Is Re-upholstering a Sofa or Chair Worth the Cost?

Your favorite old chair, or that sofa in your aunt’s basement – are they worth recovering? I’m asked this question often, since it seems there are many inexpensive options for upholstered furniture on the market. However, those bargains may not be what they seem – with upholstery, it’s what you don’t see that matters. Before you toss out that tired-looking club chair and go shopping, consider recovering it. To decide whether it’s worth the expense, here are some things to look for:
Is the frame still solid?
Standing in front of the chair, see if you can wiggle the arms. If an arm is damaged through rough use, it can be easily fixed. However, if you can easily move both arms, the chair may not have been built of hardwood with dowels and glue at the joints – this is the preferred construction. If you pick up one end of a sofa and see the frame twist, move on.
Is it well-padded?
Check to see if you can feel boards in the arms – good furniture has several layers of padding and foam that are dense enough to conceal the wood inside even after years of wear. If your arms were round and now you can see corners of a 2×4, it probably has skimpy padding all over.
To check further, feel the wood frame edges on the outer back and around the bottom of the chair. It should have a little bit of padding so the wood doesn’t wear on the fabric from behind. Padding also supports the fabric and gives it body – unpadded fabric can stretch and get sloppy looking over time. It will often split on the back of the chair within a few years, revealing the wood underneath. Feel the front edge of the frame under the seat cushion – ideally, you want to have a nice rolled edge, made from a rounded piece of firm foam with padding. This spot takes a lot of wear, so you want a soft edge for the stuffing in the cushion. If you have a sharp corner, it’ll dig into the cushion and break it down over time. If the welting (the fabric cording on all the seams) is worn or coming apart, that’s part of normal wear and it’s replaced during recovering. It’s the frame underneath you want to inspect.
Does it have quality cushions?
Poor quality cushions are usually easy to spot – they’ve developed that sloped-down look, or gotten lumpy and shapeless. Often, these problems come along with under-padded frames and unsteady joints and it’s time to upgrade to a new piece of furniture. However, some manufacturers use softer cushions for that nice sinking-in feeling. If your cushions have become uncomfortable, but your frame passes inspection, they can be replaced or stuffing added at a reasonable cost. This old sofa looks brand new, with replacement cushions and a new slipcover:

White Shabby Slipcovered Sofa


Give your back cushions a quick once-over:
All back cushions can have stuffing added, but their construction is a sign of overall furniture quality. Unzip the cover – you should see an interior fabric cover, not loose stuffing. (Loose stuffing means a low-end sofa). Take out the interior cushion – if it’s a sack of loose stuffing, that’s not the best but it can be easily plumped up. Ideally, the cover will have stitching dividing it into sections – this keeps the filling from sinking down to the bottom. What’s inside the cover varies – most often polyester filling, or polyfill with a blanket of down/feather mix around it, which is nice. Some styles also have foam centers with down/feather wrap, which is more firm. (The down/feather wrap looks like a down comforter, with stitching lines and feathers visible through the white fabric). If they started life nice and plump but have gone flat, your workroom can add more polyfill to the inside, and keep your down/feather wrap exterior.

Check the Seat cushions:
There are different grades of foam and the choice is often a matter of taste. Softer foam with a down wrap can feel gorgeous, but flattens out sooner than a high-density foam (which gives a firm seat). The most long lasting cushions have a core of springs, surrounded by foam, with a down blanket for loft. You’ll see this on a high-end sofa or chair. Many older pieces have this construction – sometimes with horsehair and burlap which can be replaced with new materials around the springs to clean things up. Unzip the cover. If there is any sand-like residue inside the zipper, that’s old foam disintegrating and you need new cushions. An interior cover with down/feather wrap is a good sign – but if they’ve really gone flat, replacement cushions are the cheapest way to go. If they just look a bit tired, they can have a new polyfill wrap to look new again.
Try to fold the cushion in half – if you really can’t, there is probably a spring unit in there. These are worth keeping and rebuilding the surrounding wrapping if needed. Spring cushions can also be ordered to size, so you can have a replacement made, or upgrade your old cushions.

What’s the Cost?
If your sofa or chair has a decent frame, it can be well worth recovering even if you replace the cushions. For example, a high-quality sofa with a hardwood frame, spring/down cushions, and a good cover fabric can cost over $2500 when new. A medium priced sofa, well-made, with similar features is typically $1500 – $2000 new. So if you have a sofa that was originally in that price range, and passes inspection, you have a diamond in the rough! You can slipcover or reupholster and fix up the cushions and you’ll have a brand new, expensive sofa for half the cost. Plus, you’ll know what’s under the cover, and you can choose a fabric that’s durable and exactly what you’d like. Now that you know what to look for, a trip to a consignment shop might yield a treasure in the making – find a wonderful old chair frame, and make it yours!

Wing Chair with shell fabric, 2 tone

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