Springs and webbing

Create a firm foundation.

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If a frame is the skeleton of a chair or sofa, webbings and springs are the muscles. They give furniture its tautness, its memory, its underlying shape. If they’re not right, nothing built on top of them will be, either.

The arrangement of webbing and springs inside a piece of furniture is an art rather than a science. In most cases, you’re rebuilding the furniture the way it was before, especially if it’s an antique. But your personal preferences and beliefs also come into play, as do the desires and finances of the customer.

Starting in the 1800s, most high-quality furniture was built by stretching webbing across a frame, then constructing a layer of coil springs atop the webbing. That’s still the gold standard. But today, manufacturers are just as likely to use zig-zag springs or to forego springs altogether in favor of a layer of rubberized webbing.

“Our rule is to do it back the way it was, unless you have discussed it with the customer,” says Tim Geuvens, owner of Hurshel’s Upholstery in Peoria Heights, Ill. “You don’t pretend to be smarter than the furniture designer. They’ve done it a particular way for a reason, and you’d better have a really good reason if you want to change it.”

History can be a good guide for material choices. “Jute webbing is very traditional, and if you’re doing an older, finer chair, I would think that you are going to use jute,” says Robert Kinnear, operations manager at Tedco Industries, Halethorpe, Md. “Maybe on the more modern furniture you wouldn’t mind using a man-made webbing.”

The “do it how it was” motto even holds true for what Geuvens calls “disposable furniture”—low-priced, modern chairs and sofas with flimsy frames. But watch out: You’re going to have to be careful replacing the webbing on these pieces.

“Normally you would attach the webbing on the end of the wood,” Geuvens says. “But with the series of plies in plywood, staples or the tacks just aren’t going to hold there. So what you would have to do is bring the webbing around and staple or tack into the side of the plywood rather than the end of the plywood. Do it like it was, but in a way that’s going to hold.”

The exception is when you can’t—or don’t believe you should—reproduce what you find.

“Nowadays manufacturers are trying to produce things cheaply,” says Michael Lanowski of Upholstery Shop Oregon Inc., Portland, Ore. “They use elasticized webbing instead of webbing with springs, or they might use all kinds of springy metals. They have a variety of stuff that’s custom-made for them, that I might not even be able to find. I have to replace it with something else.”

With that in mind, here’s an overview of webbing and springs. Use it, and your best judgment, to choose your supplies and methods.

Common spring types

Coil springs are cylindrical, hourglass-shaped metal springs that are generally sewn or clipped to a webbing base. Then the springs are tied to each other in eight different directions in a process called an eight-way hand-tie, in order to give them tension, order, and neatness.

Most upholsterers believe that this is the best way to create a stable, durable seat, because the coils distribute a person’s weight evenly.

“Generally, you’ll find it in antique furniture,” says Reg Gervais, vice president of George N. Jackson Ltd., Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. “There are also some customers, and certainly some upholsterers, that want to have the eight-way hand-tied coiled springs. I think it does provide a nicer cushion.”

Gervais says a thicker wire coil, such as an eight- or nine-gauge wire, provides optimal firmness. Placing coils close together adds consistency and support. However, Lanowski notes that most people want nine- or ten-gauge, depending on the firmness they prefer. There’s not a lot of difference between the gauges, he admits. Nine-gauge coils are arranged on jute webbing before being attached. Photo: Upholstery Shop Oregon Inc.Nine-gauge coils are arranged on jute webbing before being attached. Photo: Upholstery Shop Oregon Inc.Zig-zag thread pattern shows how coils are stitched to webbing. Photo: Upholstery Shop Oregon Inc.

The other most commonly used type of springs are zig-zag springs, also known as “no sag” or “sagless” springs. These S-shaped linear springs are available in pre-cut rolls, generally from eight-gauge to 11-gauge, and are attached to the frame with clips. They’re a common modern alternative to coils.

“You’d be hard-put to find a new piece with coils in it today,” says upholster Claudette Sandecki, former owner of Pioneer Upholstery in Thornhill, B.C., Canada. “It takes longer. They don’t want to do anything that takes any time anymore. Mostly it’s just flat springs.”

But not every modern piece can accommodate zig-zag springs. In the cheapest, flimsiest frames, you may be constrained to using only webbing because the frame would buckle under the spring tension.

“Some of it has to do with the frame,” Gervais says. “If you have a really, really high quality frame, you’re able to use stronger springs. The springs put a lot of stress on a frame.”Once coils are covered, the front (edgeroll) is hand-formed and sewn with burlap and horsehair. Shown are Patrick Henry of Booth Masters Commercial Upholstery, Portland, Ore., and Kathy Peterson, one of UpholsteryShop’s first trainee/volunteers. Photo: Upholstery Shop Oregon Inc.

Common webbing types

There are two kinds of webbing commonly used to support coil springs: jute and nylon. Polyester can be used, too, but is less popular because it’s newer to the market.

“Jute webbing has been in the industry for a long, long time,” says Kinnear. “We sell a lot of it. It’s still the most popular webbing sold in the upholstery industry.”

Geuvens calls jute “the standard” and likes to use heavyweight jute webbing in most applications. It does rot over time, though, he says, and definitely shouldn’t be used in outdoor environments, where it will deteriorate quickly.Use a straight-handled webbing stretcher to pull the jute webbing taut while nailing it into. Photo: Upholstery Shop Oregon Inc.Trim jute webbing to fit the seat. Photo: Upholstery Shop Oregon Inc.

Nylon is a little thinner than the equivalent jute webbing, but is otherwise equivalent. It was significantly cheaper than jute when it first entered the market, but Kinnear says that’s not the case anymore. It’s a better choice for outdoor applications and is very much at home in any modern-day furniture.

It is possible to build seats, arms, and backs out of only jute or nylon webbing, with no springs of any kind. The resulting chair will be much cheaper, lighter, and faster to build, but most upholsterers say it won’t last as long.Chervan’s model 6357 Martha Washington chair frame shows Elasbelt rubber and polypropylene webbing, which can be finished without springs. Photo: Frank Chervan Inc.Chervan’s model 6357 Martha Washington chair frame shows Elasbelt rubber and polypropylene webbing, which can be finished without springs. Photo: Frank Chervan Inc.

Rubber elasticized webbing is designed to be used without springs and is often associated with Danishor Scandinavian-style furniture. Some brands of this type of webbing consist of plain rubber; some are made by encapsulating strands of rubber in a synthetic fiber material to protect it from drying and cracking.

It comes in different rigidities, depending on whether you’re building a very firm seat, a bouncy seat, or a chair back. “In Europe, this kind of webbing is used more commonly than in North America,” Gervais says. “It eliminates all the hardware—the clips and things. It reduces the noise, certainly, because you don’t have the squeak of the springs. And it can provide a very solid foundation.”

How to choose webbing gauge

Webbing gauge is still expressed in colonial British measures: A nine-pound jute, for example, is webbing that weighs nine pounds per 144 yards. That’s the industry standard, more or less.Finish webbing attachment neatly by folding up the loose end of the webbing and nailing it again. Photo: Upholstery Shop Oregon Inc.

But when you’re building a seat, especially for today’s larger customers, most upholsterers say a minimum of 11-pound jute is advisable. Nine-pound is fine for backs and arms. Geuvens shrugs off this distinction. There’s only a difference of a couple of dollars per 60 yards, he says, so he doesn’t like to clutter up his shop with two different gauges.

“I always go with the heavier webbing and use it on everything,” he says. “One is enough.”

Nylon is not even designated by weights, Kinnear says, because it’s all the same. It’s made strong enough for a seat application. Some upholsterers feel they can get more coverage with heavier gauges of webbing, and therefore they don’t need to weave the webbing as closely. But regardless of gauge, Lanowski prefers to weave “solidly,” with no space between strips of webbing.

It’s not necessarily more correct than other methods, he says; he just thinks it works better and lasts longer that way.

How to install or replace webbing

Technology has brought many wonders to the modern world. And certainly in furniture factories, there are machines that turn out chair after chair, automatically stretching webbing across the frames. But for most upholsterers, the process is the same as it was in, say, 1925. It’s stretched across the frame by hand and then tacked, stapled, or clipped to the wood.

But there is help available. “Manufacturers make what they call a webbing stretcher,” Kinnear says. “There are two styles: There’s a flat type, and there’s a gooseneck one with a sort of handle on it. It’s got big spikes on the end that grab the webbing. You stretch it across the furniture and you tack it down.”

The choice between the flat and gooseneck stretchers depends on your personal preference and ergonomics. Depending on the way you pull, you may have an easier time with one or the other.

“We use a gooseneck webbing stretcher that we’ve always used,” Geuvens says. His main upholsterer claims that the webbing needs to be sufficiently taut that plucking a web-set. Each coil is tied to the coils next to it—back-to-back, side-to-side, and diagonally in two directions—until it is secured in eight directions.

How to install or replace springs

A set of coil springs rarely gives out altogether, but sometimes coils will come loose or break. To fix that problem, you re-sew or re-clip the loose springs, replace any that are broken, and then re-tie the whole he says; he just thinks it works better and lasts longer that way.

In most cases, the goal is to tie all the springs so they’re level and they make a symmetrical surface. Depending on how tightly you tie them down, they’ll have more or less firmness. However, sometimes springs are tied at differing heights in order to create a slight depression for the customer’s rear end.

Another common construction is the “spring edge,” in which the tops of the springs are positioned above the top rail of the frame, producing a flexible, comfortable, floating edge to the seat.

Zig-zag springs are attached with clips and nails. There’s a hook-type tool available to help you pull them into place, but the job is mostly brute strength. The main problem you’ll encounter with zig-zags is squeaking.

Weak frames may be one culprit. Sandecki says modern hardwood is so weak that manufacturers have to nail the springs deeper into the wood to prevent it from splintering. That means the bent ends of the springs are often resting directly on the frames.

“We have to strip the base off the sofa to get at the springs, and then we have to unhook every spring, wrap it with leather, and put it back in its clips,” says Russ Sparks of Pioneer. “A lot of the time, the little plastic thing that holds the spring when they put it in at the factory has worn out. Other times, the curl on the spring is touching the wood, so every time the spring pops up and down, it’s rubbing on the wood.” Upholstery Shop’s Lanowski wraps zig-zags with pieces of vinyl to correct this problem.

Health and safety

There’s a lot of tugging, pulling, and wrenching involved in every step of upholstery. Installing webbings and springs is one of many furniture-related activities that can leave you with a sore wrist or a wrenched elbow.

“Carpal tunnel is something that affects a lot of upholsterers,” Geuvens admits. “That’s just one of the casualties of being in this trade. The repetition of doing the same thing over and over is what creates that. Doctors will tell you that you don’t want to have your hand cramped all the time.”

Geuvens hasn’t had too many problems, but he knows upholsterers who always wear wrist braces while working. “The idea is to keep your wrist extended rather than at an angle,” he says. “The veins and vessels go through that area in your wrist, and you need to keep it straight.”

Geuvens hasn’t had too many problems, but he knows upholsterers who always wear wrist braces while working. “The idea is to keep your wrist extended rather than at an angle,” he says. “The veins and vessels go through that area in your wrist, and you need to keep it straight.”

Jamie Swedberg is a freelance writer in Woodville, Ga.

Comments

Comments are the opinion of individual posters and do not reflect the views of Upholstery Journal or Industrial Fabrics Association International.

  • Hope Taylor
    Hope Taylor

    Wow This was a great article and it reinforced some of my thoughts. Question on top of the coil springs on my 18850 antique chair are small wires that run across the seat of the chair. These were attached to a twine that run on the front and back of the seat. I know you say put it back the way it was but since this is my own chair I am wondering if something else might work better or if this is necessary. Thank you so much. Hope

  • Jacqui
    Jacqui

    Fixing Zig Zag springs in a dining chair

    Ho do I fix the zig zag spring in my dining chair? The little clip is missing. Would i be best to take off the broken spring and attach webbing to the base? Regards Jacqui

  • Mara
    Mara

    Hi Jeff, Thanks for reading and for your question! You might try contacting the companies interviewed directly. I can also put your question out on our social media pages to see if any other readers have ideas.
  • Jeff Cross

    Proper Spring Selection

    Thanks for writing a great article with lots of explanation on the technical aspects of Jute and other webbing. We are seeing an uptick in our custom furniture in which we have to select the proper components instead of simply replacing. Can you comment on how you select the proper spring height? Should it come level to the frame or extend above it and then let the deck compress it back to level? Thanks, Jeff Owner Markham Upholstery & Refinishing

  • Javier Miranda
    Javier Miranda

    upholstery and metalworking instructor

    I love the way you explain all the step on how to fix or reupholster an antique chair, is always a lovely thing to do, thanks for sharing some of the passion that we have.

     


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