I. Two Types of Furniture: Upholstered and Case Goods
There are two basic types of furniture: upholstered furniture and case goods. Upholstered furniture has fabric covered cushions or padded sections such as sofas. Case goods refer to furniture that is not upholstered such as tables, chests, cabinets and shelves.
Both upholstered furniture and case goods can be constructed from a variety of woods or wood-composition materials. Furniture woods are either hardwood or softwood.
Hardwood is used to describe woods such as mahogany, walnut, maple, oak, cherry, birch, teak or even pecan.
Softwood describes such woods as pine, redwood and cedar. Softwood is less expensive than hardwood and is often used in ready-to-finish and outdoor furniture. In general, it is more subject to dents and deep scratches than hardwood.
II. Upholstered Furniture
1) The Frame
Most sofas are constructed on a wooden frame platform. The type of wood implemented will vary from one manufacturer to another. What is crucial is the integrity of the type of wood used and the intensity of the treatment endured. Lower quality woods have higher potentials of breaking, (especially at the joints). Both kiln-dried hardwood and plywood offer exceptional stability and integrity to the frame. Additionally, some furniture makers will adjoin piece of metal to the long of the sofa in efforts to reinforce the overall structural component. Keeping your sofa away from heat vents will minimize potentials of splitting or warping. When in doubt, ask the sales associate for specifics on the type of frame the sofa is built on.
2) Structure - Designed to Last
In principle, designing the structural frame of a sofa is not much different from designing the structural frame for a building. The stress should be evenly distributed, and exterior forces on every joint should be well accounted for. In sofa construction, the joints need to be fastened by nails, not glue. Wooden blocks affixed at corners add reinforcement. The frame should extend to all areas of the sofa. For example, if the armrest is padded with solely foam, it will not hold up over time. The design of a sofa should not be limited or compromised by the frame or structural aspects. A great sofa is one that does take all of structural components into account, but yields a beautifully proportioned end result.
3) Springs - The Foundation of a Good Sofa
Just like in mattresses, springs are the foundation that provides support. Although the type of seat cushions can be a factor in comfort, a well designed spring system plays a crucial role in providing support. Due to the complexity of this topic, we will not delve deeper into the different types of spring systems. However, do remember to inquire for information regarding the spring system when shopping for your next sofa.
4) Cushions - The Comfort Factor
Aside from the overall look of the sofa, most people base their purchasing decision on the comfort and support provided by the back and seat cushions. Generally most cushions are filled with foam, down, or a foam/down blend.
The density of foam will determine the longevity of a sofa. High resilient foam is the most desirable, but do expect to pay more for it. The best alternative to the high resilient foam would be regular polyurethane foam with a density of more than 1.8. The higher the density, the heavier the sofa, and the longer lasting it will be. Last but not least, do look out for fire-resistant foam. Regardless of the density level, fire-resistant foam will be an added safety precaution for your home.
As you move up into higher quality sofas, you will find more feather-down used in your sofas. Down offers undeniable superior level of comfort. However, since it is a natural product, through time the feathers in the insert may crumple and exhibit a more “saggy” look. This is not as critical for back cushions, but more so for seat cushions. Having a poly-down or spring-down combination in the seat cushion will offer both comfort and durability. Any cushions with down should have a “down-proof” layer between the lining and the outer fabric to minimize feather leakage.
Regardless of the type of filling utilized, look for Dacron polyester wrap around the cushions. This will give the cushions a rounded smooth look around the edges.
5) The Outer Layer - The Last But Not Least, Final Touch
Now for some good news: Pricier fabrics do not equate to more durable fabrics. The price of the fabric can be determined by many factors: everything from the material, to the intricacy of the weave, to the country of origin. Moreover, keep in mind that in most instances, man-made materials will be more durable than that of natural materials. Man-made material will also require lower maintenance.
Many fabrics on the market are a blend of different materials. Examples of durable fabrics can range from any of the following: cotton, polyester, micro fiber, acrylic, or even ultra suede. On the contrary, fabrics such as satin, velvet, and silk are not as sustainable. It can be difficult to determine the exact contents of a fabric by simply looking at it. However, with a combination of viewing, touching, and employing some common sense, you should have a better understanding on the durability of the fabric. Ask the sales associate for assistance on detailed information of the fabric breakdown.
Always consider fabric protection options for your sofa. This will safeguard your sofa from staining and scratching. There is a wide array of products in the marketplace that will serve this purpose. Some products are made specifically for a certain fabrics. Most commonly used fabric guards will be in some form of a spray. Pay attention to the label when you purchase the product to ensure it is compatible with you fabric. Some companies will even offer to professionally apply a fabric protection guard on your sofa for you, or even offer a life-time warranty on their fabric.
Aside from the fabric itself, there are just a few more things you should pay attention to. Many sofas will offer removable fabric covers for easy cleaning. In some cases you can even purchase new fabrics down the line to create a completely new look and feel for your sofa. However, do note that removing and re-attaching the fabric cover can be a tedious task. Last but not least, make sure invisible zippers are used on the cushions rather than the conventional zippers. Not only do invisible zippers keep us from getting scratched sitting on the sofa, but it also yields a cleaner refined looking cushion.
6) Understanding Leather
Leather, compared to most fabrics, is a more durable material. Leather furniture tends to be more expensive than that of its fabric counterpart. It has a higher resistance to staining and the surface is easier to maintain from dust and other particles. However, before investing your dollars on a piece of leather furniture, there are a couple of things you should keep in mind. Understanding all the different grades of leather can be exhausting, thus we will provide you with an abbreviated crash course instead.
Leather comes in many different grades. As you may or may not already know, cow hide is very thick. The hide is actually split into different layers for different purposes, whether it’s making a sofa, a purse, or even car seats! Higher grade leather (top-grain) will feel softer than that of lower grade leather. Lower grade leather, (also know as split-leather), will also look more protected or finished, in an attempt to cover up the imperfections. High grade leather will inevitably reveal some imperfections, but these imperfections are what people refer to as “the beauty of the leather”. Contrary to popular belief, lower grade leather is just as durable as higher grade leather; it will simply not look and feel as nice. Different grades of leather can be used on a single piece of sofa. Some manufacturers will keep their cost down by using higher grade leather only on the seats and the armrests, resorting to lower grade leather for the rest of the surfaces. Some manufacturers may even substitute the lower grade leather with faux leather! This is a legitimate practice, but this information should be disclosed to the customers at the time of purchase. With technological advancements, faux leather today can almost be indiscernible from genuine leather. Don’t be too quick to shun faux leather. Faux leather today is not only comparable in look and feel; it also entails easier maintenance and lower cost.
III. Case Goods
1) Hardwood vs. Softwood
All wood furniture is made from either hardwood, (trees that lose their leaves seasonally), or softwood, (trees that keep their leaves year round). Oak and teak are hardwoods that really are hard and heavy. Fine hardwoods like walnut, mahogany, maple, cherry, or oak are found in the most expensive pieces. Softwoods like are used in less formal pieces.
Solid hardwoods are cut and shaped into pieces that provide the structural integrity of the furniture. These pieces include the legs, frame and posts that support the weight of the table, chair, or cabinet. Framed pieces are joined in various ways and provide additional strength with bonding glues. To check if a piece of furniture is joined properly, lift it by one corner. The entire piece should remain rigid and retain its shape with little or no wracking or twisting.
The use of non-solid wood products is probably the most misunderstood aspect of furniture construction. As woods are porous by nature, solid wood has a tendency to expand and contract with humidity changes. Solid wood does not offer necessary stability when constructing large flat panels that make up the tops of tables or the sides of cabinets. Plywood and products manufactured by ground up wood, (particle board), are significantly more stable and less apt to warp or split. These panels will often be framed in solid wood and covered by veneers to recreate the look of one large piece of wood.
2) Solid, Bonded, and Veneer
A "solid walnut furniture” means that all exposed parts of the piece are walnut. But the frame and inner parts may be made of other, less-costly woods. Because timber cut from trees is not the size or shape required for furniture, bonding is necessary to join pieces together. Thin layers of fine, decorative wood can be bonded to the face of furniture pieces. This is what we know as veneer.
The beautiful grain you see on the top of a dining table or dresser is most often a wood veneer. The use of veneers is found at every price level of wood furniture. Often more expensive woods which would be too costly or fragile to use as structural parts are used as veneers.
The use of "veneering" is a time-honored technique in furniture construction. It involves using thin layers of decorative woods "bonded" on the top and bottom of "ply" construction. Veneering allows manufacturers to match fine grain wood sections and to use inlays of various woods to create beautiful designs that cannot be found in solid woods. Ply construction increases the strength and resistance to warping, and is found in all price ranges of furniture.
Bonding is used to build large sections of wood from several smaller pieces. There are four basic types of bonding:
Wide boards for table and cabinet tops may be cut into narrow sections and then bonded or fitted back together in the width or shape that is needed. The bonding process can make the finished section stronger and less liable to warp or split.
Blocks of wood may be glued together to create a single section of a piece of furniture which is to be carved or turned to form a rounded shape.
Wood chips or particles may be mixed with a gluing agent and then processed to make strong, warp-resistant panels used as backing for cabinets and chests of drawers. These man-made panels are called chipboard, particleboard or fiberboard and are durable and long-wearing.
Several layers of solid wood or particleboard may be bonded together. 3 to 7 layers make a "ply" construction wood product used to reinforce various types of furniture. Plywood panels are strong and rugged in everyday use.
3) Finishes on the Wood
The finish on furniture can enhance the natural look of wood or change it completely. A finish of oil or wax lets the wood shine. For more durability, lacquer or varnish is applied when the piece is manufactured. Distressed furniture can be natural, (as with an old piece), or man made, (via sanding or beating the wood with chains). Painting, gilding, and inlays can change the look of a wood piece as well.
Most of the fine furniture sold today goes through a finishing process involving many steps. After the piece is thoroughly sanded, a stain is either sprayed or wiped on. Sometimes the grain is highlighted using steel wool or distressing. Flyspecking can be added. A sanding sealer is then applied through a final sanding and top coat (usually lacquer for beauty, water resistance and durability).
Some surfaces that look like wood on a piece of furniture may not be. Due to the high costs of veneering, another method called engraving has been developed, a process that reproduces the grain of wood photographically. The grain will be perfect with no variations as one would expect from nature. This process is primarily used on the inside backs of cabinets. A drawback of engraved surfaces is that they are generally not repairable and the grain effect may diminish if contacted by a solvent.
4) Quality Case Goods
Be sure drawers and doors are smoothly finished, securely fitted, do not sag when opened, and fit snugly when closed. Check drawer construction to be sure the drawers open and close easily but firmly and are built to hold whatever you want to put in them without sagging or jamming.
They should have interior dust panels to keep contents clean. Doors on cabinets should open and close easily with hardware that is of quality, and installed securely. Interior lights should be easy to access. If the piece is to be used as an entertainment center or computer station, holes should be pre-drilled for electrical cords. Be sure that the legs of a table are even and that the table does not rock.
The finish of case goods furniture is an important sign of quality. Better quality pieces are finished on the top, sides and front as well as on the back and the underside. There should be no cracks or bubbles in the finish. Check to see how pieces of wood are joined. The strongest joints are dovetail, mortise and tenon, tongue and groove, and dowel. The least satisfactory is simply glued or nailed.
If glass tops or panels are used, check to be sure the glass lies straight and flat and that there are strong grooves or ledges to hold the glass in place. The panels should be thick enough to resist cracking or chipping in normal use.
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