How to Find a Good Upholstery Shop
Last updated April 2020
If you decide to restore what you have rather than replace it, our ratings of local shops will help you choose the right shop to do the work.
Review Ratings from Past Customers
Our ratings tables report the results from our surveys of area consumers. We surveyed primarily Checkbook and Consumer Reports subscribers, but also other randomly selected consumers we invited to participate. We asked them to rate 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 quality.” For each shop that received at least 10 ratings, our ratings tables show the percentage of surveyed customers who rated it “superior” for each question. Click here for more information on our customer survey and other research methods.
For the most part, customers rated their shops favorably.
Assess Fabric Options
Most shops can order almost any fabric—and if it can’t, you can purchase it separately elsewhere and bring it to the shop. But it’s convenient to use a shop that offers a wide variety of fabric samples and gives good advice on selecting them. You can easily check out this aspect of shop service on your own.
You’ll have to decide whether to buy fabric from the upholsterer, a fabric shop, or via the internet. 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 (usually measured in rubs or indicated by light-, medium-, or heavy-duty). A light-duty, pale-colored fabric may be fine for a rarely used living room, but you’ll want heavy-duty material in a medium color for a family room used heavily by children. Also, be aware that the fabric will last longer if treated with a soil protector. And find out the proper way to clean the fabric.
Check Their Work
Ask companies if they can show you finished pieces waiting to be returned to customers. Here are a few points to look for:
All finished pieces should be 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 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.
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 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, and the old twine is likely to 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. If possible, examine partially finished pieces to see what the shop has done.
If a piece has a skirt, it should be lined. It should also be weighted to ensure that it hangs evenly.
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.
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 them. 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 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 fabric threads run at an angle to the cord.
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. 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, because material with large patterns means using substantially more fabric to do the job properly, shops may make compromises.
Collect at Least a Few Competing Prices
Among shops that meet your quality standards, find one with good prices.
The price comparison scores reported on our ratings tables reveal how the shops’ prices compared when our undercover shoppers called them to obtain prices for six sample jobs. The price comparison scores, adjusted to a base of $100, indicate 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.
The table below shows the range of prices our shoppers were quoted. As you can see, prices can vary sharply.
As long as you can provide a good description of the piece, and the name and style number of the fabric you want, you usually can shop for price by calling upholsterers. When comparing prices, ask exactly what is included. Depending on the shop, the quoted price might or might not include—
- 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 of the variations in the price comparison scores shown on our ratings tables. For shops whose base prices don’t include important restorative work, the price comparison 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.
Set a Deadline
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.
Try to Avoid 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 unacceptable.
Get It in Writing
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.
Pay by Credit Card
The federal Fair Credit Billing Act and the policies of the credit card issuers allow you to contest charges for work you deem unsatisfactory.
Check the Work
When you pick up or receive an item, examine it carefully. Check the matching of the fabric pattern, and other quality points discussed above. If an item doesn’t meet the standards you and the shop have agreed upon, insist that the shop redo the work.