So you need a sofa. You probably don't want to buy something that will look like it belongs in an alley in a few years, but it's hard to justify spending $1000s more on sofa X, when you like sofa Y just as much and it's a fraction of the price. So what is a quality sofa and why does it matter? With tables, dressers and other wooden furniture, it's easier to see high-quality from low-quality, but with sofas and other upholstered pieces it is difficult to see quality when, simply put, it is covered in fabric.
1. Quality made sofas will last longer and won't end up in landfill in a few years. Cheap sofas can look great when new, but they will sag, lose shape and generally start to look worn much faster than you expect.
2. Quality sofas are sturdy. Sturdiness comes from the joinery and wood used to construct the frame, neither of which you can see in upholstered pieces and is the main reason why it's hard to tell the difference between high-quality upholstered pieces and the cheaper versions.
- Wood: Cheaper furniture is often made from particle board, thin plywood, pressboard or fiberboard. Quality furniture is made from hardwood free of knots that can cause the wood to crack or nine-plus layer plywood. A quality sofa will be build using kiln-dryed wood for the frame. Kiln-drying -which can take months- removes all moisture from the wood and therefore the wood will not bend or warp.
- Joinery (how the pieces are put together): Poor quality furniture is stapled or glued. High quality furniture is joined using methods like dovetail, mortise and tenon, and corner blocks that are reinforced with screws, nails and glue.
3. The springs and padding in a sofa add to its level of quality and comfort.
- Padding: Foam comes in different levels of quality – firmness and longevity. Firmer (or denser) foam is more expensive, as is foam that will last. High quality furniture is made from at least 1.8 lbs (per cubic foot) foam covered in padding, either polyester or down (the latter being much more expensive). Cheap sofas use less dense and/or lower grade foam and the cushions are often not covered in padding. If you can unzip a sofa cushion, inspect before buying. Another good test is the weight of a sofa cushion. High-quality sofa cushions will be heavier than they look. If you can easily lift a sofa cushion with one hand, this is not a good sign.
- Springs: Eight-way hand-tied springs are the best, but other springs (like coil, cone or sinuous) are
fine as long as they are not too far apart and are securely fasted to the frame. You can test the springs on a sofa by sitting in various spots to see whether you tip or sink. If the cushions are removable, lift and press down on the deck underneath: you should feel even spacing and resistance to pressure.
The image below shows eight-way hand-tied springs and corner blocks. This is the “before shot” of a chair I reupholstered so these are at least 50 years old!
4. Buying local does not necessarily equate to high-quality, but it often true. Compare buying locally crafted furniture to meat from a local butcher who only carries local grass-fed meats versus meat that comes from a huge packing facility in the U.S. (like those scary ones in Food Inc.). Buying a quality piece of furniture that is locally crafted also gives money back to the economy you live in. That company/craftsperson will pay taxes, adding to the servicing and programs provided by government, or they may buy something from you.
Image: Food Inc.
5. Consider buying secondhand. If your budget doesn't allow you to buy a quality sofa new, consider this: buying furniture is much like buying an automobile, in that as soon as you drive it off the lot it loses a large chunk of value. Furniture actually decreases more in value than automobiles – like at least 50%! Don't believe me? Try selling a piece of furniture secondhand on Craigslist and tell me how easy it was to re-coup more than 50% of what you paid for it? Buying secondhand takes a lot of patience and persistence to find something you like, but it can pay off huge. You'll never get as smug a deal buying new as you would buying secondhand.
- Warning: Don't think that if you buy something secondhand that you can have it reupholstered inexpensively. Reupholster of a sofa is much like renovating an older home. It may not save you a lot money, but what you will get is something that is like-new and custom to your specifications. But this is another topic entirely.
Hope this helps!