Beginner Guide to Shopping for Upholstered Furniture

This post was last updated on May 15th, 2018 at 11:22 pm

Does Furniture Shopping Frustrate You?

After a few minutes walking through a furniture store do you walk out discouraged?

Shopping for furniture can be an exciting and pleasant experience if you do a little research before you head out the door. Planning and knowledge are a powerful combination.

Buying a room full of furniture is a major investment. You owe it to yourself to know what you are buying.

Remember the adage, “You get what you pay for”? It is definitely true when it comes to buying wood furniture.

I’m not inferring every piece you buy has to be “museum quality.”

However, if you are fairly certain you won’t be making a drastic style change in the near future (example: Country French to Contemporary), it’s a good idea to buy the best quality you can afford at the time.

Notice I did not say the most expensive you can buy. Quality doesn’t always equate to expensive.


While it is a broad category, furniture is the center of your home decorating.

How do you go about selecting the perfect paint colors, coordinating fabrics and accessories if you haven’t chosen the furniture style and upholstery fabrics?

I find it impossible to develop a home decorating plan without discussing furniture.

For that reason, furniture is included here. I could go into much greater depth, but it really isn’t needed for the average consumer.

If you are one of those people that wants to know more, you should visit the Fine Furniture Design and Marketing website.

Their section on Making Exceptional Furniture is a wealth of information. If you scroll down their Furniture & Design Terms you’ll find more information than you could possibly use.


So, what do you need to know before you head off to the furniture gallery?

When it comes to upholstered furniture…the fabric or leather is what you first see when looking at sofas and chairs. (If you haven’t already done so, you’ll want to read Fabrics to know what to look for in decorator fabrics.)

It’s what you don’t see that you want to know more about…the frame, the springs, the padding and the cushions.

Without a strong frame, it doesn’t matter how good the springs and cushions are.

In quality, furniture frames are kiln-dried hardwood. Oak, maple, birch, and ash are the most commonly used.

Manufacturers will use paired dowels to join the pieces of the frame, as well as corner blocks that are glued and screwed. There should be a center leg for additional support.


There are two primary spring systems …eight-way tied and sinuous.

Notice, I didn’t say “eight-way hand tied”.

In recent years many manufacturers have replaced the twine used to tie the coils together with metal clips. Over time the twine used to tie the springs could break.

The metal clips should last the life of the piece. In either case, both are far superior to the four-way tied used in lesser quality furniture.

Sinuous springs are flat, continuous “S” shaped metal that are fastened from front to back on the frame. They are placed a few inches apart and usually with a slight arch.

The type of spring used will depend on the intended “seat ” of the piece. If a firmer seat is intended, then eight-way tied will be used.

A softer seat will utilize the sinuous spring.

The sinuous system is most frequently used on pieces that you are meant to “sink” into… those great over-stuffed pieces that seem to envelop you when you sit.


Padding and cushions will affect durability as well as comfort.

Prior to the fabric being added, the padding must be applied to the frame so that at no point will the fabric come in contact with the frame. This will prevent fabric wear and add to the comfort.

When you grab the arm of a sofa or chair, you want to feel fabric and padding…NOT the frame of the piece.

Cushions are what most people associate with comfort level.

The highest quality seat cushions have an inner core of springs surrounded by high-density foam encased in muslin.

That is then wrapped in a layer of polyester batting, which is then wrapped in a layer of polyurethane foam, all of which is sewn into a muslin cover before being inserted into a zippered decorative fabric cover.

As you can imagine, all this wrapping adds to the expense…but it’s well worth it. The cushions will still be in great shape long after you’ve tired of the piece!

Cushions with spring inserts are often offered as an “upgrade” to the upholstered piece you are purchasing. If the sofa or chair is to receive a lot of use, you should seriously consider this option.

The most common cushion insert is a core of high-density polyurethane wrapped in Dacron or polyester batting and encased in muslin before being zipped into its decorative fabric covering.

A high-quality version would then be wrapped in a muslin cover of channeled blendown (a combination of down and feathers) before being inserted into the zippered cover.

Any cushion with blendown will periodically need to be fluffed and flipped to maintain its shape.

Lesser quality furniture will have a solid piece of foam or shredded polyurethane foam sewn into a cover with no zipper. Both tend to shift inside the decorative cover…the end result being cushions that don’t retain their shape.


Finally, inspect any floor samples that are covered in a patterned fabric.

Does the pattern match at the seams?

Does the pattern follow a line down the back, across the seat and down the skirt?

If not, it’s a sign of sloppy workmanship…you might want to consider another manufacturer.

When shopping for any chair, sofa or bench it is important to take a “test sit”. 

Everyone’s definition of comfort is different. The “over-stuffed, sink into it feeling” may be right for some but uncomfortable for others.

 

  • Does the back give enough support?
  • Is the depth of the seat cushion from front to back deep enough?
  • Are the cushions firm enough?
  • Is the arm height comfortable?
  • Are you able to stretch out a full length? (Important for that catnap!)
  • Once sitting, can you get up with little effort?

You can’t tell how a piece will sit by looking at it…you definitely have to try it out.

Be sure to ask what the manufacturer’s warranty is. Usually, the warranty will give one term of coverage for the frame and springs and another for the fabric.

BOTTOM LINE: 

At this point, you are armed with enough information to about upholstery to head to the nearest furniture store. Many high-quality stores have an upholstered piece cut in half so you can actually see their construction techniques.

However, if they don’t, you now know the questions to ask to determine for yourself if they sell the quality of furniture you are interested in.

So…sit down, curl up or stretch out. Do what it takes to decide if the piece is worth your investment.


So much for upholstery… on to Wood Finishes…

When discussing wood furniture, the topic of finishes often arises.

A frequent question is, “Why is there a variation in color and grain on pieces within the same collection?”

The short answer is…no two pieces of wood are exactly alike, even if they come from the same tree.

The closer the wood is to the tree’s core, the tighter the grain. The tighter the grain, the less the stain will be absorbed. As a result, if the same piece of furniture has wood that comes from the center and the edge, the stain will be slightly different and the graining could be quite different.

Color and grain variations on a single piece are an indication it is “real” wood. The differences are a result of the unique characteristics of that species of tree.

You have most likely seen pieces of furniture with perfectly even finishes. The finishes completely match on different pieces of the same collection. There is absolutely NO variation in color or grain.

These pieces are made of “engineered” wood.

The finish has been “printed” on fiberboard or pressed wood furniture. (You may hear the terms roto, engraved or photographic finishes used. Don’t be fooled…they are all the same.)

If that is the look you like, that’s fine. As all decisions are in home decorating, it’s a personal choice.

Just be aware that you are not buying real wood and the price should reflect that fact.

You should also be aware that if the finish is damaged, it is harder to repair than real wood. It usually takes a professional refinisher. The damaged has to be filled and then the finish “painted” on to match the surrounding color and grain. It is not as easy as it sounds.

You now know what to look for when buying quality upholstery and how to judge wood finishes.

SUMMARY

Have fun when you go shopping. Remember to “test sit” the sofas and chairs. Ask questions until you are satisfied you have the answers to make an informed decision.