Cushion construction is the single most important factor in determining the comfort and lifespan of your couch, sofa, sectional or chair.

  • Foam
  • Coil springs
  • Down/feathers

A furniture industry survey recently indicated that most consumers expect their new couches to last only 3–5 years. That estimate is probably pretty accurate. The reason for this short lifespan, however, is very surprising to most consumers.

Uneducated consumers concerned about the durability of their furniture often ask first about frame/foundation construction and fabrics. In reality many “cheap” frames and inexpensive fabrics will last far longer than 5 years. According to Jeff Frank, a 40 year veteran in the furniture industry and President of Simplicity Sofas states that cushions are almost always the first part of a sofa or couch that will wear out and need replacement. Unfortunately, most manufacturers and retailers make it very difficult to replace worn out or damaged cushions.

Cushion replacement generally requires working with a professional custom upholsterer and can be expensive. Most cushions sold with low and mid-priced upholstered furniture will begin to lose their shape and comfort within 1 – 3 years and will need replacement within 3-5 years. There are three basic types of cushion construction for most couches and sofas sold in the U.S.

Many cushions are made using a combination of two or all three of these various constructions. Foam is the most commonly sold cushion construction. It is available in several different densities. Each foam density is available in a wide variety of different firmnesses. Although most people think that density and firmness are synonymous they are actually very different. According to Frank, most foam suppliers typically stock 4-5 commonly used densities for residential furniture seat cushions ranging from 1.5 to 2.5. The number designates the weight (in pounds) of 1 cubic ft. of foam. Each of these different densities may be available in 10 or more different firmnesses ranging from very soft to very firm. The expected lifespan of a foam cushion is primarily dependent on the density and thickness of the foam. Another important factor is whether the foam is HR (High Resiliency) which recovers its shape better after use. The frequency of use and the size of the people using the cushion will also affect a seat cushion’s lifespan.

A foam cushion’s “firmness” has very little effect on the expected lifespan. However since most consumers equate “firmness” with durability, cheap foams are often made “extra firm.” With a low density foam, however, that “extra firm” feeling will not last long. Foams used in seat cushions for moderately priced residential furniture generally range from 1.5 through 2.0. Lower density foams are typically used for back cushions or padding that goes over the arms or other parts of the frame. Higher densities (2.0 – 2.5) can be found on more expensive residential furniture. Furniture designed for heavy commercial or institutional use may use foam with densities of 3.0 or higher. The higher the foam density the more the cushion will cost. Variations in firmness usually do not affect cost. HR (High Resilience) foam is more expensive than non-HR foams.

The most commonly used foam density for residential furniture sold in the U.S. is 1.8. Foam that is described as “High Density” without any specific number is usually 1.8 density foam. The foam core is usually anywhere from 4″ – 6″ thick and is typically wrapped in a dacron polyester fiber. The fiber wrapping is generally 0.5 – 1.5″ thick on the top and bottom of the cushion. It softens the feel of the cushion and will add 2-3″ to the total cushion thickness, but has no effect on lifespan. A 4″ thick foam core made with 1.8 density HR (High Resiliency) foam can be expected to last about 2 years with average use before the foam begins to lose its ability to bounce back and keep its shape . A 5″ thick foam core made with 1.8 density HR (High Resiliency) foam can be expected to last about 3 years with average use before the foam begins to lose its ability to bounce back and keep its shape. Foam cushions will typically still be usable for another couple of years after the deterioration process begins. Foams that are not High Resiliency will deteriorate more rapidly.

Actual foam densities will vary during the manufacturing process. A variation of 0.1 is considered normal. A 1.8 density foam may actually be 1.7 or 1.9. Larger variations are not unusual. There are many couches sold with cheaper (and lighter weight) 1.5 density foam that will deteriorate even more rapidly, sometimes within one year of purchase. The overall thickness of the cushion may or may not be an indication of a cushion’s durability. “Value priced” couches will sometimes have cushions that are bulked up with several inches of polyester fiber around the foam core. That polyester fiber will rapidly compress causing the cushion to lose its shape. Better quality sofas typically use 1″ – 1.5″ of fiber on each side of the cushion.

Lower quality couches may use up to 3″ of fiber on each side. Thick layers of fiber are a cheap way to bulk up a cushion over the short term. Thick fiber quickly compresses and causes the cushion to lose its shape – often within one year.

If you want to get more than 5 years of use from your couch you will need to find a couch with a better quality cushion. Higher priced couches generally use thick higher density foams with at least a 2.0 density. but preferably higher. Cushions supported by built-in coil springs are typically (but not always) more durable than lower density foam cushions. These coil springs are surrounded by a foam border (which is typically 1.5 or 1.8 density) and then padded on the top and bottom with additional soft padding. Down/feathers are often used as the padding in combination with coil springs. A down/feather “jacket” is used as a layer of padding on the top and bottom to soften the feel of the cushion.

Other common types of padding used in combination with coil spring cushions are memory foam and polyester fiber. Down blend cushions use Down/feathers in combination with a foam core cushion. Down blend cushions have a shorter lifespan when compared with a solid slab of similar density foam. When down/feathers are used with either coil springs or foam cores the mixture is typically 5% (or less) down and the remainder feathers. Down is far more expensive than feathers. More expensive furniture may use higher percentages of down. Down is much softer and plush than feathers. 100% Down/feather cushions were extremely popular in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. They are far less common today, both because of the high cost and the need to fluff up the cushions every time you stand up. Down/feathers have no “resilience” and do not “bounce back” by themselves after use like foam or coil springs.

Regardless of the price that you paid for your cushions they are rarely covered under Warranty. Warranties (including extended warranties) are usually written so that anything that happens to the cushions is considered either *“normal wear”* or *“abuse.”* Either of these conditions will typically invalidate your warranty — even if the cushions are less than one year old.

Tip for the uneducated furniture purchaser – When shopping for a couch always test the cushions by picking them up. As a general rule if the seat cushions feel “light” you are looking at a couch with a very short expected lifespan. The longest lasting cushions will be the heaviest.