How To Tell You're Buying High-Quality Furniture (and How To Avoid the Cheap Stuff)


"Why spend $5,000 on a sofa when I can get one for $500?"

This is a question that I get asked a lot and it’s a good one. As a designer, I consider educating my clients a big part of my job. The old tag line for Syms - “an educated consumer is our best customer” - holds just as true for furniture as it was for men’s suits.  

Let me start by saying you don’t have to spend $5,000 for a great quality sofa, but I can pretty much guarantee a $500 sofa is a ‘throw away’. And the same goes for case goods.

Things to look for when shopping for quality upholstered pieces.  

Frame construction

Are they using kiln dried hardwoods, pressboard, or plywood? Why is this important?

Kiln dried hardwoods are just that – solid pieces of wood, kiln dried to reduce moisture, so the wood won’t warp.

Particle board and plywood have wood in them, but the wood is held together with glue, and many glues are made with formaldehyde a known carcinogen. Over time, the furniture may ‘off gas’ and formaldehyde will get in the air.

Good quality furniture also has corner blocking that is double doweled and screwed in place in stress joints. 

High quality seat cushions

Heavy gauge hand tied spring coils provide lasting support in the seat. Additional sinuous coils provide support in the back. Quality seat cushions have wrapped springs encased with foam and then plumped up with down. These spring down seats are the most comfortable and longest lasting.

Typically, inexpensive furniture cushions are just foam – that’s why they sag after a few months of use. And keep an eye on the foam content. Some foams contain ethylene oxide, another probable carcinogen. Look for greener, natural based foam and non-toxic water-based adhesives.

Here’s a video by one of my favorite furniture makers, Kristin Drohan, further explaining the process. I like Kristin’s approach because she uses environmentally friendly methods like sustainably sourced hardwoods, soy-based foam and recycled metal. Her upholstered pieces are gorgeous and super comfy.

When shopping for case goods

A dovetail joint.

A dovetail joint.

Again, look for kiln dried hardwoods. For stained pieces, wood should be selected for optimal grain and color match. Quality pieces will have drawers with dovetails (right) and double fronts. And drawer sides, backs and bottoms are made of long wearing hardwood rather than particle board or soft pine. You’ll want glued and pinned mortise and tenon joints (below) for table legs and aprons.

The final finish is also very important. All surfaces should be finished on both sides so that changes in humidity won’t warp them. The top coat should be able to repel liquids, so glasses don’t leave a ring. If the piece is custom made, you’ll want to be sure it has ample time to cure. A good finish will create depth and dimensionality and will last for years.

Mortise and tenon joints.

Mortise and tenon joints.

I hope this blog post helps you spot the perfect quality furniture for your cozy home! If you need help, just give me a ring!