5 Steps to Buying a Sofa Online
1. Make sure it fits!
The sine qua non of buying a sofa, or any large piece of furniture for that matter.
Measure the space where you intend to put your sofa and make sure there’s some leftover space around the edges.
In most cases, you do NOT want the sofa running right up to the limit of the available space – you want a bit of space around the ends for lamps, cables, or other things.
Sofas tend to come in a few standard sizes, and never, ever buy a sofa online without knowing its dimensions and measuring your space first.
A simple step, but one you definitely do not want to forget!
2. Frame Material & Construction
Truly world-class sofa frames are made with hand-jointed, kiln-dried hardwoods construction. The legs are built directly into the frames, and there are no screws, staples, or glue anywhere. But this level of precision, hand-crafted construction is only for the crème de la crème, and can run into the high teens or many tens of thousands!
Below that, there are four primary types of materials and constructions for the working man’s or woman’s sofa:
- Particleboard: This is what a cheap sofa will be made with. Fine for a sofa you only intend to keep for a year or two, but it’s not going to make it for the long haul. Sofas made this way are fragile and not nearly as elegant as hardwood based sofas.
These particleboard sofas are generally stapled and/or glued together with industrial-strength staples and glue. These joining methods hold up for a while, but they run the risk of slowly giving way over time, or straight up giving out under acute pressure – like a teenager jumping on the sofa during a game of indoor frisbee.
It’s OK to buy one of these sofas, just make sure you don’t overpay!
- Hardwood: A serious step up from particleboard. A variety of woods may be used – oak, beech, birch, cherry, etc. This kind of material is much stronger than particleboard and will last far longer. The pieces tend to be joined with nails or screws, instead of staples and glue, although glue is still used for some parts.
- Kiln Dried Hardwood: Another step up in durability from regular hardwood. Here the wood has been dried in large ovens in order to make the wood stronger and longer lasting. Staples and glue have probably been given up entirely for nails and screws, and if they’ve spent the additional money on the kiln drying process for their primary materials, you can expect the overall build quality to be commensurately improved.
- Steel (and other metals): Some newer sofas (such as the Campaign sofa) are made of steel. Steel is incredibly strong and long lasting, but there are some downsides. For one, steel sofas tend to be extremely heavy, and there’s a bit lost in regard to the general feel and vibe of the sofa, versus the high-end hardwood sofas.
Steel is not considered nicer than the hardwoods, but it is definitely nicer than particleboard and for value- or affordability-oriented pieces, steel is a great compromise over the more expensive hardwoods.
3. Fabrics & Leather Out the Ying Yang
Here’s where choice becomes a little overwhelming. Look out for our upcoming guide entirely focused on how to pick the right fabric for a sofa.
In the meantime, the most important thing you should know is that there are two basic categories: natural materials and synthetics.
There is nothing really “wrong” with the good synthetic materials – some of the newer polyesters out there feel shockingly soft, almost like real wool (as seen on the Campaign sofa)!
But, nothing beats the incredible handfeel and visual elegance of natural silks, wools, linens, and other natural fibers.
All of this is to say nothing about leather – an entire set of options unto itself!
When you’re looking for a durable sofa in the mid- to lower-price ranges, synthetic materials are totally fine – BUT you never know if it is going to be a soft, high-end synthetic, or an old-school, sand-papery synthetic.
We always include an objective review of the handfeel of the fabrics on the sofas we review, and whether they are natural or synthetic.
One underappreciated point here. The fit of the fabric over the sofa and cushions is really important for the sofa’s style and look. Mass-produced sofas vary tremendously in quality here. High-end sofas are more like bespoke clothing with a tailor hand fitting the upholstery to the individual sofa.
We almost hesitate to even address the matter of style in such a general guide, because style is such a complex, nuanced, and personal matter. But, we’d be remiss to not even mention it.
At the beginning and end of each day, the sofa is the visual center of the home, and the style of your sofa will really set the tone for the whole house.
Most Internet sofa brands will offer (or even ONLY offer) a midcentury modern style sofa. (Like this one from Campaign.) This should work with most apartment schemes favored by younger people. The design is clean, smooth, and will rarely clash or crowd a space.
If your space calls for a bit more drama, look for a Chesterfield (distinguished by rolled arms that are the same height as the back) or a Camelback (this style is marked by elegant curves and high arms).
There are hundreds of shapes, sizes, genres, and families of sofas throughout the ages, and we’ll be providing more and more content in regard to style as we develop our site over the next few months.
5. The Seating Experience
This is the toughest thing to figure out online and where our reviews come in most handy!
There’s a huge range in feel between all the sofas out there. Some people like a firm sofa so that can sit upright and read or work easily, while other want to sink back and lounge. See our detailed brand reviews to see which is which.
The keys to sofa feel are largely down to the spring construction and to the types of fill used in the cushioning. This ranges from natural fills like down to different types of foam. There are even combination styles that can be particularly comfortable where a high-density foam is wrapped in feathers and goose down. When you get into true luxury like a George Smith, then you’ll be treated to hand-tied steel coil springs covered in boar bristle, with a cotton feather mix layered on top. My back feels better just imagining it!
The big marker of a cheaper sofa is one that entirely uses a low-density foam fill. These are going to break down much faster than higher quality foams or natural materials. Not a deal breaker necessarily, but like with a particleboard frame, don’t overpay!