What Is Headliner?
Headliner refers to that thin layer of fabric that goes across the inside roof of your car. Though you may think that its purpose is purely aesthetic, your headliner actually has several important jobs. Headliner helps to insulate your car and reduces road noise so that you can enjoy the ride more.
Unfortunately, headliner tends to be one of the more fragile parts of your car’s interior. And if you own an older car, have an especially tall friend, or have had more than your fair share of humidity problems, then you may have a headliner that’s sagging, or even in need of replacement.
The good news is that you can fix headliner, and it’s one of the best ways to give a car that’s looking a little dated an immediate facelift.
Appraising Headliner Damage
First, you should evaluate the damage to determine whether you’ll be able to repair your existing headliner. If you have a small flag of dangling fabric extending from the corner of your car, that’s very different than a headliner that’s covered in holes.
Likewise, if you bought your car from a smoker, you may choose to discard the headliner even if its condition isn’t that bad since headliners absorb odor. Another hidden condition that might make your headliner look okay but be less than ideal for your nose includes mold. Your sagging headliner may have been caused by humidity, which would create an ideal environment for mold. Mold inhalation can cause allergies to flare up, leaving you arriving at work looking a little less than perky.
Repairing Damaged Headliner
If your headliner damage is slight, then these are some of the easiest go-to solutions for repairing your sagging issues before they cause any additional problems.
Unfortunately, you can’t really use the Elmers in this situation, but if your first thought is glue then your instincts are good. What you’ll need is a fabric specific spray adhesive. Spray the fabric glue evenly not just over the portion of your headliner that’s sagging, but also add a couple of inches to the radius to cover the headliner that looks okay but that is likely starting to come apart.
Fabric glue is amazing stuff, but the odor can be strong. Make sure you do this when you have time to let your car air out for a while. If the smell still bothers you, you can leave an opened box of baking soda out to absorb the odor.
Make sure the glue dries completely before driving, since fumes can build up quickly.
We don’t recommend pinning your headliner up unless it’s an emergency. Pins tear tiny holes in a fabric that’s already fairly porous and liable to tear.
If you have no other options, use several pins along the edge of the portion that is sagging. That way when you’re able to use a better solution you’ll be able to adhere the rest of the headliner without the holes becoming a huge issue, and with multiple pins distributing the weight evenly it’s less likely than any individual point along the headliner will give up and suddenly tear.
The Steam Method
The steam method only works in very particular situations and if not done correctly will cause the headliner to deteriorate more quickly. The theory behind this one is that the heat will cause the glue to melt and re-adhere to the fabric, but unfortunately, the problem with this theory is that the water from the steam can render the glue useless, and worse, can melt and deteriorate the rest of your glue as well.
It is a great first step to removing the headliner entirely in order to replace it though if it is your end goal.
For heat without the moisture, use a hairdryer. This will only work if your glue has the potential to be saved though, so in general, you’re better served by just going straight to the gluing solution.
Replacing a Headliner
Unfortunately, eventually, all headliners will fail. The foam that the fabric adheres to will oxidize, which causes the bond to fail and the headliner to fall. Because the headliner fabric is stretched and typically thinner, it usually cannot be reused and instead must be replaced.
Depending on the age of your vehicle and your installation prowess, your method of replacement may vary significantly. While each vehicle has individual quirks and placement issues, most replacements fall into two categories, headliners that are installed in location and headliners that are removed board and all and then reinstalled.
Your car may make the choice for you, with vintage Mustangs, for example, you’ll almost certainly have to install in place. In older cars, the headliner was frequently installed before the windows. That means that in order to do a true OEM job, you’ll need to remove the windows as well. This is obviously a job that requires a lot of care since glass is fragile and expensive to replace. If you decide that the factory-perfect look is very important to you, then you should refer to the owner’s manual for a full list of where your attachments are.
Using a moving blanket or similar padded wrap for your windows during the rest of this process should offer them some protection. There are also one-piece headliners available for vintage Mustangs now that make the installation process easier if you’re very set on not removing your windows.
For most people, the headliner and board approach tends to be a little bit easier. For this approach, you can either purchase a headliner that’s pre-installed to a new board or you can choose to replace the fabric on your current board yourself.
It’s worth considering both options, though the method of saving the existing board is a little cheaper, you’ll also need to deal with any damage that has occurred to the board since you first purchased your car. Many of the fabric pre-installed options are also made out of superior materials to the originals, which can help reduce cabin noise if that’s been an issue for you in the past.
In this video from CJ Pony Parts, Bill demonstrates how to install headliner in place, the way you would for a classic Mustang. As Bill points out, though it may seem easier to install in place, this is a fairly difficult installation for first-timers, and at the very least you should have a partner since the windows are very heavy and fragile. Don't forget to seal the windows when you put them back in place as well, since a water leak can ruin the interior of your car, including your freshly installed headliner.
In this video, we get to see a headliner and board installation. Since Bill has a headliner that's already been preinstalled onto an ABS backboard, you can see how much easier it is to get a clean install. If you're using new fabric to cover your existing board, the steps will largely be the same once the board is covered.
How to Install Headliner
For any headliner installation, the parts you will need may vary depending on your vehicle and the state of the interior. We've indicated that you may need windlace, which is true for vintage cars. For modern cars, you'll just need a method of securing the fabric while you stretch it. This can be as simple as binder clips depending on the space you have available to you.
Please Note: Please keep in mind that this guide is a tool to help you install the parts on your vehicle. If you don’t feel confident in performing this installation properly on your own, have a professional install the parts for you.
You Will Need
- Weather Stripping
- Razor or Exacto Knife
- Headliner Glue
- Windlace for Vintage Cars
- Remove the existing headliner, and all accompanying accessories. This will mean removing the sun visors, the dome lights, the coat hooks and sometimes even the windshield and rear window.
Tech Tip: Reinsert the screws back into their respective homes, this will make sure you don’t lose screws and make the install easier.
- Old headliner can be thrown away, but if you’re doing a headliner install in place, make sure that you keep the rods and keep them in the order you removed them in since they will all be different lengths.
- Spread new headliner out flat, unless it is already attached to its board, and establish where the centerline is and the directionality of the headliner.
- If your headliner uses retaining rods, insert the rods into the headliner in the correct order.
- Cut windlace into small pieces for installation, or if using the board method you can use binder clips instead. The important thing is to have some method of securing the headliner to the board or to the car while stretching.
- Stretch headliner into place, securing as you go along. Start with the front and back and then move to the sides. Leave about five or six inches open at the corner in order to assist with the corners.
- Once the front and back of the headliner are secure, then work your way around the sides as well.
- Once the front, back, and sides are secured then it’s time to work on the corners. In the front corner, you may need to cut small slits in the headliner in order to get it to wrap around the pillar correctly.
- In the rear corners, you’ll want to follow a similar process, but allow for a little more slack in order to accommodate the rear quarter panels.
- In small sections, remove either the windlace or binder clips and spread the headliner glue, getting it both on top and underneath of the areas where it needs to connect. It will take two to five minutes for the glue to become tacky after application. Wait till it’s tacky to the touch and then restretch and replace the securing mechanism.
- Once all sections are glued, wait 24 hours before moving on.
- If installing in place, install the finished piece of windlace around the sides, removing and discarding the temporary sections as you work. Leave the temporary windlace in place in the front and the rear though, until the windows are reinstalled.
- Use a razor or exacto knife to cut along the edge and remove the excess headliner. Create as clean an edge as possible, though it’ll be covered by the weather stripping mostly.
- Reinstall windshield and rear window, or if installing by using a headliner/board combo go ahead and move into the car and secure into place.
- Feel for the screws that have been left in location and cut around them to reinstall accessories like visors and door hooks.
When you’re finished, there shouldn’t be significant amounts of slack anywhere in your installation. If there are, you should address those immediately so that your headliner doesn’t succumb to some of the issues that your old headliner likely had.
Make sure to air out your car before driving if you used a substantial amount of glue. The fumes can leave you feeling funny, which is no state to be driving in. Once your new headliner has dried out, you can gently clean it if necessary.
Thankfully, though replacing headliner is a pain, it doesn’t have to be done frequently so long as you take care to clean it periodically and aren’t leaving your windows open in any storms. With any luck, your replacement job should last for years to come.