Repairing Heirloom Cane Chairs

Repairing those old ladder-back heirloom cane chairs costs a few dollars, takes a couple of hours and connects the craftsperson with a fascinating history. Includes step-by-step instructions for caning chairs.
By Amber Lanier Nagle
March/April 2007
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How to repair heirloom cane chairs.
PHOTO: GENE NAGLE


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Learn about repairing heirloom cane chairs using these step-by-step instructions. 

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 repairing heirloom cane chairs, 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

Preparations:

  •  
  • 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.

Step 1 (Warping): Tape the end of your wet reed to the inside of the left rail near the back post. Route your reed under the rear rail, around, and over the front rail at your mark – smooth side up. Repeat this motion keeping the reeds very tight and close together.

Step 2 (Joining): Always join two strips of reed on the bottom side. Clamp the reed to the front rail. Overlap the reed by at least two inches. With utility scissors, cut a small notch in the strips and wrap wax-coated string around the notched reed four times. Tie a knot.

Step 3: Holding your reed firmly, remove the clamp and complete the rear to front strips. Tape the reed’s end to the right back post and trim.

Step 4 (Weaving): Turn the chair upside down with the front rail resting in your lap. From the rear left side, weave the reed’s end over four strips, then under four strips, then over four strips, etc., pulling the slack to the right side and taping the left end of the reed to the left post. Use a "magic tool" to thread the reed to the surface by angling the tool between strips with your right hand and pressing downward.

Step 5: Turn the chair to its upright position. Starting at the rear left side and pulling the reed tightly, route the reed around the side rail and weave over four strips, under four, over four, etc.

Step 6: Turn the chair upside down. Using the pattern as your guide, tightly weave (left to right) by going over strips and pushing the reed underneath one strip sooner than the previous row. Then weave under four, over four, etc. Turn the chair upright and weave the reed in the same manner (using the pattern).

Step 7: Repeat Step 6 until you complete the final row. Remove all exposed tape and tuck all loose ends underneath.

Step 8: Weave shorter strips of reed along the sides to finish — using needle nose pliers to pull through tight areas.

Step 9 (Finishing): After the reed dries, clip splinters from surface and apply a protective stain or varnish.


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