Weaving History into Heirloom Chairs
Repairing those old ladder-back chairs costs a few dollars, takes a couple of hours and connects the craftsperson with a fascinating history.
A few years ago, my sister inherited my grandmother’s old ladderback chairs with hand-woven rush seats. The oak frames were in nearly perfect condition, but the seats were tattered and needed to be replaced. Luckily, I knew someone who could breathe new life into her chairs.
Marvin Garner, “The Chair Man of Gordon County,” is a master of the lost art of chair caning, with more than 30 years of experience and hundreds of restored chair seats under his belt. The Resaca, Georgia, resident is a proud member of the Appalachian Heritage Guild – a group dedicated to preserving and demonstrating early American arts, crafts, food and music.
“From an early age, I loved using my hands to work with wood and other natural materials,” Garner reflects. “And so I learned to cane – mostly by watching others.”
The term caning typically refers to weaving the seats of chairs using one of many materials – cane, rush, sea grass, or reed. Garner can restore all types of cane seating but refuses to work with rush.
“Why in the world would anyone want a rush seat?” he remarks emphatically. “It’s inferior to the other materials.”
Several seatweaving suppliers can be found on the Internet and many offer beginner’s kits. Garner orders his caning materials from Moore’s North Carolina Basket Works (www.NCBasketWorks.com).
“I use about $15 of split reed to replace the seat in a typical ladder back chair, and it takes between two and three hours from start to finish,” says Garner. The materials to repair a split cane seat cost between $25 and $30, and the project takes about six hours of work to complete.
Several weekends a year, Garner demonstrates and teaches his craft to children and adults at festivals, fairs and workshops throughout the Southeast.
“Little girls are usually the most eager pupils – they jump in with no hesitation,” he says. “Within minutes, they are caning the chair and smiling from ear to ear.”
With a little instruction and patience, you too, can restore the cane seating of your beloved family heirloom.
Split Reed Seat – Herringbone Design
- Remove any existing cane, nails or tacks and make necessary repairs to chair frame.
- Soak your reed in a bucket of water for at least 15 minutes.
- Measure the rear and front rails (the dowels that make up the box of the seat). Subtract the rear measurement from the front measurement, and divide by two. Using that measurement, mark a line on the front rail from the left post.
- Determine the reed’s smooth side by bending a section of reed over your finger.