocolate, cosmetics, face cream, shoe polish, oil, and even urine can also be attempted with mild detergent and water. However, you’re likely to have better luck with a mild cleaning fluid (solvent) of some sort. You may either air dry, or to speed the process, use a hair dryer on the warm setting (not the hot setting).

Cordura-Plus: This is a molded cloth, and should receive the same care as delicate clothes – cold water, gentle scrubbing, and air drying.

National Seating’s Jeff Walters provided some, additional cleaning guidelines and preventive measures: “Upholstery is often nylon-based. So, to clean, you must use something that will not attack nylon. Vinyl is very susceptible to the wrong chemicals-it can crack or delaminate. Seats are often vinyl just around the edges, even where much of the seat cover is cloth.

“We recommend that our customers who run over-the-road use cloth-it’s much better where a driver or passenger stays seated for long hours. In this type of application, any surface that contacts the body should be cloth, not vinyl. The cloth helps pass perspiration away from the body and the upholstery instead of holding it there. Sweat is so acidic, it rots stitching. If it accumulates, it helps to wipe it off.

“Of course, some operating environments dictate vinyl. When the driver’s not in the seat that many hours, as in a concrete mixer fleet, vinyl is great because you can just hose the cab out to clean it.”

When it comes to spot removal from cloth seats, a standard mild spray cleaner will often do the trick.

Another suggestion from Walters: “The right cleaning interval depends a lot on the individual. Keep an eye on your upholstery. If you’re developing a stain, get it off as soon as possible. The longer it stays, the worse off you’ll be. They often get like concrete in 48 hours!”

He recommends a preservative-moisturizer like Armor All for vinyl on the dash, door panels, and armrests “to keep it from drying out.”

Sometimes things get on your upholstery that can really stump you.

Chewing gum can be a nightmare. According to Walters gum is just about the most common seat (and carpet) upholstery worry. The trick is to get it hard rather than soft and gooey, a lot like keeping a stain from setting (all the seat upholstery manufacturers above recommend this method). The simple solution is cold. Put an ice cube inside a plastic bag so the gum won’t absorb any water, and then rest it against the gum. After chilling and hardening the gum, gently pry it off with a dull knife. Any remains can then be coaxed off with a light vegetable oil or, of all things, peanut butter (since it contains such oil).

Kevin Thomas owns Thomas Industries, and his company does a lot of used truck detailing, especially for Volvo Trucks of North America. Thomas says that when you get a really bad stain, or one of those fishy or other really annoying smells, it may be time to take the truck to an expert cleaner “and pay us for our expertise.” One reason for this is that “every truck is different. That’s one big reason we can help.” Unless you know a lot about cleaning different surfaces, you could make the problem worse. Thomas says even dust adheres differently to different interior surfaces.

But if you go for help, go fast. “Also,” Thomas says, “It will help a great deal if you can tell us just what it was that created the stain.” If they know what it is, they know better what to attack it with.

There are other advantages to hiring a pro. For example, the professionals use expensive, special cleaners that can attack stains powerfully without damaging delicate interior surfaces or changing the color produced by dyes. Thomas says his company has used trial and error involving older vehicles to find those cleaners that are both potent and safe.

Remember that a lot of stain removal difficulty is the result of letting stains get out of hand. Keeping food and grease off interior surfaces in the first place, having and using smart stain ‘first aid’ cleaning equipment and techniques as soon as something spills, and keeping ahead of stains with regular cleaning, will minimize the need for extreme stainbusting techniques and hard work.

Quickie Tips

Don Aslett’s Stainbuster’s Bible offers these quick stain removal strategies:

  • For liquid spills (like your coffee or a soda), “Blot up all you can and sponge the spot with water before it dries.”
  • For dry, powdery stains like mud, “Vacuum or dry brush to remove all you can before applying any liquid.”
  • For dry crusty deposits of anything, “Scrape, then soak if needed to loosen stubborn stuck on stuff.”
  • For oil or other greasy stains, “Use absorbent to suck up as much oil as possible before setting the spot with solvent.” By absorbent, he means something like a white towel.
  • For gum, tar, or other sticky stuff, “Freeze, shatter, and scrape to remove the bulk of it before applying solvent.”

It Is Written That . . .

What if you have just one or two difficult stains on your cab upholstery, and, as a veteran do-it-yourselfer who may even have tackled a major component repair, you’re determined to lick them by yourself? Your best approach to stain busting is to visit the local library or a bookstore. Consumer Reports Books publishes How to Clean Practically Anything, and there is also Don Aslett’s Stainbuster’s Bible, published by Plume, an imprint of Penguin Books. How to Clean Practically Anything Appendix B is a chart listing types of stains and the best chemical and physical means of loosening and removing them. The book also contains a chart detailing how to clean various kinds of upholstery fabrics.

A high point of the Stainbuster’s Bible is Chapter 5, “The ABCs of Stainbusting.” Aslett lays out the basics of stain removal-a combination of chemical, mechanical, and flushing or rinsing actions. He, too, focuses on the importance of getting to a stain immediately,before it sets (mud and children’s Play Doh are exceptions, and should be allowed to dry before trying to remove). But, the chapter is full of other valuable advice, too: When working on a dried upholstery stain, always start with vacuuming or gently dry brushing. Don’t scrub, or you may spread the spot or make the fibers fur up and look like a wild haircut. Never use hot water or apply any other form of heat, like an iron.

If chewing gum has really fused hard, you can buy a special aerosol chewing gum remover at janitor supply houses to improve the performance of ordinary ice. It freezes semi-solids like gum, tar, and candle wax solid. Once they’re flaky, they come off a lot more easily. Dry ice, available at ice cream equipment dealers and even some supermarkets, is also a very effective way to freeze stains and make the material brittle so it stops sticking and can be flaked off. You can use a dull butter knife to scrape the frozen stain off and vacuum up the remaining pieces.

Other valuable stain removal techniques include soaking a stain for a considerable time with the right solvent, tamping it with a professional spotting brush, flushing, and bleaching. Bleaching, of course, must be done very carefully as bleach can take colors out. Test in an out-of-sight area and follow bottle recommendations cautiously.


Thomas Industries
(313) 592-3710
[email protected]

National Seating
(800) 222-7328

Bostrom Seating, Inc.
(800) 459-SEAT

Jeff’s Large Truck Detailing
(610) 929-0117