“Why is upholstery so expensive???”

I’ve been doing upholstery professionally since 2001, and I’ve frequently been on the sales side of things. I’ve answered this question. A lot. If you’ve been doing upholstery for more than five minutes, I bet you’ve answered it too. If you’ve received a bid recently for custom upholstery services, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ve ASKED this question (at least in your head!)

So I’m here to answer it. Again. And I don’t mind, not a bit.  I want this conversation to happen, as many times as opportunity allows. Hopefully this is helpful to all of us. As always, comments and questions are welcome and encouraged.

So let’s go  🙂

FIRST THINGS FIRST: IS IT ACTUALLY EXPENSIVE????

Let’s start here. To many consumers, the cost of reupholstering a chair or sofa seems expensive. But is it??? Compared to what? Where do we come up with our expectations? The short answer in most cases is new furniture. If a new chair costs X then reupholstering should cost LESS THAN X. And here’s the thing: it MIGHT! But new chair X may cost $300 or $3000. The range of new furniture pricing is astonishingly wide, and there are usually solid reasons why. If you compare the cost to reupholster with the price of good quality new furniture, you will likely be pleasantly surprised. If that’s you, you don’t need this article. Have a great day and thank you for supporting your local upholstery industry.

Unfortunately, what’s paraded in front of consumers is usually not good quality. And when you compare custom upholstery prices to many advertised prices, yup, we look expensive. But maybe it isn’t the local upholsterer who needs to do the explaining. Let’s examine a couple of other questions:

WHAT SHOULD NEW FURNITURE REALLY COST?

At the risk of sounding like a crochety old front porch philosopher, there was a time when new furniture was considered a serious investment. I have clients who’ve told me, “This was the original set we purchased when we got married 50 years ago.” Over time, consumers have moved toward a much shorter term expectation for their upholstered purchases. Because we move more? Our homes are bigger? We’re under pressure to have dream homes right out of college? I don’t know. That’s a whole different discussion. But the furniture market is flooded with “disposable” furniture and it can be tough to sort out the quality from the crap. Maybe a good place to start is by looking at the cost of new furniture from a more sustainable era. Here’s a furniture ad from 1950:

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In 1950, the median new home value was $8,450. Assuming standard appreciation on materials and labor, this selection of chairs in today’s market should cost something like $600-$1,200 – probably more, given that lumber was exceptionally plentiful and inexpensive in 1950 (My very unremarkable 1952 home has standard 2x4s and beautiful hardwood floors – something you’d be unlikely to see in new midrange home construction now.) Alas, many consumers would consider that far too much to spend on a new chair in today’s market. And the flood of lower priced furniture happily attempts to validate that assertion.

But if the “cost of appreciation” theory holds water, let’s consider a new question:

WHY IS NEW FURNITURE SO CHEAP???!!!

You don’t need to be a furniture expert to figure out that many new furniture prices are suspiciously low. It’s not uncommon to open the Sunday ads and find a sofa for $500. WHAT THE???!!!! I can’t even back the math up. Overhead (store, print ads, insurance, employees, shipping), fabric, foam, wood, labor . . . . It blows my mind.  Whatever is going on inside that sofa is not a good thing. There’s obviously some serious compromise happening with regards to quality materials and experienced labor.

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Furniture that cheap should have you running and screaming from the room. This is my blog, so my personal biases are going to leak out on occasion, this being one of them. If you tell me you’re on a tight budget, (fist in the air) I RESPECT THAT! But as the saying goes, “Only rich people can afford cheap furniture” because it has to be replaced constantly. If your sofa budget will only stretch to $500, your money would be much better spent second hand. Maybe someone has a nice sofa that they’re replacing before they relocate or downsize. Maybe the local thrift store has something decent and cheap that would be fun and serviceable with new foam in the seat cushions. Some cities have great furniture consignment happening, because *ahem* consumers are catching on.

Okay, back to the topic at hand.

There are so many factors to this conversation that I hardly know where to begin.  For today, I’ll focus on one factor that I consider the most non-negotiable, the most influential, the most misunderstood. Across all price points, there’s one huge advantage that new furniture has over custom upholstery when it comes to cost:

THE MIRACLE OF MANUFACTURING

For about 6 months, I worked as a lead upholsterer/supervisor in a new furniture operation. As it turns out, 6 months was plenty enough for me, thank you very much. But it was astonishingly educational. Furniture manufacturers have been wildly successful at streamlining production. I could go into all the details, but that would be awfully dry, so I’m going to use a palatable and hopefully relatable analogy:

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CUPCAKES

Everyone loves cupcakes. Let’s say you plan to open a cupcake business. You decide to make 2 kinds of cupcakes, and you’re going to make 10,000 of each. Great!!!! You can invest in a giant production style kitchen. You can invest in key pieces of equipment to do specific tasks very quickly. You can buy all your ingredients in bulk, reduce transit time, and make multiple batches at once. You might wreck a few cupcakes in the process, but once you get the hang of things, you can delegate simple tasks to less experienced employees and divide your prototyping losses among thousands of finished confections. You can get your per cupcake labor/materials down to just about nothing.

HOLD ON!!!!!

Now let’s say that someone wants just a dozen of another kind of cupcake. Or better yet, a MIXED dozen. Two carrot, two chocolate, two white, maybe a single of this and a single of that. OH! And they all have to be perfect. No screw-ups, every cupcake must be a perfectly presentable, scrutiny worthy finished work of sugary goodness.

NOW how’s your business model?

Forget about buying ingredients in bulk. And you won’t be delegating many tasks – each cupcake requires professional attention to detail! An experienced, practiced hand! So much for multiple batches at once – you’ll need to do as much prep and clean-up for one cupcake as you would for a dozen, or two dozen.

See where I’m going with this?

In a given year, an upholstery shop might do everything from a throw pillow to a sectional, a waiting room, a recliner, a window seat, a cornice. They’ll work with velvet, linen, mohair, leather, vinyl, canvas, tapestry. The variety is astounding. And every project is important.

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Detail on a new chair cushion.

There are no slop copies. Every client is essentially asking for a perfect prototype.

By shop standards, my services are very narrow – I don’t do automotive or marine. I refer traditional (stitched hair) to a lovely upholsterer who is far more qualified. I don’t do slipcovers or bedding or custom-built frames. And YET my year so far has included tufted settees, waterfall skirts, cushion replacements, antique rockers, mid-century sofas, hospital waiting areas, wing chairs, counter stools, decorative pillows, ottomans, morris chairs, spring tying, repatterning, pattern matching, vinyl, crypton, sunbrella, velvet, chenille, cotton and ON AND ON AND ON.

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And every client wants a great final product. And they want all their questions answered. And they want JUST the right fabric, and all the right details.

They want me to take great care of their project, big or small. And that’s awesome. I want that, too. It’s why custom upholstery exists.

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Two heirloom chairs, waiting to be reupholstered.

But in order to do that, I’ve had to hone my skills for years. I have to custom order fabric and high-quality supplies in relatively small quantities. I have to factor in time to sit with each potential client – even the ones who don’t place orders in the end. Whether a client has a single cushion or an entire living room, I often have the same investment of time to find the fabric, place the order, set up my workspace, clean up the mess. I have a professional shop, but many things are still done by hand, since there isn’t enough repetition to justify specialized equipment.  There are no practice copies, so it’s difficult to delegate. And if I DO delegate, I have to hire qualified people whom I trust to deliver professional standards in a variety of applications.

I make a lot of custom cupcakes.

That’s really the only way custom upholstery works. I could cut every conceivable corner and put myself out of business and still not compete with the price of a manufacturing model. And what would be the point of that?

I can’t be a manufacturer. So I don’t try.

I try to be an upholsterer. I try to deliver the things that a furniture store can’t.  I try to give every client quality and customization and service and communication.I give families back their heirlooms, restored and reimagined.  I treat each project – big or small – like it’s the most important project in my shop. 

And in order to deliver that, I set my prices accordingly.

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Two restored/reupholstered chairs, ready to head home.

TO CONSUMERS WHO MAY BE READING THIS:

Upholstery is an art, an investment. Sadly, some pieces are just not meant to be reupholstered. But so many older pieces are. If you have a chair or sofa that you really love, one that has sentimental value or one that has withstood the test of time, I hope you choose to reupholster. There are not many sofas built today that are going to be around in 30 or 40 or 50 years. If you have something sturdy, or something you truly love, it’s worth every penny to reupholster, and I hope you can find a professional who’s excited to prove it.

TO UPHOLSTERERS WHO MAY BE READING THIS:

Thank you for doing what you do. Thank you in advance for answering this question again . . . and again. . . and again. Thank you for demonstrating patience with every consumer who doesn’t understand why upholstery is, “so expensive” even on the days when you’re busy and tired, even when you know the order is a lost cause. Because we’re all in this together, and if we don’t passionately defend our industry, who will? If we don’t graciously and patiently and confidently educate the market, who will? There is only us, you and me, one conversation at a time.

So thank you. Take a deep breath. Count to 10. With love in your heart, explain it again . . .  just one more time.

Then have a glass of wine. For medicinal purposes.

Cynthia 🙂

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