Buying Upholstered Furniture

Whether you buy new, vintage, or antique furniture, quality construction and materials are the key concerns.


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Whether you buy new, vintage, or antique furniture, quality construction and materials are the key concerns. The old adage about people applies equally to furniture: Beauty is often skin deep. Unless good structure and real value lie underneath, the relationship won't last.

To make the best choice for a long-term commitment, follow these guidelines. Start with the two most important factors, comfort and style.

As you shop, spend time sitting on each piece you are considering. Move around. Try different positions. Do the height and depth of the seat fit the length of your legs? Can you lean back comfortably? Can you easily get in and out of the seat? Are the arms at a comfortable height?

As you start narrowing down your selection, compare construction and quality. Use the information on the following pages to learn how to choose quality pieces that fit your budget.

Five Buying Points

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No matter how pretty the piece, unless the frame is strong and well made, the furniture won't wear well. This may not be critical for pieces that are rarely used or are basically decorative accessories, but sturdy construction is vital for upholstered furniture meant for daily use.

Before you purchase upholstered furniture, consider these five buying points for frames.

Point #1: Kiln-dried hardwood, such as birch, maple, ash, or gum, is more durable than soft woods, such as pine, poplar, or fir. Particleboard is strong, but prone to splitting and chipping and is generally used in furniture of lesser quality.

Point #2: Wood joints should be mortise-and-tenon (where one piece slides into the other, as Tab A fits into Slot B for a toy or model) or dovetail (finger-like projections that fit together like gears do) and secured with glue. They're much stronger than butted and screwed joints or glued joints. The joints should fit tightly with no gaps. A frame stapled together or poorly fitted is a sure sign of inferior construction.

See below for more tips.

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Point #3: The chair or sofa should not feel light or flimsy. If it does, it may tip easily. This can be a problem for families with children or for people with impaired movement who need support to get up or down.

Point #4: Larger pieces, such as sofas or love seats, should not sag in the middle. Sagging indicates a lack of proper support and bracing. The sofa may eventually sag even more or break at that weak point.

Point #5: The coils in the seat (and sometimes back) of an upholstered piece behave like the box spring in a mattress. They give the piece firmness and stability and determine how long it will last. Zigzag, wave-shaped, or interwoven bands are more likely to sag and lose their shape than regular spring-shaped coils. Steel coil springs that are hand-tied where they meet the adjoining coils and frame offer the best stability.

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Before ordering custom-made furniture, ask to sit in a piece that has the same frame and structure. Most stores have an example of each piece on the floor. Without this step you'll never be exactly sure what the chair will feel like or if its proportions are comfortable for you.

Be a savvy consumer. Read warranties on frame, fabric, cushions, and fabric finish. Ask how the store deals with problems and defective products.

Ask what options are available for your sofa or chair. These might include fabric skirts, exposed wood legs, choices in arm styles, piping around cushions, fringes or trims, extra pillows, and length of the overall piece.

Most of your initial decisions will involve the size, shape, and style of your upholstered piece. Next you'll want to consider arm styles and available fabrics.

See more tips below.

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  • Check Construction. Check that frame pieces fit together tightly with no gaps. Exposed wood arms or legs should be smooth, evenly colored, and blemish-free. They should also be securely attached to the frame.
  • Eight-Way Hand Tied Springs. Shop for chairs and sofas with hand-tied coils, not crimped springs. For long wear and comfort, look for coils that are tied in as many as eight places. Those tied in only four won't last as long and the springs may pop loose.
  • Avoid furniture that shows buckling between parts -- cushions and frame, fitted pillow and arm, or wooden and upholstered parts.
  • Squeeze padded areas to be sure that they are adequate; you shouldn't be able to feel the frame underneath the padding.
  • Fabric patterns should match perfectly at seams. Fabrics should be applied smoothly and evenly across the piece without any gaps or gathers.
  • Test button, tassels, and trim to make sure they are firmly attached.
  • Check piping. It should be smooth, cleanly constructed, and applied evenly throughout the piece.
  • Finally, before you order, be sure to take the measurements of the piece home. Double check that the furniture's size will work in your space.
  • Always borrow any upholstery fabric samples you're considering so you can see them in your own home and test the colors with other rugs and furnishings you may already own. Remember that you can order most custom furniture "COM" which means that it will be covered in the customer's own material. This is a good option when you need to match other pieces, though COM orders will generally be more expensive.

To Attach or Not To Attach?

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Most larger upholstered pieces have removable seat and back cushions. These can be an advantage since the cushions can be turned for increased wear and durability. This feature can also make it easier to vacuum and clean the cushions and frame.

Sofa or chair backs may be of the same construction as the seat cushion, or they may be constructed of completely different materials. Like seat cushions, they may be loose or permanently attached.

Cushions with firm construction will not shift or sag, but can look and feel stiff or uninviting. Loose, pillow-like cushions have a soft, more comfy look but may sag and move around, flopping out of place. These may need more fluffing, primping, and straightening.

If you purchase a piece with loose cushions, check the construction to see if the sofa back is solid and firm so the cushions will stay put as much as possible.

Some sofa styles have soft, floppy cushions that are tacked in place toward the middle. Although the concept sounds promising, it can be hard to clean behind these cushions. It's much easier to remove the whole cushion for vacuuming than to try to maneuver a nozzle around a partially attached pillow.

Types of Cushions

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Next, you'll want to evaluate cushions regarding the degree of softness, or firmness, you prefer.

Here are the different types of cushions in order of their quality.

Cushions with springs: The highest quality upholstery cushions have an inner core of spring similar to the springs in a bed mattress. The springs are generally covered with plain fabric, them wrapped with polyester batting, a layer of polyurethane foam, and a plain muslin cover. The decorative cover zips over all of this.

These cushions are extremely durable and unlikely to lose their shape. However, they tend to be firm, so the snuggle-down factor may be low. Unless cushions are wrapped in down, they won't have a soft, cushy, fashionably slouchy look.

Note on down-filled cushions: Although down-filled cushions look and feel plush, they may not be practical for everyday use since they'll require constant fluffing. If you love the feel of down but need more wear from a cushion, consider purchasing down cushions with a core of springs or foam that can give them a more consistent shape.

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Solid polyurethane foam with batting: More common (and more affordable) are cushions made of a solid piece of polyurethane foam covered in polyester batting. A muslin cover is sewn over the cushion; then the decorative cover is zipped in place.

As long as high-quality materials are used, these cushions will last for years under normal conditions. The density of the foam and the amount of batting determine how firm the seating is.

Single piece polyurethane foam without batting: Cushions made from a single piece of polyurethane foam with the decorative cover sewn permanently in place are lower on the quality scale. This type of cushion isn't as comfortable as cushions with batting. The cushions may shift within the cover, giving your furniture a slightly askew look that's hard to remedy.

The cover cannot be removed for washing or dry cleaning. However, this construction has its place; it is generally economical and makes a fine short-term investment for a child's room, college dorm room, first apartment, or guest room.

Shredded foam or pellets: Cushions filled with shredded foam or pellets are at the bottom of the quality chain. The covers are permanently sewn in place. If the seams break, expect a snowstorm of messy little cushion innards.

More: Furniture Shopping 101

More: Buying Wood Furniture

More: Caring for Upholstered Furniture

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  • Check construction. Furniture purchased at tag sales or thrift stores can be a bargain, but the seller may not know about the construction.
  • Gently lean on the piece in different directions to see if it is sturdy.
  • Check for sagging spots and run your hand over the surface to check for rough areas.
  • Tip the piece over to look for maker and material labels. If the cloth covering the underside is loose, peek at the construction.
  • Note regarding smells or stains: Soil is often only surface-deep, so when you reupholster, old fabric may not be a problem. However, if smells or stains permeate the entire under-construction, the piece will need to be completely rebuilt, especially if it is water damaged. This can be extremely expensive and may mean your bargain furniture is not as inexpensive as it appears.

More: Furniture Shopping 101

More: Buying Wood Furniture

More: Caring for Upholstered Furniture

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