Have you tried to find a good upholsterer in the past? It’s a difficult task. We have hired more than one in our day, and our designers have a few tricks they have developed over the past 30+ years. That’s also why we have dedicated staff to upholster items for our clients, and we recently opened the service to anyone. Here is what we do, and how they qualify craftsmen for reupholstery jobs (it’s dense, so you may just want to skim and pick a few items to focus on that will work for you):
1. The Fabric Test: Will the upholsterer work with any fabric for the reupholstery job?
-In other words, can you buy whatever you want from the local fabric store or online and then have them do just the labor. Most good upholstery workshops will tell you that they cannot guarantee the quality of someone else’s fabric, which is understandable. But they will use the fabric! If the company insists on you purchasing fabric through them, they are likely marking it up substantially and it factors into their revenue stream. They probably carry Kravat, Duralee, and the other classics and you are paying in the neighborhood of 300-350% for your fabric.
2. The Yardage Test: How much yardage do they tell you your job will take?
-This often goes hand in hand with the fabric test. If your sofa is going to take 22 yards instead of 16, if your slip cover will take 24 yards instead of 18, you are being quoted too much fabric. This means, assuming you are paying $90 per yard for some nice fabric, that your bill is $540 higher. Their cost may only be $30 per yard, meaning they have made an extra $360 from your job, and what’s worse, they will turn your extra yardage into pillows they will sell to someone else. You purchased the company $180 in materials that they will now use to make money elsewhere. Savvy customers will ask for their extra fabric, but less scrupulous businesses will tell them that there was none, or give only a few scraps and keep larger pieces. Combat this by getting at least 3 local bids, and searching online for a yardage sheet (ours provided above).
3. Comparative Test: How much will it cost for an reupholstered chair versus a slip cover?
-Take something, even if it isn’t your project, and get a comparison price quote. Upholstery work versus slip covers are always a good gauge. In case you are not familiar, here is the difference depicted. A reupholstered couch will have everything fixed onto the frame, and the slipcover will be like a fitted sheet on your furniture. Some reupholsterers don’t like to do slip covers and will charge you more for them. They might not feel as comfortable and want to drive you towards upholstery, or they might just think it’s an opportunity because they have told you it will take more fabric. Generally, slip covers may take an extra 1-2 yards of fabric, but will always be less expensive.
4. The Price Change Test: Did your price change when you got to the nitty gritty of what you wanted?
-Counterintuitively, this is a good thing. First ask or show a picture of a simple job, and then ask for something like a welt. Maybe select a fabric pattern that didn’t have a repeat, and now one that does. Ask for no skirt, and then tell them you are thinking about a skirt. If the price for the labor on your upholstery job has not changed, chances are you were being charged too much for labor. Those things change the amount of time and effort that goes into your new sofa, and therefore it should change your price. Most people will not hesitate to charge extra for tufting, buttons, and nail heads, but many times they create an “I’ll make money off of this no matter what” price. NB. We say “chances are” here because occasionally, and this is rare because your upholsterers are small business owners out to make a living, they will like you enough to not change the price, or just feel like the 10% difference is not worth losing the sale. So we’re saying there’s a chance!
5. Picture Test: Did they ask you for pictures?
-If, like every customer I have ever encountered, your friendly neighborhood upholstery shop does not ask to see pictures of your project before bidding after you tell them that it’s “just a normal, regular sofa and you don’t want anything special,” RUN. They may ask you a few questions first, do you have fabric picked out already, do you want a skirt, no skirt, tufting, are there nail heads, buttons, how many cushions, but they should ALWAYS ASK FOR A PICTURE. Yes, we give a very general estimate or two based on misc details, but we never give an actual quote until you have shown what the project entails. And your upholster should not either!
6. The Fabric Test 2: Do they know their fabric?
-We had a client pick out a light upholstery fabric, in a blended silk, for the back of a wingback chair. What did our people say, “I’m sorry, but that fabric just won’t stand up. It tears when we pull it tight around the arms, and if it isn’t tearing now, it will in a matter of months.” Your upholsterer should have integrity and tell you when a fabric, even if it’s more expensive, won’t work. They should be able to talk to you very comfortably about the pluses and minuses of various weights, materials, and have demo material for you to see and feel. If you ask if a fabric has a repeat (if you can’t see it or aren’t sure), and how large the repeat is, they should be able to look at it and answer without hesitation.
7. The Materials Test: What are the costs for their materials?
-Upholsterers may or may not give you broken out costs for materials. In many instances, if you just ask, they will tell you what you are paying for down, or down blend. Those should always be more expensive than foam. High quality foam is denser, and therefore less “soft” when you get it. If your foam is super soft, and it’s not a down blend (which you would have asked and paid for), it’s probably cheap. This means you will need to have your cushions restuffed sooner. The difference between a 1.5 inch and 2 inch foam is often so nominal that the upholster won’t uptick the cost on you, FYI.
8. The Lead Time Test: What is your lead time?
-Ask the question. Good upholsterers *generally have a lead time of 2-4 weeks. Six weeks isn’t unheard of, but 3 or 4 months means they are understaffed or just silly. Immediate openings *generally means they do not do quality enough work to be in demand, or they are willing to take on subcontractors whose production quality may not be as good as their own. A 1-2 week lead time can indicate that the workshop is a finely oiled machine, so don’t get too worried if you have heard they do good work.
9. The Reference Test: Can you give me a few references to contact about your work?
-When asking about references, you may hear “all of our past clients are our references.” You shouldn’t feel shy in saying, “that’s great, thanks, just let me know what 3 people I should call then.” We generally recommend against referring to reference materials in a shop. It’s great if they have a sofa or two they have done on display, or a wingback chair, but they could have taken more pains to finish the pieces than normal. You should know what a normal person has to say about the quality of their work. One of our employees who hired an upholsterer in another state, for example, found after their couch was returned that the seams were not completed. The foam started to quickly give way, cushions deformed, and you know the rest of the story….
And finally, here are a few things that really don’t matter.
Website: Many high quality upholsterers are very old fashioned. It may feel like the stone age, but they may not have a website, or it might look like it was designed by a high school student in 1990. Forgive them.
Social Media: Did we mentioned the old fashioned thing? Facebook, hopefully. If you are looking for something fun or inspiring, you may just have to look at Elle Decor. Dedicated web people raises the cost of running their business, and since their only revenue stream is upholstery, it will raise their price!
The size of their workshop: Some reupholstery specialists work from their homes or garages. Others work above their garages. Still others work in warehouses, or out of storage units. Don’t worry about that, it’s just a cost saving measure.
What the outside of the workshop looks like: You may drive over to the wrong side of the tracks. The outside may be ugly neon, or have a temporary sign from 1978. Again, forgive them, they are more focused on what comes out of the shop than what it looks like.
If everyone has heard of them: How many upholstery jobs do you need done per year? .15? Don’t worry if it takes a little legwork to discover them, you just don’t want to hear alot of bad things about their upholstery service if you ask. Bad things include poor craftsmanship, inferior quality materials, bait and switch, or missed deadlines.
Tell us about your experience in the comments below, and Good Luck!!