Consumer Information

information to be an informed furniture consumer

What You Need To Know About Green/Sustainable Furniture

There is an interest in "Green/Sustainable" furniture. Unfortunately there is a lot of misleading information about what is Green and Sustainable.

What is your furniture made out of? There are theories that if the materials that your furniture is made from are "Green" byproducts or recycled products that this is good. Upon examination, this would make sawdust and wood chips (particle board) desirable. Many people who have purchased particle board furniture would disagree as it has not held up well. Recently there has been discussion of specially treated cow manure being used or frames being made from recycled plastic. The first idea would fall in the particle board category and the second would literally be lethal in a fire. What about hard wood? Did you know that almost all hard wood used in furniture in this country comes from carefully nurtured renewable forest lands? What is harvested is replanted just like any other crop. And our hard wood provides materials that make strong furniture that will last. There is also the Rain Forest Alliance, an accredited certifier of Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) which watches forest sustainability standards. Look for their FSC Tree Frog symbol.

How is it made and how long will it last? The amount of energy (whether it is from coal, oil or hydroelectricity) is the same for making a quality piece of furniture that will last as it is for making a cheap piece of furniture that will not last very long. Really surprising isn't it. So if we are looking at "Green" as in energy consumption, frequently replacing a piece of cheap furniture is a bad bargain. If the lifetime of a poorly made sofa is three years and the lifetime of a well made sofa is twenty-one years then the poorly made sofa will cost us seven times more in energy costs.

There is another "green" component to this. A well made piece of furniture may last well beyond the previously stated twenty-one years. It can be handed down to loved ones or to charitable organizations because it continues to last. If, though, you need to replace a poorly made piece of furniture it will, inevitably end up in a landfill where it will begin to break down, a furniture version of decomposition. Chemicals used in the particle boards, in the cheap foam and in the fabric treated with fire retardant and stain resistance start to enter our ground water. That isn't a nice thought at all.

If the piece isn't built to last, you are not only wasting your money but are wasting the energy and resources it took to make the item and contributing to landfill and ground water pollution. If you want more sustainable furniture available remember that the consumer’s choices send a message.


Construction Of Wood Furniture Frames

The frame of a case good piece starts the same as a frame in an upholstered piece.

The parts of the frame should be joined to the other parts by "dowels" . This right angle joining could be, where appropriate further reinforced by a "corner block" which is a triangular piece of wood spanning the inside of the right angle. The "corner block" should be attached by wood glue and screws. The bond and longevity of hot glues are poor and the strength of your furniture could suffer. Table tops should be reinforced by corner blocks to the legs or to the case. This type of construction makes for a strong frame that doesn’t flex.

Drawers, definitely should be made of hard wood. Drawer faces take a lot of stress because that is the point that we pull to open them. Dovetail joints are where the side and the front of the drawer are connected with a series interlocking wedge like projections. A French Dovetail is an interlocking wedge. You can see this type of joint by looking down on it from the top or up from the bottom of the drawer. These are the strong joints for the front and back of the drawer but sometimes because of the design of the piece the drawer four sides are made this way then the drawer has a face plate which is connected with the drawer box by screws. 


This is the strongest construction that will last for generations. Photo courtesy of Sherrill Furniture

This is the strongest construction that will last for generations. Photo courtesy of Sherrill Furniture

Drawer bottoms should be made of a 1/4'' plywood. It is fairly stiff material. How would you like to fill the drawer only to have the the bottom sag and fall down? The drawer bottom should attach to the drawer box with a dado joint. This is a groove that is cut into the drawer box pieces near the bottom. It is the exact size of the drawer bottom which slides into the groove and is fastened there at the back of the drawer.

Beds: One of the critical structural parts of a bed is where the rails meet the headboard or foot board. This junction should be tight and firm. Give the bed the "Wonka-wonka" test. Grasp the footboard, or headboard and try to move it back and forth toward the other end of the bed. If it moves, don’t buy the bed. A customer found a bed that didn’t pass the "Wonka-wonka" test. Thinking that things just weren't fastened tightly, she reported it. The sales person’s response was, "Don't worry about it. The headboard will be against the wall, anyway, won't it?" Some people thrash around when they sleep. But any activity on a bed should be supported with a strong frame that doesn't move, doesn’t dent your wall or threaten to collapse beneath you!

Construction Of Upholstered Furniture Frames: Let's start from the ground up and from the inside out. Salespeople should be able to answer your questions or show you in books from the furniture line. If not, don’t buy. 

The frame should be solid hard wood construction. By that I mean probably oak , maple or alder. The parts of the frame should be joined to the other parts by "double dowels." just like wood furniture frames. This means where the front piece joins a side piece, one piece would have two wooden dowels which would go into two corresponding holes in the other piece. This right angle joining would be further reinforced by a "corner block" attached by wood glue and screws.

Particle board frames are not strong. You can not run double dowels into this and particle boards frames can not hold a screw or glue. Then there is the issue of how well will they take a blow. Plywood is not acceptable unless it is used to improve the structural integrity of a solid frame. This can be the method of choice for some contemporary furniture whose low sleek lines don’t lend themselves to standard hard wood construction.



Suspension system, or whatever is supporting the cushions from inside the seat frame, should hold up for many years. There are several types of support used.

Eight-way hand tie refers to a way that series of springs, inside the frame are tied together & work together. The springs are tied to the frame in a variety of places distributing the torque or pressure so as not to cause one spring or another to pull out of the frame. This process is more time consuming and takes skill so is a little more expensive.

Zigzag, Sinuous, No Sag or Serpentine Springs utilize flat-type springs fastened to the front and back rails of the piece of furniture. the springs are then fastened together from side to side with industrial grade rubber bands that are about 3/4” wide. This method is quick and any skill level of worker can do it so it is less expensive but because there is more torque per stapled connection of spring to frame there frequently is failure in the system as the spring pulls out of the wood sides. This will cause a sag under the cushion. This type may be the only type available with sleek contemporary pieces because of the low profile of the seat box. If all other construction techniques are strong these may last quite a while.

Drop-in springs are a solution some manufacturers have come up with to solve the time consuming characteristic of the "eight-way hand tie" method. This is an eight-way hand tied method done by machines. It qualifies as eight-way hand tied at a fraction of the cost. It may not have as comfortable of sit. To work properly, the unit must have a rigid frame. If there is flex to the frame the "bench" of springs can fall out of the seat box.

Upholstery In Fabric : Synthetic blends wear better than natural fabrics. This is part of the "Sustainable" equation. Also, some companies rate their fabric durability as light use, etc. 

Or they give a rating in "double rubs." A double rub would be sliding into a chair (one rub) and sliding out again (the second or double rub). The number needs to be sufficiently high, the higher the better (15,000 double rubs or 24,000 double rubs).

Look at the cushion edge. Is there a welt (fabric covered cord)? Or if there isn’t a welt, is there stitching on either side of the main seam? Both of these features indicate that the seam is reinforced. If these features are not present then, if possible, unzip a cushion and look at the inside of a seam. The salvage is the fabric on either side of the seam. Is the fabric a loose weave? How much of a salvage is there? Is there at least 5/8 of an inch or better? Is the salvage edge raw or is it lock stitched? The reason for these questions is that some companies are cutting down on their fabric as a cost saving gesture resulting in seams pulling out (fraying at seam edges) within a short period of time (months) of the furniture arriving in your home. Look if the pattern is centered or matches on the seams. You don’t want patterns to not line up.

Clean-ability is an issue. Most upholstery fabrics are rated "S". This means "solvent." It is just like a piece of clothing can say "Dry-clean Only". There are some treatments that can be applied to the fabric. People used to ask for Scotchgard™. Fabric companies are not using that particular product because it had a carcinogen but many upholstery fabrics now have a teflon coating. There are also businesses that come to your home and clean your upholstery.

The new micro-fibers are great with the stain resistance and they are rated "W" which means a water based cleaner. Spots, often, clean right up. I have parents of young children swearing by the micro-fiber materials. 

Cushions: There are no hard and fast rules here. Generally, the better the piece of furniture the more options of cushions the company offers. The cushions should be encased in a ticking. This step aids in the longevity of the cushion. The seat cushions should have a zipper and be loose (except in some rare contemporary styles). If you can not get into the cushion you can’t replace it after many years of use. Again, the sales person should be able to show you the explanation of the different cushion options available from the manufacturers book.

Upholstery In Leather : Upholstery leathers will hold up better if they are at least medium weight. "Split Grain" or "Glove leather" can be accompanied with the term "Top Grain."

"Top Grain"is a desirable term. "Split grain" or "Glove leather" is not a desirable term. Please avoid these leathers. They are too thin to hold up on furniture.

"Drum Dyed": This refers to the fact that the aniline dye is forced through the leather. This method is the preferable because a small scratch on the surface of the leather will not show as easily if the leather is the same color all of the way through. "Sprayed-on" or surface dye is not as desirable as body oils and acids of our skin can wear off the dye leaving blotchy patches.

"Full Aniline": Leather that receives its color from Aniline dyes and also topical stain, wax and/or water repellent. It is the finest leather available, always made from premium-quality full top grain hides. It is the softest and most natural looking leather. It is more likely to fade and stain as it has the least protection applied to it and is unretouched. It is generally more expensive.

"Natural Textures" or "Range Marks": Hides can have slightly nonuniform surface qualities as they were on cows who could rub up against trees, etc.

"Nubuck": This is a high quality, full top-grain leather buffed or sanded to a velvety nap. It is more likely to fade and stain as it is unretouched. It differs from "Suede" which is produced from a lower quality split-grain leather.

"Pigmented": This leather is the least likely to fade or stain. It is dyed, the surface is sanded, and a faux embossed pattern is done to create a consistent texture. Then it is coated. It has excellent durability with minimum maintenance. 

"Pull-Up": After the aniline dyeing process has been completed the hide is impregnated with oils. It will fade if exposed to strong sunlight over time. Natural body oils will shade the leather slightly but this shading will blend with the oils of the leather.

"Pure Aniline": Leather which receives its only color from dyes and has natural characteristics.

"Semi-Aniline": This is a high quality leather is colored by aniline dye then is often coated with a clear sealant to aid in stain resistance. 

"Top Grain": The surface of the hide that has not been mechanically altered. This really is the outside of the hide and the best part to use for upholstery leather.

Care of leather depends upon the type. I recommend a cleaning and a protection cream that is made for leather to be used every four to six months.