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Adding Seat Padding to a Hardshell

Consider the difference between sitting on a wooden bar stool and a popular recliner; which would you rather spend an hour or five on?

Just when you thought sitting in a recliner couldn't get any better; it can when its tailored to fit you perfectly.

In the cross section at the right the model back arch is exaggerated to show some of the typical seat issues one might encounter.

The middle back section of this seat is too short for this model, and the lumbar region is too low.

Even with a larger seat the lumbar of this model would likely require a bit of a boost.

The front of the Seat Pan may apply too much pressure and cut off circulation.

While this is an extreme example of improper fitting it gives an example of what sitting in a recumbent seat is like when its not tailored to fit the rider's needs. In most cases adding some padding in some of the lower pressure areas will make a huge difference in comfort after hours of pedaling.

Tailoring a seat with padding is an iterative process which is to say you won't get it right the first time. Be patient, its worth the results!

Don't try doing too much at once. A little bit at a time. It took me nearly a month to get my seat just right, and about 2 months to get my wife's seat just right. Keep in mind we didn't make constant adjustments; we did a little, rode a few times, and did a little more. Thats how it works.

Surface Padding Materials

Riders in warmer climates really appreciate breathable seat fabrics that allow sweat to evaporate. The surface layer of padding should allow breathability particularly in warmer climates. Mesh Seats are inherently breathable which makes adding a non-breathable material a little less desirable.

3D Spacer Mesh is polyester fabric designed to breathe yet provide the elasticity required to conform to the body. The ingenious manufacturing process is known as Warp-Knitting that tethers angled strands of material in a honeycomb of support cells between two layers.

This material is the core of Ventisit seats and is also used as breathable mattress supports on boats. 3D Spacer Mesh comes in various thicknesses ranging from 3-20 mm however for seat padding 12mm minimum thickness is recommended for the core material. Its not a very easy material to find however one US source is Drymesh.

Drymesh is the softest in terms of compressibility. As a top layer Drymesh not only allows breathing, but adds an extended level of pressure distribution.

Open Cell Foam also known as Filter Foam is a softer foam that takes on water like a sponge. It does have open fibers that are reported to be scratchy on bare skin. Its normally measured in Pores Per Inch (PPI). One inch thick Filter Foam is typically used on a bare hardshell as the only padding in many cases, although its not the most comfortable way to go.

Closed Cell Foam is a medium to stiff foam depending on the material and weight. Cross Linked Polyethylene (XLP) is one of the better medium materials as it is lightweight and durable. beginning with a 1/2" thick base additional pieces can be sandwiched together with adhesive to contour thicknesses as needed.

Interview the Rider

Before making any changes have the rider sit on their seat as ridden, clip on pedals, and take a 5-10 minute ride. When they return, ask them to describe the points where they feel excess pressure and the points where they could use more support. If possible snap a couple pictures with their hands on high pressure then low pressure points. Make notes on what they think.

Pattern the Seat

Bubble wrap is an excellent material to use as a pattern to fit the compound curves of the seat.

Tape the bubble wrap at the top of the seat and place a pillow in the seat to help hold the shape if needed.

Mark around the edge of the seat then cut the pattern out.

Shaping the Padding

Its best to start with a 1/2" base layer of Closed Cell Foam for the padding and add strips/blocks as required.

Using the pattern cut a base layer of foam for your seat. On seats where the sides wrap around the thighs note how much additional width you have to work with.

Place a few 4" long strips of double sided tape in the Hardshell along the seat back top and seat bottom to hold the padding in place so you can fit the rider.

Have the rider sit on the seat with shoes clipped in and hands on bars and backpedal 1-2 minutes. Rider should be seated normally.

While the rider is backpedaling use a 3-4 foot long piece of package string to gauge the pressure along their back; hold one end in each hand and with the string parallel to the ground start at the top of the rider's back and slowly tug 6" one way, then 6" the other along their back slowly working your way down. The objective is to find loose spots usually near the lumbar region, sometimes at the top of the shoulders. You will want to repeat this test at least once so the rider is acclimated to it. Keep a mental not of the regions you think are loose, and don't mention it to the rider just yet.

Just like when you were fitting the rider, keep the rider calm yet attentive. Then have them hold the brakes and push lightly on the pedals; not hard, just enough to simulate a keeping a steady speed of maybe 2-5 MPH. Repeat the string-pull test. This time when you find a loose spot mark the back of the seat with a magic marker. Repeat the string test one more time this time when you find a tight spot between loose spots ask the rider if this feels like a higher pressure zone. If so mark it on the seat as HP (High Pressure).

Raising the Rider in the Seat

If the seat has a built in lumbar support see how that aligns with the lumbar region of the rider. If the seat lumbar is above the rider's lumbar, add a 1/2" thick pad to the seat pan region to raise the rider. Repeat the string test to see how the rider lines up. Ask the rider how it feels. If it seems to be an improvement have the rider try this configuration through a normal ride cycle. Raising the rider isn't for everyone.

Recumbutt

Sometimes even with a taller rider the rider will need to be moved up to pad their rump a bit. Not everyone has a Cardashian butt. Generally 1/2" of additional padding is enough to make a difference and some folks may need a full inch of padding on the bottom. Again its a trial & error process.

Lumbar & Middle Back Support Padding

Compare the pressure points on the back with the pressure points they mentioned in the interview. Add 1/2" thick x 1" wide strips of padding to the lower pressure points horizontally across the back of the seat in the low pressure zones. Those added strips should be on the Hardshell seat side of the foam base you cut.

As you go through the tailoring process be open minded and feel free to be creative. For example rather then horizontal strips some people use diagonal strips that meet in the center of the seat forming a chevron ^ shape.

Finishing the Seat

Once you find the right padding points you may want to have a friend with a sewing machine custom make a cover for you that incorporates your padding.

Standard Spacer Mesh (not the same thing as 3D Spacer Mesh) is a good material to make a seat cover with. It breathes well, is durable, washable, available in many colors, and is often sold in larger fabric stores.

Include a nylon zipper along a seam along an edge on the side facing down.

Stitch some velcro to the back to fasten to the Hardshell seat.

 

Examples of HPV Tailored Seats without Finished Seat Covers

 

 

This HPV Scorpion FS26 is fitted to a 62" tall female of normal proportions weighing under 120 lbs. HPV options include:

  • Short rider seat mount which moves seat forward about an inch
  • HPV Airflow Seat padding, basically about 1/2" of white 3D Spacer Mesh inside a black spacer mesh seat cover
  • Extended handlebars with smaller diameter hand grips (yes, those are Trigger Shifters)

Rider liked seat much better then previous Mesh Seat as it provided better support with less recline (more upright) however felt the Lumbar support was in the wrong place and the Seat Pan was a little too hard.

Padding Configuration by Iteration:

  1. 1/2" thick XLP base - Seat Pan was now just right, but Lumbar & Middle Back needed work
  2. Added 1/2" thick x 5" wide strip for middle back - helped Middle Back but still needed more Lumbar
  3. Replaced 1/2" thick Base Pad with 1/2" thick Seat Pan Pad, and fitted 1" thick Seat Back Pad with 1/2" x 5" Middle Back Pad - PERFECT! - Note that the 1" Black Pad was contoured to meet the 1/2" Blue Pad using a razor blade - this was at the Rider's Lumbar Region

Each change was made followed by 2 weeks of test riding. No changes in 2 months, still perfect.

We added a little different padding configuration to a second HPV (mine) that only took two iterations. New Seat covers are underway. Some of the test pieces used are show below.