Westwood Furniture
 
 
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UPHOLSTERY SHOPPING CHECKLIST

You’re ready to head out shopping for a couch or chair. They all look pretty and a $699 couch may look remarkably the same as a $1699 couch. So what is the difference and how can you tell the good from the bad? This is a quick outline of what to expect for your money and how to recognize quality. For lots of details of how upholstery is made continue on to the section headed Upholstery construction.

What should I expect from my purchase?

For a custom couch that will take daily use for a decade or longer, expect to pay at least $1000 with most running $1300 or more. Loveseats cost about 10% less, and chairs about half of the sofa. You should expect that, with normal care (see below), it will look good and sit well until the fabric finally starts to wear out. The cushions will gradually soften but should keep their shape. The springs will not turn to mush and the frame remains noise and wobble free.
If you are paying less than $1000 for a couch, be cautious as something has to be taken out to achieve the lower prices.

What is normal care?

It is not a playground so do not allow children to jump on it. Everyone, children and adults, should “sit on, not fall into” the piece. Flip and rotate the position of seat cushions once a week. To help keep them in shape, loose back pillows need to be fluffed up just like your bed pillows. If it comes with arm covers, use them. Keep them tightly in place with upholstery pins made for that purpose. They look like a mini corkscrew with a clear plastic head. Find them at a fabric store.

The dust that lands on your tables lands on the couch, so vacuum every month to keep it looking fresh. When was the last time that you had your couch professionally cleaned? We spend $100 on a winter coat and we bring to the cleaners occasionally….at $12 per cleaning. Every 3 to 5 years have a pro come in and clean it. It will look so much better and you will add years to its life! Do NOT take casings off and throw them in the washer or take them to the dry cleaners. This is not clothing and a disaster may result.

Your in- store quality check list:

1. Tailoring: Stand back and look at tailoring. Are stripes or plaids well matched from top to bottom? In other patterns are they centered on seats and backs? Flip cushions over and check that they still match. If you piece will “float” in your room check the matching on the outside back and sides as well. Are outside panels smooth, not lumpy? Are seams straight? And the does welting (cording) run true or wiggle its way across the piece?

2. Padding: This is an easy place for factories to skimp. Start with the deck, where the cushions sit. Press down gently as you run your hand back and forth. There should be enough padding so that you are aware of a spring system but cannot easily detect every detail. Compare inexpensive pieces to more expensive ones. Without layers of padding the outline of every spring will soon be impressed into the deck causing premature wear. Then run your hands over the outside panels. Padding between the frame and fabric reduces the chance for wear through if a piece‘s back rail is against a wall. The padding also reduces sagging and wrinkles in the middle of a panel.

3. Weight: Yup, check the weight by lifting one end of the piece an inch or two off the floor. Again compare pieces in different price ranges. More weight usually means heavier frames, higher density foam and extra layers of padding, which should translate into longer life.

4. Frame Integrity: The following test works only on a couch. A well-made frame with tight joints will twist only a little. Move a couch out an inch or two from a wall. Grab the couch underneath near either front corner leg. Lift slowly while watching the opposite front corner leg. When the other leg is just ready to lift off the floor, stop and hold, then look to see how high off the floor the leg is that you are lifting. A well-made frame will lift only an inch before the opposite leg lifts. If the leg lifts two or three inches before the other lifts it means that the frame is twisting excessively.

5. Cushions: As I explain below, see how heavy the cushions are. Heavier means longer life. Again, compare inexpensive pieces to expensive ones to see the difference.

6. Springs: Reach under the chair or couch and pat the bottom of the piece. If it is hard, like hitting a drum, it means it is the best spring system- 8 way hand tied springs. If you hit just fabric, with nothing behind it, you have some other suspension. It is probably sinuous wire or drop in coils.

7. The tushy-test: No matter how well it is made it still has to sit well, so try it out. To fit well you will need to note the seat height, seat depth, pitch of the back and “ride” of the cushion. The perfect piece will make you want to say “Ahhhhhh…” when you sit!

7.1 Seat Height: If you are tall your thighs may rise from your hip to your knee. If you are short, your heels may not touch the floor. Your thighs should be horizontal to the floor and you should be able to keep your feet flat on the floor.
7.2 Seat Depth: Many pieces are just too deep today and force you to slouch. The best comfort is generally achieved when there is no space behind your lower back and the back of the piece. If the chair is too shallow for your height then your back will touch but there will be inches between your calves and the front of the piece.
7.3 Pitch: There is no “right” pitch (slant) to the back. Simply put, what feels good to you?
7.4 Ride: How firm or soft is the seat? Again, comfort is up to you. Do you prefer a deep plush seat or firm and upright?


Upholstery Contruction
What makes a chair last.

Why do some couches and chairs last for twenty years and some are on the curb in a couple of years? There is no real secret - better materials and workmanship result in better quality and a longer life. But how can you tell? Unfortunately most sales people are notoriously unreliable sources of information about the nuts and bolts of what they sell. And too often what you hear is meaningless industry jargon.

So follow along as we “build” a piece of upholstery. We’ll explain what should be used and, most importantly, why it makes a difference to you.

The Frame
Traditional Construction

Your grandma’s 75 year old chair that has been re-covered three times has a hardwood frame, typically kiln dried oak, maple or birch. It’s referred to as a stick-built frame. Kiln drying the wood before it is cut insures that the frame has low moisture content, preventing warping or twisting after you bring it home. Major frame components should be at least 1 ¼” thick and free from splits and large knots. There are at least 20 pieces used to build the frame shown, plus dowels and smaller corner blocks not visible in this photo to the right.

  Where pieces meet joints are double doweled and glued. Corner blocks should be added at major stress points such as at the legs. The best are glued and screwed, as in this photo to the left.

When possible, legs should be built into the frame and not simply screwed onto the frame. This will reduce the chance that a leg will break loose during a move or when pushed across a rug. Some couches will have a front center leg, some will not. If the sofa is 85” or less, and the front rail is of sufficient quality, a center leg is not required. In “you design it” programs a choice of legs is usually an option. But built in legs are not usually possible in these programs.


The Frame
Latest Techniques

Drawbacks to the traditional hardwood frames include:
• cost of premium kiln dried hardwoods
• wood waste as pieces are cut and shaped
• large number of glue joints: more joints = more flexing of the frame
• labor costs to cut, shape and assemble all the parts

A number of quality manufacturers have switched to engineered plywood frames. Starting with inch thick furniture grade plywood, parts that resemble pieces of a puzzle are cut on CNC (computer numeric controlled) routers. The parts are then assembled with high strength glue and heavy duty staples into an integrated unit.
Because it’s plywood there will be no warping or cracking of the frames. Parts always fit snugly and the joints actually increase the stability of the frame. Fewer joints are required and waste is reduced as lumber used to make plywood is utilized much more efficiently than stick built frames.
Just as our homes are now sheathed in plywood instead of individual boards, so too this method results in a stronger, more reliable frame at a lower cost.

Springs
There are three popular spring systems used in quality upholstery, each having its unique advantages: sinuous wire, drop in coils and 8 way hand tied coils. Some upholstery has a spring edge, that is, the edge under the front edge of the cushion has springs that give when you sit toward the front of the piece. This will extend the life of the cushion because it helps keep the cushion from getting squashed along the front. But not every piece can have one due to framing and tailoring issues. Or the company may simply leave it out to keep costs down. A good salesperson should be able to explain why it is not included

Sinuous wire
This is also known as zigger or by the brand name No-Sag. These are similar to the springs used in automobile seats. The ends of the springs are inserted into sound insulated clips. The clips are then mechanically fastened to the frame. The springs crown (arch) slightly. Quality seating would have 5 or more springs beneath each cushion. As illustrated in the left side of the photo, springs should be doubled by the arm for solid support.

Pros: Inexpensive, quick to install, and when properly secured to a quality frame, durable enough for daily family room use. Used in high quality upholstery when the frame style does not offer enough space for coil springs.

Cons: Unlike coil springs, these will “travel” only so far before bottoming out. They do not allow the manufacturer much latitude to tweak the comfort, as the same springs are used in every style. See more on this under hand tied coil springs.

Drop in coils
Similar to a mattress spring system, coil springs are fastened together with wire ties into a pre-made unit that is then “dropped in” to the frame and fastened. In the photo we see a 12 cone coil spring unit with a heavy duty border wire around the top. The springs sit on rigid metal wires that attach to the frame.

Pros: when made of quality components and attached to a
quality frame these offer a deeper “ride” that sinuous wire with greater durability and easy installation.

Cons: Sometimes described by less than professional sales people as hand tied springs. Like sinuous wire springs these offer the maker no latitude to tweak the seating comfort.

8 Way hand tied coil springs
Most retailers will be able to tell you that this is the premier spring system. But most can’t tell you exactly why it is considered the best. They will tell you that it is labor intensive, durable and a sure sign of quality. All correct, but no ever answers the question “What does it do for me?” First let’s talk about how it is created, and then we’ll answer that question.

Step 1: (Image to right): The frame is turned upside down and non-stretch webbing is interlaced and fastened to the frame from the bottom. A sheet of polypropylene (trampoline material) is often substituted for the webbing. See that in the next photo.


Step 2: (Image below): Metal straps are then fastened at the bottom and the side.


Step 3: (Image to right) The frame is turned upright and double cone (hourglass shape) coils are attached to the webbing and directly over the metal straps. The metal straps provide the needed “foundation” to support you when you sit down.


 


Step 4: (Images below) The coils are then tied to each other and to the frame with low-stretch polyester twine that doesn’t slip or rot. Each coil is fastened in 8 directions. The network of twine the support for the cushions while allowing each coil to compress and flex individually.


 



 

 

 

 





 








 



So why is that beneficial to me?

Some pieces, such as wing chairs, are designed to sit firm and upright. Other pieces are designed to be deep, soft and cushy. The two major factors that affect comfort are the cushions and the springs. It isn’t too hard or expensive to change the firmness of a cushion. But the springs have a lot to do with comfort. Sinuous wire and drop in coil systems offer little choice in comfort from piece to piece.

But hand tied springs offer the manufacturer many options. Coils are available in different gauge wire, with 3, 4, 5 or even 6 turns, can be from 2 to 9 inches in height, be of different diameters, and can be tied down a little or a lot. The chair designer may specify 9 or 12 coils beneath each cushion. Every factor affects the sit or ride of the piece. When matched to the many choices in cushions the result is piece that can be expected to sit “just right” for many, many years.

 

Finally, hand tied springs are very labor intensive. Tying a sofa may be a two to four hour task. A manufacturer that will invest the extra time to do that is likely to go the extra mile at every stage of manufacture, from fabric offerings to padding and tailoring. Just be sure that the piece that you are purchasing is actually eight way hand tied.


Upholstering

Starting with the inside back and progressing to the inside arms, seat deck and then to the outside panels, layers of fiber and foam are added to the frame and the fabric cover is carefully applied.

Padding not only provides comfort to the user but protects the fabric from sharp edges of the frame. This is an area that is easily overlooked by a consumer, but greatly affects the tailoring and longevity of the fabric. Check the deck under the cushion, outside panels and around the edges of the frame. You should be able to feel layers of padding under the fabric.

Patterned fabrics should be carefully matched at seams, centered on both sides of the cushion, and line up from top to bottom from every angle. Note whether the welting (cording) runs straight and do the same for any seams. Are the outside panels smooth or lumpy at the edges and corners?

Cushion quality is fairly easy to judge as foam is rated by the weight of a cubic foot of foam. Heavy foam has more polyurethane and less air. The standard for durability within the
industry is 1.8 pounds per cubic foot but some companies will offer 2.0 to 2.5 pound foam in their cushions. So as you shop try lifting cushions and noting the difference in weight from piece to piece. You will quickly feel the difference. Seat cushions are usually a solid block of foam wrapped in a layer of Dacron fiber. Better companies will encase it in a sewn muslin bag, and then insert it into the zippered casing. Back cushions, whether loose or attached, are typically filled with polyester fiber. Good companies will create a channeled bag for the backs. Three channels run horizontally and then are filled with fiber. This helps keep the fiber from settling. The final step is to cover the bottom of the piece with black cambric fabric.
 

A word about self-decking

When the fabric on the piece is also used on the deck under the cushion, that is called self-decking. It is promoted as a quality feature by some manufacturers. But it is actually a bad idea. A rough burlap-like fabric will cause friction and wear on the bottom of the cushion every time you sit or move. A satin like fabric will cause the cushion to slide out easily. The best choice is muslin, a tightly woven smooth fabric that won’t cause wear to the cushion or allow it to slide around easily.


And about warranties


A well-made piece will backed by a warranty. But almost all will have limitations. Some will come with a “lifetime warranty on frames, springs and cushions”. Essentially that means that if something goes wrong with those parts, and you didn’t cause it, the factory will repair at no charge. You will probably have to pay for transportation to and from your home. And lifetime does NOT mean your lifetime, it means lifetime of the fabric. No matter how well a couch or chair is made, with enough years of use something will eventually fail. The factory expects that the frame, springs and cushioning will do their job until the fabric starts to wear through, then the warranty expires.
Fabrics will usually have very limited warranties. This is due to the fact that the factory does not make the fabric and some customers will unwisely choose very delicate fabrics for use in a high energy TV room. But a tightly woven synthetic or cotton synthetic blend will usually give many years of good service. Again, a professional salesperson can help you make the right choice.

At Westwood Furniture we take care of most warranty issues either in your home or back at our store. We employ a full time finisher and can handle most upholstery issues ourselves. There is never a transportation charge for warranty repairs, and most are remedied within a few days, not weeks or months. And we always offer our own five year limited warranty on anything we sell except clearance items.

 
 
 

 

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