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How to Buy a Really Great Sofa

SHOPPING for a new sofa can be fun; you can freshen up the family room, have a more comfortable place to sit, and have a chance to show off your decorating skills. Why, then, do so many find it an exercise in frustration?

In my experience as a designer, I have learned that most shoppers lack basic information about upholstered furnishings. That really prevents them from making an accurate comparison of the different features and choices and arriving at a satisfying selection. Unfortunately, there is a lot of hype in the marketplace, as manufacturers compete with promises of great quality and incredible sale prices. Who do you trust?

As with any major purchase (and yes, a sofa should be viewed as a major purchase), knowledge is power. Just as when buying a car, the savvy shopper learns about all of the features of the product, decides what features are important, weighs the various similarities and differences, and hopefully ends up with something that fits their taste, practical needs and budget. Let’s take a look at some of the things it is important to consider before bringing home your new sofa or chair.

Frame Construction

The frame of a sofa is like its skeleton, and it needs to be strong. The best, high-end sofa frames are made of solid, kiln-dried hardwood (like oak or maple) and are put together with screws, glue, and wood blocks or metal corner braces to strengthen the places where the frame joins together. Sofas with this type of construction can be expected, with normal use, to last nearly a lifetime, and can be reupholstered several times as needed. Up to about the middle of the last century, most sofas were built this way; but new manufacturing methods and pricing pressures have created some new ways of building frames; some are adequate, others not so good.

A medium priced sofa, however, should still have some hardwood, plus some softer woods like pine, and possibly even some plywood parts, which manufacturers optimistically like to call “engineered wood product”. While some plywoods are very strong, the strength of the frame depends entirely on the largest pieces being of a solid wood. Much care should be taken with corner bracing in key areas, such as the corners, the seat platform, and the arms attaching to the back uprights. If these points are adequately braced, a small amount of plywood in other areas is not a problem. Usually the softer wood, such as pine, is used to shape out the curves of arms and backs, where strength is not an issue. It may even be used for the major frame pieces, and reinforced with plywood for extra strength.

In the least expensive sofas, the entire frame is probably pine; while this is not the best, if it has good bracing where it is needed, and will not be moved around frequently, jumped on, or dropped, such a sofa can last for several years. However, with these softer woods, when the time comes to reupholster, the wood may be too soft to hold staples once the old staples have been pulled out. Or, the screws in the corner blocks may loosen, causing arms to wiggle. These frames can be a money-saving purchase, but just be aware that reupholstering later may not be worth the cost. At the very bottom end, I have seen sofas built entirely of plywood under the cover, or pine frames joined with only staples at the corners. These are likely to crack just with everyday use.

Most manufacturers have information available about their frame construction. If they are proud of it, they may even have a cut-away drawing or photo showing their frame components and corner braces for shoppers to see.

Cutaway Drawing of a well-padded chair

Most companies will also warranty against defects. Be sure to ask a salesperson if you can have some information about the internal construction of the piece, and be wary if they don’t know, can’t be specific, or have nothing to show you.

Cushions and Padding

When it comes to extending the life of a sofa, the padding under the fabric is everything. Less-expensive sofas wear out more quickly because of a lack of padding between the fabric cover and the frame. While important for comfort, the padding is also there to cushion the fabric from the sharp edges of the wood frame, which would quickly wear the fabric through from the underside. On a high-end sofa, there are three or four different layers and thicknesses of foam rubber, cotton and dacron-polyester on the arms, two to three layers of different padding on other areas, and often a muslin under-cover keeping it all in place. When you pat the back and sides of an expensive sofa, it should seem well-padded and not hollow. As sofas go down in price, padding is reduced and eliminated in areas where it seems less important — the back and sides are often fabric stretched on an unpadded frame, and the arms have far fewer layers. Since furniture arms contain a 2×4 piece of lumber, ample padding is important to avoid feeling the frame. Less expensive sofas will often have a piece of cardboard under a thin layer of foam rubber, which makes it difficult to feel the lumber in the showroom. However, when you take the sofa home, the first time someone sits on the arm, the cardboard breaks down and the arm begins to go flat. This trick is not only limited to the cheapest brands, so again, it is important to ask for that cut-away drawing before you buy.

The cushions that we sit on are one of the most important parts of the sofa. The top end sofas will usually have a choice of types. The longest lasting are spring-down, which have an envelope of feathers surrounding a coil spring unit, much like a mattress. These are considered the best, but they are typically very firm. If you like a firm seat or have trouble getting up and don’t want to sink too low, ask for these. The next best, and my favorite, is foam and down. These are a firm foam cushion surrounded by an envelope of down and feathers. They give nicely when you sit, but not too much, and the down envelope gives the cushion a nice soft curve across the top, called the “crown”. They maintain their shape better than their cheaper cousins, the foam and dacron cushions. Dacron is spun polyester (like quilt batting) that wraps the foam to give it a soft edge and a crowned top. However, dacron does lose its loft more quickly than down and feather, so these cushions may lose their crowned top and look flat and bedraggled in only a year or two. It is important to flip them frequently to allow the loft a chance to recover. Typically, the low and medium priced sofas have foam and dacron, and may offer a down cushion upgrade, while a wider range of choices is available at the high end.

English Armchair

If you are ordering a custom sofa, be sure to discuss cushion choices and construction; you should have many options to choose from. If you are out shopping, just unzip the cover right there in the showroom, and look inside. If you are looking for a quality, medium or high-end sofa, check for the following: in the back cushions, you never want to see loose filling without an inner cover. Ideally, back cushions need an inner muslin cover and some stitching dividing the filling into compartments to keep it from shifting. Seat cushions should be closed-cell foam (that means the air doesn’t escape when you sit). This foam is white in color, and should have some additional layers of dacron or feather around it, and a muslin cover. If you see yellow foam without a muslin cover, and loose stuffing inside the zipper, that is a sign if a very low-end ($300 – $500 range) sofa and that should be reflected in the price. The yellow foam deflates quickly when sat on, and won’t be comfortable for long.

Comfort and Fit

At our shop , we believe that furniture should not just look great, but fit both the home and the homeowner. I always ask people what they plan to do on the sofa – do they lie down and watch sports all afternoon, pile up kids for a movie, or sit upright and read? How tall is the purchaser? Do they need to put their feet up? All of these issues come into play when the time comes to select the frame style. I think there is a reason that classic sofa styles have survived unchanged for more than a century now — they suit us. For the afternoon napper, a three-seater is best, since that puts the heavier weight of the hips in the middle of the cushion.

Custom Slipcovered Lido Sofa

Lying down daily on a two-cushion sofa breaks down the edges of the cushions where they meet in the middle, and can cause a hole to form. The two-cushion frame is great for lounging and chatting, since you have bigger cushions to curl up on.

2 cushion sofa with pillows

If you need back support or like to sit up straight, a tight back sofa, with springs instead of loose cushions on the back, is perfect.

sofa with spring back

For a crowd (or a tight space) a style with a chaise at one end can function like a recliner.

The classic, 3 seater sofa with loose back cushions wears well because the cushions can be rotated to even out the wear, so it is a timeless choice. The height of the arm is also important, as it effects the ability to lie flat and offers support while reading. Finally, consider how you will be sitting – a very deep sofa may look dramatic, but it can be embarrassing to sit with your feet up off the floor like a small child! It really helps to sit on every frame and see the small differences between them; we’ve even measured people to find a sofa that fit them just right, with great success.

The type of covering on a sofa is really important for long wear and comfort. While it may seem like the thickest fabrics are the most durable, it is not always the case. Some thick chenille fabrics are so unstable they need a backing to hold together, and the pile can rub off in a very short time. Always look at the back of the fabric you are considering — if you see a rubber backing, that may be a sign that the fabric was inherently weak and needed to be stabilized. Look instead for a tight weave that doesn’t wiggle a lot when pulled diagonally. For strength and stain resistance, the best upholstery fabrics will have a high synthetic content; but for comfort, a cotton or rayon is more breathable. So a great upholstery choice might be two-thirds synthetic (polyester or acrylic) and one third natural fiber. All natural fibers, such as cotton and linen, are also durable and comfortable, and can work well in most residential situations; just expect to be reupholstering a little sooner. Natural fibers are best for slipcovers, which can be washed at home. We find them to be both practical and healthier, since washing removes chemicals from the fabric and avoids having to use chemicals to get the sofa clean.

Sofa with natural fabric upholstery

Whatever you choose, be sure to know the fabric content so you can clean the furniture without damaging it. Having a stain-repelling treatment applied also makes a tremendous difference, allowing us to choose a more comfortable natural fiber rather than an acrylic, which can be hot to sit on.

Ordering Your Sofa

When the time comes to order your new sofa, make sure it will fit in the room and through the doors and hall leading to the room before you order. You can outline the size of your new sofa on the floor with masking tape if you are unsure, and practice walking around it. Then you can expect to pay a deposit, usually 50%, of the order. Ask the salesperson if you can have a picture of the sofa and a sample of your fabric for your records, and read any order form that you sign in detail to make sure the information is correct. Make sure details are included such as the name of the fabric, the type of cushion filling, and the style number. Shopping for furniture can be an exhausting process, but with the right information, a little patience, and the right questions to ask, you can be assured of making the right decision and having a sofa that you are happy with for years.

Kerry Ann Dame is an interior designer, and co-owner of Posh Living, LLC with design partner Layla S. Altman. Kerry Ann can be reached at (843)238-0078, or by email: KerryAnn@PoshSurfside.com

© 2008 Kerry Ann Dame. May not be used without permission.

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Hoechstetter Interiors April 25, 2009 at 6:33 pm

Wow, what an amazing article, Kerry Ann! This is easily far and away the very best treatment of this subject that I’ve ever come across.

Ceil Petrucelli September 13, 2009 at 8:34 pm

Great article, Kerry Ann!
Very thorough and lots of excellent information and details.

john strauss September 13, 2009 at 8:39 pm

Excellent overview of the basics, and there are alot of issues in a sofa. I would only suggest perhaps adding information about sustainability to the process. It the wood and the foam sustainable? etc. May I include a link to your article on my blog? It will follow a discussion I highlighted earlier that you will see if you go to it. http://johnstraussfurnituredesign.blogspot.com/

Angie March 2, 2011 at 5:39 pm

Awesome tips…..I can’t wait to take the knowledge with me

Kathi August 10, 2012 at 12:23 pm

We recently purchased a sofa and chair and less than a month later, had a stain that even the company couldn’t remove. Fabric sagged so bad after sitting . Store manager is going to let us pick out a completely new set and return the original. I just read this article and I now know what to look for when we go to pick out the new furniture. .I really feel empowered and well informed after reading this article. Thank you so much for such useful info.

webmaster August 10, 2012 at 1:09 pm

Thanks for your nice comment, Kathi! I’m glad this was helpful – I hope your new sofa works out well :)

Jessica January 30, 2013 at 12:00 pm

Sorry for such a late reply!

Thanks for all the info on buying sofas…buying one next week (Lord help me!)

Phil May 1, 2013 at 2:34 am

Great article and very well written and easy to understand! I just bought a pre-owned Crate and Barrel Axis 3 piece sectional . It seems to be well made. I sure hope so. After the mention of the rubber piece on the arm, hmm… In the past, that was always my test when shopping for a sofa.

avra March 21, 2014 at 2:56 am

I AM VERY EAGER TO SEAT ON A 10-14 INCH THICK AND SUPER SOFT CUSHION.
I LIKE SUPER SOFT CUSHION WITH BOX SPRING FOR EXTRA COMFORT
I FEEL LUXURY WHEN THE CUSHION PRESSED DOWN/SPRING DOWN -AT ABOUT 5 INCH WHEN I SEAT ON IT.

I WANT TO SEAT AND WATCH TV FOR HOURS ON THAT SORT OF HEAVILY CUSHIONED/PADDED SOFA WITH BOX SPRING

HAVE U ANY CUSHION THAT CAN FULFILL MY DESIRE

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