Buying Antique Cane Furniture:
How to Avoid the Pitfalls
By Ron Twaddle
Copyright © Ron Twaddle 1998
Have you ever been to an auction and spied a charming cane chair but were uncertain whether or not to bid on it because of that broken leg or brace? Maybe you spotted a likely seagrass chair in your local antique shop that would look great on your verandah but resisted the temptation to buy because the chair was all loose and sloppy like a jellyfish. What about that comfortable looking split cane lazyboy at that garage sale which had a loose arm or that magnificent Victorian wicker chair with all the broken curlicues or that cute little Lloyd Loom suite with torn Lloyd loom fabric. I would hate to count the number of times a client has brought me a chair to repair which they bought for a pittance thinking they had a good deal, only to discover that it will cost them a small fortune to fix properly. Sometimes a chair can look reasonably good to the untrained eye and be unrepairable or it may look awful and be fairly cheap to restore. How can you tell what is economical to fix and what is not? The aim of this article is to give you some clues on that very subject.
Cane furniture is made up of many pieces of cane of varying shapes and sizes from the large heavy round canes used for framing to the finest decorative embellishments. It can include seagrass cord and plait and matting, heavy rattan, core cane of many sizes, willow, sheet cane, several types of Lloyd Loom fabrics, split cane, binding cane, many types of plaited cane, chair cane, bamboo, sometimes timber, upholstery, embossed wallpaper, wire, and oriental painted lacquer work. Many people are phased by the wide range of materials and the many methods of construction used. A timber chair or table seems simple in comparison. This is not so. What is required is an educated, keen eye which will enable you to find and assess any problems a piece of cane furniture may have, and then an understanding of what is involved in properly fixing that problem.
I believe that if part of a cane chair is broken then if at all possible it should be replaced rather than patched or bodgied up. This ensures safety, long life of the item and the value of the item.
The first thing to check is the frame of the piece. Upend it and check the bottoms of the legs. Is there rot? Give it the fingernail test. If your fingernail can easily push into the bottom of the leg it is most likely to have some rot. How far does it go? Sometimes you need only trim a small amount off the legs to make a chair sound. At other times the rot can signal a chair’s demise. Are the legs already short? A general rule of thumb is that if the diagonal cross braces are closer to the ground than about four inches (100mm) then the legs are short. The average distance from the ground is about six inches (150mm).
Plant all four legs firmly on the floor and wobble it from side to side. Is it solid? Or is it like a jellyfish? If the chair is loose there are a couple of possibilities. The simplest cause, and the one you should hope for, is that the braces are loose because the nails securing them have pulled out or broken. This can be easily remedied by renailing. This is a very cheap exercise and is sensible preventative medicine. If you continually use a loose chair, the braces and framework will eventually break.
The other cause of a loose chair is broken braces. The junction between the diagonal cross brace and leg is almost always strapped and bound and cannot be easily viewed. You can usually tell if this brace is split or broken by pulling the legs out away from it. If this is a problem there will be movement and/or the split cane strap which binds the leg to the brace will be broken. More commonly one or more V braces or stays may be broken. There are four stays on a chair. These run up a leg to just above the cross braces, bend across to the centre edge of the seat frame then go down to the adjacent leg forming a rough upside down V shape. To check if these are broken wobble them firmly. Check especially where other framework attaches to them. For example the bottoms of arms or the bottom of the seat below your knees. Check also where the V braces have been bent. Replacement of braces is not difficult and the cost is moderate but can add up if several need replacing.
Turn the chair upside down and look at the seat frame. On a seagrass or a split cane chair this usually will be round cane approximately one inch (25 mm) in diameter which may be bent into a circle, or two pieces made into a D shape or four pieces joined into a square or butted onto the legs. Occasionally the seat frame may be timber. If the seat frame is broken or split in any way it can be at best, very difficult to replace and at worst, impossible. The seat frame is the centrepiece of a chair and everything else is attached to it. On a seagrass or wicker chair the whole woven seat is wrapped around the seat frame. So it is best to avoid a chair with a broken or split seat frame. I have known chairs to last many years with a cracked seat frame but I have also heard of such chairs collapsing under someone who slumped hard into them.
Broken legs are usually obvious but sometimes can be hidden under bindings. A front leg is fairly easily replaced but remember that it is not only the leg that needs replacing but also bindings, straps and perhaps even braces may need to be replaced. On a seagrass chair the whole leg may be bound. A back leg is a bit more complicated. It continues up past the seat and is also connected to arms and framework at the top of the chair. On a split cane chair it is still usually a reasonably easy task but again remember that there will bebindings and straps which have to be removed and refitted in order to replace the leg. With a seagrass or wicker chair a back leg is very difficult, if not impossible to replace. This is because the back of the chair is woven around it. If the chair is painted it is impossible. However with a great deal of care and trouble the back leg of an unpainted seagrass chair can be replaced depending on the design of the chair. A seagrass or wicker chair with a back leg broken at the cross brace can still sometimes be mended if not replaced. The cross brace is shortened at the broken leg and a second leg is attached on the inside of the original from the ground to the seat frame. The braces are then reattached and the double leg is then bound in seagrass. It is not elegant but can mean that an otherwise good chair can have a second lease on life
Arms usually break at the point where they attach to the seat. This is because it is nailed at this point and this weakens the arm a little. People often lift themselves out of a chair by pushing down and out on the arms as they rise. This puts unnecessary strain on the pivot point which is where it is nailed to the seat. The low arms on a high backed chair can be replaced at a moderate cost but again on a seagrass chair there will also be the cost of rebinding. A more rounded or tub style chair which has arms which are a continuation of the top back of the chair can be quite expensive to fix as both arms and the back of the chair are one piece of cane and would need to be replaced completely to repair properly. A seagrass chair with wide woven arms can sometimes be patched without the need to replace the whole and this would be a moderate cost.
The Body of The Chair
The back and seat or sling of a seagrass chair is made from a series of parallel spokes made from three to five millimetre cane which forms a grid upon which the seagrass cord is woven back and forth alternately under and over. These spokes begin at the bottom of the seat where they are nailed to a frame and covered with either split cane or plait. At the top of the chair the spokes are finished off by weaving over like the edge of a basket. This weave over is then tacked to the frame behind it. The two points of greatest weakness in the sling of a seagrass chair are at the top where the weave over is nailed down and at the front of the seat where the spokes curve over the front seat frame. After years of use or weathering the nails at the top can rust and break or the spokes can break . Also the spokes at the front of the seat can crack or break. If this problem is fixed straight away there will be no ongoing damage. The ideal way to do this is to remove the broken spokes one at a time and slide in new ones. However if the chair has been well painted everything will be glued together and only a patch job will be possible. Supportive straps under the seat can stop this problem occurring. If there are only a few spokes to replace it will not be an expensive task but as a chair can have thirty to fifty spokes if they all need doing it can add up.
Seagrass chairs sometimes have decorative bits such as loops, lattice or curlicues. As a general rule these are fiddly and time consuming to repair or make so can be expensive but on the other hand chairs with these features are usually older or high quality and are usually worth more so a bit more can be spent on them.
Loose bindings are easy to fix or replace but again if there are a large number needing replacement the cost can accumulate.
The sling of a split cane chair is made from a series of parallel split cane (half round) slats. At each point where these cross and are attached to the frame they are bound with a crisscross cane binding. These were traditionally dyed or coloured, the most common colours being dark green and burnt orange. The golden cane was usually mottled with a flame to give that familiar tortoise shell effect. A broken slat can be replaced quite cheaply but if more than half are broken on a chair it becomes uneconomical as all the crisscross bindings then need to be replaced also and again the price quickly adds up to more than the value of the chair. It is not sufficient to patch into a broken slat as this will not last. Straight wrapped bindings are simple to replace.
These very ornate and elaborate chairs either originated or were influenced by the fanciful American designs of the era. Often they are dripping with loops and lattice and curlicues combined with such features as rolled serpentine arms, ottoman style seats, cabriole legs, elaborate hand caning, or cane bent into the shapes of birds, fish, fans, lyres, guitars and peacocks. These chairs are showpieces. However they can be very expensive to fix. They are usually made from core cane which becomes very dry and brittle over time. Because most of these chairs date from last century they are usually exceedingly brittle. Curlicues and the other decorative bits are easily broken and although they can be remade this is time consuming, fiddly to do and consequently expensive. In addition some of the materials that were used to make some of the decorations are no longer available and a compromise may need to be made. Good examples of these chairs are fairly rare which puts them in a higher price range so you can afford to spend more on them.
Bamboo furniture was made in quantity from Victorian times through to the 1920’s. Bamboo differs from cane in that it is hollow and fairly inflexible. Furniture made from bamboo is usually screwed together and the visible ends of the bamboo are capped with nickel plated brass caps. Bamboo furniture, being more formal, was not made for the verandah and, like seagrass, if left there in its natural condition will suffer from the weather. The bamboo can discolour, shrink and crack. The screws can rust, corroding the bamboo so the screws no longer do their job. The only type of cane furniture that wood borer seems attracted to is bamboo so check for the telltale little holes. This type of furniture is often decorated most commonly with wire curlicues wrapped in a fine cane plait and with rows of interlocking loops. This delicate work will quickly deteriorate on a verandah. Bamboo is one of the few types of cane furniture which can be stripped of paint. However this needs to be done by hand (and not with caustic) and is a tedious job. Loose screws can be replaced by larger gauge screws or, if there is no other alternative, with fine bolts. Even if the bamboo is faded or discoloured it responds remarkably to a clean, a light sand and a couple of coats of a clear gloss finish.
Lloyd Loom furniture can have either a cane or a timber frame. The frames are made in such a way that they can be wrapped with a machine woven fabric to form the body of the chair. There are several types of fabrics, the most common being made of a twisted paper and paper coated wire giving a wicker-like effect. However there are also softer fabrics which are also paper but feel like a very heavy weight cloth. Upholstery panels and loose cushions were often incorporated into the designs. Lloyd Loom because it is paper was nearly always painted from new. Dark greens and reds were often highlighted with gold and silver sprayed around the edges. The furniture which looks like wicker can be repaired if the weave is broken. However the ones with the cloth-like fabric cannot be patched and the whole panel needs to be replaced. These fabrics are no longer available as far as I can ascertain but sometimes similar modern paper products made for bar fronts etc can do the job, but these are not always available. The decorative plaits around the edge of the chairs is however available so it is not expensive to replace this.
Tables and Accessories
The main problem with cane tables of all types is caused by pot plants. If these are placed on the top or shelf of the table, even on a saucer, condensation from watering causes the seagrass matting to rot or on split cane tables which usually have ply tops it can cause the veneers to part company. Replacement of matting or even a timber top is not usually difficult unless there is a lot of decorative work connected to the top. Most accessories usually survive quite well because unlike chairs, they do not have people sitting on them.
Reproductions can sometimes be difficult to pick even to the trained eye. Most reproduction seagrass chairs that I have seen have been quite poor quality. The seagrass cord is very coarse, the stays or V braces do not taper off at the bottom, staples are used, and the designs are mostly chunky and out of proportion. Remember that staples may have been used to repair an original chair. Staples and air driven nails are kinder to old cane than hand nailing so do not be too disparaging of this practise, but there are places where they look horrible and should not be used. For example at the weave over at the top of the chair. Reproduction split cane is more common but again many designs are awkward and clumsy. Also you have such manufacturers as the Society for the Blind which has been making these chairs unceasingly since the 1920’s or earlier. It could be argued that these are not reproduction since the same manufacturer has been making them for so long without pause. Good quality reproduction split cane furniture will have a hand nailed frame or sometimes screws will be used. The slats and bindings will be stapled on so a close examination of the chair will usually show up a reproduction. Again remember that staples may be used in a restoration. There is one type of new doll’s pram which tricks many people because they are made to look like they have spent the last fifty years in a shed or attic. They are often made slightly out of shape, the metalwork is all rusty and they have distinctive metal wheels with a wooden hub. These have turned up in auctions and have been known to fool even established dealers.
Most of the materials for repairing cane chairs are readily available but you may have to do a little hunting to find a source. Craft shops seldom stock cane materials since basketry went out of fashion. I sell all available materials in my shop and happily mail bits and pieces all over Australia. Seagrass cord, framing cane, various plaits, core cane, split cane, raffia, chair cane and sheet cane are all available. However some of the fine seagrass plaits and other bits and pieces used to do decorative work are no longer available so either a different material has to be used or sometimes old dead chairs or baskets can be a source of the unavailable materials.
Old and antique cane furniture is cool, comfortable, light and versatile. It can add a great deal of character to your home. When selecting cane furniture you need to be aware of the possible problems. If you intend to buy unrestored furniture I would recommend that you discuss restoration costs with an experienced cane furniture restorer before you begin your search. That way there will be no hidden surprises.