Upholstery Buying Guide

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Butterfly pleat, camel back, wing back, saddle arm—one may start to wonder when buying furniture: Am I looking for a couch or a pet? Upholstery is an artistic craft and an extensive science, but you don’t have to delve too deep to gain a basic understanding of what will work best in your home. The following quick guide will pave the way.

Before you Shop

Aside from personal style, there are several upholstery considerations when choosing furniture. In most cases, you will want whatever you buy to stand the test of time. Its success in that will be determined by its basic construction and the amount of use and care it receives. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • In what room will I use this furniture? (e.g., living room furniture)
  • Will it be subjected to heavy wear or will it serve as a mainly decorative piece?
  • Who will use this item the most? (For example, infrequent guests or full-time toddlers.)
  • How long do I expect to keep this piece? Who might use it after me?
  • What is my budget?
  • How much care am I willing to put into my furniture after purchase?


What to Consider

Basic upholstery considerations include: frame, support, cushioning, and cover.


The frame is the basic structure or skeleton of an upholstered sofa or chair. Wooden frames are constructed from:

✓ Hardwoods—any tree with leaves (ash, beech, birch, cherry, etc.)
✓ Softwoods—any tree with needles (cedar, pine, and redwood)
✓ Engineered wood—for example, particleboard and plywood

Kiln-dried hardwood such as oak and maple makes the most long-lasting wooden frame. Engineered wood is generally the least durable. With that said, how a frame is constructed is more important than its material. Pay special attention to joints. Those that are glued, doweled, or screwed together will be stronger than those that are stapled. Joints can be further strengthened with reinforcing blocks.


As the foundation of comfort, support is generally one of the main priorities when buying furniture. There are several types of furniture support systems.

  • Eight-way hand tied: The eight-way hand tied system is extremely labor intensive. Each coil is tied from front to back, side to side, and diagonally eight times. It’s not for show: The eight-way hand tied is considered the gold standard in terms of quality, comfort, and durability. Because this method can only be done by hand, it is generally the most expensive system of support.
  • Drop-in coil unit: The drop-in coil method is a cost-effective alternative to the eight-way hand tied. In this system, the coils are machine tied and placed into the frame as a unit. This is an excellent choice for quality at a reasonable price.
  • Nylon webbing: Imagine strips of seatbelt woven together, and you’ve got nylon webbing. There are numerous advantages to this type of support system. It will never rust or squeak, there are no design limitations, and it is extremely lightweight, adding to the overall mobility of your furniture. Additionally, nylon-webbed furniture generally sits on the lower end of the price scale.
  • Sinuous springs: Think of sinuous springs as stretched out coils that zigzag across the frame. Mass-produced in rolls, they install quickly and easily. This efficiency makes sinuous spring furniture highly affordable, though not as long lasting as eight-way or drop-in coil furniture. You’ll want to ask about gauge: The lower the gauge, the tighter the wire, and the firmer the support.


The main consideration with regards to cushioning is density. Low-density foam will flatten out quickly when sat upon, whereas high-density foam will support more weight for a longer period of time and is generally considered more comfortable.  Cushion style is, for the most part, a matter of personal taste, but there are a few things to keep in mind with the three main types: pillow back, tight back, and tufted back.

Pillow back: Pillow back cushions provide cushy, sink-into-it support. They are made for extreme comfort, but require fluffing and possibly re-stuffing down the line. Pillow-back cushions may sit loose or may attach to the frame.

Tight back: Tight back furniture has neat, formal lines and can feel firmer than pillow back furniture. A tight-back sofa or chair is ideal for people with continually changing tastes, as it provides a clean canvas for accent pillows and throws.

Tufted back: Tufts provide no additional comfort, quality, or support advantage. They are a purely aesthetic choice, popular for their plush and decorative appearance.



Cover refers to the furniture’s outer material. There are many considerations when determining cover such as personal style, durability, feel, comfort, and care. Covers are available in natural and synthetic fabrics and leather, each with their own advantages. For more information on covers see our fabric and leather material guides.