The life of a piece of upholstered furniture begins with its frame: although the underlying wooden framework cannot be seen in the finished product, the type of wood used to create it will have a bearing on the quality of the final product.
Some furniture employs softwoods, but may suffer from its difficulty in supporting the joinery that is required for the best quality furniture. The tight graining of hardwoods allows for pegs, screws and nails to be set securely, reducing the likelihood of their becoming loose over time. Hardwoods used in upholstered furniture include oak, alder and other woods with tight graining. Hardwood laminates are often used for blocks and braces because laminates are actually stronger than solid wood in these applications.
Most wood employed in upholstered furniture is kiln-dried. In this process, the wood is heated in an industrial oven to remove excess sap and moisture (and reduce its tendency for absorbing any moisture in the future), which can cause frames to warp, swell, shrink or change shape, or to succumb to rot or mildew, during their life.
The wood for a piece of upholstered furniture must be assembled into a sturdy frame. Generally, the more rigid the frame the better, because a loose frame can crack or fail, and several craftsman processes can be used to create a good, strong frame. A variety of woods and laminates are used for joining, blocking and dowelling and sometimes several techniques are used.
Joints are the places where one piece of frame wood intersects to another part of the frame at an angle. Joints must be reinforced with blocks or dowels for extra support or the frame will be susceptible to loosening over time.
Blocking refers to the process of placing additional blocks of wood behind or diagonal to joints and corners for support in areas where the furniture craftsman believes there may be greater stress. Blocks provide lateral support and a larger area for screws and fasteners to set wood elements securely. This extra bracing at stress points contributes to the lasting integrity of the frame. An alternative to blocking is dowelling.
Dowelling refers to the process whereby one or two dowels are drilled, hammered and glued into the wood at stress-points to provide extra strength and support to the frame. Nails, screws, fasteners and glue may also support many parts of a frame.
Standard Springs provide good support at a lower price than the alternative. Most manufacturers offer either sinuous springs or drop-in-springs as their standard, depending on how they make their furniture. Both types affix to the frame to support the seat deck. Standard springs have a formal, very firm "sit" and only move in the up/down direction. In contrast, eight-way hand-tied springs can move in many more directions.
Sinuous springs are heavy-gauge steel springs that have been heat formed into continuous "S" shapes. They are cut into lengths and affixed to the frame. Drop-in Springs are mass-manufactured welded units that are more cheaply manufactured and considered to be of lower quality than sinuous springs.
Eight-way hand-tied springs have a wide range of movement providing a very even and individual "sit", because they move up and down and side to side. In the construction of these systems, the craftsman individually ties heavy gauge coils from front to back, side to side and diagonally (eight ways) to provide the highest level of quality, comfort and durability. This process costs more because it is time consuming and can only be done by hand.
Most cushions are made of a high-density foam core that is then wrapped with either soft polyester, feather and down, or a hypoallergenic down substitute. Dacron adds resilience so that pillows and seats keep their shape, while the wraps form a soft envelope. Cushions and pillows are usually sewn into cotton cases to ensure smooth upholstering.
Feather and down offers the maximum comfort and softness in cushions and pillows that most people desire and designers prefer. Feather and down back pillows and wrapped seat cushions can always be "fluffed-up" to maintain an attractive look. Feather and down fills and wraps require a little more maintenance than polyester and high density-foam but they have greater comfort, durability and resilience.
Buckwheat hulls are also used as filling for a variety of upholstered goods, including pillows and zafu. The hulls are durable and do not conduct or reflect heat as much as synthetic fills. They are sometimes marketed as an alternative natural fill to feathers for those with allergies.
Tightly woven fabrics and blends tend to wear longer than light or loose-weave natural fibers.
Leather is a durable and easy-care natural material that softens and improves with time. To create quality leather, top-grain hides are tanned, processed and dyed to give a certain color or look. Tanning refers to the process in which salts are used to cure the hide and to stabilize its shape. Dyeing refers to infusing the hide with different color dyes.
Aniline dyeing is a high quality process that imparts color but does not disguise the natural character of the hide. Some leathers are further treated with a pattern, texture, or polish.
An Automotive upholsterer is also known as a Trimmer, Coachtrimmer or Motor Trimmer. The trade shares many of the skills required in upholstery, in addition to being able to work with carpet. The term Coachtrimmer derives from the days when car bodies were produced by manufactures and delivered to Coachbuilders to add a car body and interior trimmings. Trimmers would produce soft furnishings, carpets, soft tops and roof linings often to order to customer specifications. Later Trim shops were often an in-house part of the production line as the production process was broken down into smaller parts manageable by semi-skilled labor. Many automotive trimmers now work either in automotive design or with aftermarket trim shops carrying out repairs, restorations or conversions for customers directly. A few bespoke motor car manufacturers still employ trimmers, for example Aston Martin.
Marine Upholstery differs in that one has to consider dampness, sunlight and hard usage.
A vinyl or material that is UV and cold cracking resistant is the choice.
Stainless steel hardware such as staples, screws must be used for a quality job that will last. Also wood when used for a job must be of marine quality.
Usually a high resiliency, high density (closed cell foam mainly used on smaller cushions to double as floatation devices) with a thin film of plastic over it is used to keep out water that might get by the seams and as well as aid in placing the vinyl back on the piece.
Also a Dacron thread must be used in any sewing work. Nylon zippers are the choice as well.
In 18th-century London upholders frequently served as interior decorators responsible for all aspects of a room's decor. These individuals were members of the London Upholders' Company, whose traditional role, prior to the 18th century, was to provide upholstery and textiles and the fittings for funerals. In the great London furniture-making partnerships of the 18th century, a cabinet-maker usually paired with an upholder: Vile and Cobb, Ince and Mayhew, Chippendale and Rannie or Haig.
Grand Rapids, Michigan is known as the furniture city and many of the best upholsterers can still be found there. These craftsmen continue to create or recreate many antique and modern pieces of furniture.
One of the more exceptional pieces of leather furniture is the beautiful antique sleepy hollow chair. A chair made famous by the West Michigan based upholsterer Francisco Melendez. He revolutionized the antique upholstery business in the state of Michigan where many leather sleepy hollow chairs grace Grand Rapids homes. This style of chair was introduced by Francisco Melendez to Puerto Rico in the late 1990s; and can be seen in a number of upscale homes. The chair, a beautiful work of art, is tufted with buttons and is usually accompanied by an antique leather ottoman. Still, more than 40 years after his introduction to upholstery, Francisco Melendez continues to create art in the form of upholstered antique and modern furniture.