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How to Choose Cushion Foam for Upholstery

urethane foam is pricey, whatever the quality, so you're better off paying a bit more for better quality in the long run.

Do you have an upholstery project that requires new foam for a cushion or seat? Here’s a guide to help you choose the right foam for your project…

urethane foam is pricey, whatever the quality, so you're better off paying a bit more for better quality in the long run.

Fitting new foam cushions on a sofa re-upholstery project

First, I want to share a bit about how I deal with foam in my upholstery studio, along with a few entertaining alternative uses for urethane foam:

I’m a saver, a recycler, a stickler for minimizing the waste and useless by-product that emerges from my life & work. I use the blank sides of junk mail as scrap paper, throw match books (and spent matches) in the cardboard recycling, and use burlap scraps from upholstery projects as garden mulch.

So I have this problem that’s been bothering me…

Ever since I first dipped my big toe into upholstery, there has been one over-riding waste item (aside from the stinky old stripped-off fabric and padding that is beyond re-use) that I haven’t been consistently able to re-purpose:

FOAM SCRAPS.

Foam is expensive…

Giant green 'loaves' of foam

Huge foam loaves are cut with a band saw into the slabs we buy for furniture.

I buy it in sheets (54”x 82”) and half sheets (27”x 82”) and custom cut it into whatever size and shape needed for each project – a sofa cushion, a dining chair seat, back padding – and, inevitably, there is an odd scrap left over that’s too small to use on anything. Piecing them together is risky because the glued seam could open up during use, and ruin the whole upholstery job.

I hate throwing stuff away…

This landfill photo illustrates the need to keep furniture, bedding and anything we can out of landfills by using materials efficiently

A vast landfill somewhere in the Rocky Mountains

I think about what went into making that piece of foam (chemicals, resources, human labor, shipping) and I’m motivated to do what I can, so I’ve come up with a few uses over the years:

•    Dog & Cat Beds: I go ahead and glue pieces together for this if I need to, since the puppies & kitties don’t mind and the zippered beds allow replacement (also a good use for old foam).
•    Shred it for Pillows: I’ve heard there’s a shredding machine that cuts foam in to tiny pieces, and heard of a local guy who had one in his basement, but have not seen it or met him, yet…
•    Toadstools: we make these small, medium & large mushroom-shaped stools that use layered foam, so I glue pieces for the bottom layer, and use an intact piece for the top layer (I sometimes do this with small chair seats too).
•    Art: sculpt it, paint it, embellish it!
•    Talking Balloons: You know, the cartoon balloons… always good for a laugh in the studio!

Here are some fun creations using urethane foam:

'ancient rock wall' & angel statue made out of foam

A prop wall for a wedding by WeCutFoam and a faux marble statue made for the L.A. Opera, both made from urethane foam

 

Pink Baby Dinosaur??

Neon foam creature by Carsten Höller

Got a different idea? We’d love to hear it! Just leave a comment at the bottom of this page…

Okay, so that’s my 2-cents for re-purposing, but there’s really more to this story than finding CREATIVE ways to keep SCRAPS out of the landfill… which brings us to:

FOAM QUALITY.

If you’re doing your own project with ANY kind of foam – replacing a sofa cushion, re-covering (with new foam) your dining chairs, or building a new window seat cushion – you’re going to need to know that there are different foams for different purposes.

Side view of a bench seat upholstery project

This restaurant bench seat required two custom cut layers of High Density foam to give it the right shape

Sure, you can go down to the local Joann store and buy their low density foam (and this might be the easiest solution for many of us who just want a quick fix and don’t mind the comfort factor so much), but there are NICE foams out there that your tush will thank you for in the long run. High density means less air, higher quality, and longer life.

Here’s a handy chart that will help you choose the right foam for your own reupholstery or cushion project:

ILD = Indentation Load Deflection - a measurement of firmness (higher number means firmer feel). Some manufacturers use IFD, or Indentation Force Deflection. Note that a thinner (e.g. 1-inch) thickness requires a firmer foam to prevent ‘bottoming out', and increases the comfort factor significantly. This is a rough guide - the final decision comes down to your personal preference AND the quality of the foam. Look for HR or High Resiliency foam. It’s always better to invest a little more up front for a higher quality foam that will last longer and offer greater comfort. This chart refers to open cell urethane foam.Here are two online foam sources for urethane foam that seem to be the most user-friendly:

The eFoam Store in Pennsylvania has a good explanation of how foams are specified using a 4-digit number: the first two digits representing density, and the second two digits representing ILD. For example, if a foam is identified with the number 1835, the 18 means a cubic foot of this foam weighs 1.8 pounds (The heavier a piece of foam, the longer it will maintain its shape), and the 35 means it takes 35 pounds of pressure to compress a piece of this foam to 25% of its original height (The higher the number, the firmer the piece of foam).

The Foam Factory in Michigan

Where have you purchased foam for your upholstery project? We’re building an online resource for upholstery supplies and would love to hear about your experience – please let us know in the comments below.

So this has been all about POLYURETHANE foam. NATURAL LATEX foam is a whole different ball game, which I’ll explore in a future post.

If you’d like to learn more about upholstering with both conventional & alternative materials, join our mailing list. If you’re ready for an in-depth creative adventure into building your own boxed upholstery cushion (including eco-friendly options), check out the Bodacious Box Cushions eCourse.

About the Author

CarlaHey there! I'm Carla Pyle. I love the stories that our furniture tells. For me a picture of my Granddaddy Milton's green upholstered arm chair brings to mind the vivid rhymes & colors of 'The Cat in the Hat' and his soft low voice in the telling. I love too that there is always an element of nature in furniture - the warm-toned curving grain of a walnut leg or the reflection of life in a mid-century chrome piece. The best part of teaching & sharing natural upholstery is that it ties all of these things together. Stories - of individual experience and of the planet - help us build happy & healthy homes.View all posts by Carla →

  1. KrystalKrystal02-24-2016

    I’m looking into reupholstering a chair I picked up for cheap, but it will need new cushions. Are there any glaring negatives to laying thinner foam sheets together and gluing to form one thick foam cushion? I just found out you can get 2 and 3 inch high density foam at hardware stores and was hoping I could just glue two sheets together for my cushion instead of shelling out the money for one thick piece of high density foam. Thank you!

  2. CarlaCarla02-24-2016

    Great question Krystal,
    The glue will add firmness to the cushion, which might be a good thing if the foam is lower quality. Carla

  3. Danielle WilliamsDanielle Williams03-10-2016

    Hi Carla,

    I am looking to build my own couch – just a simple diy project that involves a flat base and maybe some pillows as the backing. As for the actual cushion of the couch, I am really not sure how to go about this. I want it to be super comfy, without spending tons of money. My question is, can i buy foam pieces and use that with fiberfill to create a decent cushion? This couch is going in my room mainly for a comfy place to do homework. Any tips or recommendations for me would be greatly appreciated! Thank you.

  4. CarlaCarla03-23-2016

    Hi Danielle,
    You can use fiberfill in cushions, though it does tend to break down and flatten out more quickly than foam, and does not stay in place very well, so tends to get lumpy. That said, fiberfill can be fluffed up to a certain extent when it does get flat, so you might get away with it for a while. A better way to go than loose fiberfill would be to wrap a thick batting around your foam – it will stay in place better. You will most likely be replacing the fiberfill several times over the life of the foam.

    I hope this helps!
    Carla

  5. JadeJade04-04-2016

    Hi Carla, I’m making a very small bench for my bedroom and would like a foam that’s comfortable and lasts, so want it go be good quality. I also need some foam to make a back piece aswell, I’m guessing these foams need to be slightly different? I live in the UK so not sure if the number references are the same here and where I should purchase it from I’ve been looking on eBay but again so many different types I don’t know what to go for. I’m thinking I would need a high density foam for the seat and less dense for the back? Do I have to layer up the foam aswell so put a high density foam and glue a softer foam to the top to sit on so it’s more comfortable? Would love if you could give me some advice thank you!

  6. CarlaCarla04-06-2016

    Hi Jade,
    Your back foam should be softer than your seat foam, since there’s a lot less pressure from leaning back and you want a bit of give there. I’m not sure how things work in the UK, but I would suggest visiting your local upholstery shop to see what they have. Here in the States, I think most upholsterers are willing to sell custom cut pieces of foam to customers who just want to replace the foam in their cushions. They will also know their own product, and should have some samples that you can feel and test first hand. There’s a wide range of qualities and types of foam out there and an infinite range of personal preference so unfortunately there’s no single answer to your question. One thing to remember is that density is not the same as firmness. Check out the link to the eFoam Store above for a good explanation of the difference. In general, the higher the density rating, the better quality the foam is.

    Carla

  7. Esai NavarroEsai Navarro05-15-2016

    Where do you buy your foam from?

  8. Carla PyleCarla Pyle05-16-2016

    Thanks for your question, Esai – As of 2016, we do not buy or sell urethane foam or any kind of petroleum-based foam any longer. Please see our 100% natural latex foam products at http://www.livinghomefurniture.com/diy-shop/ for an updated inventory of what we carry. If you are looking for an online source to purchase polyurethane upholstery foam for your project, try a web search. Since it’s been a long time since I’ve done any research on it, I’m not sure what’s out there currently. Meanwhile, if you’re interested in natural latex foam for upholstery, please feel free to contact me with any questions at http://www.livinghomefurniture.com/contact/

  9. Emily Keefer-CowlesEmily Keefer-Cowles05-21-2016

    thanks for the good information and entertaining uses of foam! I am going to try my hand at a kneeling chair and needed the advice of what type to use. I’m going to try some 2″ thick stuff so it can wrap around the seat a little and the knee pads.

  10. Carla PyleCarla Pyle05-22-2016

    Emily – For your kneeling chair, if you use a firmer, denser foam, you might be able to get away with 1″ foam, which would wrap a little easier.
    Carla

  11. Julia CurryJulia Curry05-23-2016

    Hey, I just want to thank you for this post. It’s very helpful!

  12. Carla PyleCarla Pyle05-26-2016

    I’m glad this was helpful for you, Julia!
    Carla

  13. Carrie MitchellCarrie Mitchell06-01-2016

    Turning old coffee table into decorative bench….(wont be used to sit on regularly). Which density of foam should I choose for a firmer seat?

  14. Carla PyleCarla Pyle06-26-2016

    Carrie,
    I recommend a firmer foam for anything that you sit on. You say this will be a decorative bench, so a softer foam would work. Just ask yourself “Am I likely to want to sit on this more once it’s in place?” If the answer is yes, then maybe you’ll want to invest a little extra in a firmer foam.
    Carla

  15. Charlie BingCharlie Bing07-08-2016

    Hello. I am looking at the photo under the FOAM QUALITY heading… the caption refers to the two foam pieces, but can you tell me what the material is on top of the foam? I have outdoor furniture cushions that look like they are made entirely of that (three 1.5″ layers, perhaps?) and I want to replace it, but I don’t know what it is!

    Thanks in advance

  16. CarlaCarla07-13-2016

    Hi Charlie,

    The layer you are referring to is polyester batting, which is commonly used in upholstery as a top layer over foam to soften the edges and create a clean finished look under the cover fabric. It is thin and compresses to almost nothing in use. The material you’re asking about in your outdoor cushions may be poly-fil NUfoam, which is similar, yet denser and thicker. See example at http://www.sailrite.com/Fairfield-Poly-Fil-Nu-Foam-22-x-22-x-4 This is an inexpensive substitute for upholstery foam, and will not last as long – it will compress with use and eventually will not bounce back. You might consider reticulated or foam as an alternative – an outdoor foam that drains water readily. See example at http://www.rochfordsupply.com/shop/Foam/HR_Foam_Sheets/index.html – this supplier calls it ‘Drain Dry Foam’

    I hope this answers your question,
    Carla

  17. KimKim09-08-2016

    Hi there , this is k question I want to get some foam for my couch and my husband is 300lbs I want to know what kind of foam should get . and I would like to have a fluffy and comfortable.thanks

  18. KymKym09-11-2016

    Hi Carla,

    I have enjoyed reading your blog. My husband bought me a very nice (looking) stool for my makeup table this past Christmas. I say nice looking because the seat has caved in. He is a heavy man and he sits on it to watch TV from time and time and the bottom was made out of presswood. It caved in completely. I love the base so we want to redo the sitting area. The foam that was used is 18 x 153/4 and about an 1′ thick. Not a very good quality of foam. Can you recommend what type of foam I should replace it with and how thick we I should buy? Thank you in advance

  19. NicoleNicole09-15-2016

    Hey Carla,

    I’m so glad I found this post! I’m a therapist and purchased a new sofa only to realize that the cushions are horrible. They compress and feel hard as a brick. I want to replace the foam and understand I will need high density foam. I want something that will last and maintain its shape, but I don’t want it to feel hard and uncomfortable. How would you recommend I decide between 35ILD and 50ILD? Thank you!!

  20. caty seancaty sean09-16-2016

    Hi Carla, I want to replace my sofa cushion, it is all one piece and checked out the Joann Fabrics as they were having a 50% off sale. they have all of their foam numbered, 1-5 with 5 being the highes density. I want this to last so I want good high density foam. how do these numers tell me anything? is their number 5 density even good enough for a long sofa cushion replacement?

  21. Carla PyleCarla Pyle09-26-2016

    Hi Kim,

    I would recommend at least a 35 ILD High Density foam for your couch. To make this rather firm, high density foam more comfortable, a down envelope may help to make it more ‘fluffy’. A good local upholsterer can help you choose what will work best for you and your husband.

    Good luck!
    Carla

  22. Carla PyleCarla Pyle09-26-2016

    Hi Kym,

    I’m so glad to hear you’ve been enjoying my blog. I assume you are replacing the presswood with a sturdy plywood of the same dimensions. In that case, I would recommend a 40-50 ILD High Density replacement foam of the same 1″ thickness.

    I hope this helps!
    Carla

  23. Carla PyleCarla Pyle09-26-2016

    Hi Nicole,

    For a sofa cushion 50 ILD is very firm, and the thicker it is, the harder it feels. In general, I like to use a 35 ILD foam for a firm-feel sofa cushion. If you want a ‘cushy’ feel with good support, you can also layer a cushion with different fiirmnesses of foam – for example, you might layer a 35 ILD in the middle, with an inch of 28 ILD on the top & bottom. It’s usually worth it to invest in a high quality, High Density foam – it will be more comfortable and last longer. A good upholsterer may be able to help you choose – with samples that are big enough to sit on and try out.

    Thanks – I hope this is helpful!
    Carla

  24. Carla PyleCarla Pyle09-26-2016

    Hi Caty,

    In my experience, the green foam that Joann sells is not the best quality – even their best ‘high density’ foam leaves much to be desired in my book. I would check with a local upholsterer, who should be willing to help you choose a higher quality foam that will last longer.

    Good luck!
    Carla

  25. ToddTodd11-18-2016

    Carla, great article! I’m currently planning to build a window seat, but one that my daughter (6yo) and wife will likely want to curl up on for a good reading session. Being that I’m building it, I have flexibility with the thickness, and was planning maybe 4-5 inches.

    Wondering (1) your thoughts on that and (2) if there is any benefit to layering different firmness of foams to _really_ prevent bottoming out. If so, any recommendations of thicknesses and layers and ILDs to make a comfy spot

  26. Carla PyleCarla Pyle11-18-2016

    Hi Todd,

    If you’re considering natural latex foam, I would recommend extra-firm 4″ thick. Latex cushions are long-lasting when adequately protected from light with a layer of wool batting + a cotton ticking fabric between the wool and the cover fabric. Latex has a very nice ‘give’ to it that the firmer urethane foams tend to lack. It comes with a higher price tag, but in my opinion, worth it. If you’re looking at urethane foams, check out this site’s helpful info on choosing a firmness: http://www.efoamstore.com/techspecs.asp

    Thanks for the great question,
    Carla

  27. Celina BinnsCelina Binns01-18-2017

    Hi Carla,

    We have an RV with a booth style dinette. We travel for extended periods and the seat cushions end up with a somewhat permanent dent where we sit most often. We would like to replace the foam with something that will be durable and less likely to create a dent when used frequently. What would you suggest?

    Thanks,
    Celina

  28. Carla PyleCarla Pyle03-29-2017

    Hi Celina,

    Thanks for your question. It sounds like your cushions are worn out and/or have poor quality foam. Look for a high quality HR (High Resiliency) foam. Tip: in my experience Joann Fabrics’ green foam is not a high quality foam. The best place to start is to check with a local upholstery shop.

    Carla

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