There are three main parts of an upholstered sofa or chair that determine how long your piece of furniture will last: the frame, the suspension and the cushions. Some manufacturers are more forthcoming than others about how their furniture is made, and it’s worth finding out as much information as you can about these three elements. They’re key to determining the likelihood of a new sofa wobbling, sinking or flattening out.
Frame material. Upholstery frames should be made with kiln-dried hardwood or engineered hardwood. The latter category can be broad, so look for engineered hardwood made from at least seven layers of solid wood pressed together — that’s what you need for a strong, warp-resistant frame. Avoid engineered products such as medium-density fiberboard (MDF), particle board or standard plywood.
Frame construction. Just as important as the kind of wood is how the pieces are joined together. If it’s done poorly, the sofa will start to wobble. Frames can be put together using a variety of methods, so look for terms like mortise and tenon, double dowel and corner-block-reinforced (where an extra piece of wood is installed at the corners). Avoid upholstery frames that are mainly held together with screws and glue or that use metal connectors attached to two pieces of wood.
Tip: Does the piece have a lifetime frame warranty? If so, that usually implies the frame was put together well.
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If you’ve spent any time researching what makes a quality piece of furniture, you’ve likely come across the term eight-way hand-tied. This refers to the suspension, which is the part of the sofa under the cushions that ensures you don’t end up sitting on the floor. There are many different types of suspensions and many opinions on which is the best. That won’t stop us from trying to get to the bottom of it!
Eight-way hand-tied. Long considered the gold standard of suspension, this is the most labor-intensive and costly option and is the mark of an overall high-quality piece of furniture (except when it’s fake, which we’ll explain later). With this kind of suspension, numerous coil springs are supported by metal or fabric webbing and are secured to one another with twine tied in eight different spots by hand. The twine keeps the springs from shifting and also ensures the suspension won’t start to squeak over time. To see if a sofa is eight-way hand-tied, pick up the cushion and push on the seat deck; you should be able to feel the separate springs through the fabric.
Drop-in and pocket coil springs. A less labor-intensive version of a spring suspension, drop-in coils are coils mounted on a metal frame added to the furniture as a single piece. This system isn’t supported on the bottom, so it will start to sag before other suspension types. There’s a lot of metal-to-metal contact, which can lead to squeaking. Remember when we talked about fake eight-way hand-tied? Some manufacturers will take these drop-in systems and add twine, calling them eight-way hand-tied even though they aren’t the real thing.
Pocket coils are similar to what you’d find inside a mattress: a bunch of coils wrapped individually in fabric. Not many manufacturers use this suspension and the jury is still out on it, but it seems to be higher quality than the drop-in coil option.
Sinuous springs. You’ll probably come across the term sinuous springs more than eight-way hand-tied, since it’s the most common suspension in low-to-mid-priced sofas. This suspension is made of zigzagging pieces of metal set in rows running perpendicular to the front of the sofa. For every person who says eight-way hand-tied is the best, there’s someone who says it’s unnecessary and that sinuous springs can perform just as well at a lower cost.
It’s true that sinuous-spring sofas are less expensive than eight-way hand-tied, and if properly made they will perform better than a drop-in spring system or fake eight-way hand-tied suspension. Just make sure the wire is at least 8-gauge and that there are at least two silent tie wires running across and clipped to each spring.
Grid and webbing suspension. Grid (or Flexolator) suspension is less common than other suspensions, but it is available on some mid-priced pieces. These suspensions are made of wire grids attached to the frame with springs on the side (similar to how a trampoline is attached to its frame). Avoid this suspension if possible as the wires aren’t very quiet and customer reviews complain about them breaking.
Webbing suspension is made by weaving fabric or elastic strips in a grid-like pattern and is commonly found on the lowest-quality furniture. While not recommended as a seat suspension, webbing is perfectly okay for supporting back cushions.
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As both the most visible part of a sofa and the part you interact with directly, cushion quality is important. And it becomes obvious very quickly whether your cushions are going to hold up or flatten out like pancakes. Seat and back cushions each can be constructed in a variety of ways, which determines how well they’ll hold up.
Seat cushions. These are typically a foam core wrapped in polyester fiber or down. The foam core should be at least 4 inches thick. (The overall cushion will be thicker since there’s material wrapped around the core.) A higher-grade cushion will have an inner core of individually wrapped springs as opposed to foam. (Imagine a mini mattress.) This offers a firmer seat that will hold its shape well for a long time. Avoid cushions that are either all foam (neither thick nor comfortable) or all down (won’t hold their shape at all).
Back cushions. The back cushion on a piece of upholstery doesn’t have foam. Instead, it’s filled with either polyester fiber, down or a combination of the two. It should be constructed from down-proof ticking and be sewn with channels to ensure the filling will stay put.
Tip: When shopping, unzip a back cushion to look for channels and make sure there aren’t any feathers poking through.
A sofa is an expensive purchase — you want it to be around for a while! With a little research, you can make sure you won’t be spending a lot of money on something that will fall apart quickly.