Sofas are a big purchase. Not only are they expensive, but they're also one of the pieces of furniture that you'll likely use and enjoy every day for years to come.
So it's important to invest in a quality sofa that will stand the test of time. But how do you know which sofas are built well and will last?
In this article, we'll give you an insider's guide to high quality sofa construction so that you can make an informed purchase.
We'll cover everything from frame materials to cushion types and things to look out for when choosing a sofa to purchase.
For this piece, I had the opportunity to speak with Jeff Frank, a grizzled veteran of the furniture industry and one of the founders of Simplicity Sofas, a high quality North Carolina based furniture manufacturer.
The sofa's frame is one of the most critical determinants in finding a high quality sofa. It's not easy to tell if a sofa frame is high quality just by looking at it. You might think that all frames are created equal, but that's not always the case.
So, how do you know if a sofa frame is up to par?
Let's discuss some of the different frame types and how they stack up.
Solid Hardwood Frames (The Best)
Typically, higher end furniture manufacturers for years have used solid hardwoods (with a preference for maple or oak) to build their sofa frames.
For example, here's a description of a typical sofa frame build at Hancock & Moore:
Solid build from Clear Maple hardwoods. The corners are double-doweled and reinforced with steel corner brackets that are screwed into place. That is how we ensure the joints will remain solid over the lifetime of the piece.
The majority of solid hardwoods are also 'kiln-dried,' industry jargon that means the wood was dried out to prevent any bending or weakness in the wood. Notably, if solid woods have not been kiln-dried, the wood will warp and has the potential for bug infestations.
Plywood Frames (Good)
Jeff Frank tells me that while many good furniture companies have historically only used hardwoods, many have now switched to using plywood.
The reason - costs and efficiency. Whereas a top quality 5/4" thick solid maple hardwood frame might run around $350, a high quality plywood frame averages less than $100.
Plywood is also much more efficient to use, according to Frank. Plywood frames are cut on a computerized router. This minimizes wood waste and greatly speeds up production time.
This shift towards plywood was also echoed by Duane over at MyFurnitureForum
The furniture industry has moved to CNC milled Plywood for a variety of reasons, including a lack of skilled woodworkers, a desire for higher levels of accuracy in cutting measurements, strength of construction (solid wood can have fault lines in the grain) and so on. There is a lot of pushback from consumers on plywood, but the truth of the matter is if you use the right plywood, the frame is actually stronger in most areas, depending on the engineering. Most frames at the higher end levels will be hybrids of both plywood and solid wood where the solid is superior.
Jeff Frank tells me that a 5/4 inch solid hardwood frame should last 50 years or more, while a plywood frame should last at least 20 years. He says that once you start talking about 20 years or more with a sofa, other things might go wrong, before something goes wrong with the frame.
"Assuming, that it's a 'good quality' plywood that's being used, a consumer can expect that the frame itself should provide at least twenty years of durability, probably a lot more"
Note that there are different types of plywood frames. The thicker it is, and the more plies it has, the stronger the plywood. Most plywood furniture frames are 1/2" to 3/4" thick. Better quality manufacturers, such as Bradington Young use 7/8" thick plywood.
The craftsmanship of the sofa is also going to be key, especially when you move from hardwoods to plywood, as many of the low quality furniture manufacturers are holding together crappy plywood with staples.
Engineered Wood Frames (Bad)
The durability and sustainability of engineered wood products have made them popular in recent years. Manufacturers will take leftover wood scraps from the factory and mix it with adhesives to create a wood alternative.
According to Frank, engineered woods are the least desirable type of frame and are best avoided if possible. Engineered woods break more easily and don't hold screws as well as plywood and solid hardwoods.
Here's a YouTube video, revealing the insides of a Natuzzi leather sofa. The frame construction uses engineered woods (along with Pirelli webbing).
Most people don't think about the suspension of their sofa. In fact, unless they're having problems with it, they likely never give it a second thought. But did you know that a sofa's suspension system is one of the most important determinants in identifying a high quality sofa?
The suspension system provides the actual support for your sofa. Different suspension systems can determine the overall level of overall comfort and the true longevity of your furniture. Let's examine the different types of suspension systems in sofas.
Eight Way Hand-Tied Suspension (The Best)
Eight Way Hand Tied suspension systems have long been considered the gold standard of high quality sofa construction. The process starts by hand fitting springs into the base of the sofa frame. The craftsperson then hand ties the springs together, using eight knots tied on each spring (hence the name "eight-way" hand tied). On average, a standard sofa might have over 40 springs, so this is a very tedious process.
It is also, according to Jeff Frank, "a dying art", as the process is tedious, boring and very hard on the upholsterers hands, often leading to arthritis or or other types of hand-related injuries.
He thinks that in 20-years, especially given some of the advancements in other types of seating suspension that eight-way hand tied systems will no longer exist.
Still, it remains the choice for those looking for the best of the best, higher quality constructed sofas. If anything, it just shows that the furniture maker is spending more time building their sofa, indicating that they put some care into their craftsmanship.
Jeff Frank, however, says that while eight-way is still an excellent suspension solution, it might not actually always be the best system.
When used in combination with thick modern foam or coil spring cushions, it can be difficult to tell any difference in comfort, when compared with less expensive drop-in coil units.
But, when used in combination with soft cushions, such as down and feathers, 8 way hand tied suspensions are definitely superior and more comfortable.
He argues that when eight-way hand tied systems became popular (over 150 years ago), they were crucial to sofa design just based on the fact that cushion fillings (horsehair, cotton) offered no resilience, and without a firmer suspension system, the chairs or sofas would sag significantly.
"With today's thick cushions, you don't feel what's under there; you can use a cheaper, less labor intensive system and no one can tell the difference. Eight way hand tied is mostly about prestige these days and letting customers know the furniture has been built by highly skilled craftspeople. Any company building eight-way hand tied foundations is making high quality furniture. "
-Jeff franK, Simplicity Sofas
Drop In Coil Springs (Very Good)
A drop in coil spring system is basically trying to replicate the eight way hand tied system. It is cheaper, easier to install. Note that some furniture manufacturers will actually say that their sofa is "eight way hand-tied", even if using a drop in coil spring system. So beware of that.
Still, despite the lower cost of the drop in spring system, Frank told me that this is really the way that a coil system should be made:
"Don't forget that eight-way hand tied dates back over 150 years and with the new technology available nowadays, drop in coil spring systems are a perfectly good option. It does exactly the same thing as an eight-way hand tied system, except the twine doesn't rot".
I did however want to get a balanced view on the topic, and Duane, over at MyFurnitureForum has a bit of a differing opinion on the matter:
A drop-in spring grid is inferior as it has no webbing for base support, its self supporting or rides on a few metal cross strap bands The unit is wholly self-contained and is simply screwed to the frame of the furniture. It 'floats' in the frame and has lots of metal to metal contact (this can cause squeaking down the road as the oils evaporate off the metal and surface rust tends to form). They are fast to install, and relatively inexpensive. - Duane Collie, MyFurnitureForum
My ultimate opinion here is probably a mix of both conclusions - first, if you are looking at a sofa that uses eight way hand tied, you can have some sort of reassurance that it a high quality sofa. However, based on my research, I do think that a drop in coil system can be a good option, especially for someone with a lighter budget which has also identified a trustworthy, high quality brand/manufacturer to purchase from.
Sinuous Wire Suspension (Good)
Also known as no sag, it is the most common suspension system out there. It is extremely low cost for the furniture makers, it works, it doesn't break. Frank notes that if you have a high quality cushion, it should be perfectly fine for most consumers.
Webbing Suspension (OK, sometimes)
Many are familiar with the Pirelli rubber webbing suspension system (now known as elasticized webbing).
I asked Jeff Frank about the bad reputation of webbing used in sofa suspension systems as I was initially quite skeptical, since just even on looks alone, webbing appears to be quite inferior to any type of spring system. Here's what he told me:
Lots of articles say not to use webbing and they are partially correct. The webbing used on cheap furniture has a lot of give and pull to it. It stretches and is easy to install. However, stretchable webbing can eventually sag. Also, on cheaper sofas, the webbing is often stapled into engineered wood frames that don't hold the staples very well. But, high quality webbing, installed correctly by a good upholsterer, is a very durable option. Many high end custom upholsterers will recommend webbing for customers who do not want to pay the extra cost of eight way hand tied. Also, on many modern styles, the seating is too low to use springs. High end European furniture makers often use webbing.
Notably, Frank's company, Simplicity Sofas, uses a webbing system, but this is primarily because his sofas are designed to fit in narrow doorways and need a flat suspension system.
Well constructed cushions are very important in identifying a high quality sofa. Nearly all furniture manufacturers are using Polyurethane Foams as the filling inside the cushions. Higher quality brands offer multiple cushion options, usually including Spring Down cushions.
It's All About Foam Density
One way to make sure you are buying a sofa with good cushions relates to the density of the foam used to fill the cushions. Frank told me that "the expected lifespan of a foam cushion is mostly dependent on the density and thickness of the foam".
Cushion size is another factor. Larger cushions will last longer than smaller cushions with identical foam density and thickness.
In the furniture industry, 1.8 density foam is the standard, however it doesn't last very long. And with mass produced sofas, the cushions are the first thing that wear out, so all that worry about the frame construction goes out the window if you choose a sofa with low quality cushions.
Frank stressed that a couch made with sofa cushions using a 2.5 density foam will still feel brand new five years down the road, with an average lifespan of 10-15 years. Good quality spring down or spring fiber cushions may last even longer.
"The reason many furniture stores will use a 1.8 density foam (and not a 2.5 density foam) is that no consumer can tell the difference and the two sofas (with varying foam densities) will fill identical when brand new. It is that over time, the 1.8 density foam will lose its firmness at a much faster rate than cushions using 2.5 density foam "
Over the past few years, both furniture salespeople and their customers have become more educated about foam densities and cushion lifespans. Reclining furniture has been the big motivating force behind this movement.
Customers who spent thousands of dollars for reclining sofas and sectionals are discovering that their non-removable seat cushions can wear out (and become less comfortable) within 3 - 5 years.
Many furniture brands and stores advertise the foam used in their cushions as 'High Density', implying that "high density cushions" will last a long time.
Frank noted that the description "high density foam" usually refers to polyurethane foam with a 1.8 density. The average lifespan for 1.8 density foam cushions, before losing their resiliency (ability to bounce back), shape and comfort, is about 5 years in mid-range mass produced sofas.
Quick editor's side note, this marketing spin with 'High Density' is one of the reasons I started this website in the first place. Way too much misinformation and loose language is thrown around to try and deceive consumers.
Some very low quality sofas will use a low density foam and pad it with cheap polyester fiber. It might be hard to identify this as a consumer, but it would certainly not be an optimal cushioning system for a new sofa.
According to Frank, there are two premium, higher quality brand foams used in the industry according to Frank - Qualux (the best), and Ultracel (very good). If your new sofa uses one of these brand foams, you likely have good quality, well built cushions.
Some brands offer optional 'Memory-Gel' cushions. Customers often believe that the entire foam cushion core is made with expensive memory gel foam. That is not the case. Memory gel cushions wrap a thin, (one to two inch thick) layer of memory gel foam around the polyurethane foam, instead of the typical polyester fiber wrapping used on most cushions.
Frank stated that this reduces the cushion firmness and might slightly increase cushion lifespan. Memory gel foam is more expensive than the polyurethane foam that makes up most of the cushion core.
La-Z-Boy is an example of a sofa manufacturer that offers a memory-gel cushion, which they refer to as 'Comfort-Core' as shown in the video below.
How Leather Companies Cut Sofa Cushioning Costs
Over the past decade, lower cost leather sofa brands have been introduced. There is tremendous competition to see who can make the lowest cost leather sofas and reclining furniture. Leather is expensive in comparison to the fabrics used for mid-range upholstery. Reducing the amount of leather needed is one of the best ways to reduce leather furniture costs.
Two of the most common methods for reducing leather costs are non-removable seats and "leather match." Non-removable "tight" seat cushions only require leather on one side. That can reduce sofa prices by several hundred dollars.
"Leather match" uses "real leather" only on the seats, inside backs and inside arms. The rest of the piece is a matching vinyl. To get the leather and vinyl to match perfectly, the leather hides are sanded down, completely removing the natural grain pattern. An artificial pattern, matching the vinyl, is then embossed onto the hide. A dye is added to match the color of the vinyl and a clear protective coating goes over the dye and artificial grain.
Sofa Quality Conclusions
I hope you found this guide and my discussions with furniture expert Jeff Frank helpful. My conclusions are that we all have a specific budget in mind, so we might not be able to afford everything we want, in terms of the best quality for a sofa.
However, absent budget considerations, a high-quality leather manufacturer using solid hardwoods, an eight-way hand tied suspension system, and true, high density (2.5) foam are the best options.
This should provide you with a sofa that will last for a good twenty-plus years.