Furniture Shopping 101

Shop smart for indoor, outdoor, and leather furniture.


Enlarge Image Check the chair's weight when when researching a purchase.

Admit it, you love to shop. Or at least, you love to shop smart. Great deals give you goosebumps...and bragging rights.

To help you make wise buys more often, here are some guidelines for shopping intelligently for indoor, outdoor, and leather furniture.

To find the best value in furniture -- be it indoor or outdoor -- the same rules apply.

See furniture tips on the following pages.

Enlarge Image Make sure the chair's finish doesn't camouflage flaws.

Get Physical. Sit in it. Better furniture is usually more amply sized: seating space is roomier, and the arms and legs are more substantive. Lift it. The better chair, table, or sofa, or chaise contains more raw material, such as springs, frame, and cushion, and will be heavier than a lower quality piece of the same material.

Examine the Finish. An even, rich, and deep paint or stain finish should not be used to camouflage flaws. If the finish is translucent, it should be even and the grain should show through; if it is an opaque finish, the consistency should be even, never bubbled or showing brush strokes. Wicker and rattan pieces should be smooth without splinters or ends sticking out, and weaves should be tight and uniform and never clogged with paint.

Read more tips below.

  • Check the Cushions. Neat, well-defined corners or curves, securely attached details and buttons, and unobtrusive seams are the hallmarks of a quality cushion. The contour should be plump and well-shaped; a squashed appearance usually indicates insufficient stuffing. If properly sewn and lined, a down-filled cushion should never leak feathers.
  • Look Beneath the Surface. Lift the cushions or turn the piece over to see how it's constructed. Look for loose screws, padding that's not sewn correctly, insufficient support, and springs that are obvious or unprotected. Remember that you are looking at the raw part of the furniture, so don't expect perfection. But you should get a clue about the care that went into making the piece.
  • Scrutinize the Details. Fine-quality furniture has less apparent welding, better sanding and finishing, and mechanisms to conceal hardware. Nuts, screws, and bolts should be colored to match the piece and should be protected from rust. Welting should be stitched straight and the joinings should not be prominent.
Enlarge Image Your piece should "fit" its new location.

Study the Styling. Excellent design shows. Knockoffs of successful designs are abundant, but check them carefully to satisfy yourself that the manufacturer hasn't cut corners.

Consider the Conditions. Choose the piece based on where it will be placed and how it will be used. If you want a sofa to sit in front of a picture window, think how the fabric will fade and choose one with less pattern and less color. If the table is for the kitchen where your kids do their homework, select one with a hardy finish. Don't put wicker or rattan outdoors in the elements, although a covered porch is fine.

Enlarge Image Remember that there are varying grades of leather; be sure to find out what you're buying.
  • With the proper care, leather is a good investment. But before you choose this practical, versatile furniture, saddle up with some savvy buying tips:
  • Grade. Grade is the most important feature of leather's quality -- and an indicator of durability and price. Top-grain leather is taken from the desirable outer surface of the hide. Leathers taken from the lower surfaces are split grains, and are much weaker.
  • Top-grain leathers are graded based on the ways manufacturers prepare the leather. Aniline, semi-aniline, and pigmented leathers are the three common finishes for leather furniture.
  • Aniline (or "pure" or "full" aniline) leather is soaked in aniline dye, but does not have other finishes or pigments applied.
  • Semi-aniline (or "protected" aniline) leathers have a small amount of coating or pigment, giving them slightly better protection against stains and fading.
  • Pigmented leathers are fully treated with surface color. Made from lesser-grade hides, they are stiffer than anilines. Finishes and pigments also provide greater protection against scratches, stains, and sun fading.
  • Read more tips below.
Enlarge Image Soft and supple leather typically suggests high quality.
  • Finish. Leathers are graded by how much manufacturers have to do to get them ready for market. Nearly perfect, mark-free hides are rare and, therefore, highly prized. Most anilines will have visible markings, such as wrinkles and scars, that contribute to their natural beauty. Like a well-worn wallet or bomber jacket, they develop a lustrous patina with age and use.
  • Texture. The highest quality hides become the softest and most supple leathers. In industry-speak, they have a more luxurious "hand," or feel. Pigmented leathers and "corrected grain" leathers (those that have been buffed to remove obvious surface imperfections) have a stiffer hand.
  • Other techniques produce distinct textures: Nubucks, and their less-durable cousins suedes, have a plush softness. Sauvage leather appears marbled. Pull-up leather has been treated with oil or wax; when it's stretched, the oil or wax separates, producing a lighter burst of color and making the hide look distressed. Embossed leathers are patterned with high heat or pressure.
  • Keep leather furniture away from heat sources, which will eventually dry the leather out.
  • Place furniture out of direct sunlight, which causes leather to fade.
  • Vacuum leather regularly to remove dust.
  • Blot any spills immediately with a dry cloth, and let air-dry.
  • Regularly use the recommended cleaners or creams to improve leather's resistance to staining and to keep it soft and supple.
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