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Sofa Shopping Tips

You probably spend a lot of time on your sofa. So finding a great, quality piece is important -- especially if you are shopping on a budget.

"If they are constructed properly then they have the great potential of being family pieces that can be passed on for generation to generation," said Ben Johnston.

Interior Design Expert Ben Johnston, with Avondale Design Studio, took us behind the scenes at a place you probably haven't seen before.

"Most people can't get into a 'trade only' work room to really see what designers get to see every day. What's exciting is bringing you in here, we get the opportunity to bring you in here, so you can see how a quality piece of furniture is constructed - so that you can make an informed decision on whether or not that piece you are purchasing in the marketplace is a quality piece of furniture," said Ben.

We are taking the sofa and turning it inside out -- literally! So you can see for yourself exactly what you are sitting on. First, Ben says there are three major types of cushions to look for in a good sofa.

1. Foam cushion with the Dacron wrap. It has a firmer seat.
2. Foam cushion with down wrap
3. The spring cushion with the down wrap.

"All three are considered to be high-quality seat cushions. The difference is how they sit," said Ben.

But, the ultimate cushion test is to sit in the sofa while you are shopping.

"What's really fantastic, not only to get to see what it feels like when you sit down to see if it's comfortable, but when you get up, see if the cushion maintains its shape," said Ben.

Ben says the springs that hold up the cushions are also important. There are three main types:

1. Eight-way tied - "This one is an eight way tied constructed frame, support system. You can see that because of the webbing that goes in eight different directions, tying the springs together. What's really nice about this example is the fact of when you step on it you'll notice the front edge of the spring actually flexes."

2. Four-way tied - "To cut down on the cost of doing an eight-way tied construction, this is a four-way tied construction. What you can see is instead of the ties going in eight directions, they go in four. It will be just as durable as an eight-way tied. Because there is less labor involved, this will be slightly less expensive."

3. Serpentine - "This is known as serpentine no sag springs. Obviously for the characteristic of the springs themselves. What you can notice is there is a lot less support overall. It is going to be significantly less expensive to get this kind of support system as opposed to the other two method."

Now, when it comes to the sofa frame being screwed or stapled together, Ben says it really doesn't matter.

"Just because a particular sofa has been stapled in terms of its construction, does not mean that it's not an excellent quality piece. It just means it took a little less labor and therefore is less expensive. Here you can see the staples that are used to attach the wood pieces together. As long as the joints of them have been glued and stapled properly, this is going to last a lifetime."

Ben says don't be afraid to get physical while sofa shopping.

"When an average consumer goes into the store, one of the things they can do to see if it's a quality piece of furniture is they can feel the outside back as well as the inside back of the sofa. If it's adequately padded there will be no hollow sound. So it's a sign the entire piece of furniture inside and out has been approached with quality construction," said Ben.

Then, check the legs.

"If the legs are actually screwed on legs, sometimes they may wobble and be loose. That's a sign that they may not have been adequately glued. Even if it is a screw on leg, no matter the style, if should not wobble or move if you try to manipulate it. If it does, again, beware this is a sofa that you wouldn't want to purchase," said Ben.

When it comes to sofa material, you have a few options.

"A really durable choice is microfiber fabric. It's actually made to look like suede. As I run my hand over it, the direction of the fibers changes directions. You can see some movement within the fabric itself. This is a really durable choice. It is stain resistant, can withstand wine, children, and pets."

And would you believe, Ben suggests putting outdoor sofa material inside?

"Such as these three right here. They come in lots of colors and textures. They can be used indoor, outdoor and can withstand pet stains, wine, children, anything they are really, really fool proof. Even though this is shown in white, these particular indoor/outdoor fabrics can be found in a tremendous amount of colors and patterns and textures and all are soft and easy to touch."

Ben suggests avoiding velvet and cotton.

"Although beautiful, these fabrics are not built to withstand stains if you spill anything on it, it will be locked into the fabric."

If the sofa has a pattern on it, check it out from top to bottom.

"A good pattern piece you will see alignment of the textile as it wraps up from the skirt to the front of the sofa to the seat cushions, to the back of the cushions as well as the back of the sofa. If all of the patterns match, it is a well constructed piece of furniture."

Ben has some suggestions for spotting a bad quality sofa.

"This is a great example of poor sofa construction. The bracing of the wood frame here, there are gaps between the corner bracing and in some cases the corner bracing is thin or minuscule. That's not going to stand the test of time. On the sides there is actually cardboard has been used as a support system for padding. That's also a lower quality piece of construction."

Ben stresses to ask the sales person for specifics on the sofa. They should know!

"If the sales person doesn't know the answer, whether it's screwed or stapled. Avoid this purchase!" said Ben.

And, Ben says spending a little more upfront could really save you in the long run.

"You can go out and buy a sofa for $500 to $750. Long term that sofa is going to need to be replaced. Probably in a year or two. So if you spend a little bit more money, you know what you are looking for, you can buy a sofa that is going to last and stand the test of time."

Other tips from Ben and his team on finding the right sofa for your home:

1. Sofa Usage. Determining usage before you buy will help you select all the other features of your sofa. How will you use your sofa? Will it primarily be used for everyday activities such as relaxing, reading, or watching TV, or will it be used only occasionally in a formal setting? Who will be using it? Pay attention to any special considerations if you want your sofa to be a good fit. Use deep seating for a very tall person. For someone with bad knees, shallow seating and a tight back make it easier to get up.

2. Sofa Shape. Once you've determined how it's going to be used, pick a shape that best serves that purpose. A sofa that will be used for relaxation can be deep and cushy with loose pillows. A Lawson sofa, with arms lower than the back, is a versatile choice for both formal and informal settings. A rolled arm sofa is a also a good choice. A camelback sofa has a curvilinear shape, shallow seating, and a tight back. It is better in a formal and traditional setting. Sectionals come in many configurations and profiles, and are good in cozy, conversational settings. For added comfort you can have reclining sectionals as well.

3. Sofa Size. The size of your room is a good guide for the size of your sofa. Make sure its size doesn't overpower the room or impede the flow of traffic. Measure the entire room, especially the wall against which you will place it, before you go shopping. A tight back sofa works well in a tiny space because of its low profile. A sectional might be perfect for a larger area.

4. Number of Cushions. How many seat cushions would you like? One cushion offers a clean modern look while two or three are traditional. When you sit on the cushions, do they stay in place or do the corners flare up? Are they attached to the frame with a clip to hold them down?

5. Arm Style. Choose an arm style for your new sofa. You can choose from armless, traditional rolled arm, curved English arm, or a straight Parsons style. The rolled arm has a flat front panel and is often outlined in cording. English style is rounded at the front, with fabric formed into sunburst-type pleats. Straight arm sofas are most often seen in contemporary settings.

6. Skirted Sofa or Bare Legs. Do you want a skirted sofa or one with the visible legs? A skirted sofa is classic, but in a small space, an unskirted sofa will look bigger in a small space because it allows light under the sofa. Choose from leg styles that vary from heavy square chunks and wide bun feet to more delicate tapered legs or carved and curved formal versions. Legs are usually available in a number of finishes as well.

7. Sofa Upholstery Fabric. To keep your sofa looking its best, it is important to select the right fabric. Use high maintenance fabrics, such as silk, only in areas that are used infrequently. Microfibers are great in heavy usage areas, look attractive, and are easy to clean. Textured fabrics show less wear and tear than smooth ones. Leather is a good option if you are looking for longevity. There is now a large selection of colors and textures, so you are no longer confined to tans and blacks.

8. Sofa Color and Patterns. To select a sofa color, or fabric pattern, always take into consideration any preexisting colors or patterns in the room. Neutrals work best in most rooms, especially small ones, but you can dress up your sofa by using more vibrant colors and patterns in the pillows, or adding throws. A patterned fabric works well in heavy usage areas as it can hide minor stains. Go with a strong color if you want to make a bold statement, but if you do so, consider buying a sofa with simpler lines.

9. Sofa Quality. The real quality of a sofa comes from how it is put together on the inside. A good quality sofa is heavier because of its sturdy frame which is constructed of kiln-dried hardwood that is free from knots. The legs will be part of the frame and not screwed on. The cushion should retain its shape when you sit down, and not curve up. A combination of down and dense foam will let the seat maintain its shape for a long time. You shouldn't be able to feel the frame through the padding. When you check the back, make sure it doesn't feel hollow, as that is a sign of inferior construction.

10. Sofa Budget. You can expect to pay anywhere from $750 to $5000 for a basic sofa. If you're on a tight budget, visit clearance centers or ask for floor models. Sometimes, you can find good values at special sale events. Make sure to buy the best quality you can afford, as you'll live with your purchase for a long time. A sofa can last you anywhere from ten to fifteen years.

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Kat Cosley shot this story at the Designer's Furniture Mfg. For more information check out


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