About Antique Wickerwork Furniture Care on the Sunshine Coast
CARING FOR ANTIQUE CANE
Cane furniture has always been popular in the warmer climates for the simple reason that it is strong, lightweight, durable, cool and comfortable to sit on. Since the mid-1800's there have been wicker workers manufacturing cane furniture in Australia. In Queensland, until the late 1950's or early 1960's there was a large, thriving cane working industry. Larger stores like Carricks and Trittons had their own cane factories while many tradesmen worked from small workshops or even from their own homes. Also the Blind Society has always been a large cane furniture and basket manufacturer. Huge quantities of wicker, seagrass, bamboo and split cane furniture were made in Australia. Sadly the demise of the industry was brought about by the very cheap (and often nasty) imports from S.E. Asia. There goes the balance of payments.
Most old and antique cane furniture was very well made. In fact, I am sure that some of the old wicker workers would be amazed that so many of their creations have lasted so long. More often than not those items which have not lasted, have suffered more from abuse, neglect, or ignorance from their owners, than from faulty workmanship. What follows is a collection of hints about how best to look after your caneware.
First is a general rule with respect to all canewares.
CANE IS NOT MEANT TO BE STOOD ON. If you think I am stating the obvious please bear with me. In the fifteen years I have been restoring cane furniture, I think I have seen more damage done by big feet than by any other reason. Most cane furniture is made from relatively fine pieces of cane interlocking with others in one way or another to form a grid or network which is very strong if the weight is evenly distributed over the surface, as occurs when one sits on it. However, when you stand on it all of your weight is placed in a very small area resulting in stress or damage. So please, when your lightbulbs need changing, use a stepladder.
The second general rule is this.
CANE IS NOT OUTDOOR FURNITURE. It needs some protection. A traditional roofed verandah usually provides this adequately. But roofless decks, pergolas and the back garden do not. Cane chairs left in the garden will deteriorate rapidly. The cane used for making the frames of cane chairs has a hard outer skin and a soft, pithy, porous centre. On the bottom of the legs the porous part is exposed and when left in contact with grass, dirt or even well hosed masonry, the constant dampness is drawn up into the legs causing rapid rot. Constant strong sunlight and rain will also cause severe damage.
As the last general rule I strongly recommend that if your furniture is damaged in any way, fix it. If you continue to use a broken chair, one break will invariably lead to another until the damage becomes excessive.
HAND AND SHEET CANED SEATING
These two types of chair seating look very similar, although they are fitted to the seat in very different ways. Hand caned seating consists of long strands of fine cane individually woven through holes drilled through the seat of the chair, as seen in many old and antique chairs (eg. bentwoods). This is a time consuming process and is seldom used in modern chairs. Sheet caned seating looks much the same as hand caning but comes prewoven in sheet form. It is cut to size and fitted into a groove cut into the seat frame and locked in with a glued spline. Some old and antique chairs use this (eg. most American spindlebacks) and most modern chairs.
You care for both types of seating in the same way.
Hot dry climates tend to be harsh on fine canework, drying it out and making it brittle. Therefore it is advisable to dampen both sides of the cane with a moist cloth once a week (in a Brisbane climate). If the climate is hotter or drier dampen it more often. Allow it to dry completely (approximately 2 hours) before using the chair. Try not to let the cane seat sit in direct sunlight as this will dry it out quickly.
It is my experience that the cane seats of chairs placed into commercial storage for more than twelve months will wear out soon after being put back into use. The reason for this is that the air in these storage areas is seldom disturbed and therefore becomes very dry, making the cane prematurely brittle.
Likewise do not coat the cane with any finish which will seal it from atmospheric moisture (varnish, polyeurythane, Mr. Sheen, or even shellac).
If your chairs are regularly used by small children who tend to kneel or stand on the cane then it is best to fit a padded cushion held in place with ties attached to the chair legs.
Seagrass furniture is distinctively colonial and easily recognisable. Seagrass itself is a coarse grass or sedge which grows in shallow water, and when processed looks like a fine rope. Seagrass chairs are a type of wicker. Wicker is not a type of cane material but a process. Traditionally, wicker chairs are made by weaving fine round core cane alternately under and over a series of core cane spokes or stakes, a warp and a weft, giving a closely packed and flexible chair. The Australian climate tends to make core cane brittle fairly quickly, so someone came up with the idea of using seagrass cord for the weft.
Between the 1880's and World War II, seagrass furniture was made in large quantities. It was originally designed and sold as INDOOR furniture, and was not intended for verandah use. It was the cheapest lounge furniture available. However, because it was lightweight, it was often carried to the verandah, or even the garden, then brought back in. Once it was replaced in the lounge by a Genoa suite or whatever, it was often left on the verandah.
Although most seagrass furniture seen today is painted it was mostly sold in its natural state. Seagrass has a high oil and sugar content and consequently if it is allowed to stay damp it goes mouldy. Therefore do not leave natural seagrass on the verandah even if it is varnished. It will fade, turn grey and may eventually rot. So please keep your natural seagrass chairs indoors.
However if they are properly painted they will be protected from the weather. Remember that seagrass is not deeply penetrated by paint, so check paintwork regularly and touch up or repaint if necessary.
If your seagrass furniture gets dusty, you can vacuum it or hose it clean and let it dry in the shade.
Do not fit rubber cups to the feet of seagrass chairs if they live on a verandah because they hold water from blowing rain and cause footrot.
Most seagrass chairs have legs which are at an angle to the surface of the floor, so their use on hard, smooth floor surfaces, such as tiles or vinyl, or hard uneven surfaces such as slate, can cause the chairs to become prematurely loose, or worse.
SPLIT CANE FURNITURE
As labour costs rose, seagrass furniture became more expensive. Someone came up with an idea using the same basic frames used for seagrass. Instead of weaving the body of the chair, a series of split cane slats were nailed to the frames, and then wrapped with binding cane. A split cane chair can be made in under half the time it takes to make a seagrass chair.
Unlike seagrass, split cane was advertised as furniture "suitable for the verandah". Despite this, if natural split cane is used on a verandah, it will slowly discolour. It will benefit from a regular coating of an external clear finish. If painted keep the paint in good condition.
Otherwise treat in the same way as seagrass.
Bamboo furniture originated in Victorian times but was still being made in the 1920's. Bamboo is related to grass, and is very hard and hollow and inflexible, unlike other canes which are mostly rainforest vines. Consequently most bamboo chairs are fairly upright and formal. However they are usually decorated with plait-bound curlicues, and rows of fancy loops. It was intended for indoor use originally, in formal situations such as library or conservatory, or for such furniture as whatnots and canterburies.
The main enemy of bamboo furniture is the dryness it suffers from exposure to the elements. Borer tends to be fond of it also. If any of the fancywork on this furniture come adrift or start to unravel the best time to repair it is NOW. It will otherwise get worse or even lost, and will be much harder to repair as many of the raw materials are no longer available for this fancywork.
Otherwise care as for seagrass.
LLOYD REED LOOM
Lloyd Reed Loom furniture is made largely from paper. The frames are made from either cane or timber, and the Lloyd loom fabric is stretched over the frame. There are several types of Lloyd Loom fabrics, some which look like a very coarse upholstery fabric, and others which are twisted into a cane-like string and are finely woven into a tight wicker weave. Often the uprights are reinforced with wire. Lloyd Loom was almost always painted from new. This was to protect the paper from moisture. Original colours are fairly distinctive- Olive greens, pinks, with gold or silver highlights, or sometimes gold, and rarely white.
Once again the paintwork should be kept in good condition and this furniture is best not to be used outdoors.
To sum up it does well to remember that unlike the gods your old and antique cane furniture is not immortal, but with a little thought and informed care you can ensure that it has a long and useful life.