Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Cockpit Cushions

Phoenix’s coaming walls were removed as part of the extensive re-decking project that began before we bought the boat. This gave us the opportunity to decide how wide we wanted the cockpit seats to be and the overall feel of the cockpit in general. Since we’re planning on doing most of our cruising in warmer weather, we decided that we wanted wider, more comfortable seats that we could lounge and even sleep on if the temperatures got too warm down below.

Even though we now have the hard top bimini and high freeboard, water penetration was still a consideration. The cushions had to be firm enough that we didn’t bottom out – either sitting or sleeping – and soft enough that our butts didn’t fall asleep like they do on many closed cell (CC) foam cushions. If they could double as a floatation device or even floating “bread crumbs” in an emergency, that would be a bonus. 

So, like Goldilocks we set out looking for cushions that would be “just right.” The Foam Factory in Michigan (www.foambymail) is our go to place for cushion foam – both open and closed cell. They have the best prices we’ve seen and free shipping on anything over $75. We bought 1 ½ sheets of the 1” “gymnastic rubber” (generic Ensolite) to serve as the CC base layer of the cushions, and 12 yards of 2” thick (27” wide) Nu-foam (densified polyester batting) from Joann Fabric to layer on top. We compared the Nu-foam density to DryFast foam, and it seems less likely to compress yet still has the flow-through characteristics we were looking for. Plus the Nu-Foam was MUCH cheaper than DryFast! We could probably replace the Nu-Foam three or more times before equaling the cost of DryFast, so it was almost a no-brainer. Of course, this is another “experiment” on our part, but the cost savings made the decision easy.

We chose a forest green outdoor canvas that would match all of the Forest Green Sunbrella we have on deck. We went with a less expensive outdoor canvas for this project since the cushions won’t get as much UV exposure as everything else on deck. And even though the Nu-Foam is flow-through, if any water gets inside the fabric it will just sit on top of the CC foam, so drainage had to come into play in the design. Some people recommend drilling holes in the CC foam for drainage, but we didn’t love the idea of turning our cushion guts into Swiss cheese. After talking to Dan at the old Sailrite (www.sailrite.com) store in Annapolis, we decided make the zipper panels out of Phifertex Plus (Holly Green). The tighter weave of the “plus” won’t allow you to see the different foam layers, and if the cushions get wet we can simply set them on end and let any water drain out through the Phifertex panel.

We opted for 5 cushions – 2 long cushions on both port and starboard, and three abeam aft. The two smaller cushions on P and S can be removed for our chairs, or can double as back cushions if we want to stretch out. We wanted the cushions to have a finished height of 3 ½ inches to keep them below our coaming cubbies. (I know, 1” closed cell + 2 layers of 2” Nu-foam ≠ 3.5”, but once you compress the densified batting it makes for the firm, overstuffed look we were going for).  

We used our teak cockpit grating as a pattern, laid them upside down on top of the CC foam, and traced them with a Sharpie. Half an inch was added to all sides (for that overstuffed look and to allow for possible shrinkage over time) then Bill used our Clauss 8” bent shears to cut the foam. (These have come in handy for cutting everything from fiberglass to FRP!) 

We weren’t able to get full runs for each cushion out of our sheets, but 3M Super 77 adhesive spray does a wonderful job of adhering both CC and the batting together. We sprayed the edges of each piece, let the adhesive tack off for about 5 minutes then pressed them together. Two 1x2” furring strips were placed on each side, and we used pipe clamps to keep pressure on the seam for 24 hours. Placing a little wax paper under the seam does wonders, otherwise you’re cushions could stick to whatever surface they’re resting on. 

Closed cell foam glued together

The CC foam was then used as the pattern for both the Nu-Foam and the cushion tops and bottoms. To make it easier to get the foam in and out of the cushions, the Phifertex zipper panels extended the full length of each cushion back, plus 3 inches on each side, with hidden, locking zippers (YKK #5) that won’t scratch the Awlgrip or teak trim. 

CC foam with 2 layers of Nu-Foam

Canvas for top, bottom and side "boxing" cut out

Notches used to align the pieces

"Hidden zipper"

Sailrite has a great (free, but long) how to video on making cushions, which I pretty much followed for this project so I won’t go into a lot of detail here. The key – which made this project MUCH easier than my interior cushions – was to take the time to notch the top and bottom pieces, attach both to the side panels, and make sure everything was aligned before sewing anything together. Another key aspect was to remember to open up the (locking) zipper before I sewed everything together – or good luck getting them open to stuff!

Stuffing the finished cushions is always the fun part (or not!), especially when you purposefully went with a tight fit. I slid the CC foam in the bottom first then wrestled the Nu-foam layers in place, trying to smooth them out and keep them even as I went. Laying, tugging, wrestling, whatever was necessary to get the cushions in place (and amuse Bill) before zipping them up, and the job was done!


  1. Those foam cushions turned out great! You can't beat closed-cell foam's durability and water resistance for top-side seating. Firm, but supportive.

  2. Thanks! Your gymnastic rubber is a great alternative to Ensolite and really works well in the cockpit. We used the Lux and HD36 foam down below for our cushions in the forward and main cabins, and are equally happy with them!