Raising Cain

Photos by Matt Rose
Photo by Matt Rose

On the wall of Brandy Clements and Dave Klingler’s Depot Street studio, wooden chairs hang, seatless, waiting to be made useful again. Because their owners loved these seats, they’ve been spared the spot on the sidewalk that often awaits a caned chair with a hole through its center. The couple will weave a new seat through the traditional art of chair caning, saving a family heirloom or favorite antique store find so that it can continue to be loved.

Clements is a fourth-generation chair caner: her great-grandmother Gladys taught her grandmother Ida, who taught her Aunt Lynda, who has been caning in her Norfolk, Virginia workshop for over 30 years. Aunt Lynda passed on the art to Clements through a “chair caning boot camp,” and she started to get jobs through furniture companies while living in Charleston. Her first major job was 30 chairs for the city’s historic Kaspar’s diner, followed by a big contract to fix the chairs at Charleston Place Hotel’s Palmetto Cafe. The job was so big, in fact, that she hired Klingler to help and taught him how to do it, and they’ve been together ever since.

From rattan to “Shaker tape” (a kind of cotton webbing used in the seats of traditional Shaker chairs and stools) and hickory-splint chairs to mid-century Danish cord-seat chairs and Marcel Breuer chairs, the pair can repair any woven construction that comes their way. While caning isn’t done with wicker (an altogether different substance, Clements says), it can be done with sea grass or rush.

Although it dates back to ancient times (a caned daybed was found in King Tut’s tomb), caning became popular in the 19th-century when something of a ‘war’ erupted between upholsters and caners, says Clements. Caning used to serve as a base for upholstery before steel was invented, but since it looked so good, furniture makers started using it on its own.

While aging and exposure to weather and direct sunlight inevitably takes its toll on caned chairs, the main cause of damage, says Clements, is concentrated weight and force, such as a cat clawing at it or a knee or elbow landing on it with a thud. “If the weight is evenly distributed, it will hold,” she says, recounting the story of a 300-or-so pound man testing out one of her seats and finding, with surprise, that it held him.

Harvesting rattan is a very labor-intensive process, says Clements. In Indonesia — the world’s top source of rattan since the 17th century —rattan grows in vines in the rain forests, and has to be cut down by machete. After the vine (or reed as it’s called in caning) is cut, then the hard outer layer is peeled off to reveal a porous center, which is then smoked with sulphur to cure it and then dried in the sun.

When the Indonesian government embargoed all rattan exports in early 2012 in order to encourage in-country production of furniture, securing the reeds became very challenging and expensive (rattan is also produced in China, but it’s of a lower quality and splinters and frays more than the Indonesian variety). Clements and Klingler have had to track down sources for the remaining supply of rattan on the market, but they’re used to being creative that way: in order to repair a mid-century modern chair strung with what’s called “Danish cord,” they found the great-grandson of the chair’s original designer, JL Møller, and he shipped them a spool of it.

Once the materials have been procured, the arduous process of re-caning can begin. A typical traditional cane-seat chair has holes for lacing under the seat. The old cane has to be removed then pegs are inserted into the holes for weaving. The cane is soaked in water to make it more flexible, then looped through the holes with the aid of tiny tools: awls, ice picks, even dissection, surgical and dental tools for the tiny openings. Klingler’s background in mechanical engineering led him to develop a caning platform out of an old swivel office chair that can be raised, lowered and maneuvered to get the best angle. The whole process speeds up considerably if the seat doesn’t have holes for weaving: a piece of pre-woven cane can be hammered into the groove along the edge of the chair.

Most chair seats and backs are in a few common patterns: daisy and buttons, snowflake, and diamond, for example. But the more complicated patterns are often the most beautiful. The intricate spider web and Star of David patterns are only tackled by experienced caners, and the medallion pattern is so daunting that a medallion chair Clements and Klingler repaired took over 400 hours of work and stayed in the shop for two years. But when it was done,  “The Beast,” as Clements calls the chair, was magnificent. “After doing that, I knew we could do anything.”

Clements hopes her family caning tradition will continue (she predicts her four-year-old nephew will carry the torch forward), but she and Klingler also teach classes at the studio and through the Southern Highlands Craft Guild. They recently held a workshop at The Island Farm, a living history museum in Manteo.

She recommends that owners of cane chairs “water” them (cover them with a damp, but not soaking cloth) once a year to keep the fibers in good shape. But if the seat should burst, there’s no need to banish it to the sidewalk: she and Klingler can bring it back to life.

Go Chair Repair is located at 375 Depot Street, Asheville, inside Studio 375. Call Brandy Clements and Dave Klingler at 828-707-4553 or visit www.gochairrepair.com.