Sofa shopping

17 04 2015

We did a series of posts on how to evaluate a quality sofa about two years ago, and judging from the questions we get from people, we thought it might be time to re-post these!  The 3-part series is divided into evaluating a sofa frame, cushioning materials and fabric (of course!).  Herewith, the first post:

So you’re shopping for a sofa, and you see this one in a store.

camille 1

In a different store, you see the one below.

blue sofa

One sofa (the one on top) costs $3000;  the other costs $1500.  Why the wide disparity in price?

Shopping for a sofa is fraught with anxiety – we don’t do it often (for most people it’s every 7 – 10 years) so we don’t know how to shop for it.  Knowing what to look for, and how to evaluate a sofa, might take some of the anxiety away.  And knowing a bit about the components and how they’re put together will explain some of the difference in price.  It’s important to keep that in mind while you’re being seduced by the alluring upholstery, svelte arms and come-hither cushions.  But if your darling’s joints are weak, springs loose and cushions flat, you’ll quickly lose that lovin’ feeling.  Not to mention the additional chemical guests you’ll be inviting into your home with the sofa.

Start by asking yourself questions such as who will use the sofa  – will the kids dump themselves and their bags on it right after school or is it in a room that’s just used for entertaining?  How long do you want it to last?  Do you want to sink into the cushions or sit up straight?  Nap on the sofa?

One of the first things you should do – really before doing anything else –  is look at the sticker price and concentrate on the amortized cost  (cost per day) of buying each one.  There is a reason for the price disparity – they have to cut corners someplace, so lower quality materials are used

And construction is …  well let’s just say it’s not built to last.  “Quality” translates into “useful life”.  For simplicity, let’s assume the top sofa will last 20 years while the bottom sofa will last just 5.  That would mean the top sofa costs $0.41/day while the bottom sofa costs $0.82/day = exactly double.  The cost of owning the top sofa is half as much as the cost of owning the bottom sofa.

Dr. Thomas J. Stanley, in his book The Millionaire Mind, observed: “By definition, millionaires tend to be accumulators, a trait they inherited from their parents who were collectors.  Their parents and grandparents held on to things that had value. So the majority of millionaires have a family legacy of collecting, saving, and preserving.  Waste not, want not is a theme acted out by first-generation millionaires today”.[1]

With regard to how this trait applies to buying furniture: They deliberately purchase furniture they can pass on to the younger generation.  This, in essence, is their definition of quality furniture.  It will outlive a person’s normal adult life span, will never lose its appeal, and will probably appreciate in value.[2] A good quality sofa is an investment, like any other quality purchase that you expect to last.

For the next few weeks I’ll break a sofa down into component parts and talk about each one separately, starting this week with the frame and suspension system:


A very low cost sofa is probably made of engineered wood – such as plywood, particleboard, Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF) or glulam  –  all of which can legally be referred to as “solid wood products”.   Engineered wood (or composite, man-made or manufactured wood) are made by binding the strands, particles, fibers or veneers of wood with adhesives – most often that means urea formaldehyde (a known carcinogen) and finished with polyurethane or aluminum oxide.  In laymans terms, MDF (for example) is sawdust held together with glue.  MDF has a life span of 1/10th to 1/4th that of solid wood, properly constructed – and costs about 1/10th to 1/4th that of solid wood.  Cutting, sanding, or releasing particles of MDF into the air might be a high risk and should be avoided.  If the MDF isn’t properly sealed, it can leak formaldehyde for years, pumping it into your home or office.

Often manufacturers use wood veneers over MDF cores, and consumers have no idea that they’re not buying real wood.  Veneers are also used on solid wood (usually a less expensive wood) –that has a similar property as the veneer, allowing them to swell and contract together with changes in humidity.  They also respond similarly to stain and finish products. The bond between manufactured wood (MDF) and the veneer is not as strong or stable as that of the solid wood because MDF tends to respond more dramatically to changes in humidity and temperature, and is more rigid than solid wood, making the bond less durable.

Recognizing solid wood veneer furniture is fairly simple. Look to the bottom and back edges of tabletops, drawers and shelves. Solid wood always has grain, whereas MDF and particleboard do not. These unexposed edges will not typically be veneered.

Another thing which is often cited as a way to evaluate quality is to pick up the sofa – if it’s really heavy, it’s probably made of solid wood – or so the saying goes.  However MDF is also very heavy – so weight alone cannot really be used as a test.

At the next step up, soft woods (like pine) may be used.  The highest quality furniture uses kiln dried hard wood, like ash, maple or poplar, which offer greater strength and stability.  But not all wood is created equal: we think that it’s important to choose a wood that did not come from an endangered forest (such as a tropical forest), and preferably one that is sustainably managed, because forests, according to the National Resources Defense Council, are critical to maintaining life on Earth.  And that’s something we should pay attention to!   (See our post about wood used in furniture at )  Wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) ensures that the wood used in your sofa was from a managed forest. SFI, an alternative certification created by the American Forest & Paper Association, allows such things as clearcuts, use of toxic chemicals, and conversion of old-growth forests to tree plantations. So the certifying body matters!

How the wood is connected is important too.  Lower cost sofas are often stapled together, or you’ll get plastic legs screwed into the frame instead of wooden legs that are part of the posts or bolted into the frame.   Give it a year or two and the arms get loose or the frame wobbles.  Higher cost sofas are held together with glue and dowels or tongue-and-groove joints, making the joints even stronger than the wood itself.  Corner blocks (in each corner of the frame, near the legs, an extra piece of wood joins the two side rails) are important.

Finally, the wood is often stained or varnished – both of which emit harmful VOC’s of various kinds, depending on the stains or varnishes used.  A safe alternative is to ensure that the stains/varnishes used don’t emit harmful VOC’s such as formaldehyde, and are formulated without aromatic solvents, heavy metals in the pigments, toluene solvents or other harmful chemicals.


The suspension system determines the bounce in the cushions, and how they support your weight when you sit on them.   The differing degrees of pressure your body puts on the cushions causes the coils to respond, giving what is known as “ride”.  Generally, the higher the number of coils, the better the ride.  The gold standard has always been the labor-intensive, 8-way hand-tied spring system. It’s expensive to do it right, and few companies do. When done correctly each spring is set into the deck webbing and attached, with various spring rates depending on what portion of the seat deck its located. They are then tied together (8 strings per piece) and knotted at each juncture (not looped! – only knotting keeps the spring deck together if a string breaks). Much has been said about how eight-way hand-tied spring-up systems are superior to any other kind. “It’s a sacred cow in the industry,” says Professor C. Thomas Culbreth, director of the furniture manufacturing and management center at North Carolina State University [3].

But not all eight-way hand-tied spring-ups are built the same way, and the sinuous spring – or S –  system,  will last just as long, and for most people the comfort level is the same.  Sinuous springs are “S” shaped and run from the front of the seat to the back. These springs are supported by additional wires that cross from side to side.  The S springs lack the localized response of a coil system but gives a firm ride that some people prefer, and it has less potential for sagging over time.   It also makes for a strong seat, and it might be the preferred option in a sleeker style as it requires less space.

Next week we’ll tackle cushions, because that’s, as they say, a whole ‘nother ballgame.

[1] Stanley, Thomas J., The Millionaire Mind, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2001, p.294

[2] Ibid.





How to buy a “quality” sofa – part 2 (wood)

23 08 2012

Each week for the next few weeks we’ll look at the components of  sofas, and discuss what makes a particular component “green” or “safe”.  We hope  this will help you to better understand the claims of sofa manufacturers, and enable you to decide whether you want to support their products with your dollars.   We  hope you don’t need help to see through claims such as one we saw recently, in which the manufacturer claimed they used “renewable wood”!

We’ll start with the bones of a good sofa  – wood.

Everybody knows that wood, a natural product, comes from trees,  but it’s important to know much more than whether the wood is cherry or mahagony – it’s also important to know that the wood did not come from an endangered forest (such as a tropical forest, or old growth boreal forests) – and preferably that the wood came from a forest that is sustainably managed.   Well managed forests provide clean water, homes for wildlife, and they help stabilize the climate. As the National Resources Defense Council says:

“Forests are more than a symbolic ideal of wilderness, more than quiet places to enjoy nature. Forest ecosystems — trees, soil, undergrowth, all living things in a forest — are critical to maintaining life on earth. Forests help us breathe by creating oxygen and filtering pollutants from the air, and help stabilize the global climate by absorbing carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. They soak up rainfall like giant sponges, preventing floods and purifying water that we drink. They provide habitat for 90 percent of the plant and animal species that live on land, as well as homelands for many of the earth’s last remaining indigenous cultures. Forests are commercially important, too; they yield valuable resources like wood, rubber and medicinal plants, including plants used to create cancer drugs. Harvesting these resources provides employment for local communities.  Healthy forests are a critical part of the web of life. Protecting the earth’s remaining forest cover is now an urgent task.”

Unsustainable logging, agricultural expansion, and other practices threaten many forests’ existence.  Indeed, half of the Earth’s original forest cover has been lost, mostly in the last three decades.

According to the World Resources Institute (WRI), only 20% of Earth’s original forests remain today in areas large enough to maintain their full complement of biological and habitat diversity and ecological functions.[2]

More than 20% of  worldwide  carbon emissions come from the loss of forests[1], even after counting all the carbon captured by forest growth.  

A sustainable forest is a forest that is carefully managed so that as trees are felled they are replaced with seedlings that eventually grow into mature trees. This is a carefully and skilfully managed system. The forest is a working environment, producing wood products such as wood pulp for the paper / card industry and wood based materials for furniture manufacture and the construction industry. Great care is taken to ensure the safety of wildlife and to preserve the natural environment.

Forest certification is like organic labeling for forest products:  it is intended as a seal of approval — a means of notifying consumers that a wood or paper product comes from forests managed in accordance with strict environmental and social standards. For example, a person shopping for flooring or furniture would seek a certified forest product to be sure that the wood was harvested in a sustainable manner from a healthy forest, and not clearcut from a tropical rainforest or the ancestral homelands of forest-dependent indigenous people.

Choosing products from forests certified by the independent Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) can be an important part of using wood and paper more sustainably. The FSC, based in Bonn, Germany,  brought together three seemingly antagonistic groups: environmentalists, industrialists and social activists. Its mission and governance reflects the balance between these original constituents in that FSC seeks to promote environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial and economically viable management of the world’s forests. Each is given equal weight.   Formed in 1993, the FSC has established a set of international forest management standards; it also accredits and monitors certification organizations that evaluate on-the-ground compliance with these standards in forests around the world.  Today nearly 125 million acres of forest are FSC certified in 76 countries.

But not all certification programs are credible. Spurred by the success of the FSC and consumer demand for certified products, at least eight other forest certification programs have formed internationally, such as the American Tree Farm System (ATFS), the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) forest certification, and the European Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification schemes (PEFC).  However, these programs are often backed by timber interests and set weak standards for forest management that allow destructive and business-as-usual forestry practices.

The most well known of these alternative certifications is the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) Created in 1995 by the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA), an industry group, SFI was originally created  as a public relations program,  but it now represents itself as a certification system.

There are significant differences between the two systems.  FSC’s conservation standards tend to be more concrete, while SFI’s are vaguer targets with fewer measurable requirements. Here is what is allowed under the SFI standard:

  • Allows large clearcuts
  • Allows use of toxic chemicals
  • Allows conversion of old-growth forests to tree plantations
  • Allows use of genetically modified trees
  • Allows logging close to rivers and streams that harms water supplies

By comparison,  the FSC:

  • Establishes meaningful limits on large-scale clearcutting; harvesting rates and clearing sizes can not exceed a forest’s natural capacity to regenerate.
  • Prohibits the most toxic chemicals and encourages forest practices that reduce chemical use.
  • Does not allow the conversion of old-growth forests to tree plantations, and has guidelines for environmental management of existing plantations.
  • Prohibits use of genetically modified trees and other genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
  • Requires management and monitoring of natural forest attributes, including the water supply; for example,  springs and streams are monitored to detect any signs of pollutants or vegetative disturbance.
  • Requires protection measures for rare old growth in certified forests, and consistently requires protection of other high conservation value forests.
  • Prohibits replacement of forests by sprawl and other non-forest land uses.[4]

Certifiers also grant “chain-of-custody” certifications to companies that manufacture and sell products made out of certified wood. A chain-of-custody assessment tracks wood from the forest through milling and manufacturing to the point of sale. This annual assessment ensures that products sold as certified actually originate in certified forests.

Nearly a decade and a half after the establishment of these two certification bodies, there was a battle between FSC and SFI which  crescendoed in a showdown over recognition in the LEED system, the preeminent green building standard in the U.S.  Since its inception in 2000, LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) has recognized only lumber with the FSC label as responsibly sourced. Credits such as MR 7 – Certified Wood, has awarded points based on the usage of FSC certified wood only (NOTE:  this is not specific to wood;  LEED  only awards points automatically  for Indoor Air Quality to products which are GreenGuard certified) .  Intense timber industry pressure (specifically from SFI)  led the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), LEED’s parent,  to evaluate the certified wood credit in LEED, which has been FSC exclusive since inception, and determine whether other certification systems, such as the industry-driven Sustainable Forestry Initiative, should be given credits as well.

The thinking was to replace the simple FSC monopoly with generalized benchmarks for evaluating systems claiming to enforce sustainable forestry and open up considerations for other “green” wood labeling systems.

Opponents of this action feel that it opened the door to destructive forestry practices under the guise of “green” –  and  to pass off status-quo business practices as environmentally friendly.  One of the leading arguments for loosening the wood credit — and thus lowering the bar for the standards governing the origins of the wood — is that the FSC system doesn’t have enough supply to meet demand.  To which the rejoinder is that the volume of SFI wood speaks to laxness of standards.  SFI contends that since only 10% of the world’s forests are certified sustainable, the important fact to concern us should be to work on the problems plaguing the remaining 90%.

The USGBC put this issue before their members, who voted to NOT approve the benchmarking criteria – so FSC certified wood remains the only certification allowed under the LEED rating system.

Once you’ve established whether the wood is from a sustainably managed forest, it’s also important to note whether the wood products in the sofa are composites.  Composites are typically made of wood and adhesive – examples of such composites are laminated veneer lumber (LVL), Medium density fiberboard (MDF), Plywood, and Glue Laminated Beams (Glulam).  Because these products are glued together using phenol formaldehyde resins, there is concern with formaldehyde emissions.  In fact, a bill  introduced in September, 2009, in the U.S.  Senate would limit the amount of allowable formaldehyde emissions in composite wood products.   In addition, the embodied energy in these products is typically higher than that for solid timber.  Based on a  study done by the    School of Engineering, University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom, the embodied energy in air dried sawn hardwood (0.5 MJ/kg) is considerably less than that of glulam (4.6 to 11.0 MJ/kg)

[1] Van der Werf, G.R, et al, “CO2 Emissions from Forest Loss”, Nature Geoscience, November 1, 2009, pp 737-38.

[2] “Guidelines for Avoiding Wood from Endangered Forests”,

[3] Examples of SFI certified companies’ harmful practices are at

[4]  Forest Certification:  Sustainable Forestry or Misleading Marketing?