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”. There are some hybrid bases with flexible springs in the middle third any stiff unyielding wires at the top and bottom. The made up word, “POSTURIZED” is often used in connection with mattresses or foundations that are designed for extra support or flexibility in the center third.
A traditional BOX SPRING is a soft-surfaced lightly padded box containing upholstery grade coil springs and thin smooth minimal padding. When in good condition the surface will go down slightly when weight is applied. Springs age and lose their springiness. A queen size BOX SPRING HAS 60-80 large heavy wire round coils attached to each other with flexible wire or strong upholstery twine. Better quality designs have a thin strong insulation on top of the springs and a layer of firm cotton felt directly under the top fabric. Some lightweight hybrid waterbed mattresses may be used on a FOUNDATION but are safer directly on a floor.
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 OR FOAM MATTRESSES should always be used on a FOUNDATION or a PLATFORM BED. They are not designed for use on a flexible 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-side 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 good mattress at a good price. And, you will now what to look for when you shop. Consumer Reports even has a chart with ratings for mattress sellers as well as mattresses. When you take advice from almost any internet review site other than Consumer Reports, you have the very real risk of getting a mattress because the maker owns the site or pays a commission to recommend it.
If you did buy a one sided mattress and are using it on an old box spring, the best way to get the sleep you paid for is to convert the box spring into a sort of a platform bed. Measure the length and width of your old box spring and buy half inch or thicker, smooth one side, softwood plywood to place between the box spring and the mattress. It is fine if you use three pieces equally divided or one long piece and one short piece. If your lumberyard offers you some other board other than plywood, politely decline. Only plywood is strong and durable enough. More than 3/4″ thick is a waste of money.
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. The individual slats are invariably made with the cheapest available softwood, thinner than desirable, sometimes covered with a sheet of heavy new or re-used cardboard. A store that lacks the experience or the integrity that should keep this junk out of their store or website does not deserve any of your business.
Fortunately few buyers will ever have to decide between a foundation and box spring as box springs are high on the endangered species list. No major mattress maker and certainly none that begin with “S” still offer old-style box springs. It is a fact, not a supposition, virtually all mattress makers that sell foundations do not make them themselves. Leggett and Platt, the major resource for all things good and otherwise that fill and cover a mattress will and do sell everything from pre-cut wood for the platform base, to complete uncovered foundations made with a variety of formed and bent indurated heavy wire with little or no flexibility replacing the coil springs of old. It costs makers like Simmons, Sealy, Serta, and almost 600 others no more to buy the ready-to-cover foundation than to pay workers in their factories.
Then the fun starts. Since the products offered by almost every maker in the store, even in sleep shops with a dozen brands, are all virtually identical, each brand pays wordsmiths to come up with countless phrases and sentences. You can change brand names around but they are all selling peas in a pod. These foundations are strong, durable, and perform the job expected of them. Minor variations that cost pennies to the maker can sometimes cost several hundred dollars to the under informed shopper.
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 platform bed. It will provide smooth, durable, strong, and predictable support. The quality of sleep comes 99% from the mattress and 1% 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. You still benefit from using a purpose designed and built platform mattress
Please be aware that all of the above advice assumes that you have or will buy a one-sided mattress. A few mattress makers still make reversible, two sided models. These were designed for use on flexible springs, open coil and box. Most are either very inexpensive or very very expensive. Nothing in the middle. Nothing. The inexpensive come from tiny local factories and mattress renovators. 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 on each coast. McCroskey in the SF area and Shifman in the NYC area. Mostly thick, thicker, and too thick, all reversible and inner or outer tufted. McCroskey even makes their own vintage style innerspring units, and both make some coil box springs. Both still make the best mattress 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 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 as 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, 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 firms still use large, heavy gauge coils, and layers of felted cotton for the core of their beds. Some concessions to comfort have been added, usually in the form of pillow tops, but they can’t compete with good pocketed coils and natural latex and other healthy foams.
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. There are others that I can supply if you request by email. I am building a list and will publish it, but for now you have to write to me. Another excellent choice is to get a well built 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 normally obese 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 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 individual coil springs that prevents “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 bed still shakes when one of us moves. 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 beter for yourself and not buy anything other than a hybrid and get the best of both possible worlds.
Marshall Coyle, The Old Bed Guy –