Furniture 101 : Q&A

dcollieMarch 7, 2007

I keep seeing repeated posts here asking how to tell quality....which brand is best, what will last the longest, etc. I thought perhaps it a good thread to address the basic things to look for, under the premise that an educated consumer can make a wise decision. So let's give this a try and not target "brand names" so much as general questions on furniture. This could be a LONG thread and make take quite a few posts to cover topics, but let's get started!

First off, my name is Duane Collie and I own a small home furnishings store in Alexandria, VA. I've been in business since 1979 and specialize in high-quality, American-made 18th century furnishings. Because of the nature of my business, I have learned hundreds of things about what makes a good piece, or a bad piece, or even a mediocre piece (just don't overpay for mediocrity).

Let's start off with something easy, the basic building block of all furniture..>WOODSolid wood is preferable to veneers (which are laminates over a secondary wood) Wider boards are more expensive than narrow boards in solid woods, and more desirable. There are different grades of wood within a type. For example, there are over 200 species of pine and while Southern Yellow is not very good for furniture making, Eastern White Pine is. A cabinetmaker selects his wood based on his project and costs. If he is using an aniline dye and shellac coats, he needs a higher grade of lumber than if he is using covering stains that mask the wood flaws and mineral deposit variables.

Which wood to get? This varies by price and characteristics. Just because a wood is soft, doesn't mean its not suitable for a project. Here's a rundown of some common woods in the USA that are furniture grade:

Pine. Soft, but relatively stable. Eastern White has good, tight knots that will not fall out. Shrinkage and expansion is moderate. Dent resistance is poor. Takes stains nicely.

Poplar. Great Secondary wood (drawer bottoms, etc.) and very stable. Inexpensive. Halfway between a soft and hardwood. Takes paint well, but never stains up nicely.

Cherry. A great lumber! I personally find it more interesting to look at than most mahogany. Its a hardwood, but not as dense as maple. Takes aniline dyes beautifully and requires little or no sealer. Cherry will darken and 'ruby up' with age and exposure to sunlight. If you use it for flooring or kitchen cabinets, expect deeper and more red dish colors to develop over time nearer the windows of your home.

Mahogany. Poor Mahogany! So misunderstood! Mahogany grows in every part of the world, and varies greatly. Figured mahogany is highly desirable (aka as 'plum pudding' or 'crotch' mahogany) but you rarely see it outside of veneers due to the cost of those logs. The very best furniture grade mahogany is from Central America and Cuba, but is very hard to source. African mahogany is decent, and the stuff from China and the Philippines the least desirable. Mahogany can be done in open pore, semi-closed pore, and fully sealer finishes. Mahogany is a favorite for carvers, as it carves easily and is not prone to splitting when being handled.

Maple. Both hard and soft maple is an industry standard. Very durable, very dense, accepts many colors nicely and stains up well. Excellent for the best upholstery frames. Stable, and plentiful.

Figured Maples. Sometimes called Tiger Maple, or Curly Maple (one of my favorites). A small percentage of maple will be highly figured and is pulled off at the mill to sell to furniture makers and musical instrument makes for about 2x the price of regular maple. Tiger maple MUST be board matched and typically a single log will be used to make a project, rather than taking a board from this pile and another from another pile. Consistency is key, and you will hear the term 'bookmatched' used frequently in figured maples. Figured maples look best with aniline dye finishes and hand-scraped surfaces. Birdseye maples are in this category as well, but are so unstable that most shops only use them veneers.

Walnut: A hard wood to work with. Not many walnut forests, and most cabinentmakers loathe making walnut pieces for two reasons. First it much be bleached before it can be finished, otherwise its ugly. Secondly, it has to be filled and sanded. Very time consuming to do properly, but quite a handsome wood when done right (3/4's of all walnut pieces I see is NOT done right)

Oak: Another mainstay wood. Very durable, and dense. Not widely used in fine furniture because of the grain pattern.

There are other woods as well, but those are some of the mainstay furniture woods.

Wood has to be milled to make is usable. It is run through planers, joiners and wide belt sanders to get it to size. The larger and thicker the board, the more expensive it will be. Bed posts and pedestal bases on tables are very expensive to do as solid, non-glued-up pieces. So if you buy a bed, check to see if you see a vertical seam in the lumber which signifies a glue-up. Nothing wrong with glue-ups, just don't pay the price of solid 1-board.

Industry standard is 4/4 (pronounced four quarter) lumber, which when milled will finish out to 7/8" thickness. Anything thicker - or even thinner - requires more expensive wood or more planing time if being thinned out.

Once the wood is planed, it either goes to a wide belt sander or is hand-scraped. If hand-scraped (much more desirable) you will feel a slight ripple when you run your hand over the surface. Belt-sanded items will be perfectly smooth. Cutting the surface of the wood gives you a brighter finish over a sanded surface in a completed product.

Solid wood MOVES. The wider the board, the more it will move with the seasons. Expands in the summer, shrinks in the winter. The art of the furnituremaker is to build to allow this movement, without sacrificing joinery strength. Narrow board furniture does not move nearly as much, and plywoods and veneers don't move at all.

Joinery. The gold standard is Mortise and Tenon. That's the strongest joint where you have intersecting pieces of wood. All mortise and tenoned pieces will have one or two distinctive wood pins visible from the outside of the piece that secure that joint. Next up is Dowel joints. Not as durable as mortise and tenon, but superior to a bolt-in leg. Dowel joints look like M&T joints, but don't have the cross pins. Last choice are legs than bolt on, or are held on by screws. Plastic blocks, staples, nails, hot glue and the like are unacceptable as joinery methods.

I've reached the character limit for this post. More later. Hope you like this thread and will ask general quesions!

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Great post, this needs to stay at the top!

    Bookmark   March 8, 2007 at 8:16AM
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This is such a great post. I hope it keeps going and going. Thanks to Duane for taking the time and effort to write it. Now here come my questions:
1. Why bolts and screws are bad for table legs? I have seen them used widely in inexpensive dining sets, and they seem to be stable. The legs can be removed when moving, and they can be tightened when lose.
2. I sometimes see pegs penetrating a mortise and tenon joint, especially on door frames. Is that a sign of quality construction? Does a peg increase the stability of the M&T joint?

    Bookmark   March 8, 2007 at 11:47AM
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Bolts are not good because the joints are not strong. Now if you think about this for a bit, it will become clear to you.

Bolts are great for holding metal pieces together, like car engines or machinery, where you can pass the bolt and nut through and clamp it tight, or weld a stud to a piece of steel. You are joining metal to metal.

What happens to wood if you overclamp it? It crushes. But even more so, wood itself cannot hold a thread, it will pull out under high stress. That means you have to either drill through the wood entirely and use a nut on the other end (too unsightly on your exposed wood plus the crush factor), or you have to drill a hole in the wood and place a nut insert into it. Well, nut inserts can't take much torque at all or they break out or blow out.

A mortise and tenon joint is the strongest wood-to-wood joint you can make with intersecting pieces. You have a tenon (or the male part) and the mortise (the female part) that if properly cut, mean a very tight fit that will not come lose or wobble. The tenoned part has a shoulder on it as well that rests against the mortise base further stabilizing the joint. The pins you see are the cross-locking devices to keep the tenon from pulling out of the mortise.

Glue by itself is not satisfactory to hold any joint. It's done supplemental to the joint itself. Glue bonds break over time, and then you get pieces that have a joint that flexes, so the cross-pins are mandatory on a mortise and tenon piece. If a salesman tells you the joint is Mortise and Tenoned, and you don't see the pins, then its NOT ! What you have then is most likely a dowel joint, where two fluted dowels are inset into one piece, two holes drilled in the other side, some glue on the dowels and its clamped together. Won't last.

One interesting tidbit on Mortise and Tenon joints is that a real cabinetmaker only puts them together once. You don't 'test fit' them, as that weakens the joint. They will be precision cut, then a small amount of glue coated onto the tenon, then lightly pounded into the mortise until bottomed out. The the locking pins are drilled and inserted. Now you have a joint that will last for several generations.

One other note on M&T joints. This doesn't have to do with strength, but just denotes ones that are done by hand vs. ones done by machines. If the mortise is square in the corners, it's done by hand. If it has a rounded radius, its' done with a plunge router or CNC machine.

    Bookmark   March 8, 2007 at 12:10PM
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Wow! There are so many things to learn about furniture construction. Thanks a lot.

    Bookmark   March 8, 2007 at 12:18PM
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Let's address two other joints as well.

Bore and wedge in chairs, and then dovetails on drawers.

If you're buying a windsor style chair, you really want to purchase "bore and wedge" constructed chairs for longevity. That means each leg penetrate the seat of the chair, and each spindle does the same to the bow. Look closely and you will see a wedge driven into the splines. This method of construction assures the legs and spindle will not loosen over time, and doesn't suffer the glue joint failure of 'pound-in' legs held with just glue (we in the trade call that 'bang up' furniture).

Dovetails. Just like Mortise and Tenon, the strongest way to hold wood intersecting at 90 degrees. Doesn't matter if they are hand-cut or done on a jig, the key is for the pins to fit tight with no slop. And they can only be fit together one time as well. English dovetails are very finely done, with narrow pins. American dovetails are larger and have fatter pins. Nailed together drawers can't even come close to matching the holding power of a dovetailed drawer. In old-world pieces drawer bottoms should be of solid secondary wood (typically pine or poplar), but many pieces today use laminated plywood to save costs.

    Bookmark   March 8, 2007 at 12:19PM
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I'll agree with most of what Duane said, and I'll add my own 2 cents.

Veneer is sometimes used to save money. But there are legitimate reasons for a cabinetmaker to choose veneer. In fine furniture, it is used to create beautiful decorative inlay patterns. Certain rare/exotic woods are veneered due to limited supply or price (OK, I guess thats to save money too. But to me veneering Coco Bolo is not the same as veneering red oak). Veneers can be placed over solid wood such as pine. Personally I prefer solid wood also, but I sell contemporary styles in a mid-price range and with only a few exceptions veneers are unavoidable in contemporary furniture.

Cherry - if you buy a cherry table with leaves, in a lighter finish, and keep the leaves in the closet, they will not match the color of the table. If you have cherry bookcases, you will get "tan lines" where items rest on the shelf, due to uneven exposure. That being said I love cherry and own cherry bookcases and cherry kitchen cabinets, but a maple dining table.

Bolt-on legs - Please clarify if you're talking about dining tables, dressers, or sofas. On a dining table, if the legs don't come off it can be very hard (and sometimes impossible) to deliver into a home.

Good information. Thank you.

    Bookmark   March 8, 2007 at 12:29PM
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Great thread, guys. Please keep it going...we've just scratched the surface. So far you've done a good job at explaining things to the layman's level.

The only exceptions to that were I couldn't remember what the pins looked like with M&T (across the joint?), and the "That means each leg penetrate the seat of the chair, and each spindle does the same to the bow. Look closely and you will see a wedge driven into the splines" explanation of the chair construction. I can guess, but not sure what bow, wedge and spline look like.

That's just me, and it's obvious that I haven't had high-end furniture much. :) Otherwise, great start and I'm not being critical...just trying to envision the construction. Thanks.

    Bookmark   March 9, 2007 at 9:10AM
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Yes, the pins are actually small round dowels in most cases, and easy to see. Someone who is building a correct reproduction will take the time to make the pins square as in period pieces.

On the chair 'bore and wedge' Just follow the line of the leg and it will penetrate the seat. Look down into the seat and you will see the top of the leg, and a small wedge driven into it.

Another thing to touch on is finishes. Folks get confused on finishes but here's a basic primer...not meant to cover every nuance - just the most common.

If you have high-quality wood, you can use ANILINE DYES on your finish, which highlights a beautiful grain in the wood, particularly if used with Shellac build coats. If your wood is of lesser quality, or they don't take the time to bookmatch the boards, then you'll most likely have an oil-based OPAQUE stain applied, which is almost paintlike. It covers the flaws in the woods and makes a uniform appearance across the surface. Obviously, the aniline dyes make for a nicer piece, but they will fade in direct sunlight.

One you have the color coats set up, you most commonly will have a heat-resistant lacquer or a polyurethane topcoat. Shellac by itself cannot stand water or high heat, so while it makes a beautiful mid-coat, its poor as a final topcoat. Either lacquer or the poly is good, doesn't matter too much as long as your piece doesn't have too much on it. If you have a high build on it, it tends to scratch easily and looks bad over time. The best pieces tend to have light topcoats on them. If the build is heavy, its because the wood underneath is not a very good grade.

How to protect your table tops. I never fail to be amazed at how few people won't order table pads to cover their expensive new dining room table. Typically $ 200 to $ 250 a set, they really save your topcoat when used while dining.

Its not water that kills your table finish, its HEAT. Hot items on your table 'relax' the finish and allow humidity to come under the topcoat, then when the topcoat firms up again you have a white blush under the surface. The most damage I see is from Pizza Boxes, where you place the just-delivered pizza on the table while you pay the driver, and that minute it sits there is long enough to cause heat damage. Always use a trivet to place hot items on the table, napkins and placemats are not enough. If a box, plate or bowl is too hot for you to hold barehanded, its too hot for your table top.

While I think about it....little girls with fingernail polish remover (acetone) will wreck havoc on any wood finish. Don't let your pre-teens paint their nails on your table tops.

Waxes and Polishes. You can use silicone-based products like PLEDGE, but it you do, it makes it VERY difficult for a craftsman to ever refinish your table top. The silicone penetrates the finish and goes deep into the wood. Any subsequent attempt to refinish will cause a new finish to 'fish-eye' (which looks like motor oil on a driveway after a rainstorm). Use non-silicone products (Like Goddard's) if you ever think you may want to refinish a piece.

    Bookmark   March 9, 2007 at 11:30AM
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I went back home and checked the construction of some of my furniture. Here is the report: Stickley furniture uses pins for M&T joints, but the pins are only visible from the inside. The pins are large, about 3/7" wide. Henkel Harris uses veneer on the outside as well as the inside of the breakfront doors, so the construction of the joints can not be seen. They are not so enthusiastic about exposing the construction, everything is covered. The quality is exceptional. Hickory Chairs uses screws and bolts to fasten the corner blocks underneath the dining chairs (I guess it is bad to use screws and bolts, according to Duane). Some other manufacturers use nails instead of pins on the M&T joints (tiny nail holes can be seen from the inside of the door frame at the joints).

    Bookmark   March 9, 2007 at 11:50AM
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Duane, great information. In my business building custom furniture I get a lot of questions about how and why I build pieces the way I do. Most of my work is rustic log so mortise and tenon is the norm. One area I see in nice pieces that others have built that really annoys me is when the drawer bottom is nailed to the drawer. When they take the time to do the rest of the job well why not insert the drawer bottom in a routered slot inside the drawer frame? My guess is that the rest of the job only has the appearance of good building practices.

Another area that is hard to identify is the type of glues used. Correct me if I'm wrong but most of the old furniture makers used hide glues. This is an organic glue that does degrade over time. Wood glues like Elmers have been used to fix these old pieces and it usually just makes a mess for the person who has to fix it the next time. When I am building new furniture I like to use polyurethane glues for log furniture. It is uneffected by water and doesn't interfere with a polyurethane finish. For surfaces that are joined up like table tops I have been using dowels and CA glues (super gel). It sets up quickly and is stronger than the surrounding wood. It also penetrates the wood and creates a very stable joint.

Duane, do you have any additional info on glues for anitque furniture?

    Bookmark   March 9, 2007 at 11:59AM
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The explainations given here apply to some 18th century American furniture only and only in the broadest sense to continental furniture and later American furniture. If you disagree and you ever come across that old junky French veneer furniture made by guys like Ocben or Riesener or Gaudreau or some of that 18th century English or American Sheraton or Hepplewhite or some of the American Queen Ann highboys and such that have that cheap veneer, give me a call. I'll give you at least $100 even if the veneeer is comming off. I recently made a sunburst Sheraton style table with ten sections of crotch veneer over mahogany 3ply ground. I'll always remember the night in woodworking class when some guy had made a similar table but out of solid wood. He had brought it in to finish it and had put a beautiful finish on it and was waiting for it to cure so he could rub it out. We all stood around that table in amazement and started laughing because we all knew what would happen. In About three days the table split to pieces. Some of the most valuable peices of furniture are totally veneer. They weren't veneered to save money, they were done that way because the maker wanted a certain look or veneer was the only viable way to make it.

    Bookmark   March 10, 2007 at 5:42AM
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Agreed, Russ. Some woods are too unstable in solids and veneers are required to get a particular look. Crotch Mahogany and Bird's eye maple come to mind.

Despite the sarcarsm in your post, I think you'll agree with me that the vast majority of folks using this forum are not looking for a $ 20,000.00 reproduction or a $ 2 million dollar antique.

At the basic level of store-bought furniture, the issue usually becomes are veneers repairable when the deliveryman chips a corner of the bedroom set coming into the house? The answer for most folks is 'no' the guy with Mohawk touch-up kit isn't going to affect a satisfactory repair on that piece.

Or, if you buy a veneer top kitchen table for $ 799 and take off the corner of the table, its either live with the chip, glue it back the best you can, or get a new table. Veneer repairs are difficult, and expensive, so it's a cost/value sort of thing.

The purpose of this thread is to help educate the average consumer so can make an informed decision on their furniture purchase. Let's help them along that way with our knowledge if we can.

    Bookmark   March 10, 2007 at 10:10AM
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Upholstery Basics. Shifting gears here, let's jump into some upholstery topics - again, this is VERY general and not specific to one brand or another.

How do YOU, the consumer, tell if an upholstered piece is well made? It's pretty difficult to do when its in the showroom, because what you really need to see is all covered up with fabric! Very simply, let's not focus on comfort so much on an individual piece, but how the unit is made. Typically a manufacturer will use the same construction across his line, so if you like what you see, it's going to be a pretty safe bet to custom order a piece that you might not be able to see.

First off, stand back and look at the piece. When a maker goes to lay out a pattern, he can decide how much panel matching he wants to do. That is, if the fabric is anything but dead plain, you have to match it up like you do when hanging wallpaper. The more matching you do, the more yardage you use up (especially in large repeats) and the higher skill your worker needs to have.

The best furntiure is fully matched, all the way around, on all panels. Best fabric matching I've seen comes from Hancock and Moore, and Southwood Furniture, both premium upholstery shops (granted, I don't see every maker and every brand). Even at a basic level, the cushion and seat back should match - so never accept less that that. I got a Flexsteel chair in the other day where the match on the front panel to the cushion deck was horrid, I couldn't believe it...sloppy.

Test the arms of the piece. The all flex somewhat, but give them a push outwards and see how much. Better furniture does not have a lot of flex. Try that from brand to brand and you will see a difference. Keep in mind tha motion furniture will always have more flex than stationary, as motion furniture has far less tie-in points to the frame. If you get a lot of movement in the arms when you push them out, or if they squeak, avoid that piece.

Look at the tailoring. Fabric (and leather) had to be pulled around the corners and attached, over foam or felt as the underlayment. Does the fabric pucker? It shouldn't. Is the fabric on "up the bolt" or did they "railroad" it? Most upholstery and fabrics are designed to go 'up the bolt', however this requires a sewn seam every 54" and more workmanship. "Railroading" means laying the fabric sideways (90 degrees from "up the bolt") but your pattern is usually going sideways as well...unless the fabric was specifically woven to run railroaded. Some to it far better than others. Again, best tailoring I see comes from Hancock & Moore. There's an art to it, and at then end of the day tailoring is nothing more than Pride in Workmanship and a certain skill set.

Legs. The big bugaboo of upholstery. This is where most companies make shortcuts. It's also a mixed bag. There are times I'm really glad that legs come off so we can get big sofas through narrow doorways and other times I hate those spinoff legs because the nail-in metal grommet with the screws either falls out or is intalled crooked. Hard to fix when that fact you really can't fix them with out tearing the sofa apart so you fudge-in a make do on those. For myself, I prefer legs that stay on the piece all the time and just hope the customer has a wider doorway when delivery day comes.

Now to the inside. Ask to see the catalog, for every maker that builds a piece of upholstery right is proud of it and has an exploded interior view of their upholstery in the main book. What you're looking for is construction specifics and springs.

Hardwood frames (such as maple) are considered the best. The industry standard for construction of these is 'double-doweled', screwed and glue blocks. You are not going to find mortise and tenon joinery in upholstery frames unless you go to high-end specialists like Richard Herzog in PA.

Second tier construction is furniture-grade hardwood plywood, which has a lot of stability and will cost less than solid wood frames. These hold up well over time and many mid-level companies use this method.

Avoid frame materials such as the reinforced cardboard that Laz-Z-Boy uses in their backs for obvious reasons.

Springs! There are sinuous springs (I call them zig-zags), Coil springs and then metal tension bands (such as used in Flexsteel). This is your support structure for your cushions.

The best is a coil spring, and the most costly. You'll have an 8-way hand-tied unit on the seating deck and a 4-way hand-tied in the back. They are the nicest to sit on, and most supportive. If truly a hand-knotted tie, (not 8-way looped as you seen on the video at Classic Leather's web site) if a string breaks over time, the spring will stay down as it still has 6 knots holding it. On loop-ties, if a string goes, UP COMES THE SPRING! The devil is in the details......

More later...I'll start on cushions next....

    Bookmark   March 10, 2007 at 10:50AM
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Carry on. It's good that someone would take the time to explain something about furniture construction. I just wanted to point out that if people want to avoid veneer then they won't be able to own certain styles of high end furniture.

    Bookmark   March 10, 2007 at 5:13PM
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dcollie, correct me if I'm wrong but I believe 8 way is not available in all styles. For example I was looking at the loveseat in my sunroom. It's bamboo construction and the seat is sinuous springs. The bamboo chairs have webbing. I don't believe this makes them poorly made. My guess is they are as well made as the style and materials allow. Also, I don't think the regency style hickory chairs I have are 8-way hand tied. I suspect there just is not enough room in the seat deck to allow for 8-way hand tied springs.

    Bookmark   March 10, 2007 at 11:39PM
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That is correct. toco. Again, this is a very general thread. It would take a 300 page book to detail every aspect, and there are many styles where a coil spring cannot work.

    Bookmark   March 10, 2007 at 11:44PM
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This last posting on upholstery furniture has some very good information and will help us all make better choices in buying furniture. I would like to add some information to the seating history to what is now called 8-way hand tied coil springs. This method has been around for 100's of years and has evolved considerably in the past 10 years or so. When I first started building upholstery 30 years ago, 8-way hand tied also meant the front edge of the springs was soft. Know in the trade as "spring edge". Back then hand tying a 8-way spring-edge sofa was a true art and required many years of experience to perfect. This type of seating is unmatched for comfort and support, plus the fronts of the cushions will maintain their shape and last much longer with a spring edge seat. The front edge had to be about 1/2" higher and firmer than all the other springs and all springs needed to be compressed about 30% when tied. Properly sizing and the distance between each springs was very important. Also tying the springs so the spring edge front remains even and consistent and would last for many years takes much skill and time. Nowadays manufacturers has stopped producing 8-way hand tied springs using this spring edge. It was just to difficult and expense for them to manufacture. What we are left with now is really a imitation of the past. The softness of the front edge of a seat is based solely on the padding used on top of the front rail. So many manufacturers are not compressing the springs properly, are top tying at about all the points on the springs and tying the springs so they are about the same height as the front rail. Basically the springs have limited movement and what you are really setting "ON" are the "strings" and not the springs. But it is a faster, and easy way of claiming your company builds 8-way hand tied coil spring seating. Its neither as comfortable or last as long when compared to the true tradition of 8-way hand tied. Its really just a way for manufacturers to use 8-way as a marketing tool. Their are some manufacturers that are using a well designed, quality sinuous wire seating that gives a better ride and just as supportive as the 8-way hand tied coil springs. Their are many other types of seating manufacturers are using and I can talk more about the good and bad on these also. When time allows.

    Bookmark   March 11, 2007 at 3:32AM
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Mr. dcollie. Please proceed with your instruction. This is good information that people need in order to make a decision when purchasing furniture. Most of the time you can't get this information from a salesman because they don't know it or are only intrested in selling their product. I think we all appreciate your knowledge and effort. I hope your customers also appreciate it. I'm sure they do.

    Bookmark   March 11, 2007 at 4:18AM
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dcollie, This is very helpful...thank you and please keep it going : )
rmanbike, Found your comments about the changes in construction methods and how companies use the "8-way" language for marketing purposes right on. Do you know which seating method Vanguard furniture uses in its upholstery and is it well done?

    Bookmark   March 11, 2007 at 11:19AM
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How about Alder wood? Where does it stand?

    Bookmark   March 12, 2007 at 2:58PM
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dcollie: I also have another question. A couch that we bought which followed a lot of the prescriptions (8 way hand tied etc) that you list, had two pieces sown together for the back. The fabric pattern did not match. After we sent it back to be fixed (for this and a couple of other small defects) it came back with a single swath of fabric this time for the back. Were they cutting corners the first time?

    Bookmark   March 12, 2007 at 4:13PM
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axg: Most certainly! You were right to send it back, unmatched 2-piece rear panels on a sofa back is not an industry standard.

    Bookmark   March 12, 2007 at 4:50PM
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Alder is wood usually used in lower grade furniture. As a secondary wood may be ok. Less expensive than woods like oak, maple, walnut, pecan, cherry, ect.

    Bookmark   March 13, 2007 at 2:55AM
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I sell mostly modern/contemporary. In the mid to late 90's we saw a lot of alder furniture coming out of California. It had a very visible grain like oak or ash but it was much more attractive and blended very well with other woods. We had no problems with it. Also, the floor boards of our truck are alder and have held up very well.

Like all woods it has its caveats and is better for some uses than others. The reason we don't see it anymore is that most of the furniture manufacturing in SoCal has been moved to China.

    Bookmark   March 13, 2007 at 1:32PM
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Reason I asked about Alder is that I just received my bedroom suite made by Mobel (Indiana company) and my line is made with Alder. It is solid wood furniture and well made. Mobel is highly recommended here by some posters. I read somewhere that Alder is now second only to oak in furniture use (??)

    Bookmark   March 13, 2007 at 4:16PM
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rmanbike, your comments regarding the soft spring edge are interesting. I recently purchased a Hancock and Moore sofa. It does not have a soft spring edge. I'm not sure if it is just the style I purchased or if that is true of all of of their styles. Seems like it would sit better with the soft spring edge and the soft edge would also increase the life of the cushion, much like a box spring helps a mattress. Ironically the leather sofa it is replacing does have the soft spring edge.

    Bookmark   March 13, 2007 at 7:35PM
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I finally realized just how unqualified I am to post answers to all these questons. Goodby

    Bookmark   March 13, 2007 at 9:01PM
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Giving this a bump to keep it at the top, and a question for rmanbike, can you point us to a cutaway image or photo showing the difference that you're talking about? Know it's a big favor to ask, I'm just not sure what search terms to use in order to find it.

    Bookmark   March 15, 2007 at 7:59AM
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collie, can you please tell me which way to go on decoro or natuzzi. which one has better qualtiy. thanks a lot.

    Bookmark   March 15, 2007 at 11:39AM
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moonshadow, to see a spring edge link to:

This has always been a big selling point for Leather Creations. My Leather Creations sofa still sits well (and you're welcome to buy it from me if you want :) ), but to me the fit and finish of their goods does not look as good as my Hancock & Moore. For what it's worth, when I went to look at Bradington Young sofas, the dealer noticed that I was checking for the soft spring edge. He said Bradington Young doesn't manufacture its sofas with a soft spring edge, and he downplayed Leather Creations and its soft spring edge. He also said he thought Leather Creations was over priced and that Bradington Young was the best value in leather sofas. He was also complementary of Hancock and Moore (which he didn't carry), but thought Bradington Young was the better value. He was pricing most of the domestically produced Bradington Young sofas around $2,200. I recall Leather Creations sofas being more expensive, but I don't really recall their prices. I just happened upon a Hancock and Moore "Sloane style" sofa for $2,150 so I jumped on it notwithstanding it not having a spring edge.

    Bookmark   March 15, 2007 at 5:20PM
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thank you tocohillsguy, appreciate it ;)

    Bookmark   March 16, 2007 at 7:42AM
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I appreciate what you are trying to do here, and think it's a very worthwhile effort. Without seeming overly critical, I think the understanding you have of woodworking is somewhat limited, not in any huge ways, but in a lot of little ways. Perhaps this comes from learning as a salesman, not as a craftsman. With that said, and fingers crossed, hopefully this will come off as constructive criticism, and not just the usual, unpleasant, kind.

Wood comes in 'species', i.e. Eastern White Pine, Southern Yellow Pine, etc, and 'grade' refers to the number of imperfections in a particular board. 'Type' is a broader term referring to hardwood & softwood.

The grain of wood is described by terms like 'open-pored' (think Oak) or 'closed-pored' (think Cherry). Mahogany is in the middle. There is also 'figure', ie, Tiger Maple, Ribbon Mahogany, Quarter-Sawn Oak, etc. The pores of any open-grained wood can be filled with a product called 'filler' surprisingly, for a perfectly level surface. This is very common with Mahogany.

Coloring wood is a very complicated subject. A woodworker may use both aniline dye and oil-based stains on the same piece to hide variations, accent grain, even out or change tones, and increase depth. One material is not limited to the 'good stuff' and one to the bad.

The notes you provided on woods are good, except for the ease of coloring pine & maple, and everything about Walnut.

Furniture making & cabinetmaking are related, but generally separate, trades. Both sides dabble, but the techniques used tend to make specialization necessary.

Glued-up boards are just as good as solid, if not as attractive. When it comes to posts & pedestals, they are less likely to warp, and a skilled craftsmen will be able to hide the seams. A wide board shrinks & swells the exact same amount as a glued-up board the same width.

The mortise & tenon is the strongest joint. It is not required to be pinned, but it is stronger that way. And glue is necessary. There's nothing wrong with test-fitting, but 'perfect' the first time out is a sign of skill. The holes for pinning are done before the joint is assembled. It only looks like it is done after. Also, there have been machines to cut square mortises for a hundred years.

Dovetails certainly can be test-fitted without damage. They are strong, look good, and can have any sizing, whether English or American. Due to the traditional spacing, hand-cut dovetails are considered stronger than machine cut. As an aside, a 'Box-Joint' is stronger, but doesn't look as nice.

Only hobbyists use polyurethane; professionals use conversion varnishes and catalyzed lacquers. The finish is determined by the intended use, though, and shellac & 'standard' lacquer still have their places.

I bow to your superior knowledge of upholstery!!

    Bookmark   March 16, 2007 at 2:43PM
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Mr. Collie is providing a primer for people who know nothing about furniture construction. If he doesn't do it, who will? I know I wouldn't. I don't think it serves any purpose to be overly critical, like I was, in a previous post. This is basic information for the neophyte shopper that can be extrapolated on as the person learns more. I hope Mr collie has not been dissuaded from sharing his considerable knowledge. Carry on Mr. Collie.

    Bookmark   March 17, 2007 at 4:19AM
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I will add that quartersawn and riftsawn are more accurately described as a type of cut as opposed to plain/flat sawn lumber that most people are familiar with. R&Q lumber produces a linear grain pattern as opposed to a cathedral grain pattern. It is also more dimensionally stable because the tangential surface is now on the narrow thickness of the board instead of the wider width. Wood generally moves 2x as much tangentially versus radially. Also, true 90 degree quartersawn wood with ray fleck is usually only 15%-20% of the total amount in any given lot of R&Q material. Almost any tree/wood species can be sourced as either plain sawn, rift sawn, quartersawn, or R&Q combined.

The current trend that I see in wood (furniture/cabinets) is that people want no grain and they also want a uniform color or tone. Hence the appeal of hard maple cabinets using toners. I am amazed at what cabinet shops can do with hard maple, which for an amateur woodworker like myself, is hard to uniformly stain or dye.

High grade red alder lumber is currently more expensive than high grade Appalachian red oak. How times change!

    Bookmark   March 17, 2007 at 6:42AM
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Russ, you weren't overly critical and I hope you stay involved in this discussion. "Quality Furniture" is a balance of fact and opinion. Veneers being a case in point. For others to offer their opinions, even when they contradict, is still constructive as long as we keep it civil.

    Bookmark   March 17, 2007 at 9:39AM
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Great thread - Thanks to Duane for sharing. Some folks here may have different views/refinements, being on the production side, rather than marketing side. No matter.

For those still not sure about the joinery issues, here a pic of bore and wedge before the waste part of the wedges are trimmed:

And here's a pic of some of the other joinery techniques

    Bookmark   March 18, 2007 at 7:28AM
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Great thread. I've bookmarked it. Thank you.

    Bookmark   March 18, 2007 at 11:59PM
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I'll chime in here when I get a chance to digest it all. I repair and refinish furniture. Some of it is new, on the showroom floor or back room, and some of it it old.

On the subject of veneer, I will repeat what the instructor of a veneering class said as an introduction: Veneer is found on the very best of furniture and the very worst. It is not necessarily an indication of quality. By the way, the same can be said of solid wood furniture. His co-instructor builds veneered, art furniture well into 5 and maybe into six $ figures per piece. There are some effects and some properties that necessitate veneer.

I would also disagree with the need to peg mortise and tenon joints. With modern glues, it's not really necessary. M&T are strong joints and one good feature is that if they fail, they fail gradually and are repairable.

I hate metal fasteners in wood joints, particularly in chairs. They almost never do any good and almost always do damage by concentrating the forces in one spot. I say there is a special room in hell for people that put nails in chair joints and it's right down the hall from the room for people that put staples in chair joints.

I also do some upholstery and leather repair and a lot of upholstery spot cleaning. The most easily damaged (stained and not able to clean) pieces are the natural fibers -- silk, cotton, and rayon.

    Bookmark   March 19, 2007 at 4:47PM
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Forgot to mention, there is also a difference between one-off, custom-built, commissioned furniture and repetitive production furniture. You are likely to find wide differences in construction methods and techniques.

There is also not a perfect correlation between price and quality. You might find the same exact piece at three different retailers for three widely different prices.

    Bookmark   March 19, 2007 at 4:52PM
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My comments on woods, to add on, agree or disagree with Dcollie:

Pine -- Historically correct for some pieces, but very soft and prone to damage. I always tell people if they want pine, they will get dents and dings. Can be problematic for DIY staining, as it's prone to blotch

Mahogany -- there are multiple genuses from all over the world that are marketed as mahogany. Most are not true mahogany.

Walnut -- Walnut has a deep rich brown heartwood and oatmeal colored sapwood (the wood nearest the bark). To maximize the yield, especially since walnut is a slow-growing species, during the kiln-drying process it is steamed. This drives the dark extractives from the heartwood into the sapwood, unifying the color. But it looses the rich veining, reds and purples common in air dried walnut. Unless you are getting a very special custom piece, you will probably get steamed walnut. In my opinion, it does not need to be filled to look good. In addition, walnut is one of the few woods that get lighter color with exposure. Old walnut turns a rich yellow-brown.

Woods must be dried to remove excess moisture, at or near EMC (equilibrium moisture content), the place where the stop drying naturally and then absorb or loose moisture to the atmosphere based on temperature and humidity. Kilns are carefully controlled ovens where the wood is dried. As an aside, a lot of offshore furniture wood is insufficiently dried, built in humid factories, put on on container ship and eventually ends up in someone's heated and cooled home. I see a lot of shrinkage, splitting, and warpage as the wood is just doing its thing.

Offshore woods
If you are getting tropical woods, the type is up for grabs. There are 50-100 times as many species of tropical woods as there are temperate woods. Just because it says walnut, oak, or mahogany doesn't mean it has any relation to said trees in North America. Malaysian Oak, for example, also known as parawood, is the wood from a rubber tree that has outlived it useful life producing latex. One manufacturer I know produces furniture from wood that when split open looks exactly like fiberglass, resin and paint.

    Bookmark   March 20, 2007 at 8:34PM
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bumping back up to first page

    Bookmark   March 28, 2007 at 8:09AM
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I have a question about beds. I've started looking online for a wooden bed and think I like the panel beds the best. I've noticed that a lot of them are described by two numbers: 5/0 or 6/6 or 3/3. What do those numbers mean?

Thanks in advance!

    Bookmark   April 5, 2007 at 12:11PM
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3/3 means twin size. A twin is 3' 3" wide.

4/6 means full size. This is 4' 6" wide.

5/0 means queen, and is 5' 0" wide.

6/6 is king, and is 6' 6" wide.

6/0 usually means Cal King, at 6' 0" wide. Cal King is longer than regular King.

The above are MATTRESS width sizes. A 3/3 panel bed will fit a twin mattress 3' 3" wide. Twins and fulls are 74" long. Queens and Kings are 80" long. Twin XL and Full XL are also 80" long. Cal King is 84" long.

Other sizes -

4/0 - also called 3/4 (three quarter) size - 4' 0" wide. Usually used with antique brass beds.
3/0 - narrow twin, rarely found today, except perhaps on a rollaway unit or chair sleeper.
2/6 - very narrow bed, rarely found today, except perhaps on a rollaway unit or chair sleeper. Equivalent to half of a queen size.

    Bookmark   April 5, 2007 at 5:17PM
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Thanks very much - that is exactly what I wanted to know. :-)

    Bookmark   April 5, 2007 at 7:03PM
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I would like to say thank you to everyone who has contributed to this topic. I'm looking for LR furniture and have found this info excelllent. I would love to hear about sofa cushions.

    Bookmark   April 21, 2007 at 8:53PM
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I'd like to add my thanks, too. We just ordered a Rowe slipcovered sofa about a week ago. My heart sank when reading about 8-way hand-tied, etc., because I'm pretty sure now that what we ordered is not very good quality: kiln dried hardwoods/plywoods; stress joints corner blocked, joints dowelled, glued, screwed; screw-in legs; heavy gauge sinuous springs, solid edge fronts. Too late now. *sigh* Everything but the fabric has a lifetime warranty, though, so I'm hopeful--lol. I'm very interested in this thread and in learning more, so I hope the experts keep the posts coming. I so much appreciate you taking the time to instruct us--thanks.

    Bookmark   April 22, 2007 at 12:25AM
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Rowe makes a good couch, I don't think you'll be disappointed. I think 8-way seating is way overrated, I've seen too many that fell apart, had inconsistent seating, or were misrepresented by the factory.

    Bookmark   April 24, 2007 at 5:55PM
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If I'm not mistaken, Rowe offers 8-way hand tied as an option you may be able to upgrade.

    Bookmark   April 24, 2007 at 8:07PM
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Like anything, there is a right way to do something and a wrong way. The highest industry standard for seat springs is a true 8-way hand-tied deck. There is nothing better, or finer.

But its like cheesecake. You can get REAL N.Y. Cheesecake or something that calls itself that out of the freezer at the supermarket. Big difference.

8-way hand-tied decks are labor intensive and expensive. No way around that. And to be truly beneficial, each 'tie' of the eight per spring MUST have a knot in it, not merely be looped around the spring. If using the looping method (many do, and call it 8-way hand-tied) then if a string breaks, the spring goes "BOING!" and now you have to repair the unit. When correctly knotted, if a string breaks the other seven hold the spring in place. That's the difference.

Having said that, if you ask 100 salespeople to tell you if the sofa is tied or looped, 95 of them will give you a blank deer-in-the-headlights look and go to the sales catalog to see what it says, 4 will lie outright to you, and maybe 1 actually knows.

    Bookmark   April 24, 2007 at 8:19PM
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bumping back to the top. so very helpful, all.

    Bookmark   June 28, 2007 at 12:48AM
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This is such a great post. I hope it keeps going and going.I would like to say thank you to everyone who has contributed to this topic. :)

    Bookmark   August 2, 2007 at 11:16PM
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I ran across a great quote the other day. Brings us back to a discussion of wood furniture (and why it's built the way it is and behaves the way it does):

In the very first sentence of his book, Understanding Wood, R. Bruce Hoadley writes:

"Wood comes from trees. This is the most important fact to remember in understanding the nature of wood. Whatever qualities or shortcomings wood possesses are traceable to the tree whence it came. Wood evolved as a functional tissue of plants rather than as a material designed to satisfy the needs of woodworkers. Thus, knowing wood as it grows in nature is basic to working successfully with it."

Here is a link that might be useful: Understanding Wood

    Bookmark   August 3, 2007 at 10:02PM
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I'm in the process of buying a number of upholstered pieces & this post has been a tremendous help.

I also would like to hear more about sofa cushions...

Thank you for your time & efforts.

    Bookmark   August 21, 2007 at 3:21PM
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It would also be helpful to have any info on fabric types...good, bad, in the middle...etc.


    Bookmark   August 22, 2007 at 7:36PM
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Among other things, I professionally spot clean upholstery. In my opinion, the things that are least durable, stain most easily, and are difficult to clean without causing damage:

* 100% cotton (denim), especially in dark colors. They fade and are not water cleanable without dye running.

* Haitian cotton (semi-processed and contains bits of woody fibers). Looks like "vanilla bean ice cream." Prone to browning and yellowing when wet.

* Chenille, particularly rayon. Will not tolerate any contact with water. When it does, it can be irreversibly damaged by becoming "directional." When you walk around the piece, it can appear darker, lighter, or both (from different directions). Also prone to matting in seat cushions.

* Silk. Normally all you can do with this is vacuum (X coded). Of course vacuuming will not get out dirty fingerprints, gravy, or most any other stain.

Look for a synthetic (nylon, olefin, polyester, etc.) with a W or WS cleaning code (W=water; WS=water or solvent(dry-) cleaning)

You would be surprised at the people who have no idea what fibers they have in their fabrics. I sometimes ask so I can know what cleaners I can safely use. This information is rarely (like one in fifty) on the Do Not Remove label. Maybe one in ten people have their original receipt with the fiber content written down by the sales person. Give them a *

The other mean trick the mills play on us is to just label most things "S" (dry-clean only). Other than the above list, most of these are water cleanable if done carefully.

    Bookmark   August 22, 2007 at 10:09PM
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this is a really valuable thread, and I'd ask the commentators to chime in specifically on the issue of upholstered seating. One of you said, above, "Their are some manufacturers that are using a well designed, quality sinuous wire seating that gives a better ride and just as supportive as the 8-way hand tied coil springs. Their are many other types of seating manufacturers are using and I can talk more about the good and bad on these also. When time allows."

We're in the market for a loveseat. We aren't finding any 8-way hand-tied options at all, but we've found some sinuous-spring (made by Simmons, the mattress manufacturer, of all things) and Pirelli webbing. I'd love to hear commentary about what to look for, aside from the kiln-dried hardwood frame, that would indicate better quality and longevity.

Also, I've seen other posters on this forum talk about the importance of down-filled cushions, where the down is then wrapped with polyfill. Not seeing much of those either, though the manufacturers tout their use of multiple-density foam. Your opinion?

Thanks for a very informative discussion, everyone.

    Bookmark   September 6, 2007 at 1:17PM
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this link was provided by way of the decorating forum. So happy that it was. I, too, would like to see this discussion continued.

I am far from young and have tried my hand at refinishing and upholstering (sp) through the years, and sure wish I knew just a wee portion of all this years ago.

Have forwarded on to my three daughters so they will have better knowledge.

Thank you all for contributing and especially Mr. Dcollie for starting this thread.

    Bookmark   September 28, 2007 at 9:42AM
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Talk about a great thread - bumping up.

    Bookmark   November 16, 2007 at 4:41PM
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bumping up to first page

    Bookmark   December 11, 2007 at 5:33AM
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We are in the market for a new sofa. One of the options we would like to explore are the sleeper sofas. The old fashion ones were less than comfortable. If one wanted to find a good quality sleeper sofa (if one exists) what should they look for in the construction?


    Bookmark   February 20, 2008 at 2:16AM
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Just came upon this post and only had time to read half of it at this sitting. Am giving it a bump, and want to thank everyone for contributing. I've never seen such good information presented in a way the average consumer can understand.

    Bookmark   February 20, 2008 at 8:22AM
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Been a while since I contributed to this thread, and since there is a large interest in leather furniture here, lets try working that subject. It can take a long time to address all the aspects of leather, so I may not cover what I know of it all in one post, but lets get started.

First off, all leather is not the same. There is a wide variety of product quality, and what you need to know is good leathers are not cheap. You are going to pay for good hides, regardless of the upholstery maker. In the quest to meet consumer demands for aggressive price points, the leather industry has come up with novel ways to make lower quality hides feel like high-quality pieces, so lets explore that.

Hides come from all around the world, as cows are raised in every continent. The very best hides come from Europe, where they do not use barbed wire on their fences, and there are few bugs to bite the cattle. This results in a less-flawed hide. Couple that with the Euro to US Dollar rate of exchange and its easy to understand why these are the most expensive. The least expensive hides come from the Pacific Rum (China, etc) and can offer some incredible price values, but be aware that many countries tanning hides in the Pacific Rim do not adhere to international tanning standards and as such use tanning agents that might contain carcinogenic agents can be absorbed into your blood stream through your sweat glands. In the middle ground are South American and North American hides.

When a hide is processed, its split three times. The upper layer is FULL TOP GRAIN, and the best. This will typically become Aniline-dyed leather. The next layer down is TOP GRAIN, and this will be more processed and become Finished leather (which can also be called Semi-Aniline, or Pigmented). The lower section is called "The Split" and is not used for upholstery, rather sold off to shoe and belt makers or even some automotive leather houses.

Now that we have the raw hides, they must be tanned and finished.

Aniline-dyed is reserved for the best hides (appx 5% of worldwide production) as it leaves the product in its most natural, supple state. It is vat-dyed, and then lightly treated with teflon topcoating. It is very supple, shows the natural markings and fat wrinkles, feels and smells great, and is the most expensive. The downside of Anilines is they fade rapidly in direct sunlight, and don't have as much stain resistance as a finished leather. They may also show scratches and vary considerably from hide to hide in color and texture. Think of this class of leather as a fine Tenderloin steak. Lightly season it and its ready to go.

Finished leathers (the whole category to include semi-aniline, and pigmented) require more tanning operations to become soft and supple, and are worked to the point that the grain of the leather is no longer there, and they cannot be aniline-dyed with any degree of success. This would be like a Cubed steak, its too tough to eat without going through the tenderizing machines. Once that's done, the grain has to be stamped, or embossed, back into the piece, and color sprayed on the hide. In effect, the leather is painted. Pros are a very uniform color, lots of protective top-coating, superior sunlight resistance, and wipe n' go for most stains and spills.

There's another category of so-called leather (typically found on Chinese low-end, Costco, Sams Club, etc) called Bicast. In most countries cannot be labeled as leather, however in the USA it is not illegal to call this 'leather'.
What Bi-Cast is made of is leather by-products (typically the scraps from companies like Hancock and Moore that are collected and sold to China by the ton) that are chemically melted and reformed onto a polyurethane sheet. Then they are stamped with an embossing pattern (grain) and painted. All the natural bonds of leather are broken in the meltdown process so you do NOT get durability of real leather over fabric in Bicast products. It will not hold up like real leather in any way. Bicasts are the hot dogs of the leather industry - full of the leftover parts.

Leather outlasts fabric 4 to 1. So you pay more for leather on the front end, but get a much longer service life on it. However, leather is NOT a no-maintenance item, and few retailers tell the customers that. You should keep it out of the direct sunlight (# 1 killer of fine leather is sun-fade), and you must clean it periodically. Typically 2x a year will suffice. The natural oils from your hands and hair will attack the tanning process and cause the leather to crack if never cleaned. Once cracking starts, there is nothing you can do to fix the hide. Follow the makers directions on cleaning. Many will say simply soap and water, others recommend Leathermaster cleaning products. Do not use saddle soap. I clean my leather furniture in my own home when Daylight savings time comes in. That's 2x a year, and always on a Sunday. Makes it easy to remember.

Protected vs. Unprotected. Theres a lot of confusion on this, but in a nutshell the Protected leather is getting back to the painted hides. Lots of topcoating on it, so you wipe it down like you would a car finish. Easy, quick, and impervious to most stains.

Unprotected leather is not really totally unprotected. All hides have a teflon finish that may or may not stand up to a particular stain. Most Unprotected hides can repel sodas, water, milk, newsprint and similar, but not oil-based stains such as Mineral Baby Oil, etc. The key to any spill on Unprotected leather is remove it immediately. Even if you get a bad one, over time it will dissipate somewhat, but never go away completely. You can also take the palm of your hand and rub quickly to generate heat on many unprotected hides, this reflows the wax in the topcoats and can cover some stains and also scratches.

Good leather furniture costs. There is just no way around it, so the old adage of "you get what you pay for" is very much true in leather. If a maker wants to cut costs, he either has to do it in the frame and components, quality of the hide, or get cheap labor. That presents its own set of issues, as if the frame is made cheaply you get structural failure of frame (cracking, springs sagging, cushions failing). If you go cheap on the hide, it will look and feel like cardboard. Cheap labor to make means poor craftsmanship and lumpy upholstery.

I see three classes of leather furniture in the market. The low-end, which is built strictly to the price point using whatever shortcuts can be taken to make the piece look good when new (and it won't stay good-looking for long)and this includes all the Big Box Store product, the mid-grade Utility-class where they are giving you much better components and service life, at the expense of questionable tailoring and hide selections, and then the High-end products where the piece goes beyond utility and becomes the Art of Upholstery. Best of everything goes into this last category and it will look almost as good in ten years as the day you brought it home given reasonable care and cleaning.

Warranties. Don't buy them. There is nothing a local retailer can apply out of a bottle that will enhance what is already on the hide's topcoat. I think these warranties are a sham and they cannot add anything on the leather to protect it further. Rather its a game of statistics, assuming a 6% to 8% claim rate among all policies sold. I get calls all the time from these warranty companies asking me to help them out with a consumer claim by allowing a credit towards a new purchase on a pro-rated basis. Rather than buying a warranty, clean your hide 2x a year and you'll be way ahead of the game.

Duane Collie

    Bookmark   February 20, 2008 at 10:54AM
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Thank you so much, Duane. That is really wonderful information.

    Bookmark   February 20, 2008 at 12:24PM
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This information is facinating to me, thank you so much Duane and all that contributed.

    Bookmark   February 21, 2008 at 1:29PM
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Very helpful addition here with the leather topic. I just picked up my first two items of leather furniture this past weekend with a Hancock & Moore Addison recliner and a Ralph Lauren (Henredon) Writer's Chair.

The H&M chair is in a finished leather, so I think I understand the maintenance required with it. The Ralph Lauren, however, is in an amazingly soft suade-feel leather that must be the aniline you mentioned above. After having had it back from Henredon outlet in Hickory, NC and sitting in it for a few days, I'm loving how soft and comfortable it is for a deep chair that appears somewhat formal at first blush. I'm also trying to think of how to maintain it and assumed this would require some kind of sealing, scotchguarding, or the like - but after reading your post above it would appear that this is not the case afterall.

Thanks for the information and feel free to correct me if I've made any misstatements.

    Bookmark   February 22, 2008 at 2:05PM
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If its a Nubuck suede, you have to be a little more careful with it than most leathers. There's probably a little teflon coating on top (does water bead up at all? try a drop or two), but not much else.

You can use the Nubuck Suede kits from Uniter's with some reasonable success. As always, test first in an inconspicuous spot. Order on-line from the link below.

Duane Collie

Here is a link that might be useful: Nubuck Cleaning Kit

    Bookmark   February 22, 2008 at 4:46PM
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Thanks for the tutorial. Still learning.


    Bookmark   February 27, 2008 at 7:06PM
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So am I, Beeman! I think I drive the sales reps and customer service reps nutty with my daily phone calls asking them questions on things. I know I'm getting up-to-speed when they have to make more calls to field my tough questions.

I have a real passion for fine furniture, and I have to admit almost none for utility grade product, or where they take shortcuts in production. That interests me not, and I have no qualms at all about picking up the phone and calling a supplier to tell them they're sending out junk in a box.

I enjoy the Art of Furniture making, be it the nuances of leather furniture or seeing the pride in workmanship of a cabinetmaker hand-scraping a piece of tiger maple. I still drive my Freightliner myself and go to the shops, know the people there and THEY enjoy someone taking an interest in their craft. There is still plenty of pride in workmanship in the USA, but you have to get into the higher quality lines to experience the end result.

I have discovered as well, in two decades of this business, that most customers WANT good quality. They start out buying on price, but if they can get an education on what makes a premium piece worth the extra cost, they will be willing to spend more once they can understand what there money is buying. Therefore, the job of better stores is to give their customer knowledge so they can make an informed decision with their hard-earned dollar.

So here on Furn 101 Q&A, this is an attempt to share some of that knowledge from myself and other informed people in the trade. Knowledge is Empowerment. When you as a customer know what to look for ahead of time when you walk into any store, you won't be suckered by a bright red sale tag on an item that has no quality to it. An informed shopper is a smart buyer.

Remember that everything looks good when its brand new. Its how it holds up over time that separates the good from the bad. Keep learning...keep asking questions. When you do, you'll know how to best spend your dollars when you buy.

Duane Collie

    Bookmark   February 27, 2008 at 10:26PM
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Wow. Thanks so much for this valuable information. I am just sorry that I am not patient as I want a decent couch that won't break the bank and I want it soon . . . but I definitely know more now than I did 20 minutes ago. I think I have some catalogs with exploded views to find!

Thanks, thanks, thanks.

    Bookmark   February 29, 2008 at 12:18AM
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Thank you Duane and all for the information!

    Bookmark   April 8, 2008 at 10:36PM
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Duane, a long ways back you said you would tackle cushions next, but I don't see where you did.
I just ordered a Miles Talbot sofa and was told that the cushions have springs in them covered with foam then dacron over all. I would like to know more about this method and other cushion methods and how they compare.

ALSO the eight way tied springs, what about the number of springs per piece, closeness of springs to each other and the guage of the springs? how do those things affect quality and what should we be looking for in this department?
It is too late now for the sofa as it is ordered but I would still like to know for refference.
Thanks so much.

    Bookmark   April 9, 2008 at 11:28AM
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I wouldn't mind seeing more information as well. Knowledge is power.

    Bookmark   April 30, 2008 at 2:35PM
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Great info. Was wondering if any of you are familiar with Ekornes furniture? It is the most comfortable furniture ever!! Very high quality, and lasts forever. Has anybody ever owned or seen them before?

    Bookmark   May 1, 2008 at 6:09PM
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I've owned 2 of the Ekornes chairs/ottomans for 13 years. Actually one chair for only 9 years after which the frame cracked beyond repair. The other chair had some problems with the bolt that supports the tilt mechanism/arm on one side. The bolt broke and had to be drilled out, and replaced. Both chairs had problems with the swivel base (the metal base detached from the wooden frame) and was fixed by the dealer. Overall these are very comfortable but not as rugged as you may want (especially if you are a large person, say 200+lbs). Also the chairs are pricey with my price approx. $1400 each set back in 1995. I think you can do much better with upscale furniture from
a quality USA manufacturer such as Hancock & Moore or Leathercraft.

Of course this is only a personel opinion based on my single experience.


    Bookmark   May 1, 2008 at 8:23PM
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Cushions! O.K., I'm doing this from home without benefit of my reference catalogs for details, so its going to be general in nature rather than specific.

First of all, lets dispel the myth of 'foam cushions', in decent furniture you do not get a piece of inexpensive block foam that is cut, covered in muslin and shoved in the casement. There is actually quite a bit of engineering and design work that goes into a good cushion.

The industry standard is Dupont Qualex, a synthetic high density foam that is ofter wrapped in a down ticking (a ticking is a pocketed outer cover with room inside to stuff a cushioning material of some sort). There are superb cushions and not easy to source as a replacement, so think twice before you toss them during a reupholster job. These cushions are comfortable, have excellent shape retention and are particularly well-suited for leather as they keep their form well.

Down cushions are typically an upgrade that you pay more for as an option. There are various levels of down and feathers used in cushions and one maker might have three option levels depending on that mix. Down is more plush, but moves around more and requires some 'fluffing' to return to its shape. It can shift in seat backs sometimes (but not always) leaving you with an unsightly back cushion as it ages - depending on style and form.

Down is further divided into two types: Marshall Unit and then loose down (the latter being what exactly what it sounds like). A Marshall unit is a spring core, where there are hundreds of small springs in sleeves, each surrounded by a 'box'. The down goes in the 'box" as well as a wrapped ticking over the whole thing. Unlike loose down, a Marshall unit will spring back (hence the name 'spring down') to about 80% of its shape after being sat upon, so the piece needs less fluffing.

I do not personally care for down in my leather furniture, nor do most people in the trade -however its great for fabric units. Down allows the leather to flex much more than a standard Qualex cushion which means as the piece ages it picks up hundreds of hairline cracks fro the flexing.

Cushions shot? Even the best cushions wear out with use. Most better companies offer a lifetime guarantee on their cushions, so keep your model number/brand of the piece somewhere where you can find it ten years down the road and its likely you can get free inserts from the maker. Without the model/style number however - its nearly impossible to do.

Deck springs. Lots of different ways to do these, from Flexsteels 'torsion spring leaf' to drop-in grids used by companies like Bradington-Young to individually hand-set as Hancock and Moore uses.

The vast majority of companies use pre-built springs that come in a grid, and they have the grid sized for their frame, staple them in and then tie them together (8-way hand ties). Nothing wrong with this, its a good system. However the best companies like H&M place multi-density springs in the deck and set them in individually. What that means is there are higher (stiffer) sprinds in the back and outboard near the arms than in the center of the piece. The end result is that when you sit upon one of these , you don't 'fall into the crack' near the arm of the back. Try one and see when comparison shopping brands.

While on the subject of springs and hand-tying, most factories cheat a little on the famous 8-way hand tied they like to brag about. Rather than tying the strings at every juncture into a knot, they loop them around th wire and go to the next one. That means if a string breaks, the spring comes up because the loops unravel. If the string is knotted at each point, and it breaks, the other seven will still hold the spring. I know for sure Hancock and Moore hand-knots each one, but not sure who else might as most do the looping technique.

Duane Collie

    Bookmark   May 1, 2008 at 10:35PM
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Thanks Duane for the cushion answer, but you did not mention the seat cushion that is high density foam but has an insert of springs in it. That is the kind I am getting and want to know if it is good, bad or indifferent. It is the Miles Talbot Millenium cushion.
So I guess in that case you have the springs in the deck and then springs in the cushion as well.
I tried sitting on Miles Talbot they had at the store that were both Pre-Millenium all foam and the Millenium. while both were very soft and comfortable I could tell there was more support in the Millenium, I noticed a bit of side to side rocking feeling sitting on the foam only one.
Can you tell us if this is a good design and good idea?

    Bookmark   May 2, 2008 at 10:21AM
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Having springs imbedded in high density foam doesn't make much sense, that's probably not the case I would think as its a redundant system to do that. I've never come across it in any case.

Springs are imbedded in down because feathers and down don't have a natural tendency to return to their shape, whereas high density foam does.

Side-to-side rocking is the deck spring base, not the cushions, and indicative of a uniform spring base as would be used in a drop-in grid. That's not something I would want personally if purchasing in upper tier price ranges.

Duane Collie

    Bookmark   May 2, 2008 at 1:28PM
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Hm, only felt it on the all foam cushion and both were on the same deck base.
I linked to the page on the Miles Talbot site [if my link works] that shows the cushions being made, note the springs in the cushion. and they don't use down in their regular cushions or the Millenium.

Here is a link that might be useful: link to cushion construction I am talking about

    Bookmark   May 2, 2008 at 2:18PM
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OK, now that I can see the construction that is a standard spring/foam and or spring/down cushion depending on what they use in the ticking to wrap it with. Sorry for the confusion, I think I misread the question or imagined it differently. That cushion should be fine.

Duane Collie

    Bookmark   May 2, 2008 at 3:55PM
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ok thanks that makes me feel better.

    Bookmark   May 2, 2008 at 7:39PM
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Thanks again for more information and discussion. Keep it coming! I have a suggestion, Duane you have given a lot on information on good things to look for in furniture and in those messages we can gleam things to watch out for. I was wondering though maybe a lesson that covers what to watch out for that even the most novice of consumers could use when furniture shopping. So many companies/stores use marketing mumbo-jumbo that you could leave a place thinking furniture made of cardboard will last longer than any hardwood variant.

    Bookmark   May 3, 2008 at 3:57PM
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Thanks Briant73,

I'm not sure how I could tell you how to sort the wheat from the chafe in a store other they trying to educate yourself before you go in, by reading forums like this.

As a store owner myself, I have to sell you to make my living, thats my job! And its everyones job in every sales position, so they're going to tell you what they know - and some may even go beyond that and outright mislead you in order to get you to buy. Unfortunately, there are two things going against you as the consumer. 1) Is lack of knowledge on the part of YOU, and 2) the other is lack of knowledge on the part of the STORE PERSONNEL. Many store salespeople simply don't know - and don't try to learn about their product other than the particulars given to them in a sales manual from the manufacturer.

I think that as a customer, you are better off working with smaller stores where you can build a relationship with the people there. If you have a good experience, go back to them again. Find a store where you are comfortable with the people working there. When you 'click', stay with them. There are not many out there who will mistreat or try to put something over on a regular customer - for you are very valuable to them. As a result, they'll do the work for you, and you should be able to trust them and not steer you wrong.

Where folks make the wrong turn (again, this is just my opinion) is when they go out to shop with PRICE as their main selection criteria. That's exactly a recipe for disaster. You go into the knowledgeable store and find the perfect piece for $ 2,500. Then you go into the big box store and find a different brand thats's "On SALE" for $ 1,700 and they look almost alike. You buy the $ 1,700 sofa and discover in three years its sacked out and falling apart. You go back to find your salesperson and they've left a long time ago.... Had you bought the $ 2,500 sofa, it would not have fallen apart and if you did have an issue on it, you most likely can call the same people you bought it from and they remember you - and will see what they can do to help. Don't assume smaller stores are automatically more expensive, and don't be misled by bright orange sale tags. Shop with your head, not by the gimmicks.

As a store owner, I get bombarded with salesmen on a daily basis always trying to sell me something cheaper thats 'just as good' as the thing I'm already selling, but because its cheaper I can make more money on it, and also sell it for a lesser price. Well, heres the thing - there are no new technologies in the furniture market to make something faster/cheaper. This is an industry that is labor intensive, and consumes a lot of raw materials. So in order to make something cheaper you have to do one of two things:

1) Cut the labor cost. You hire less trained workers, or less expensive workers.

2) Cut the material cost. Customers can't see under the fabric, can we get by with doing A instead of B, because A costs less, and though B is better who will care in five years?

That's it! Thats all you can do as a maker.

I've been in the same location since 1985. I have customers whose parents bought from me and know their kids buy from me as well. For that reason, I'm a real stickler when it comes to quality and I spend a lot of time learning about what makes a piece good and proper. Let someone else sell the junk, I want to keep my customers (and there are a lot of stores like mine, with the same thoughts). So we grill the suppliers and really hold their feet to the fire - and if we see a substandard piece come in we're on the phone to complain. That's the kind of store you really want to buy from. Let a trusted store do the work for you and you'll never get a bad piece.

Duane Collie

    Bookmark   May 3, 2008 at 5:27PM
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Thanks for the answer so what do you plan to tackle next in Furniture 101?
As to your advice, you're pretty much right, work with a good store and even if you do encounter a bad piece for whatever reason, the store will make it right.

    Bookmark   May 5, 2008 at 11:16AM
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Lets's tackle selecting a leather hide. I've already covered many of the technical aspects of this earlier (read up) and really would like to address this at a customer level because I see a consistent pattern when folks shop hides. It can be confusing so let me see if I may simplify and help out in that regards.

Color: OK, this is the big buga-boo with hides. I have customers just pour over hide colors in the store, moving them from one location to the next to see what effects the various lighting has on the shade. Folks, its not going to matter and I'll tell you why. You might get a 1 to 2 percent variance in shade walking them around the store to natural lighting vs. halogen, but the actual hide is going to vary from that swatch you are holding 10 to 20 %! So you're just making yourself crazy holding that 4" x 6" piece of leather 10" away from you. The best way to look at leather colors is to take the swatch, place it on a chair and back up about eight feet. Look at color in general, not specifically. Be prepared for your actual piece to be lighter or darker then the sample.

Grain Patterns: Once again, these vary from sample to sample. When the makers cut samples to send to the dealers, they use the whole hide. Some sections will be smooth, some wrinkled (just like human skin!). Do not assume what you see on the hide will be exactly what you get - in most cases the finished product will look better, not worse. Most leathers will be done on a color series (Brown, black, blue, green, etc), so you want to look at all the hides on the sample rack and average the textures in your mind.

* Tactile. Take the swatches you like, ball them up in your hand and close your eyes. What feels plush and luxurious? Thats the one you want, the one with the best 'hand'.

* Cuttings for Approval. O.K., this is something everyone likes to do for the most part (because of the variances above) but generally I do not recommend it unless you have an existing piece in that same hide and need to match if (i.e., you have the chair, and want to buy an ottoman now). The reason I don't recommend it is twofold. 1) It delays your order by at least one month, regardless of the manufacturer. Your pieces will not be scheduled for production until your dealer gets your 'approval' back to the maker and between the cut order, mailing times, your delays at home and the dealers getting back to the factory, its 30 days. 2) If you don't like the cutting, then you're back to Square 1. There are no other samples for them to send to you. This means you either cancel the order, select a totally different hide, or wait for another batch of your chosen leather to come in, and that's typically three to four months. It's very aggravating for most customers and orders can stretch out for months.

The Finished Product: Be aware then leather tends to lighten up and it goes around hard corners of the frame. Some leathers, called "pull-ups" are designed to do that. Once again that small sample won't show that happening. Also, an average sofa may take up to seven hides to make. The Art of Upholstery takes the best of the seven and uses them in the seating area and arms, those hides with barbed wire marks, insect bites and the like will be used on the backs and lower portions. Don't be alarmed if you see these natural markings, its part of the cow.

Grade Pricing: Is not indicative of quality, rather what they as the maker have to pay for the hides. So a grade III hide is not necessarily better than a grade II hide, its just more expensive. Hides that come from China or India are going to be less expensive than hides from Germany or Italy. Currency fluctuations have as much to do with grade pricing as anything.

Durability: I think folks fuss too much over durability. Live a little - get the better hides! The hand on them is so much more plush, the colors richer....and they look so much better. Buying leather furniture is a lot like drinking fine wines. When you start out, you want very consistent colors, inexpensive, tough as nails. As you grow comfortable with the leather furniture, you notice how nice and interesting the anilines hides are, and the softness and richness of them are well worth the occasional concern about a scratch that might show, or an oily stain. Like going from generic wines (Rhine, Chablis, Burgundies) to varietals (Cabernets, Chadonanays), the Art of Leather is in the Aniline hides, not the less expensive pigmented and Finished leathers.

Duane Collie

    Bookmark   May 8, 2008 at 3:07PM
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I was told by my Bradington Young dealer that all of their hides are USA hides, is that correct? Does only Hancock and Moore use European hides?

    Bookmark   May 13, 2008 at 6:32PM
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I seriously doubt it, there are very few American tanneries because they have very high pollution rates. The bulk are Pacfic Rim, South American, or European for the upper class hides.

H&M hides are worldwide.


    Bookmark   May 13, 2008 at 9:33PM
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What a great learning experience!

Duane, if you are still out there, I have a chance to buy (through Craigslist) a Bradington Young 'Richardson' leather sofa, #866-95, in "married leather" style # 9849-69. The sofa is approx 1 year old, and is pictured in the link below.

Through emails with the seller, I glean that this has been very well cared for. Is $750 a good buy for this sofa, and do you have any comments, good or bad about this piece? Do you mind saying what you sell this piece for? I Googled it online and see that it's priced at $3010 at sites there, but I called the store in tax-free NH where he purchased it, and they say they sell this one for about $1650. The seller is perfectly willing to share the invoice with me.

From reading above, I get the impression that the married hides are from China, even though one poster's store said that ALL Bradington Young leather is from the USA. The seller says the 'cleaning code is F'. What does this mean? My sister works in a pricey furniture store here in Maine, and says they don't haven cleaning codes on their leathers, such as Whittemore-Sherrill.

Thanks for any guidance!

Here is a link that might be useful: CL B-Y sofas

    Bookmark   June 25, 2008 at 4:22PM
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married hides are ones that they have specially selected fo r certain items, they are not inferior leather and I don't believe they are from China in the BY leathers.
The code is that this leather is Finished, as in treated with a finish, not untreated.

If it is well cared for It is a good price but with anything used the fair price is what someone is willing to pay for the item.

    Bookmark   July 6, 2008 at 2:15PM
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A "Married Cover" in the context of leather furniture means a leather is sourced, cut and sewn as a 'kit' for a particular frame and then shipped to the USA in a box. When the manufacturer gets an order for that piece, they build the frame, spring it, foam it, and then pull the kit leather from the box and upholster it. In most cases, the hides do come from China (Hancock and Moore actually has a few married covers that use Italian hides, however).

This saves a considerable amount of money, as foreign labor is far less expensive to select, layout, mark, cut and sew the hide. That comes back to the consumer as a lower price point.

The downside. In some instances I will see a definite variance in quality control as to placement of markings, etc., that you would never see in a fully USA-made product. Also there are very few choices in Married Cover, and as McCall says they are largely in finished leathers.


    Bookmark   July 6, 2008 at 9:11PM
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Dear Duane,
It's amazing how I stumbled on this Furniture 101. I've
searched for leather furniture for over a year and have leaned so much from your postings just now.

I'm sorry to get specific but, I've narrowed my search to the Venetian and 2 noble estate chairs from Ralph Lauren or 2 wallace chairs and chancellor sofa from Hancock and Moore.

I know, two different styles. If Hancock and Moore had a chair and sofa that looked like the Ralph Lauren, I'd do it in a hearbeat. However, I'm sure the HM set would be nice too.

Haven't finalized the leathers for either. I'm looking for one that doesn't feel "cold" and has a "blunt" feel. HM-Hand-antiqued saddle is right color but doesn't feel as good as Baker DL-1390.(had looked at Baker previosuly)

Do you know where the HM hand-antiqued saddle is from? Any suggestions?

It's been so hard to choose because the chairs and sofas are unavailbe to sit on. So, we go to stores with tape measure and if size is good, we go home and compare to HM or RL. I guess you can't stock everything.

Thank you again,

    Bookmark   August 27, 2008 at 5:54PM
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Bump...keep this from getting lost.

    Bookmark   November 23, 2008 at 6:38PM
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Bumping this up again.

    Bookmark   January 2, 2009 at 12:46AM
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Way up the line of postings, someone asked about sofa springs and Pirelli seat webbing. The springs were addressed, I believe; however, Pirelli webbing was not. At Raymour and Flanagan I have recently looked at Natuzzi leather sofas.and they do not have springs; they have the webbing instead. Also, all those sofas have a high-density foam in the cushions.
Does anyone have pros and cons of the webbing and of the foam now used in cushions?

    Bookmark   March 12, 2009 at 5:41PM
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Hancock and Moore just released an online video of how their furniture is made. If you would like to see how upholstery is supposed to be made, its worth a look. While it promotes their brand, its really applicable to the entire upholstery trade.

Here is a link that might be useful: H&M Production Video

    Bookmark   March 27, 2009 at 8:21AM
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Bump for a good thread (esp. for clueless noobs like myself).

    Bookmark   July 24, 2009 at 2:55PM
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Futura leather furniture uses Rubber webbing construction according to the tag on the sofa/loveseat. I can't find any information about this type of construction or Futura for that matter. What is rubber webbing construction? Will the furniture hold up well?

    Bookmark   August 2, 2009 at 5:26PM
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Chris2009_2009, I'll try to answer your question though I'm not an expert by any means.

Sounds like instead of 8 way hand tied springs, coil springs, s-springs, blue steel springs the furniture you are looking at has rubber webs to hold the cushions up. I may be wrong here but my best guess is check out an upholstered dining/kitchen chair, usually they have a webbing underneath them to hold the upholstered seating in place and give support.

Of course the furniture could just be rubber/vinyl strips going from front to back or side to side like a lawn chair.

    Bookmark   March 8, 2010 at 10:48AM
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Their are some recent posts on this board; how to buy quality furniture. Please for everyone, this posts has some good info for this.
Education is the key before shopping!

    Bookmark   March 21, 2012 at 1:12AM
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great thread. thank you Duane Collie and others. Bumping this so others will see

    Bookmark   April 2, 2013 at 7:50PM
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Holly- Kay

Bumping this. I am looking for new leather furniture and some upholstered pieces and dcollie has been a huge help.

    Bookmark   July 21, 2013 at 11:47PM
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You definitely would call Leathercraft a 101 Furniture beginning class their quality and custom designs are one of the worst! Customs do not go through without being redone over and over. The regular line you could not put two of the same frames beside each other and be the same. Their quality in leather has gotten worse over the years as well. As a past buyer, I would go right by them!!!!

    Bookmark   April 6, 2014 at 9:40AM
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