There’s another option, though, that doesn’t take as much of a toll on the planet: reupholstering your old pieces. Upholsterers can do many things, such as resurrecting Grandma’s old chair with a new Scandinavian fabric or whipping up stylish curtains.
If you’re having a reupholster-or-replace debate, first decide whether the item will last long enough to justify the cost. Don’t reupholster it if the piece won’t last as long as the new fabric. And even if the piece seems as if it will last, you may not save much money. Reupholstering does save the frame, springs and probably some padding and stuffing. But a comparable new piece might not be much more — and could possibly be less — than what an upholsterer would charge you to recover what you have.
Most furniture of at least medium quality should hold up through one or more rounds of reupholstering, but check the condition and quality of your item. Ensure that there are no cracks in the exposed wood and that the legs or casters are solid and firmly secured. Then examine what’s beneath the surface by pushing an arm from side to side. If the piece is in good condition, the arm won’t wobble or creak. For a sofa, lift one end to be sure the frame doesn’t sag or creak.
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If it is fundamentally a good piece of furniture, it may be easy to fix a frame that doesn’t seem solid. To check, turn the item over and remove a portion of the dust catcher beneath. Some signs of quality include:
- Solid hardwood (rather than plywood or fiberboard) at least 1¼ inches thick used for key structural elements, such as the long piece that runs beneath the knees across the front of a sofa.
- Reinforcing blocks used to strengthen corners.
- Coil springs under the seat, with each spring tied by twine in eight directions. Firmly secured sinuous wire springs (long, wavy wires) used in many high-quality pieces may function equally well.
You can also get a professional opinion about the quality of a piece. Take smaller pieces to an upholsterer’s shop. (Consumers’ Checkbook has ratings of shops in the D.C. area that are available free to readers until June 15 via Checkbook.org/WashingtonPost/Upholsterers.) For large pieces, ask a pro to visit your home. Most shops will send an estimator at no charge. Keep in mind, though, that an upholsterer might be biased toward advising you to restore an old piece rather than sending you to buy something new.
To determine the costs of repairing vs. replacing, compare price quotes from upholsterers with prices for new furniture. If you have a high-quality piece or an antique, an upholsterer’s charges will be small compared with replacement costs. But if you have a low- or medium-quality piece, the upholsterer’s fees for fabric and labor will probably be higher than a new item.
Cost is not your only consideration, of course. You might want to reupholster a piece if you particularly like its design, if it matches other pieces in your home, if it fits perfectly in your space or if you have a sentimental attachment to it. You might also want to recover it because the fabrics you love aren’t available on new pieces.
It’s important to get several bids for upholstery work. When Checkbook’s undercover price shoppers collected price quotes from shops for the same jobs, they found big differences. For example, to reupholster an 18th-century-style camelback Chippendale love seat with rolled arms with Greenhouse Fabrics B7870 teal fabric, prices ranged from $1,150 to $2,368. And to reupholster a contemporary-style sofa with rolled arms using customer-supplied solid-color fabric, prices ranged from $670 to $1,700.
As long as you can provide a good description of the piece, as well as the name and style number of the fabric you want, you usually can price-shop by calling upholsterers. When comparing prices, ask exactly what is included. Depending on the shop, the quoted price may or may not include:
- Retying springs.
- Replacing webbing beneath springs.
- Touching up exposed wood.
- Wrapping cushions in new polyester batting.
- Supplying arm covers.
- Pickup and delivery.
If you decide to recover, choose your upholsterer carefully: As Checkbook’s ratings reveal, most area companies routinely offer superior customer service — but slipshod handiwork and other problems are common.
Ask upholsterers how large of a deposit you’ll have to put down. (The lower, the better.) Ask to see examples of similar work. Check a location’s fabric selection; the best shops should offer seemingly unlimited choices. Get a written estimate in advance, and shop around to ensure you’re not paying too much.
Before turning over your furniture to an upholsterer, discuss exactly what work will be done, and get the main points and price in writing. When you pick up or receive an item, examine it carefully. Check that the fabric pattern matches, and also look for other quality points, such as sturdiness of the frame, cleaned and brightened exposed wood, even tufting, tight stitching, and smooth and ample padding.
Pay by credit card, so you can contest charges if you deem the work unsatisfactory.
Kevin Brasler is executive editor of Washington Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org, a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. It is supported by consumers and takes no money from the service providers it evaluates. You can access Checkbook’s unbiased ratings of Washington-area upholsterers free until June 15 at Checkbook.org/WashingtonPost/Upholsterers.