Upholstered Furniture 101
What to know and how to get the most value for the price
From: Point Click Home Dot Com
Written by Nancy A. Herrick
Photographed by C.R. Laine Furniture
The perfect piece of upholstered furniture can do so much to enhance a room. But the range of options are vast in terms of price and style.
Even a first-time buyer can notice some of the hallmarks of quality: straight seams, tight stitches, centered and matched patterns, snug-fitting cushions, tightly sewn fringe and buttons. But there’s more to an upholstered piece than meets the eye. If you’re in the market for a new sofa or chair, here are some of the finer points to keep in mind to get the best value for your money.
Top quality frames are made from hardwoods such as oak, maple or alder that have been kiln-dried so that they won’t crack or warp as they age or when the humidity changes. Wood is better than metal because it holds screws better, which improves solidity.
The joints of the best furniture are doubledoweled and glued. Corner blocks that are both glued and screwed into place provide increased stability. Frames held together with staples should be avoided. When you sit down, the frame should not wiggle or shift, and there should be no creaking or wobbling. When you reach between the cushions and the frame, you should feel plenty of padding instead of wood.
The number of springs and how they’re reinforced— both in the seat and the back of the piece—help determine a piece’s quality and cost. Eight-way hand-tied springs (in which each spring is connected to its neighbor) enhances comfort, support and durability and is considered the highest quality. Sinuous S-shaped springs running front to back and affixed to the frame also are good.
Most cushions are made of a high-density foam core that, in the best pieces, is wrapped with feathers and down. A down substitute or soft polyester also may be used as wrapping. They should be sewn into cotton cases to help them keep their shape and to ensure smooth upholstering.
Until recently, the core of most cushions was made from petroleum-based polyurethane foam. With the growing interest in green alternatives, some furniture manufactures are now using a more natural and affordable choice for fill that contains 20 percent soy to help reduce the petroleum-based content of cushions. Latex cushions are another earth-friendly option. In addition to being all natural (no petroleum products), latex is harvested without killing the rubber tree, so it is a completely renewable resource. However, latex tends to break down more quickly than other types of foam.
Natural fibers include cotton, linen, silk and wool; synthetic fibers include acrylic, nylon and polypropylene.
Generally, the tighter the weave and more durable the fiber, the better the wear. Synthetics and synthetic blends generally can withstand the stress of an active, young household. More delicate fabrics, such as satins and damasks, are best used on furnishings that don’t get a lot of wear. Most fabrics are pretreated with a stainresistant finish to keep them looking better longer. Some synthetics, such as Sunbrella’s indoor/outdoor fabrics, are specially designed to resist fading and shrug off dirt and stains.
Leather is the most durable of all natural choices, and has become more affordable in the last decade. While leather tends to improve with age, it can stain. Like all upholstered furniture, it needs regular vacuuming.
At most furniture stores, you can select a fabric from a manufacturer’s offerings to create the look you want. If you find a chair style you like, but want to use a specific fabric—something that matches your window treatments, for example—some retailers will upholster your piece in a fabric you supply for an extra charge. You may also be able to choose a variety of decorative touches, such as nailheads, fringe, piping or even wood finishes to customize your piece. If you can’t find exactly what you want, you may want to consider the custom route and use a designer. This can be much more expensive, but the choices are plentiful.
Wood trim - A carved, exposed leg is more expensive than one that is straight or covered.
Trim - A carved, exposed leg is more. Details such as fringe, tassels, decorative nailheads or contrasting piping require added work and may increase the cost of a piece.
Skirts - A carved, exposed leg is more. A standard kick pleat requires less fabric and workmanship. More formal box pleats and tiered corners require added fabric and labor. They should be hand sewn, not stapled.
Arms - A carved, exposed leg is more. The straightforward box style is a tailored and popular choice. Some styles, such as rounded arms with gathered seams, require more fabric and labor, adding to the expense.
According to Jackie Hirschhaut of the American Home Furnishing Alliance, here’s what you can expect to pay for a classic upholstered armchair:
Good: $500 to $900
You’ll get a wood frame that may have corner blocks, steel springs, polyester cushions and a choice of basic covers.
BETTER: $900 to $1,500
Upgrade to a kiln-dried hardwood frame with corner blocks, steel spring configurations, foam core cushions with fiberfill wrap, and a choice of covers, and some basic trim options.
BEST: $1,500 and up
Expect kiln-dried hardwood, corner blocks, eight-way handtied spring construction and down-filled cushions, along with your choice of covers and trims.