We are often ask "Is it worth restoring" or hear something like, "That's more than I paid for it when it was new!" You can waste a lot of money restoring a piece of junk. Or, just as bad, through out a high end quality constructed item and replace it with a new "bargain" priced item. The insights provided here will enable you to make an informed intelligent decision based on the facts.
- Do I like the style and quality of my present furniture?
- Am I comparing quality and value or just comparing prices?
- Do I know what to look for to determine the quality, i.e. frame and spring construction, style, design, fabric content and wear ability, etc.?
- What is the cost deference between replacement and reupholstering?
OK, now be honest with yourself. Are you only trying to save money and don't really like your present furniture? If so you'll spend your money and still won't be satisfied with the end product. It might be best to replace the item with something you will enjoy.
If you made it past the first consideration you'll need some criteria to make a true comparison. Generally, the older your present furniture the better the quality. However, if you bought a low end item 10-15 years ago and compare it to a top end item today this rule will not be true. Make sure you are comparing apples with apples, not apples with oranges.
The true quality of an upholstered item can be deceiving. You can find two almost identical chairs at different stores with the same fabric and same color wood trim, but the cost could be $900 more for one of them! Why? The difference is in construction. One is low end. The other is top of the line. The quality in an upholstered item is hidden under the fabric. A top end item has a solid oak or maple frame that is glued together with dowels and reinforcing corner blocks. Low end items are commonly put together with many staples and use wood such as Pine, Fur, Poplar or even plastic and cardboard for frame materials. The difference in the frame translates to how long the item will last! Top end 20 plus years, low end, 6 months to 3 years.
Same colored woods are not the same wood. Poplar can be stained to look so close to Cherry most people and some "experts" can't tell the difference. Cherry wood is harder and stronger than Popular wood, yet both are classified as hardwoods. When a salesman tells you "This sofa has a solid hardwood construction through out!" Ask; "What kind of hardwood through out?"
Springs and filling also relate to the useful life of an item. Low end furniture construction is often nothing more than a top deck webbing (rubber, nylon or hemp), with a thick slab of firm rubber over it. Although it feels as a well-built seat, the rubber usually deteriorates quickly causing deformity and sagging fabric. Better, but still low to middle end, is the "sig-zag" type spring construction. Springs that look like a series of "s" connected and stretched front to back on the top of the frame rails. This type of spring puts a substantial and constant pressure on the front and back rails. Often frames will bend, warp or even brake under this pressure, over time, particularly on a weak frame of Pine or Poplar. High end furniture employs coil springs attached to a deck of interlaced hemp webbing attached to the bottom of each side, front and back rails. The springs are held in place by an "eight way tie" of a resin coated hemp twine, then covered with burlap and desired padding materials. Coil springs compress top to bottom against the webbing and not the frame. One way to check if an item has coil springs is to pat the dust cover on the bottom of an item. If it doesn't feel drum tight it will usually have a slab of rubber or sig-zag spring type of seat construction.
The right type of fabric for your type of life style is also important. A cotton velvet may look beautiful on the show room floor under accent lighting but, the first spill from the kids while watching TV may ruin its look permanently. A ruff feeling nylon will last until you get sick of the color, but in a formal living room is out of place. When you reupholster your not limited to a certain number of colors or fabric type to chose from. Reupholstering lets you match the fabric you want to the comfortable item you already own.
Another way to check for quality difference is by weight. A light weight chair is most often the "through-a-way" type. Soft woods are not as dense as hard woods and steel springs weigh more than rubber. Generally the heavier of two comparable items has the better frame and construction.
The bottom line? COST! If the item under consideration is top end construction, you will save 1/3 to 1/2 the cost of replacement of another top end item. Upholstering an older lower end item may cost as much or even a little more than replacement with a comparable item. The saving on lower end is in value for dollar. Older frames were built much better than what's coming off assembly lines today and your choice of better fabrics is not limited. Top end reupholstering is a dollar saving and lower end reupholstering is a quality up-grade for about the same money.Steve Nearman operates The Master's Touch furniture service in Fredericksburg, Virginia and is the founder of Professional Restorers International. His local clients include several historical sites like, Kenmore, Mary Ball Washington'sHouse, Rising Sun Tavern, Gary Melcher's Belmont and many private collectors of early American furniture. View his PRI shop Bio page.