hom Technology has changed how furniture is made

By Mary Beth Breckenridge

Knight Ridder Newspapers

It used to be fairly easy to pick out a good-quality piece of upholstered furniture. You looked for eight-way hand-tied springs and a kiln-dried hardwood frame.

End of discussion.

But in the furniture industry, like the rest of the world, technology marches on.


Manufacturers have come up with all kinds of alternative materials and methods for building upholstered furniture, mostly to save time and money. Some of them, however, are giving hand-tied springs and hardwood frames a run for their positions on the top rung of the quality ladder.

Furniture maker Mitchell Gold Co. has even built an advertising campaign around its construction methods, which include the use of hardwood plywood in some pieces and serpentine springs instead of hand-tied coil springs.

Yet Mitchell Gold, president and chief executive officer of the company that bears his name, said many in the furniture industry have been slow to embrace change. He likens holding up hand-tied springs as a gold standard to saying typewriters are the best tools for writing.

"This is part of the struggle of the furniture industry," he said, "not keeping pace with new technology."

Many choices

Springs and other types of foundation systems are one aspect of upholstered-furniture construction where change has been marked. A multitude of spring choices are available, and quality varies according to the tyxe of steel, the configuration of the springs and the number of springs used.

Gold said his company researched construction methods when it started making sofas 16 years ago and chose a sinuous-wire spring system that he argues is superior to eight-way hand-tied springs. In the latter system, each coil spring is tied in eight places to the springs around it to stabilize the springs and distribute weight.

Hand-tied springs are labor-intensive, and Gold said the twine can loosen over the years. Hand tying might add $100 to the cost of a sofa, "but it doesn't give you $100 more of goodness," he said.


Some manufacturers are forgoing springs altogether. Webbing has long been used as an alternative, although most industry experts consider it less durable than good-quality springs. Still, webbing has been a boon to upholstered-furniture design, because it takes up less room and therefore allows for greater design flexibility.

Flexible alternative

One company, North Carolina Foam Industries, has come out with another alternative, a high-density foam that it's marketing as a replacement for foundation springs. The foam, called Pluralux, is being used as a foundation in some sofas and chairs.

Chris Bradley, North Carolina Foam Industries' national account manager, said the foam simply fits into the frame where the springs would be. Installing it requires no skilled labor, and he estimated it can cut production time by a half-hour for a chair and an hour for a sofa.

Bradley maintained the foam also provides the same comfort as hand-tied springs. The company tested the foam by having visitors sit in two chairs or sofas, one with the springs and one with the foam. In the sofa test, 60 percent of the subjects preferred the foam, and another 12.5 percent considered the two sofas equal in comfort. The results were similar for the chair test.

Starnes said the foam replaced webbing or sinuous wire springs in the chairs, and it has greatly improved their comfort. Still, he stopped short of comparing the foam to a hand-tied system.

"We're not looking at it as exactly a replacement for eight-way hand-tied. I don't know that this foam can replace that at this point," he said. "Maybe it can."

John Summey, an extension specialist at the Furniture Manufacturing &; Management Center at North Carolina State University, said he'd like to see independent research conducted on the foam's comfort and said its durability is still unknown. "The idea is not bad if it works," he said, "but the question is, does it work?"


Other changes

Furniture frames are another element where materials have changed. Hardwoods such as oak historically were considered superior because of their "nailability" -- their ability to hold fasteners such as screws and pegs securely over time, Summey explained. Drying the wood in a kiln made it more dimensionally stable, meaning it wouldn't shrink, expand or warp.

Then along came hardwood plywood, also called engineered hardwood. It's similar to traditional plywood, except it's made of thin layers of hardwood instead of the softwood used in most plywood. The layers are glued together with the grain of each layer perpendicular to the next, giving hardwood plywood a dimensional stability similar to kiln-dried hardwood, Summey said.

The material makes a strong, durable frame, he said. In fact, "we basically have seen no difference in them" in terms of resistance to breakage.

Gold also likes that hardwood plywood creates less waste than solid wood, and that what waste there is can be recycled to make particleboard.

There's still that nailability issue, though. Hardwood plywood doesn't hold fasteners as well as regular hardwood, so some manufacturers use a tack strip of solid hardwood inside the plywood frame, Summey said.

Summey cautioned, however, that the comfort of a piece of upholstered furniture depends on the sum of its parts. A good-quality foundation and a strong frame won't make a sofa comfortable if the cushions aren't made the way you like -- and that's strictly an individual judgment.

"Ultimately, it still boils down to what the consumer feels good in," he said.

What To Read Next
Get Local