The Ultimate Guide to Choosing Your Next Reclining Sofa: Determining Craftsmanship, Durability, & Quality

by | Oct 27, 2020 | Furniture Guides, Sofas & Couches | 0 comments

Buying reclining furniture can’t be that complicated, right? You just need a chair or sofa that leans back. But when you have the discerning eye of a furniture insider, you know there’s more going on that just kicking back.

As it turns out, you don’t need to be a furniture insider to get the perfect reclining couch. You just need some advice from one.

In this guide, we’ll tackle

  • Determining your furniture budget
  • The difference between low, mid, and high-price reclining sofas
  • Which materials are best for reclining furniture

Reclining furniture can be tricky. Sometimes it’s difficult to know right off the bat if a certain piece is quality. But when you take into account materials, manufacturing, and price, you can make an informed decision.

Budget-Priced Reclining Sofas, Sectionals and Chairs

Budget and mid-priced reclining sofas have a high rate of problems – probably the highest rate of any furniture category. (Reclining chairs have fewer problems and are less costly to repair.)

All large reclining sofas manufacturers have high rates of complaints and negative reviews compared with similarly priced stationary sofas, even those made by the same manufacturer.

Reclining sofas and sectionals combine frames that are inherently weaker than non-reclining sofas with heavy mechanisms that put tremendous stress on those frames. They also include multiple accessory and power options that are prone to mechanical (or electrical) failure over time.

Power reclining furniture is more likely to have problems than those with manual mechanisms.

The friction created by movement of the seats wears down fabric far more quickly than on non-reclining furniture. Real leather is very popular in higher priced reclining furniture. It holds up well under strenuous conditions. However, most faux leathers, with the very noticeable exception of bonded leather, are durable and easy to clean. They should last 10+ years for most people.

What If My Leather Is Peeling?

Over the past decade there have been thousands of consumer complaints about “peeling” bonded leather.

Peeling bonded leather cannot be repaired and destroys the look and usefulness of the furniture piece, often within one to three years of purchase and very commonly within 5 – 7 years. Real leather and 100% polyurethane or vinyl faux leather fabrics do not peel!

Any “leather” that peels or flakes off is bonded leather. And warranties do not cover repairs or replacement for bonded leather defects, regardless of what they may appear to say in bold print at the top of the warranty document.

Recently, some new composite faux leathers have appeared on lower priced reclining furniture. These composite fabrics are made with various combinations of polyurethane, vinyl and polyester. Sometimes a small amount of cotton is added.

The composite faux leathers have not been around long enough to establish how durable they are. Yet several manufacturers seem to be using these new combination faux leathers as a replacement for bonded leather.

Hopefully, this trend will continue until bonded leathers are gone completely.

Even if these composite faux leathers turn out to have problems over time, it is highly doubtful that the problems would be as bad as bonded leathers. It is also doubtful that the new fabrics will be as popular. Furniture salespeople often sold “bonded leather” by describing it as “similar to leather” or “partially real leather.” It will be harder to sell a 100% synthetic fabric the same way.

All reclining furniture is not alike. Describing the characteristics to look for in a high quality reclining sofa or sectional is largely irrelevant if your budget is only $1000 or even $2000.

The following sections of this article will detail various characteristics of reclining sofas and sectionals to look for (and to avoid) at different price levels.

Budget Priced Reclining Sofas ($499 – $$999)

  • $499 is the starting price point for 2 seat reclining sofas (loveseat)
  • $599 is the starting price point for 3 seat reclining sofas
  • Most (but not all) recliners in this price range have manual mechanisms

An Important Perspective on Reclining Sofa Costs

When a retailer such as Wayfair sells a reclining sofa for $599, they are buying that furniture for approximately $300. This includes the cost of transporting that heavy, bulky piece from Asia to the U.S. and the manufacturer’s profit.

This leaves a manufacturing budget of only $200 to actually build the reclining sofa.

That $200 cost includes:

  • Labor
  • Frame
  • Mechanism
  • Fabric
  • Foam and fiber
  • Packaging

To get anywhere close to that $200 cost, manufacturers are forced to use only the very cheapest materials (and labor.) Even the $400 cost needed to make $999 reclining sofas is difficult to attain, without severe compromises on materials, quality and styling.

Most reclining sofas selling for $499 – $999 prices are Asian imports. These are shipped by the container-load.

A few American brands begin at or slightly under the $999 price range.

Until recently, most low cost reclining sofas and sectionals were shipped from huge Chinese factories, mass-producing thousands of pieces.

A single factory is used to produce nearly identical pieces under multiple different brand names.

These factories can be huge – in some cases over 1 million square feet of production space.

Although many Americans still think of Chinese and Asian furniture as being made by cheap manual labor, the reality is that most of these large factories are highly automated. They use advanced technology not found in most U.S. furniture factories.

Heavy tariffs on Chinese-made products have dramatically shifted production to other Asian sources, including Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and India. Mexico has also benefited from the decline of Chinese furniture manufacturing.

Reclining furniture in this budget price range is designed to give the biggest and bulkiest look for the lowest possible cost. The result is an incredibly flimsy product, designed to look good in the showroom (or the online photo.)

Comfort is a minor concern in the design of cheap reclining furniture. If the furniture looks and feels OK when brand new, it will sell. Consumers don’t realize that many of these products will look and feel worn out within a few short years.

Considerations For Low-Cost Reclining Furniture

Many furniture shoppers comment that all reclining furniture looks alike. There is a reason for that.

Designs and styles are severely restricted by the need to minimize costs. These restrictions limit the manufacturer’s options when deciding what the furniture will look like.

Any design that requires highly skilled frame construction, sewing or upholstering has to be discarded.  The furniture must be constructed rapidly by workers with minimal skills.

Cheap reclining mechanisms are also fragile. Many will develop problems within 5 – 10 years (or less.)

The cheapest possible frames are used.

Plywood (or more likely chip-core) frames are typically thinner (and weaker) than frames found in similarly priced stationary sofas. A U.S manufacturer’s cost for these frames may be only $20 – $40. The cost in Asia is even less.

Although the mechanisms are cheap, they are still heavy, putting a strain on the flimsy frames. Heavy mechanisms and weak frames are subject to damage during shipment, delivery or just being moved around inside your home.

Fabrics are also extremely cheap. In this price range, manufacturers pay only $2 – $4 per yard for fabrics. Fortunately, there are many highly durable polyester fabrics, including microfibers, available at these prices.

Fabrics are cut by high speed automated machinery. Many layers of identical patterns can be cut simultaneously.

Fabric patterns are designed for efficient sewing and upholstering. Fabric covers for high quantity, low cost mass produced upholstered furniture have to be quickly pre-sewn so that they can be “socked on” over the frame and padding by minimally skilled workers.

These workers may be paid by the number of pieces they can produce each day. Any design that requires careful and skilled sewing or upholstering is rejected at this price level. The ubiquitous casual “saddle bag” puffy look is very efficient to mass produce, using cheap materials and minimal labor.

Non-removable cushions lower fabric costs, foam costs and require less labor to upholster than removable cushions. Fabric requirements are reduced by at least 20% compared to similarly priced sofas with removable cushions.

Foam costs can be reduced even more.

The “puffy” look of the furniture can be produced using very low cost polyester fiber. Polyester fiber is much cheaper than foam and can be blown into pre-made covers. This reduces both material cost and production time. Polyester fiber is far less durable than foam. It is easily compressed and has very little resiliency.

Most low-cost reclining furniture is made with non-removable cushions. Non-removable cushions reduce foam costs by at least 20%. Non-removable seat cushions are made using a combination of foam and polyester fiber. Cheap upholstered furniture uses as little foam and as much fiber as possible.

Both materials can give the furniture a big “well padded” look in the showroom.

Costs can be reduced far more by substituting polyester fiber. The fiber has no resiliency. It quickly compresses within a very short time period.  This can affect both the sofa’s looks and comfort.

As an example of the cost difference between foam and fiber: Standard 1.8 density foam for a single sofa cushion may cost $20. The cost of polyester fiber to fill that same sofa cushion would be closer to $2.

Padded armrests and back flaps are a common feature for cheap reclining sofas.

These parts are bulked up with cheap fiber, resulting in a bulky look at very little cost.

This is the primary reason there are so many reclining sofas with padded armrests and backs.

Reclining sofas in the budget price range rarely list foam specifications.

Generic imported brands may use substandard foams that lose their resiliency (and comfort) within one year.

Flattened or uncomfortable cushions are not covered under any warranty.

Labor costs are minimized through styling restrictions.

Low cost reclining furniture is designed so that it can be made very quickly using low-skilled workers. Non-removable cushion styles eliminate the time needed to stuff individual cushions.

Fabric covers must have simple patterns that are easy and fast to sew.

The pre-sewn covers are designed so that they can be “slipped-on” to the frame. They are quickly stapled into place with minimal adjustment required from the upholsterer.

Unskilled workers are quickly trained to upholster just a small part of the furniture (inside arms, outside arms, backs, inner backs, base, etc.).

Packaging and transportation costs are minimized. Transportation costs are critical. The more pieces that can be shipped in a single container, the lower the shipping cost.

Reclining sofas have removable backs so that the box can be flatter. More will fit into a container. Non-removable cushions also reduce the size needed for the boxes.

Mid-Price Reclining Sofas ($1000 – $1999)

Once you reach the $1000 price point, there is a much better selection of reclining sofas.

Although there are a few lower priced items in each of these categories, this is the starting price point for: Power reclining sofas. (including triple power), American made reclining sofas, Genuine Leather, Leather-match (at the lower end of the price range.), Top grain “corrected” leather (at the higher end of the price range.), Solid wood reclining sofa frames, Hybrid reclining sofas (designed to look like non-reclining sofas.)

Most reclining sofas in the $1000 – $1999 price range will still have non-removable seat cushions.

Removable (reversible) cushions are now available on a limited number of models.

Frames are getting stronger. Most are plywood. Some are solid wood. The frames are still weaker than comparably priced non-reclining frames. Reclining sofas are highly susceptible to damage if boxes are dropped during shipment or any time the furniture is moved. More fabrics are available.

All of the $2 – $4 per yard fabrics are still available in this price range, including bonded leathers. Higher priced fabrics are also available, including a wide range of lower cost high performance fabrics in the $4 – $6 per yard cost range.

Leather match becomes popular around the $1000 price level.

Leather match uses corrected top grain leathers on the parts of the sofa you touch (seats, backs, inside arms) and a matching vinyl on the other parts (outside arms and backs, base). Leather match saves a few hundred dollars when compared with low cost genuine leathers on the entire piece.

Leather match is not as bad as bonded leather but does have some negative issues.

The leather and vinyl age at different rates, which can cause seam slippage and variations in color over time. All-leather reclining sofas begin around $1000 but are not recommended until you get above $1500.

Even with the cheapest “corrected grain” genuine leathers, the leather adds several hundred dollars to the cost of the reclining sofa. This means that a $999 sofa with all-genuine-leather has an internal construction equivalent to the cheapest $599 reclining sofa made with a fabric.

Having a leather that will last 10 or more years doesn’t do any good if the rest of the piece falls apart long before that point.

Designs are still based on simple and efficient manufacturing, but beginning to evolve into products with more function and style.

Many of the styles and designs in this mid-range price category are similar to the bulky, casual looks found in lower priced reclining furniture. The difference is that now these efficient-to-make styles are being produced by higher priced manufacturers, including American-made brands. Non-removable cushions are still found on most models, but removable cushions can be found.

Power and media options are introduced, especially in imported brands. (American brands will feature these options in the next price category). New hybrid styles feature looks similar to stationary furniture. In most cases this includes removable cushions.

Although some hybrid styles can be found in this price range, a larger selection is available at higher prices.

Sofa Durability

The sad truth is that a $1999 reclining sofa may not last much longer than one costing $999 or even $599.

The lifespan of your reclining sofa is controlled by the first part that breaks down and cannot be repaired or replaced.

Non-removable seats are by far the most likely part to wear out (unless you have bonded leather). The padding used in non-removable seat cushions lasts about 3 years for most people before losing its resilience and becoming less and less comfortable.

If your sofa is very cheap, or if it is used by larger people, it may reach this point long before the three year mark.

Repairing or replacing non-removable cushions is not cost-effective.

Cushions that lose resiliency (flatten out) are not covered under any warranty. (If you think your warranty covers this, keep reading until you get to the exclusions section.)

Peeling bonded leather can destroy your furniture within just a few years. It is not unusual for this to occur within one year. There is no way to fix bonded leather other than to fully reupholster the entire sofa.

This is not considered to be a manufacturer’s defect. Manufacturers’ warranties specifically exclude all responsibility for bonded leather and other fabric problems.

Warranties (including extended warranties) never cover fabric problems, (although they may try to make you think they do).

15 years ago reclining sofas (and other upholstered furniture) lasted longer than similar items being made now.

This reduced lifespan can be traced directly to the consolidation of furniture retailers. Thousands of small and mid-size furniture stores have closed down or been purchased by a handful of huge mega-retailers over the past few decades. Nearly half of all U.S. furniture sales are now made through the 25 largest retail chains.

There is cutthroat competition among the large reclining furniture manufacturers to get their products into this limited number of prime customers.

Price is the most important factor for the corporate buyers of these mega-retailers. The buyers basically set the prices they are willing to pay.

To reach the prices demanded, large reclining furniture manufacturers have had to cut costs (and quality) in every way possible that is not directly visible to the customer.

Furniture Styles

Popularly priced reclining furniture found in large retail stores and on major online websites is largely restricted to a limited number of generic styles.

This is primarily due to the fact that most styles and designs being shown are dictated largely by economic considerations. Most of the mass-produced reclining furniture is currently designed to be built quickly and cheaply.

Building frames, cutting fabrics and sewing used to be jobs for highly paid skilled craftspeople.

Now these tasks are performed by highly automated computerized equipment. Sewing still requires technical skill, but high-speed machines and simpler patterns have cut back on the time and skill required.

Unskilled beginning upholsterers can be quickly trained to work on only a small part of the final furniture piece (such as an outside arm or an inside back.) Styles that required skilled upholstering by highly paid craftspeople have been largely eliminated in the interest of more efficient mass production.

Another reason for the widespread generic styling trend is that a relatively small number of huge overseas factories turn out similar low-cost products under multiple brand names.

The decline in expected lifespan of the furniture is an added benefit for the mega-retailers.

Furniture that wears out in 5 years or less generates higher overall sales than similar products that last for 10 or more years. It is not as much of a benefit for the manufacturers who are working on very thin profit margins for each product that they sell.

Upper-Price Range Reclining Sofas ($2000+)

Once you go over the $2000 price point, there are three broad categories of reclining sofas:

Mass produced reclining sofas loaded with power options and accessories. For example:

Triple power. Three different motors controlling leg back and legs, headrest and lumbar support. Heat and massage functions. Entertainment features including hookups for electronics equipment

Mass produced reclining sofas with high quality genuine leather. Exercise caution. It is not unusual to find expensive leather reclining sofas with cheap interior constructions.

Better quality construction and materials. Hand crafted by highly skilled craftspeople. Improved frame construction. Solid wood frames (or high quality plywood). Some have 8-way hand tied foundations, which is great for comfort but does not improve the sofa’s durability. Most of the better quality manufacturers are leather specialists. All of them also offer lower cost fabric options.

In addition to all of the lower cost fabrics offered by cheaper reclining sofas, there is now a large assortment of higher priced fabrics. Better quality high performance fabrics (Crypton, Sunbrella, Bella-Dura, and others) are particularly popular.

Hybrid styles (designed to look like non-reclining sofas.) One major advantage of the hybrid style recliners is that they come with removable (reversible) seat cushions.

The advantage of removable seat cushions is that they can be replaced at a reasonable cost once they wear out.

Combining improved construction and quality craftsmanship with high quality leather results in better quality reclining sofas starting at $3000.

High quality leather reclining sofa prices can easily exceed $4000.

Reclining furniture is currently one of the fastest growing segments of the furniture industry. The growth rate for 2019 was nearly 50% higher than for stationary upholstered furniture.

Until the Pandemic, that growth was expected to continue or grow even more rapidly.

Innovation

Over the past few years reclining furniture has been the furniture industry’s most innovative product category. New technologies and accessories are constantly being introduced.

Power motion is rapidly gaining in popularity over manual mechanisms.

Just a few of the recent innovations include:

  • New mechanisms that allow reclining sofas and chairs to resemble stationary furniture, but with full reclining functionality.
  • Power accessories, including “triple power,” multiple separate motors that control headrests, footrests and lumbar supports independently, are rapidly growing in popularity.
  • Electronic innovations include wireless controllers and chargers, audio accessories and massage/heat functions.

Another positive trend in reclining furniture is the reduced use of bonded leathers.

  • New low cost faux leather fabrics combining  polyurethane, vinyl and polyesters are being used by many manufacturers to replace bonded leathers.
  • Although the long term durability of these new composite faux leathers is not yet proven, they can’t be any worse than the catastrophic bonded leathers that have resulted in thousands of serious complaints over the past decade.

Final Thoughts on Reclining Sofas

To summarize, choosing and buying a reclining sofa can be more complicated than it seems. But when you know what you’re looking for, you can always end up with the right sofa for you.

To avoid falling for flashy sales or slick advertising, go into buying your sofa with a plan.

It’s important to know:

  • The differences in the sofa price tiers
  • What to take into account in the lower price ranges
  • The relationship between sofa quality and price

If you go into the buying process knowing what you want, then you can leave with exactly what you need. Take it from an expert.

Know someone who might benefit from this post? Please like and share it with them. If you have questions or comments about reclining sofas or furniture in general, feel free to leave them below. Or, if you’d like personal help navigating the furniture market, check out our furniture consulting services.

Jeff Frank

Jeff Frank

Furniture Consultant

Jeff Frank is a 45 year  furniture industry veteran. He created this blog to provide detailed facts, inside information & advice for furniture shoppers. 

 

 

 

 Shopping for furniture can be complex and frustrating. Salespeople have limited knowledge & experience about the products they sell. If you’re looking for real answers before spending hundreds or thousands of dollars, check out our furniture buyer consulting.

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