January 24, 2011 - Marshall Coyle
Which Is Best : Platform Bed, Box Spring, or Foundation ?
By Marshall Coyle, the Old Bed Guy.
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If whatever you have under your mattress or have seen in a store, it is only a BOX SPRING if it has springs. If it has springs, it will feel “springy”. If it is unyielding it is a FOUNDATION. Some stores and makers call foundations “box springs”, but they aren’t.
A box spring has 45-90 large, strong, heavy wire coils. Old technology two-sided mattresses need a box spring under them to provide proper support and comfort. A coil box spring surface will go down an inch or much more under pressure. If you sit on the edge and the thing under the mattress sinks down even slightly, it is a box spring. Older or lower quality box springs sink the most. Springs age and lose their springiness over the years. Flexible wire or strong upholstery twine ties the coils together. Often there is a heavy rod around the upper perimeter.
ALL REVERSIBLE TWO-SIDED INNERSPRING MATTRESSES should be used on a BOX SPRING. Flippable mattresses lose much of their life expectancy and at least half of their potential comfort when used on a rigid PLATFORM BED, or a FOUNDATION.
A new genuine coil-spring box spring is a genuine rarity in today’s mattress market. I estimate that 99.9% of all boxes found under a new mattress are some form of foundation. This is not a bad thing unless the mattress is old style two sided innerspring. Old style innerspring mattresses rely on the spring action of a genuine coil box spring to supply the desired comfort and durability. The upper and lower unit works in a silent partnership.
If you purchase a new technology one-sided hybrid innerspring mattress with the intent of using it on your old box spring, it is a false economy. You are not only shortening the comfort life of the mattress, but you are taking away much of the comfort designed into it. One-sided mattresses are not just mattresses with half of the filling omitted.
You can convert your old box spring into something like a foundation using a slab of 1/2″ “smooth one side” plywood. If you use more than one piece to cover the old box spring, make sure that the center 1/3 is one piece. Either end can be less. This lumberyard fix is not quite as good as a proper foundation, but it is good enough. If your lumberyard offers you some other board other than plywood, politely decline. Only plywood is strong and durable enough. More than 1/2″ thick is a waste of money. And less is a waste of money and will not work.
There is a third type of under-mattress box shaped like a box spring now finding its way into the market. It is a foundation with wood slats across the top instead of the base. It is actually an upside down cheap foundation. No one, to my knowledge has found a less costly way to make a foundation. This is not a good thing. It is usually a tip-off that the maker is also cheating on the mattress components. I would avoid buying such a product. The cross slats are almost always the cheapest knotty softwood ready to break. I have seen some with a sheet of heavy cardboard over these junky slats. It does not help. If you see these problematic foundations, try shopping elsewhere. Stores that knowingly sell junk usually also usually knowingly bend the truth.
Few buyers will ever have to decide between a foundation and box spring. Box springs are high on the endangered species list. They have been driven off the market by lower cost foundations. No major mattress maker still offers old-style box springs.
One company, Leggett and Platt, manufactures all good foundations made with steel formed-wire support, and a heavy wire grid top. Almost every American mattress maker buys them as a kit from L&P, needing only the outside cloth to complete. Several different qualities are offered but none are bad. The differences are not great.
Then the fun starts. Since the products offered by almost every maker in the store, even in sleep shops with a dozen brands, are essentially the same, each brand pays wordsmiths to come up with countless phrases and sentences to tell you meaningless gibberish. You can change brand names around but they are all selling peas in a pod. These wire supported/grid top foundations are strong, durable, and perform the job expected of them. Some of the smaller factory-direct mattress makers don’t bother with any but the best of these L&P foundation kits. Reasons vary, but I think it is usually to save storage space in too-small factories. Maybe even one broken one is one too many when your own name is on the product.
When you see a ‘box spring” advertised, more than likely it is a foundation with no springs. Foundations are rigid boxes 4-16” thick/high designed to fit on a metal bed frame under a mattress. They provide support and raise the combination off the floor.
Whatever you have under your mattress or have seen in a store, it is only a BOX SPRING if it has springs. If it has springs, it will feel “springy. If you peel back the cover on the underside a few inches and peek inside, you will know for sure.
ALL REVERSIBLE TWO-SIDED INNERSPRING MATTRESSES should be used on a BOX SPRING. They lose much of their life expectancy an at least half of their potential comfort when used on a PLATFORM BED, or a FOUNDATION.
NEVER-FLIP ONE SIDED INNERSPRING MATTRESSES should always be used on a FOUNDATION or a PLATFORM BED. They are not designed for use on a flexible springy base and may fail prematurely.
A new genuine spring filled box spring is a genuine rarity in today’s mattress market. I would estimate that 99.9% of all upholstered boxes found under a new mattress are some form of foundation. This is not a bad thing unless the mattress is old style two sided innerspring. Old style innerspring mattresses rely on the spring action of a genuine box spring to supply the desired comfort and durability. The upper and lower unit work in a silent partnership. Sometimes, BOX SPRINGS, are not so silent. When they were popular, better box springs were made with cloth strips between the metal coils and the wood slats that they were attached to. A coil would move along with the sleeper’s motion and rub against wood making the traditional squeak that people under sixty have probably never heard.
If you purchase a new one-sided innerspring mattress with the intent of using it on your old box spring, it is a false economy. You are not only shortening the comfort life of the mattress, but you are taking away much of the comfort designed into it. One sided mattresses are not just mattresses with half of the filling omitted. I am, and now you should be, aware that it is possible to buy just such a mattress if you deal with one of the minority of bad actors waiting to take your money under false pretenses. If you have the strength to read this blog and also study the available material at Consumer Reports, you probably will end up with a decent mattress that meets your needs.
When you see a box spring advertised, or demonstrated by a retail chain “sleep expert”, more than likely it is a foundation with no springs. These are rigid boxes 4-16” thick designed to fit on a metal bed frame under a mattress to provide support and distance from the floor. Foundations can and be made in many ways and some are superficially better than some others, but they all have a slatted bottom base, a smooth hard top, and something to full the space between top and bottom . Most frequently used are toughened rigid formed steel rods that are bent to provide a flat surface on top. Leggett and Platt is not the only supplier, but the minor ones mirror the L&P technology.
Essentially, a well made foundation mirrors the sleep and support benefits of a solid top platform bed. It will provide smooth, durable, strong, and predictable support. The quality of sleep comes 90% from the mattress and 10% from the platform or foundation. Aside from aesthetics, there is no reason not to just put your new one-sided mattress on your floor, carpeted or otherwise, and get the same quality sleep as you would get with the factory foundation. Actually, the feel is improved by a padded carpet to the point of being better than most platform beds or any “foundation”. A tiny number of platform bed makers lightly pad their platforms for added comfort. Ligne Roset, Flou, and Charles P. Rogers are the most significant.
Please be aware that all of the above advice assumes that you own or will buy a one-sided hybrid/innerspring mattress. A few mattress makers still make reversible, two sided retro mattresses. These are designed for use on flexible box springs springs, but few are sold with them. Foundations are so much less costly to make. Most of these retro mattresses are either very inexpensive or very very expensive. No middle ground. The inexpensive come from small local factories and mattress renovators. Mattress renovators rebuild old and used mattresses. Depending on whether the mattress is all new or has partially reused parts, such a mattress and foundation can be as cheap as three hundred dollars, rarely a bit more. The other side of the spectrum are two wonderful mattress makers. One is on each coast. McCroskey in the SF area, and Shifman in the NYC area. These retro mattresses are mostly thick, thicker, and too thick, especially the Shifman. McCroskey even makes their own vintage style wire tied innerspring units. The kind of semi-rigid coil innerspring that pocketed coil has almost completely replaced in the luxury market. Both firms make some hand made coil box springs. Both still make the best mattresses you could buy in 1951, the year I went into business. Shifman was the best mattress in my store in the fifties and we slept on one for a while until we made happen what was going to become a permanent fact: we started sleeping on naturally cool latex and never went back. Latex mattresses from about 1930-2,000 were as good as one could get and they almost all came with a coil box spring. Now, the hybrid innerspring with all latex has replaced the all-latex on a box spring. A wonderful benefit for consumers.
In the post WW2 years until the 80s or 90s, hard mattresses were considered the best and healthiest. Maybe someday “hard” will again become popular. However, they virtually disappeared when the competition started using new padding material and more flexible innersprings to make far more comfortable mattresses. Both McCroskey and Shifman still use large, heavy gauge mattress coils, and layers of felted cotton for the core of their beds. Some concessions to comfort have been added, usually in the form of latex padding, but they can’t compete with good pocketed coils and natural latex.
SO WHICH SHOULD YOU CHOOSE? Sorry, but you really don’t have the luxury of choice with only minor exceptions. You are going to get a FOUNDATION. You have to be very patient and energetic to find a real coil box spring. If you seek a coil box spring, I mention a few sources in the previous paragraph. Another excellent choice is to get a well built solid padded deck platform bed.
If you get either a new platform bed, or foundation, and you get a mattress properly designed for a solid base support, you can find your perfect bed. I know of no current mattress thicker than sixteen inches from upper to lower binding that will have the comfort life expectancy of a purpose built platform mattress. You should only buy a box spring if your new mattress is reversible. Shifman, Marshall, Hastens, McCroskey, EJ Kluft, and other makers of replica post-WW2 mattresses are major players. If the maker claims that their mattress is platform-ready then you know it will do fine on a foundation or a platform bed, and even better if the platform bed has a solid top.
When we bought our own latex hybrid, we also ordered a platform bed with a solid, lightly padded, deck, instead of a foundation and a metal bed frame. Why? A bed like this http://goo.gl/itqaX is completely steady. All foundations or box springs on metal bed frames tend to move a bit when you do. We were getting a mattress with intelligently assembled individually pocketed coil springs that prevent “motion transfer”. Even with such a good mattress, if what is underneath can jiggle, then no matter how well the mattress is designed and built, the whole bed still shakes when one of us moves. Our knowledgeably sourced bed and mattress gives both comfort and a tranquil environment. An added bonus was finding some needed storage space. This bed has inconspicuous space for four large plastic boxes from Bed Bath and Behind.
Remember, do not use any innerspring mattress on any platform bed with wooden slats for the top support, EXCEPT, if the space between the slats is 2.75″ or less. You would be surprised to see how quickly the mattress fails if the airspace between the slats is greater. And do not use a solid foam of any kind on anything except an almost unobtainable box spring unless you do not mind missing out on at least half of the comfort that the nice cushy mattress could give you. Of course, you could always do better for yourself and not buy anything other than an innerspring/hybrid/latex and get the best of both possible worlds. If you are stuck with a platform with non-conforming slats and spaces, you can use it anyway with a modification. Cover the center 2/3 of the surface, or more, with 1/4″ thin smooth one side plywood. No other kind of board except plywood and with no exceptions. You may have to fasten the plywood if it makes noise against the slats. Some countersunk wood screws will work. When placing the plywood, center it top to bottom.
Marshall Coyle, The Old Bed Guy –