Thursday, July 17, 2008

Furniture Buying 101

For those of you who maybe haven't read my profile, I am not only a jewelry designer extraodinaire, *wink* but I am an Interior Design Consultant as well. Recently, I received an email from a friend who is going to purchase a new sofa. It seems she has had some trouble in the past and would like to know a few inside tips before spending hard-earned cash on a high-ticket item. I certainly don't balme her!

For most, buying furniture can be a mind numbing experience anyway. Especially if you want to do anything custom. (Oooooh, there's that really expensive word, "custom". More on that in a bit.) The choice of fabrics and leathers, styles, you want it to recline, swivel, get up an get you a drink? Endless! It's enough to drive most people insane. And at the end of it, we forget why we needed furniture in the first place...because the last sofa broke.

Here is where that email question comes in. My friend (name changed to protect privacy) Susie said that she has had a sectional sofa from (name changed so I don't get sued) ABC Furniture Co. and has had it for only 3 years. The cushions are literally coming apart at the seams, as if there was not enough fabric allowed for a proper seam. She has never liked the way it sat, firm in one area, soft in another, different sections were higher than others, etc. When she bought it, she was told by the sales person that "it would last forever." (Hmmm, more on that later too.) Susie wanted to get some advice before plunking down another $3000 on something new, and praying the same thing doesn't happen again. As I started writing my reply, I realized how many times I have (happily) given the same advice to various friends as well as my own clients. It occured to me that most people are truly confused when it comes to knowing what furniture is "good" and what is not. What makes one sofa $300 and another one $3000? They look the same.

For full disclosure, I have to say that I do sell ABC Furniture brand, as well as other brands, so I know the company quite well. And I did not sell Susie her sofa, nor did she purchase it at my store. But I can say that ABC's frames and "spring" system are well known for being extremely strong and longer lasting than many other brands. But that's just the frame part if it, fabrics and other parts that are supplied to the furniture manufacturer are a different story. The key is how that manufacturer intends to rectify a problem.

So now, a few thoughts on Susie's current sectional sofa. Of course, without seeing her sofa first hand, I'm only guessing, but...

-First, the frame and workmanship (stitching, etc) should have a lifetime warranty through it's manufacturer, ABC Furniture Co. A lifetime warranty, which is not always offered with every manufacturer, means that it is covered for as long as you own that piece, in its original fabric or leather. If you have your sofa reupholstered, it will void all warranties.

-Fabric is always a one year warranty against defects (that's defects from the fabric mill, not ABC Furniture Co.), this is industry standard no matter where you buy your furniture. Some retail stores offer an extended warranty (through a company not related to the manufacturer)on fabric protection for an extra price that will cover rips, stains, cigarette burns, etc. for 3 or 5 years.

-The store where Susie bought it should be able to work with the factory on her behalf to have the sectional repaired (if she wishes).

-It's unlikely that the fabric on the cushions was cut wrong since, as with most large furniture factories like ABC, it is an automated cutting system run by a computer, unless you happened to get the end of the bolt and the fabric had run out(entirely possible, still unlikely). But sometimes it does happen where fabric is accidently sewn by a worker slightly off center leaving little room at the other edge for the seam. When the piece goes through a final inspection, it's easy to miss. But this is part of the workmanship warranty from ABC and is covered for repair.

-Not sure why each piece of the sectional is a different height. I would need to see it to come up with a reason. It sounds like Susie just wants to replace it anyway, but I want to help her try and avoid problems. My questions to her would be whether or not she has a sleeper or recliners in one side but not on the other? That could explain the height difference because of the mechanisms in those kinds of pieces. It could also explain the difference in firmness, since sleepers and recliners will usually be firmer than a regular piece. There is no way to get a non-reclining or non-sleeper piece that feels the same as one with either of those machinisms in it.

After having a little insight on what may have gone wrong with her present sectional sofa, I'd like Susie, and others to arm themselves with a bit of knowledge on how furniture is constructed and how to spot the problems you may have before you make that purchase.


- Give up the notion that there exists a perfect sofa, chair, table, bedroom, or whatever, that has never had, or will ever have any problems. Like Prince Charming, this is just a fairy tale . Things come in from the factories all the time with dings and scratches, and other goofy stuff that you wouldn't believe. Most stores have to do little touch-ups here or there on brand new pieces right out of the box. It doesn't mean it's not a quality piece, it's just reality. Even the highest end furniture companies have to deal with this. Just because piece of furniture is really expensive doesn't make it magic. Its still put together by humans and we all have our bad days.

- Look for a strong frame. Solid wood frames are great if they are made of maple or even poplar. Solid pine, not so much. Other strong frames are those made with plywood (plywood does not mean particle board) Plywood is made from sheets of wood layered with the grain on each layer going in an alternating direction. Since wood expands with moisture, alternating the direction of the grain limits this expansion, which limits warping and cracking. Sometimes this type of material is also called engineered wood. It has been specifically engineered to withstand the stress of everyday use in a particular type of product. Wood that has been engineered for use in a sofa may be different than wood engineered for use in a table or desk.

- Some wood names given as the type used for a particular piece of furniture are not what you expect they are. This is usefull information for most casegoods (wood furniture like tables, bedrooms, dining rooms). An example of this is a particular furniture collection that I have sold many times which is made of "select hardwood solids with Santos Rosewood veneers". Santos Rosewood is not actually a true rosewood, but mimics the look of Brazilian Rosewood (also known as Rio Rosewood), an endangered species of actual rosewood. Santos Rosewood is a beautiful alternative to the endagered Brazillian (Rio) Rosewood, however, it has different properties. It’s best to Google the complete name given to the wood type used. You will find countless sites that show the hardness scale, moisture resistance, etc. Often these properties are compared against typical American Oak, which most people are very familiar with. (By the way, American Oak is not the hardest wood like most people tend to believe, but hard enough to withstand a great deal of stress.)

- Look for upholstered furniture with the term “8-way hand tied”. This refers to a coiled spring construction. The springs are individually tied by hand to each other using a very strong twine and then tied directly to the wood frame by wrapping the twine around nails and then knotted. The nail is then pounded into place, securing the twine. This type of construction has been the ideal standard for centuries. A less preferred type of this construction is a “drop-in unit” in which the coiled springs are clamped together using metal clips. The drop-in unit is then set into the wood frame and clamped into place. The clips have a tendency to slip and break loose over time and the springs will become loose, or the entire unit may rock back and forth. A lesser preferred construction will have a zigger, or zig-zag shaped spring in the base of the sofa. This is the same type of spring used in most sofa backs. While it is pretty much the standard for the back of the sofa, this type is considerably less strong than a coiled spring and will almost certainly sag with heavy use. It is usually found in more contemporary or trendy looking upholstery that people tend to change after just a few years. Farther down on the quality totem pole is upholstered furniture that uses nylon webbing instead of metal springs. Just think how many lawn chairs you have thrown out over the years, ‘nuff said. Nylon webbing is still acceptable in most occassional chairs and dining chairs.

- Try lifting one end of the sofa at the corner 6 inches off the floor. If only the one corner that you are holding lifts off the floor, the frame is too loose. If both legs at that end of the sofa lift, the frame is probably well enough constructed, but ask what type of wood was used to construct the frame, then ask about the springs, and so on.

- Listen for squeaks and other noises as a sign of a loose frame or a faulty swivel or rocking/reclining mechanism.

-The foam in all seat cushions will break-in over time but should not break down and fall apart. A firmer cushion does not always mean it will last longer than a soft cushion. Look for manufacturers that include the seat cushions in the warranty. Note: not all types of cushions by one manufacturer will be covered in the warranty, usually just the standard cushion for that style frame. Down and down-blend cushions will almost always have a frumpy look over time.

-It is preferable to have seat cushions that are less than 30” wide each. Larger seat cushions will show a wrinkled look after someone has been sitting on it. This will be evident from the very first time you sit on the sofa. It's not a defect, just comon sense and the nature of a soft product. Larger cushions also have slightly less support and may sag with heavy use. If you want cushions (seat and back) that do not change their shape what-so-ever after someone has been sitting on or against them, I suggest concrete. And yes, your back cushions WILL mush down if you let Fido sit on the very top of them.

- Whether or not the back cushions are attached to the sofa or loose should not affect the quality. Loose cushions have the advantage of being turned or rotated, while attached cushions tend to stay straight and more tailored. It’s your choice. Keep in mind the maintenance required to preserve the look that you want for that piece and whether or not you are willing to do it!

- The word "laminated" need not be feared. Most people think of lamination as a thin sheet of imitation wood glued on top of particle board. Lamination actually refers to the process in which two or more layers (of anything) are glued together (to anything else). Remember what we learned about plywood frames in upholstered furniture? The same is true of the word "veneer". A veneer is the "thin layer" that is laminated to the top or outside edge of a piece of furniture. Most fine casegoods (wood) furniture has a veneer of a nicer looking wood laminated over either an uglier piece of the same type of wood, or over another type of wood in order take advantage of certain properties. You may often see "maple solids with maple veneers" or "cherry solids with fancy-faced mahogany veneers". A fancy-faced veneer is one in which the different grains or grain directions of the wood have been manipulated to achieve a particular look, such as a diamond pattern in the veneer.

-For upholstery, press down on the arm. If you feel it give or hear a pop, the arm has been most likely constructed using cardboard (yes, cardboard) to form the shape. This is obviously not as strong as an all wood construction and may give way under the pressure of someone sitting on the arm. If you press down on the arm and you immediately feel wood, there is not enough padding between the outer fabric and the wood frame. Friction will cause the fabric to tear from
the inside-out.

These are all things to consider when trying to determine quality from "crap". Although, "crap" does have it's place. Consider purchasing something of lesser quality to send with your kids to their college apartment. Or better yet, buy yourself something of better quality for the room you use the most in your own house and ship that old sofa off to college. It will probably last until graduation and your graduate might even make a buck selling it to some other under-grad. (Be sure and hit him up for a portion of the profit!)

Most of all, make sure the furniture you buy performs the function that you require for where it's going. If it's for the living room that no ever goes into except on Christmas and Easter, consider buying something that looks nice, but is not as good a quality on the inside as what you would need for the family room that gets used everyday. Don't skimp to save cash on something that you know will get heavy use. Family room, kitchen, and kids' furniture take the hardest beating. Put your hard-earned cash there. There is one exception that you may want to make for a formal dining room. Although it may not get as heavy use, a formal dining room is meant to impress. Sometimes, because of hand-carved elements and more luxurious fabrics, dining room furniture can get costly. If that's the look you want, you may not get it in a set that's cosiderably less expensive. Is it necessary? Maybe not. But how many times do you plan on purchasing a dining set? Sometimes you have to look down the road a bit.

I know I have covered alot. Actually, there is much, much more that I could go over for you. But having some information before you get to that furniture store will arm you with enough to keep you from being intimidated right out the door. You have a more than decent base knowledge that you will be able to ask questions and actually understand the answers. No more glazed expression on your face when the salesperson says "eight-way hand tied" (go back and read it again above), no more negative thoughts when you hear "veneer".

And by all means, if you don't understand something or can't find what you are looking for, don't be afraid to ask for help! The salesperson is your brother(or sister)-in-arms in your battle against home decorating. Most have an education in Interior Design and will happily guide you through choosing patterns, colors, and finding pieces that fit your specific needs. Helping you furnish your home and giving you guidance in the process (with as little stress and headaches as possible) is exactly what they were hired to do! Most of these people also work soley on commission. Keep this in mind if you leave and return to the store another day. It's proper and to your advantage to ask for the person that you began working with (unless you were unhappy with them) when you return. They will be up to date on what you are working on and can pick up right where you left off. They may have even come up with additional ideas for you in the mean time. Keep in mind also, that while you are welcome to negotiate for a better price, this is the person that has just helped you navigate the Bermuda Triangle. Often times, any discount (any at all, or after a certain point) that they may give you comes directly out of their own paycheck.

Many stores will offer the option to have one of their designers come out to your home. Although some stores say this service is free, it is usually for a fee that then becomes part of your deposit if you should finalize your purchase (free with a purchase). This is pretty standard in most better furniture stores. If you know you will probably purchase something from that store, it may be to your advantage to pay the up-front fee and have a designer come out. Some people balk at the idea of having to pay this fee, but the designer's time is not free. The fee up front insures the designer that they will be paid for their time away from the showroom and paid for their expert advice (you don't know any lawyers or doctors that give free advice, do you?), and when you make your purchase, you will be credited that amount.

Throughout this article, you probably came up with additional questions related to your own project. I would be happy to answer anything I can, just post your question in the comments section and I'll post an answer as soon as I can. I would like to get a list of some furniture manufacturers that I think have quality furniture at good price points. I've run out of time for today, but I'll try to do that soon.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent article! Thanks for all the advice. *sigh* Maybe I'll call up the furniture store and see what they'll do about the darn sectional. If we shop for new, I'm printing out your article and taking it with me!