How To Customize a Motorcycle Seat

Saddle sore?

Do you swing a leg over your cruiser, eager to ride, only to stop an hour down the road with aches and pains—and not just in the butt? According to Rudy Nafzger of Rudy's Upholstery in Lacombe, Alberta, the comfort complaints of many motorcyclists, such as pains in the back, shoulders, arms and yes, the butt, can be traced to the shape and fit of the machine's saddle. You can remedy this with a little help.

We asked Nafzger to share his tips on how a cruiser saddle should fit the rider. If you choose to have a saddle custom made, we hope these suggestions will help you explain what you require.

Custom motorcycle seat - removing foam
Nafzger measures how much foam he will remove from a Kawasaki dual saddle and draws his cutting line on the foam.Photography by Greg Williams

Nafzger has been producing custom motorcycle saddles for 27 years. He crafted his first saddle in his native Switzerland for his 1967 Moto Morini 125. Friends began asking for his handiwork, and Nafzger’s name soon became synonymous with high-quality, functional custom saddles in his native area.

He moved to Canada six years ago and still makes custom motorcycle saddles. He shared these tips while working on a saddle to fit a 1998 Kawasaki Vulcan.

Custom motorcycle seat - foam saw
A foam saw is used, rather than a bread knife, to remove the excess foam padding.Photography by Greg Williams

Define The Problem First things first. What seems to be the problem? Nafzger asks his customers to arrive at his shop on their motorcycle. With the rider seated, feet on the floorboards, he can locate the saddle pressure points. You can too. While seated, find out exactly where your rear hits the saddle. Are your inner thighs pinched to the point that the circulation to your legs is cut off? Can you reach the handlebar easily while sitting comfortably? If you were positioned two inches closer to, or farther away from the bar, would you be more comfortable? Are your knees bent unreasonably or is the ground too far away? Is there a great deal of space between where you sit and the fuel tank, forcing you to slide forward when the brakes are applied? Make a note of these and other relevant observations. They will come in handy when you and your upholsterer discuss your specific requirements.

custom motorcycle seat- foam saw cut
The foam saw makes the initial cut in the passenger area of a dual saddle for a Kawasaki.Photography by Greg Williams

Softer May Not Be Better
Nafzger says one of the biggest mistakes people make is the assumption that softer foam is much better. Foam density and quality are an important part of the saddle equation. There are many grades of foam, and in explanation Nafzger says, "The cheaper the foam, the sooner the seat will collapse." A good quality, high-density foam for your saddle will be quite heavy and will still retain a rubbery feel when compressed.

When cheap, poor-quality foam collapses, you are literally sitting on the plastic or metal seat pan! Be sure your upholsterer uses quality high-density foam on the bottom of the saddle (be prepared to pay accordingly) and a thin layer of quality soft foam on the top. The high-density foam will keep your body in the correct riding position, and the soft foam will provide comfort.

Custom motorcycle seat - high-density foam
A quality, high-density foam is crucial for a comfortable seat. Cheap foam breaks down.Photography by Greg Williams

Back Up
A cruiser saddle should be a minimum of 12.5 inches wide at the back. Nafzger points to an old metal tractor seat and explains the ideal saddle shape. "The back of the saddle should be fairly wide and it should be curved, like the shape of a pan, or that old tractor seat," Nafzger explains. "One important secret is to locate the lowest point of the saddle as far back as possible. You don't want the lowest point to be in the middle of the seat." Many saddles are shaped either like a "U" or a bubble, allowing the rider to slide back and forth on the seat. "It's important to comfortably stay in position. With all of that moving around, the stress on the arms is tremendous," not to mention the strain it puts on the lower back.

Custom motorcycle seat - glue high-density foam in place
Nafzger glues the high-density foam in place. This denser foam provides greater support and won’t bottom out the way softer foam will.Photography by Greg Williams

Remember to consider your passenger saddle. If your passenger slides forward when the brakes are applied, it can disrupt your concentration. It's potentially dangerous and uncomfortable for everyone.

As long as no major modifications have been made to the frame of your machine, and regardless what end result is desired for your finished saddle, the original seat pan can probably be used. “It’s easy to move a rider ahead or back a couple of inches, and to lower or raise them the same amount,” Nafzger reports. That can be done by cutting the original foam, or replacing the foam and giving it a new shape.

Custom motorcycle seat - file to shape and form foam
After the pieces of the foam puzzle are assembled and glued to the seat pan, an autobody file is em­ployed to shape and form the foam.Photography by Greg Williams

Choosing a Cover
Decide what kind of material will cover your new saddle. Leather is an eye-appealing option, but most seats are now covered in high-quality vinyl (which doesn't absorb water). Nafzger adds, "It's important, whether it's leather or vinyl, for the seat cover to fit over the foam snugly. This adds to the life of the saddle and goes a long way toward providing more comfort."

Custom motorcycle seat - guidelines for seams
With the foam-shaping pro­cess complete, Nafzger draws guide­lines to mark where the saddle cover seams will go.Photography by Greg Williams

Before the cover goes on, decide if you want contrasting piping, conchos or studs added. And remember, most cruisers are equipped with two saddles, one for the rider and one for the passenger. If you have both done, the cost is potentially doubled, but appearance and comfort will be your reward.

Custom motorcycle seat - stitching
It’s a simple matter to improve the seat’s looks by stitching a pattern on the top of the saddle cover.Photography by Greg Williams

Nafzger stresses that you should be prepared to talk with your upholsterer, to be sure he understands your requirements. For this reason, you may want to deal with a motorcycle saddlemaker such as Sargent. You may also find that aftermarket saddle builders, like Mustang or Travelcade/Saddlemen, have what you need on the shelf.

Custom motorcycle seat - cover
The cover for the saddle is pulled over the foam and seat pan. To add the studs, Nafzger assembled the saddle, marked the line the studs would follow, removed the cover, and inserted the studs.Photography by Greg Williams

“Custom saddle building can be very time-consuming. And for a high-quality seat, you will likely have to pay [more] for it,” Nafzger concludes. "But—considering how much time you spend in it—if that old saddle has got you sore, the cost of a custom-built seat is a small price to pay for comfort."

Custom motorcycle seat - fasten seat cover
The new cover is fastened to the original seat pan using an air-powered stapler.Photography by Greg Williams
Custom motorcycle seat - finished product
The finished product on a 1998 Kawasaki Vulcan owned by Frank­lin Post of Lacombe, Alberta. Note the passenger saddle, Nafzger widened this one and added studs to match the rider’s saddle.Photography by Greg Williams
Custom motorcycle seat - skirt
Nafzger wants to share this idea with Kawasaki Drifter owners: To fill the gap between the seat and fender, make a skirt with piping to match the machine.Photography by Greg Williams
Custom motorcycle seat final
The saddle is now lower and more comfortable, and it still suits the lines of the Vulcan.Photography by Greg Williams