Buying a new sofa is a big outlay, so a little ‘inside’ knowledge might be useful when faced with a showroom full of sofas that could all be ‘the one’.

Either wood or metal are typically used for sofa frames, both of which are durable. Solid hardwoods are the best choice of wood for a sofa as the wood itself is stronger and denser than softwood or engineered wood. Metal tends to be more durable and fire-resistant than wood, but could be heavy and difficult to carry or move around.

Joints are important and might be hard to check in the showroom. Sometimes there is build information on labels that might be a guide, and if it’s wood, perhaps poor joints could ultimately lead to furniture getting wobbly, so check if you can.

Mortise & Tenon is the strongest method for joints, where one piece of wood has a shape cut into it and the other is cut precisely to that shape and is hammered into that hole.

Double Dowel joints are small wooden cylinders that are also hammered into place, and if you’ve ever self-assembled a piece of furniture, you’ve probably used this method.

Corner Block Reinforced is where an extra piece of wood is placed at an angle over the joint and screwed into place, and reinforced joints in general are joints supported with glue, screws, or staples. Metal joints might include welding, riveting, bolting or screwing.

Springs and Webbing

Sinuous springs are the most common in mid-range sofas, and a lot of budget sofas will use low-quality webbing in various materials. It's ultimately up to you to decide what you want to spend but keep in mind that a seating suspension that is well-made will keep your sofa from bottoming out. Sofa fillings are varied in type, and there are many options to choose from, with the price possibly being a guide. Three of the most important things to know about sofa fillings are their ability to provide adequate support, their loft (filling power) and the combination of options, e.g. down, feather or a blend of both, fibre, or down-wrapped foam cushions.

Coir stuffing was made from the processed natural husk of coconuts. It isn’t used much these days but may become more popular again for those interested in eco-friendly alternatives to synthetic fillings. It was sustainable, strong, economical, and had a low decomposition rate.

Horsehair is also rarely used and was made from trimmed horse tails and manes, which provided a lot of springiness and texture to upholstery pieces.

Down or Feather? Down is the soft, insulating under-plumage of birds, and is the finest used for luxury sofas and commands a high price. Eiderdown in particular is renowned for being very dense and the most desirable of all downs. Feathers on their own can clump together, but feather and fibre are perfect for those wanting a sofa to sink into, as opposed to sit on.

Foam is used internally in almost all sofas, and it is also used as a cushion filling, providing the firmest support of all cushions. The other benefit of foam cushions is that they keep their shape and require very little maintenance or ‘plumping’. Foams can vary in density, which, along with the underlying springing and supporting webbing, determines the firmness of the sofa. Low-quality foams will lose shape and break down or become so brittle that they will turn into powder.

Fibre cushions are made of man-made polyester hollow strands which are pumped full of air and are blown into a cushion casing, giving a plump appearance. The fibres compress with pressure, providing a much softer sit than foam. As the air is expelled from the casing during use, the cushions will need plumping to return air back into the fibres.

Before buying anything, check doors and corridors for access reasons, and remember that a sofa that is too large will engulf the room disproportionately and one that is too small will not serve its purpose, so measure carefully – even plan the space where it will ultimately be used.


Marilyn writes regularly for The Portugal News, and has lived in the Algarve for some years. A dog-lover, she has lived in Ireland, UK, Bermuda and the Isle of Man. 

Marilyn Sheridan