Unlike shopping for new furniture, selecting upholstered furniture of unknown quality in a thrift store is something of a gamble. Recognizing desirable structural features in a sofa or chair makes the difference between a wasteful purchase to fill a temporary need and an investment that provides years of enjoyment. Look beyond the surface for a thrift store find to impress your friends and please your wallet.
The internal structure of upholstered furniture starts with the wood frame. Turn the piece over and look underneath it. The bottom may be exposed or covered with fabric, but you should see or feel pieces of wood that are screwed into the corners to create a triangle shape that provides stability. Also look or feel for wood braces that run front to back across the bottom for support. One brace should be present under or between each seat area on large pieces of furniture, and none of the braces should be cracked or broken. Braces may not be present under a dining chair or small bench, so turn the furniture upright and sit on it. Wiggle your body to further test for sound structure that doesn't shift or squeak.
Quality seating that will experience a lot of use should have stainless steel coil springs. Remove any detachable seat cushions to view the spring system located below them. If seat cushions are attached, check underneath the furniture when you are inspecting the frame. If you can't see the springs because they are covered with fabric, you can feel them. Notice if any are poking through the covering or feel unstable before making a purchase decision. Another type of spring system, the "sinuous" system, is made from strands of steel that snake across the bottom. Steel snakes should be placed close enough together to provide support, with none broken or missing. A sinuous system provide stability and comfort, especially in less frequently used furniture. It is common in chairs and smaller pieces of upholstered seating.
Cushions and Padding
Seat cushions should feel soft and conform to the weight of your body without flattening or causing you to sink into the furniture. Quality cushions are made of dense foam wrapped in a synthetic material that resembles batting before it's placed in the cushion covers. Older people or those with bone or joint problems often require a firmer cushion than normal to comfortably rise from the furniture. If you select an upholstered sofa or chair that otherwise exhibits quality and durability, it may be worthwhile to have a professional upholsterer make new seat cushion inserts. In areas such as arms and backs, the padding should be thick enough so that you do not feel the wood frame structure beneath it.
Fabric and Seams
In addition to colors and patterns that please you, look for signs of good fabric and upholstery construction. Sometimes a small swatch of sample fabric is attached to the furniture body under the cushions or frame so you can see how well the fabric has worn with use. The tighter the weave, the better the fabric will wear. A little pilling, or formation of tiny balls of fibers, is common in areas where humans touch the fabric, but pilling should not be present all over. Look for zippers as a sign of quality on all seat cushions and back pillows. All seams, including zippered ones, should be sewn straight with no pulling or fraying of fabric. In some styles, seams will contain welts made from piping. They should be sewn in securely without tears or poking through. Plaids and large stripes in quality upholstery are matched to visually flow across the body of a sofa or chair.
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