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How to uncover quality in upholstered furniture.

Attractive style and fabric may seem like all you need to know about buying an upholstered chair or sofa. But there's more to judging quality than meets the eye.

Hidden beneath the surface are the components for comfort and durability-the frame, springs, padding, and cushioning. When these are topnotch, an armchair or sofa can last for generations.

As you shop, an eagle-eyed inspection of what you can see is a good place to start. Workmanship here is a big clue to the standards applied throughout construction.

Check for seams and welts (fabric-covered cording used to conceal seams and delineate shape) that are neat, even, and without gaps or loose threads. Look for lined skirts that hang straight, free of puckering. Fabric should be applied so that stripes and plaids line up at seams. In the best pieces, floral patterns will appear to be unbroken as they flow over cushions, arms, and back.

If the tailoring passes inspection, follow with some educated poking and a good test sit. Asking the right questions and reading labels will tell you the rest of the inside story.



The anatomy of a well-made sofa or chair begins with good bones. The sturdiest construction uses kiln-dried hardwood such as oak, hickory, poplar, ash, birch, elm, maple, or pecan.

Why kiln-dried lumber? For maximum stability. Lumber with too high a moisture content has a much greater tendency to warp.

Why hardwood? Because its cell structure is denser than that of softwoods like spruce, pine, and fir, and can better stand up to years of use without cracking or splitting. Hardwood has a life expectancy of 50 to 75 years and so can be reupholstered several times.


GLUED? ARE CORNERS BLOCKED? Primary frame joints should be glued and double-doweled (connected with at least two dowels) as opposed to merely stapled, nailed, or attached with screws. Inside corners of the frame should be corner-blocked (reinforced with blocks of wood), using glue and screws for fasteners.


Longest-lasting legs are an integral part of the frame. Some designs require legs that screw into the frame or attach in some other way, but these are more apt to buckle or break off.

if legs are made from a separate piece of wood, they should be corner-blocked into the frame, then attached with glue and screws. This is superior to joinery where legs are simply doweled on or-worse-fastened by a single screw. The giveaway in this case is a leg that turns in your hand.


Under the cushions of a chair or sofa, you'll find the foundation of seating comfort the spring base. According to one manufacturer, "Nothing beats traditional, old-fashioned eight-way hand-tied coil springs for comfort and longevity."

The standard for top quality, this construction features steel coil springs configured in different gauges to give added support to areas that receive the greatest stress. Springs are individually anchored to jute webbing or polypropylene sheeting across the bottom of the frame.

The top of each spring is then tied by hand to all adjacent ones and to the frame with jute or nylon twine in eight directions. If part of the twine should break, the coils won't poke through padding because they're tied in so many places. And although they're firmly secured, coils still have enough freedom of action to move independently. For optimum support, look for 9 to 12 coils per seating area.

Among other commonly used seat-base constructions are drop-in coil units and no-sag springs. Although both fall short of the standard set by the eight-way hand-tied base, they offer good durability and comfort at a lower price.

Drop-in units (sometimes called pre-engineered) are assembled by machine over a sturdy steel grid, then dropped into the frame and fastened to it with metal fittings.

Unlike the coils in a hand-tied base, drop-in coils are all the same gauge and haven't been configured to give added support. Also, they're built with more metal-to-metal contact and tend to squeak after a while.

A no-sag spring base usually consists of flat, S-shaped wire springs fastened side by side across the frame. The tighter the "S," the greater the tension and the less the potential for sagging (which, despite their name, these springs have been known to do).

Because no-sag springs are flat and take up less space than coils, they're often the best alternative for contemporary pieces with thin seats. They're also the best choice for back construction in pillow-back sofas and chairs, where coils would be too bulky.

On top-quality tight-back pieces (without back cushions), look for a Marshall unit. This is made with a set of light-gauge coil springs individually pocketed in muslin.


The best armchairs and sofas are padded all over. This protects you from hard edges and also keeps upholstery fabric from rubbing against the furniture frame and wearing through.

On the seat base, back, and arms, padding often consists of a layer of polyurethane foam topped with a layer of polyester batting. On the outside arm and back cavities, you'll usually find batting used alone.

On high-quality upholstery, padding along the front edge of the seat base is standard. You'll also sometimes find a layer of muslin or polyester between padding and fabric.

A hands-on check of padding should include a good squeeze along the arms, back rail, and front edge. You shouldn't feel any hard edges.

Also press up under the back pillows or upholstery and against the outside surfaces of back and sides. If these feel hollow," the fabric on top will soon stretch and sag.

In California, the only state with a mandatory flammability standard, padding must be flame retardant and smolder resistant. Outside California, check labels to see if upholstery meets the voluntary standard of the Upholstered Furniture Action Council (UFAC). Less stringent than California law, the UFAC standard requires upholstered furniture to be "cigarette resistant."

As for the environmental hazards of using upholstery foam, the Polyurethane Foam Association stresses that this in itself is not harmful and that most furniture makers have stopped using foams produced with chlorofluorocarbons as blowing agents.


Cushion comfort is highly subjective, so many manufacturers allow you to substitute different cushions for their "standard" model.

The standard high-quality cushion has a durable, resilient polyfoam (short for polyurethane foam) core wrapped with polyester batting for softness and contour. A density measure of 1.8, 2.2, or higher (measured in pounds per square inch) signifies quality foam.

From foam, you can step up to combinations of down, foam, and springs. The most expensive cushions are made with all down or a mix of down and feathers.

Being soft and expensive, however, does not make for the most comfort. While many people prize down for a tendency to compact or "pancake" that gives it a lived-in look, one manufacturer notes, "Down by itself sits like a brick."

A less expensive alternative that offers the softness of down with the resilience of synthetics is blend down, a combination of down, feathers, and polyester encased in tightly woven cotton ticking.

Other alternatives are a polyurethane foam core wrapped in blend down, and a polyurethane core wrapped in down; each gives support missed with down alone.

Spring-down and spring blend down cushions also afford support, but with a heart of coil springs instead of a core of foam. In spring-down cushions, the springs are pocketed in fabric, surrounded by foam, and then encased with down in a ticking cover. Spring-blend down cushions are made in much the same way but are encased in blend down.

Quality back pillows are filled with polyester, a mixture of down and polyester, or down and feathers. Inferior back pillows have crushed or shredded foam.

Because comfort is in the seat of the sitter, an important part of cushion selection is the test sit.

Sink into showroom samples to see if cushions are as soft or firm as you like. While you're there, unzip cushion covers to see that cushions are encased in fabric, such as ticking, for longer wear.

Also check that arm height as well as the height, depth, and pitch of the seat are comfortable. To judge back support, a test sit should last at least 5 minutes.


Prices for eight-way hand-tied sofas typically range from $1,200 to $5,000 and more, depending on the grade of fabric you select. Prices for sofas with a quality no-sag base are $800 to $1,500. On sale, top-quality chairs go for about $600. Prices for custom chair designs (when you select substitutions) reach into the $1,200 to $1,800 range.
COPYRIGHT 1990 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Inside the Western Home
Date:Oct 1, 1990
Previous Article:"Framework furnishings" for an active family.
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