Tips on Buying a Really Great Sofa


The other day a friend asked me for tips on buying a really great sofa.   I have found that most shoppers and even designers lack basic information about upholstered furnishings – so perhaps this is a question you have asked as well.

If you are purchasing a mid to high-end sofa then you will probably consider it a major purchase. Just like buying a car, you will want to find a great sofa that fits your taste, everyday needs, and budget.

If you have worked with a top interior designer (lucky you), then you may already know many of these tips.

If you are a DIY, then you may find the exercise of finding a great sofa very frustrating.

Great Sofa
Photo provided by Designwright Studios

Buying a Really Great Sofa: What you need to know about Frame Construction

A sofa frame is like a skeleton ~it needs to be strong!

Look under the sofa cushions, you should see fabric covering the sofa’s frame; if you see wood or metal, do not buy it.

Great Sofa
Eight-way, hand-tied springs

Study the springs on the sofa.
The best sofas are made with Eight-way, hand-tied springs, but most sofas have serpentine springs, which are fine. Drop-in coil springs are a less costly alternative but stay away from sofas without springs that use webbing/ mesh.

Great Sofa
serpentine springs

Quality sofas will feel solid and heavy. Test its sturdiness by lifting it up by the corner and shaking it a bit. If it feels light or wobbly, take a pass. Look for a frame made from a kiln-dried hardwood such as oak, alder, birch, maple or, alternatively, high-quality hardwood plywood or marine plywood.

High-End Sofa Frames

How they are made:

  • They are made of solid, *kiln-dried hardwood (like oak or maple)
  • The best sofas have joints that are double-dowelled and fitted with corner blocks that are both glued and screwed (not stapled) into place.
  • The legs should be part of the frame, not just attached to it (even though removable feet can make it easier to get them through a doorway).

*A little about wood.—We asked Designwright Studios what we needed to know about Kiln-dried hardwoods?.… Mary told me that the answer was simple enough, “Kiln-dried hardwoods are hardwoods that are dried in a kiln (big industrial, low-heat oven). We make our frames out of hardwoods (maple, oak) not softwoods (pine). Hardwoods are much stronger, hold nails and staples much tighter, and have a lesser tendency to warp. Lumber, when it is sawed from the log, has a moisture content (got water in it). Some moisture is good as it keeps the board from being bridled but you don’t want too much moisture or the board has a tendency to warp. A kiln evaporates the moisture at a controlled slow rate and helps keep the board straight and strong”.

How long will they last:  Sofas with this type of construction can be expected, with normal use, to last nearly a lifetime.

Is it worth the cost of reupholstering them? Yes, they can be reupholstered several times as needed.

Medium Priced Sofa Frames

How they are made:

  • They typically have some hardwood, as well as some softer woods like pine, and likely plywood parts (an engineered wood product).
  • The strength of the frame totally depends on the largest pieces of solid wood.
  • If the sofa has corner bracing in key areas; corners, seat platform, and arms attaching to the back uprights, then a small amount of plywood in other areas is not a problem.

Least Expensive Sofas Frames

How they are made: The entire frame is probably made of pine; which is not the best for durability.

How long will it last?:  If the manufacturer has provided good bracing where it is needed, and the sofa will not be moved around, bounced on, or dropped, it can last for several years.

Is it worth the cost of reupholstering them: No, the screws in the corner blocks will loosen over time which will cause the arms to wiggle. Also, the wood may be too soft to hold staples once the old ones have been removed.

At the Very Bottom End Frames

How they are made: Cheap sofas are built entirely of plywood or pine frames joined with only staples at the corners.

How long will it last? These are likely to crack just with everyday use. Avoid sofas made from metal, particle board, or plastic, as they may warp.

Great Sofa
Here is a photo provided by Design Wright Studios. It shows the construction of their sofas and what you are looking for in a quality piece. They use a corner block that is glued, screwed and stapled into the frame for additional stability and strength. It firms up the corners of a frame and reduces any movement called racking.

The frame should be securely screwed together and/or secured with wooden dowels and wooden corner blocks.

Never buy a sofa that is only held together by staples and glue and does not have corner blocks or is double dowelled

Be sure to ask for information about the internal construction of the piece.
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 seeIf they don’t know, can’t be specific, or have nothing to show you- RUN!

Great Sofa
Double Doweled Construction Drawing

A quality sofa will have 2 dowels that run into the leg and connect the rail with the leg.  This will prevent the rail from twisting, as it would if you only use one dowel.

What about companies like Pottery Barn, Restoration Hardware, and Crate and Barrel?

All of these stores are trendy, well-marketed, and stylish, but Quality is not in their portfolio. They have to buy cheap to get the kind of margins they need to make and support their nice catalog as well as pay mall rates for real estate.

Smart Money Magazine did an article titled Pottery Barn, Unstuffed where they purchased several thousand dollar works of Pottery Barn pieces (and other trendy makers like Restoration Hardware & Crate and Barrel) and then took them apart. What they found was amazing.  Check it out here.

Additional sites

Click here to learn What You Need to Know About Cushions and Padding

Need new furniture or want to refresh or remodel your home but have no idea where to start? Give us a call at 303.916.9515

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