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Upholsterers (From CHECKBOOK, Fall 2012/Winter 2013)
 
Go to Ratings of 19 Chicago Area Upholsterers
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If you’re thinking of reupholstering a piece of furniture, first take a hard look and decide whether it’s likely to last long enough to justify the cost. Don’t reupholster if the piece won’t last as long as the new fabric. 

And even if a piece is good enough to last, you may not save money by reupholstering it. By reupholstering, you do save the frame, the springs, and probably some padding and stuffing. But a comparable new piece can cost as much as, or even less than, what an upholsterer will charge you. 

If you decide to reupholster, choose your upholsterer carefully: As our ratings reveal, there are area companies that routinely offer superior customer service, and a few others where slipshod workmanship and other problems are all too common. 

When shopping for an upholsterer, find out how large a deposit you’ll have to put down (the lower the better). Ask to see examples of similar work. Check its fabric selection—the best shops should offer seemingly unlimited choices. Get a written estimate in advance, and shop around to make sure you’re not paying too much. Our price index scores, shown on our Ratings Tables, should help you find a shop that charges fair prices. 

Before turning over your furniture to an upholsterer, discuss exactly what work will be done and get the main points and price written onto a work order. 

Buying new furniture means spending lots of money and making lots of decisions. Style? Fabric? Pattern? Filling? It’s enough to make you want to keep your old stuff. Which might not be such a bad idea. A skilled upholsterer can make old pieces look new again, and our ratings reveal several area shops that you can trust with the job. 

Is It Worth It? 

A good piece of furniture deserves a second chance. But if you’re thinking of having a furniture piece reupholstered, first take a dispassionate look and decide whether it will last long enough to justify the cost of reupholstering. 

Don’t reupholster if the piece is unlikely to outlast the new fabric. 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 piece. 

Some checks are easy. Make sure there are no cracks in exposed wood, and that legs or castors are solid and firmly secured. Then check what’s beneath the surface by taking hold of an arm and pushing from side to side. If the piece is in good condition, the arm won’t wobble or creak. Also, lift one end of a sofa to be sure the frame doesn’t sag or creak. 

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 piece over and remove a portion of the dust catcher beneath. Some signs of quality: 

  • Solid hardwood, rather than plywood or fiberboard, used for key structural elements, such as the long piece that runs beneath the knees across the front of a sofa. 
  • Wood at least one to 1 1/2 inches thick used for these key structural members. 
  • Reinforcing blocks used to strengthen corners. 
  • Coil springs under the seat, with each spring tied by twine in eight directions—although firmly secured sinuous wire springs (long, wavy wires) used in many high-quality pieces may function equally well. 

You can get an opinion about the quality of a piece by taking small pieces to the upholsterer’s shop. For large pieces, ask an upholsterer to come to your home. Many, but not all, shops will send out an estimator at no charge. Keep in mind that an upholsterer might be biased toward advising you to restore an old piece, rather than sending you to a store to buy something new. 

But even if a piece will last, you may not save money by reupholstering it. By reupholstering, you do retain the frame, the springs, and probably some padding and stuffing. But the cost of buying a comparable new piece may be as low as, or even lower than, what an upholsterer will charge you to restore it. 

To assess cost, compare price quotes from upholsterers with prices for comparable pieces of new furniture. If your existing piece is of very high quality or an antique, an upholsterer’s charges will be small compared to a replacement. On the other hand, if your piece is of low or medium quality, the upholsterer’s charges for fabric and labor are very likely to cost more than a brand-new replacement. 

Cost will not be your only consideration, of course. You might want to reupholster a piece if you particularly like its design, it matches other pieces in your home, it fits perfectly in the available space, or for sentimental reasons. Also, you might want to reupholster because the fabrics you like best aren’t available on new pieces. 

If you decide to buy something new, our ratings of furniture stores should help you find a reliable retailer. 

Who Should Do It? 

If you decide to restore what you have rather than replace it, the ratings shown on our Ratings Tables will help you choose the right shop to do the work. 

Check How Shops Are Rated by Their Customers 

Our Ratings Tables report the results from our surveys of area consumers (primarily CHECKBOOK and Consumer Reports subscribers) who rated local shops they had used “inferior,” “adequate,” or “superior” for such questions as “doing service properly,” “starting and completing work promptly,” “letting you know cost early,” “advice on service options and costs,” and “overall performance.” For each shop that received at least 10 ratings, the table shows the percentage of surveyed customers who rated it “superior” for each question. (For more information on our customer survey and other research methods, click here.) 

For the most part, customers rated their shops quite favorably. 

Avoid Leaving a Big Deposit 

Determine in advance the amount of the deposit. Most shops require 20 to 50 percent of the job’s price. A substantial deposit is fair because it protects the shop for its expenditure on fabric and labor if a customer abandons a piece. But the smaller the deposit, the more likely you’ll get quick service along with leverage for demanding corrections if the work is not acceptable. 

Check Their Work 

If you want to consider shops we have not evaluated, or learn more about the ones on our Ratings Tables, visit them and examine their work. Look at both finished pieces waiting to be returned to customers and items in process. Here are a few points to look for: 

Frame 

No shop should send out a finished piece until it’s structurally sound. If necessary, a shop should completely disassemble and reglue the frame. Check by pushing and pulling on the arms of chairs and sofas, and lifting the corners of sofas to make sure there is no wobbling or creaking. 

Exposed Wood 

Exposed wood on legs, arms, and seatbacks should be cleaned and brightened up. All the shop usually needs to do is rub a piece with fine steel wool and oil. 

Seat Deck 

The deck is the platform beneath the seat cushions. In a piece with coil springs, considerable skill is required to tie the springs with twine to make them even. When pieces of old twine have become loose or broken, top-quality shops use new twine to retie all springs. Lower quality shops may retie only where the old twine is broken, with the likelihood that the old twine will soon break in other places. Also, lower quality shops that do retie all springs may fail to get them even. The worst shops may simply try to conceal problems with broken or loose twine by adding padding on top of the springs. Check the smoothness of the deck with your eye or hand. Better still, look at partially finished pieces to see what the shop has done. 

Skirt 

If a piece has a skirt, it should be lined. It’s best if it is also weighted to ensure that it hangs evenly. 

Tufting 

One of the most difficult upholstering skills is tufting—drawing a thread through a cushion or seatback at regular intervals to create depressions, which may be ornamented with buttons. Check for uniformity. 

Padding 

There should be padding over the frame in all areas of contact. Feel around arm tops, arm fronts, seatbacks, leg rests, and other exposed places to make sure there are no hard edges, because fabric wears out quickly on such hard spots. In seat cushions, which are usually made of polyurethane foam, the foam should be covered with polyester batting to give the cushion smooth, filled corners and reduce wear between the foam and the upholstery fabric. Overall, frame elements and cushions should have smooth, even contours. 

Stitching and Welting 

Seams should be stitched so tightly that it is hard to see the threads. Welting, the decorative, fabric-covered cord that is often used around cushions, arms, and seatbacks, should be smooth and even. The best approach is to cut the fabric for welting on the bias, so that the fabric threads run at an angle to the cord. 

Pattern Match 

A stripe, a vine in a floral pattern, or any other distinct line should flow from the top of the seatback, across the cushions, and down the front of the frame and skirt. There should be no more than a half inch of irregularity. Patterns should be used symmetrically; if there is a stripe down the center of the right arm, there should be one at the same place on the left arm. Major elements, such as a large flower, should be centered on the seatback or cushions. It takes skill and time to match patterns. Also, fabric with large patterns needs substantially more fabric to do the job properly, so shops may make compromises. 

Check the Timeframe 

Workmanship is your main concern, but promptness is also important—you don’t want to be without your promised sofa when your in-laws arrive. Our Ratings Tables show how surveyed customers rated shops for “starting and completing work promptly.” You’ll get some assurance that the shop will do the work in a timely fashion if you get it to include an estimated completion date on the work order. 

Check Fabric Selection 

A shop should help you make a good fabric selection. Most shops can order almost any fabric—and if it can’t, you can purchase it separately somewhere else and bring it to the shop to apply. But it’s convenient to use a shop that offers a wide variety of fabric samples and that gives good advice on fabric selection. You can easily check out this aspect of shop service on your own. 

Check Prices 

Among shops that meet your quality standards, find one that offers good prices. 

For firms that were evaluated in our last full, published article, the price index scores on our Ratings Tables show how the shops’ prices compared when our researchers called them (without revealing their affiliation with CHECKBOOK) to obtain prices for six sample jobs. The price index scores are adjusted to a base of $100 and show you relative price levels. For instance, a score of $110 means a shop’s quotes were, on average, 10 percent higher than quotes of other shops for the same jobs. 

Table 1 shows the range of prices our shoppers were quoted. As you can see, prices can vary sharply. For example, quotes range from $2,190 to $4,896 for one reupholstering job, and from $738 to $1,700 for another. 

Table 1—Low, Average, and High Prices Quoted by Shops for Illustrative Reupholstering Work

Low, Average, and High Prices Quoted by Shops for Illustrative Reupholstering Work1
Description of jobLow priceAverage priceHigh price
18th century-style camelback Chippendale loveseat with rolled arms with Beacon Hill Broccato fabric $2,190$3,237$4,896
Bench with rolled arms with customer-supplied solid-color fabric$150$407$800
Wingback chair with Kravet Smart #31114.916 fabric$650$938$1,270
Contemporary-style sofa with rolled arms with customer-supplied solid-color fabric$738 $1,050$1,700

1The descriptions of the jobs are summaries; shops were given additional detailed specifications for each job.

The price index scores are a useful predictor of how prices at rated shops compare to prices at other shops. But don’t rule out shops with relatively high price index scores. We find that sometimes shops with high prices on some jobs are low-priced on others. 

Most upholsterers will quote prices over the phone if you provide a good description of the piece along with the name and style number of the fabric you want. So shops can give firm prices, if the piece is small, take it to a few shops for an estimate. For large pieces, upholsterers may come to your home—although not all shops make home visits and some charge for the service—or email a picture of the piece. 

When comparing prices, be sure to ask exactly what is included. Depending on the shop, the quoted price might or might not include:

  • Regluing 
  • Retying springs 
  • Replacing webbing beneath springs 
  • Touching-up exposed wood 
  • Wrapping cushions in new polyester batting 
  • Supplying arm covers 
  • Pickup and delivery 

Keep in mind that such differences might explain some or all of the differences in the price index scores shown on our Ratings Tables. For shops whose base prices don’t include important restorative work, the price index scores on our Ratings Tables may be misleadingly low if your piece needs significant restoration. On the other hand, some shops that routinely allow for restorative work in their quotes may be willing to shave a little off their prices if you assure them that, structurally, your piece is in like-new condition. 

Dealing with Them 

After you have selected a shop, deal with it carefully to make sure that you get the best possible job for the money. 

Your first decision is whether to buy fabric from the upholsterer, a fabric shop, or other source. Upholsterers usually charge full list price for fabric, while many fabric shops offer discounts of 20 percent or more. But because part of an upholsterer’s profit comes from fabric sales, most raise the price for labor by 25 percent or more if you supply the fabric—more than offsetting what you save by buying fabric elsewhere. To determine which approach costs less, price the job both ways—buying fabric from the upholsterer and buying it at the best price you can find elsewhere. 

Of course, you’ll want to supply your own fabric if you already have some you like, or if your upholsterer can’t get it for you (as is the case with many discontinued patterns). 

Wherever you purchase fabric, be sure you get material that both looks good and wears well. Ask the upholsterer or fabric store for the fabric’s durability rating. A light-duty, light-colored fabric may be fine for a rarely used living room. But you’ll want heavy-duty fabric in a medium color for a family room used heavily by children. Also, be aware that the fabric will last longer if it is treated with a soil protector. And find out the proper way to clean the fabric. 

Before you turn over your furniture to an upholsterer, discuss fully what work will be done—and get the main points onto a written price quote, contract, or drop-off receipt. That document should at least indicate the price, and whether regluing, retying springs, new webbing, new batting for cushions, arm covers, and delivery are included. Also, be sure the document notes the projected completion date. 

When you pick up or receive an item, examine it carefully. Check the sturdiness of the frame, the matching of the fabric pattern, and other quality points discussed above. If an item doesn’t meet the quality standards you and the shop have agreed upon, insist that the shop do the work again. 



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