I’ve Caned It: Repair Cane Barstools

Ever wanted to repair cane mesh furniture? Follow me on my journey as I learn about hand caning (a chair).

Part 1: Repair a Cane Bar Stool
repair cane
Watch how I give these sad looking bar stools a makeover.

I brought this pair of Bentwood style cane bar stools second hand for $5 each. That’s hundreds of dollars cheaper than they cost new.  Only problem was one of them had a big hole in the back rest. Well that was over a year ago, and since then I’ve been unable to find anyone prepared to repair cane locally. I also couldn’t find anyone who sold retail quantities of cane in the whole of New Zealand. My $5 chairs were just taking up space in my garage.

So I contacted the people at Peerless Rattan in Michegan, USA. Not only were they very helpful, but the package of cane arrived in just 3 days! That is quicker than I can get groceries delivered from my local supermarket. Yes it is, I’m not joking.

Importing cane is a restricted activity in New Zealand, so I wanted to ensure my cane order wouldn’t get stopped at the border or incur expensive fumigation fees. After getting the run around from various government departments the advice I received was to clearly label the package and wait and see. As it happened, they let it pass through without even opening it up. And no fees. 😀

I’m not going to give step by step instructions in this blog because I’m no expert. If you plan to take on a job like this, there are several really good free tutorials on youtube. I recommend using the 7-step method which can be found at The Wicker Woman (Cathryn Peters) or Peerless Rattan’s Cindy Hammond. But I am going to give some tips to guide you and help you get started. Sometimes the experts forget what it’s like to be a beginner and little things they take for granted can become major stumbling blocks for us. So learn from my fails.

Square seats are easier for beginners to weave, but don’t let that stop you starting with a round or oval seat. If I can do it, anyone can. All you need is a little patience and time commitment.

Tools and Materials You Need

I’d like to simply repair the hole in the cane, but cane this old needs to be replaced. Besides the woodwork could do with a revamp too. Before you do anything else, you need to work out if you are going to need Strand Cane or Cane Mesh (pressed cane). The furniture you wish to restore will determine which you need. (An experienced caner may be able to adapt a piece of furniture to use either, but that’s beyond this article.) It comes down to this: If, once you’ve cut away your old cane, you find you have a series of holes drilled around the circumference of the area to be re-caned, then you will need to weave the cane yourself with Strand Cane. If you find a channel or groove with no holes, then you simply need to insert mesh cane (machine woven cane).

In my case, I needed to do both. The round seats required Strand Cane and the oval back rests required cane mesh (pressed cane). For Part 1 of this post, I’m renovating the seat. I’ll post Part 2 later.

There’s really only one specialised tool required for weaving strand cane and that is an awl. It is a sharp pointy thing which apparently looks like an ice pick. Although I’ve never seen an ice pick before so I can’t confirm that. You’ll want to get an awl that has a very skinny pointy end on it. It helps you lift the cane in tight areas so you can pull the strands through (see photo A).CANE

The other tools you need, are common household items,[see photo F] ie: a pair of kitchen shears or side cutters, spray bottle, small mallet, golf tees, etc.

Yes, I did say golf tees. You can actually get proper caning pegs which work best, but a dozen golf tees are a good substitute, especially the wooden kind. Some projects need them more than others.

The cane itself comes in bundles or hanks of strands of varying lengths & quality. If you are re-caning something, measure the width of the existing cane, and buy the same size to replace it with. If you are unsure, err on the small size. I used an entire bundle of (5/8th in/2.5mm/fine) cane to do one bar-stool seat. But because I’m a beginner, I did have quite a lot of wastage. You’ll also need a length of wider binding cane (enough to go around the circumference of your project) and a very small amount of round reed for finishing.  Peerless Rattan sell starter packs [photo F] which come with the awl, the reuseable pegs, a bundle of fine-width cane, the binder & reed. If this is your first project, I really recommend buying one of these. {Note: my only affiliation with that company is as a retail customer.}

“Wish I’d Known That Before I Started” Tips
  • The hank of cane is not one big roll. It comes in varying lengths (all one width). Keep the long lengths for the centre rows and use the short pieces or cut-offs for the edges (especially if doing a round or triangular piece).
  • Since cane is a natural product (it is actually the peeled bark of the vine-like rattan palm tree), each hank of cane has good pieces and less than good pieces. Check each length before using and discard or cut short any sub-optimal pieces.
  • Keep unused pieces of cane in a cool area.
  • Each strand of cane has a front and a back. The front is smoother. You need to weave with the smooth edge facing upwards.
  • If you run your finger along the length of the front, you will feel nobbly bits where the leaves grew from the cane strand. Running your finger in one direction will be smooth and the other direction your finger will catch on each nobble. It is important that you pull the cane through your weave in the smooth direction, so the cane doesn’t continually catch on each nobble and eventually break.
  • When working on your project, you will ideally have unscrewed it from the rest of the piece of furniture. This will allow you to turn it as you go and check the underside as necessary. If you must keep it attached to the rest of the piece of furniture, then at least have a high stool, so that you can sit above it, keeping your posture good and your arms less tired. Watch out for any screws that intersect the holes (like I had). These will inevitably create a problem when you start to get 7 or more strands of cane in each hole. I think in this case it would be better to unscrew it and rescrew through the cane at the end. Or consider drilling a new hole for the cane in an adjacent position.
  • Clean up the furniture and ensure no trace of cane is left in the holes or groove. If you plan to re-varnish the woodwork, do it before you begin caning. Generally, it is advisable not to varnish the cane or put any finish on it. Just let it age and darken naturally.
  • The most important thing to keep in mind is not to twist the cane. To prevent this, keep your forefingers on the cane as you pull it through each hole [photo C]. If you notice a twisted cane in a previous row, unpick back to it. Otherwise the finished result may not be strong enough to last.
  • It is tempting to weave the cane for several centimeters before pulling it taut. In my experience, this generally leads to twisted cane. I would suggest, as a beginner, you only weave through a few centimeters before pulling tight.
  • When weaving each row, work from the back to the front, so that you can pull the cane towards yourself. The exception is the first few centimeters where it can sometimes be easier to work in the other direction so that it is closer to yourself. This is where it helps to be able to turn the work.
  • Check the underside often, to check that you really are pulling through the holes tightly. You don’t want to end up with loose loops in the final step.
  • It sometimes helps to bend the tip of the working edge of cane [photo B], to help get it under the weave. But don’t be afraid to cut off any bent ends when you get to the next hole. It is normal to waste quite a bit from cutting off ends.
  • If the hole is really tight, use your awl to ream it out a bit before trying to push your cane through. You could also try using a pair of pointy tweezers to pull the cane through.
  • Be careful not to split the cane with your awl. If the cane does split, you can still use it [photo A]. The end result is apparently not weakened. But if you are about to start a row with split cane, my advice is to cut it off and start the row with a new piece, as split cane does not look as nice.
  • If a piece of cane snaps half way through the row, Pull the cane back out of the row and start the row with a new piece. Leave at least 8cm/3in dangling underneath so that you have enough length to tie off at the end.
  • Some sets of instructions tell you to use the knotless method (rather than tying off) whereby you secure ends of cane by pulling them up into the next hole. My advice is NOT to do this unless you have very roomy holes or are working on a piece where the back will be visible. In my project the holes were far too cramped to allow unnecessary strands into them. In hindsight I should have gone with a smaller width strand, but I had wanted to keep it the same as the original.
  • If you are working in your lounge-room while “watching” the telly, use a small spray bottle, so that you don’t soak your carpet and lounge furnishings from a large spray bottle. If you are working in a workshop, of course you can use any size spray bottle. Remember to keep wetting the cane as you go and this includes the cane that has already been woven—including the tails underneath! And I REALLY wish I’d known that.
  • Keep your lines as straight as possible during the first few weaves. But don’t worry overly. As you go on to the diagonal rows, the previous rows will be pulled relatively straight.
  • As you watch the instructional videos (links above) you will hear a lot about fish heads and crosses. These are important because they not only make the finished piece more attractive, but they help prevent the pairs of verticals and horizontals from separating over time. Well I know that now! I really didn’t understand the fishheads concept and my crosses look more like t’s than x’s. I wish I had spent more time getting this part right.
  • Some instructions advise you to knock round reed into every second hole before finishing with the binding cane. I did that, but my advice is that you don’t. It is better to tie off every hole if you can as it makes a cleaner finish. I only tied off every second hole, because I knew I had one or two holes that would not accept any more cane. I did regret this decision, as my binding cane does not sit as flat as I’d like. Hammering round reed into the alternate holes was quite an enjoyable task though.
  • In the beginning, you will use the pegs to mark out the centre of each side. Dab a bit of nail varnish on the ends of these ones so that you know not to move them as you progress. [photo E] By the time you are on to the last row of weaving, the only peg you will still have in your work is the one in the centre of the back.
  • As you weave the seven strands, you will continue to use additional pegs to keep the cane firmly anchored in the holes. You’ll need to peg the beginning and end of each strand of cane and beginning of each row. You bring this last peg along with you as you move onto the next row. It is not unusual to find you have so many pegs in the piece that you run out of pegs. But as you weave over the top of a pegged end, you can safely remove the peg.
  • When you get to the end of a row and don’t feel you’ll have enough cane in the strand to do another row, simply leave the strand hanging from the work. After a while you will have many ends hanging down [photo D]. These get tied off in the last step.
  • Try to keep your unfinished piece in a cool place. Similarly, try to work in a cool area. If you work in front of the fire place or in a sunny room, it will make the cane dry out more quickly.

materials

A Few Words About Soaking Cane
  • You need to soak the cane before working with it. But don’t get overly concerned about this.
  • Ideally, soak each strand for 5 – 10 minutes in room temp water.
  • Warm/Hot water will make the strands go furry.
  • Oversoaking will also make the strands split and go furry. It may also discolour the strands to an unattractive grey. Thick pieces of spline and binding cane can be soaked for longer than thin strands of cane.
  • I didn’t do this, but you could add a capful of glycerin to the water which helps make the cane more supple.
  • Only soak one strand at a time, unless you can work very quickly (ie: with very fine strand in large holes).
  • When you begin working with a newly soaked cane, it will feel wet. After pulling it through the weave a few times, it will feel dry again. Don’t worry, it is not dry, in fact it is still pliable. If you think it is too dry, you can spray it occasionally with a spray bottle.
  • If you leave your cane for a few hours or even a day or so, it will still be pliable enough to work with after spraying. If you leave the cane for several days or even weeks before carrying on, the cane will dry out and tighten. This will affect the end result detrimentally. You can rewet the cane with the spray can with varying results, but when you go to the final stage of tying off underneath, very dry cane may break. Spraying it is often not enough. Therefore, when starting a new project, ensure you have enough time and momentum to see the project through to finish.

I have estimated that a beginner should be able to finish a chair seat this size in about a week if they were to spend a few hours a day on it. I took six months to do mine and this has definitely affected the result.

Here is a sneak peak of the finished chair. If you want to see it fully finished with the seat back in place, then please “like” this blog or add a comment. I’ll endeavour to post Part II within the next couple of weeks.

hand caned round seat
The chair seat is finished.

One thought on “I’ve Caned It: Repair Cane Barstools

  1. Well it has been six months and I still haven’t gotten on to doing the back. Life got in the way and also, I purchased the wrong sized binder cane for the back mesh. When I get a chance to import the correct cane, I’ll finish this project.

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