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In the Hot Seat

Area chair caning experts enjoy
art of restoring, creating

Stein, Browning, May came
to the art in different ways

(January 2014) – Lou Stein is a do-it-yourself kind of guy. When the notion struck him to replace a chair seat, he didn’t hesitate to jump head first into learning the age-old art of chair caning.
Stein had a friend in Missouri who purchased a farm where an old kitchen chair had been left in the farmhouse. Knowing it needed a new seat, Stein decided he would “buy a chair caning book and learn how to do it.”

Lou Stein

Photo provided

Lou Stein works
on a chair in his basement workshop
in New Albany, Ind.
He taught himself
the art of caning.

After that experience, his new-found hobby “blossomed into a business,” said Stein, 75. His business, Cane and Able Chair Caning, is the result of his passion for caning chairs.
“I’ve done this for about 12 years,” he said. From a workshop in the basement of his New Albany, Ind., home, Stein repairs chairs for customers. Once in a while he will run across a unique type of old chair in an antique shop, buy it, repair the seat and sell it.
Stein is among a handful of caning specialists in the region. Others include Debbie Browning of Deputy, Ind., and Patrick May of Crestwood, Ky.
Caning a chair is a very labor-intensive process, Stein said. “There are lots of different kinds of cane and numerous applications on how to do it.”
A New Albany native, Stein estimates that he canes about 130 chairs a year. “I do it to finance a yearly fly fishing trip to Montana.”
It takes Stein approximately 12 hours to repair one chair. He admits he is “not a very patient person. This slows me down, and is relaxing.”
Stein gets his supplies online from H.H. Perkins in Connecticut and from a cane and basket supplier in Los Angeles. “Cane is a natural product. It is a vine that grows in the jungles of Indonesia,” he said.

Patrick May

Photo by Helen McKinney

Patrick May of Crestwood, Ky.,
enjoys demonstrating the
art of caning at re-enactment
events in the area.

It is cut and shipped to China, where the outer bark is cut into different widths to be used for caning. The inner core, or pulp, is more suitable to use for caning such things as porch rockers.
When it comes to caning, Stein considers himself a Master Caner. “I’ll do almost any kind of caning anyone brings me. I’m a perfectionist.” This element gives his work a quality that makes the finished product a unique hand-crafted piece of art.
In the past, Stein has given chair caning demonstrations at the Lanesville Heritage Festival. He is currently giving lessons on chair caning to a few students.
Browning, meanwhile, has been caning chairs for several years. “My grandmother used to cane chairs,” she said of her interest in caning. “I watcher her and handed her tools.”
When her grandmother died, Browning bought a small rocker at her grandmother’s estate sale that needed to be re-caned and “that just fit her size. She was a small woman like me.”
Browning found old invoices from where her grandmother had purchased her supplies and contacted the company. Like Stein, she buys supplies from H.H. Perkins.
“I really got busy really quickly,” said Browning, 56. Chair caning turned into a full-time business for her. “I get so much enjoyment out of it.”
Browning has been caning since the late 1990s. “I like to see old things kept. I get a lot of calls around the holidays from people wanting to pass down a chair as a gift. I enjoy hearing their stories.”
She often thinks while caning a chair about how many hands a chair has passed through or how many generations have used it. She enjoys the many different types of chairs she has a chance to work on and said there is always “a historical value to the chair itself.”
Once her children were grown, the Madison native found she had time to pursue caning seriously. “It can be a long process, depending upon the chair itself or how much experience you have at caning. A lot of people want to learn to cane but get frustrated with it and call me.”
Browning has taken some time off from her craft, but plans to get back into it soon. “I like meeting people and talking with them.”
If a customer brings her an antique chair that they want to match to others, wanting it to look old, “there’s a special blend of stain to use on it,” she said.
“Cane has a natural finish to it, almost like polish.” Certain cane, such as binder cane, has sharper edges and is better to use for outdoor furniture, said Browning.
She usually applies shellac to a finished piece. It will age over time and darken in color.
She admitted that caning “can be hard on your hands.” But it is a tradition she believes is “worth keeping alive.”
May, meanwhile, says he “had always had some interest in caning, because I had an uncle that did some caning, mainly with hickory strips. I was impressed that someone could weave a chair bottom that looked that nice and thought I would like to try it someday.”
After they married, his wife, Ellen, became interested in basket making. “I saw the materials that she was using could also be used in chair caning, so I decided to try and see if I could make a bottom that was acceptable.”
May, 63, then looked for books on the subject of caning. He “found that the process was not that complicated if one was organized and could be consistent in what needed to be done.”
To gain additional experience, he likes to visit antique shops and look at chairs to observe the different techniques that others have employed in their caning. “It just helps to expand your knowledge and helps give ideas about what can be done.”
He said it is also a good way to get a lot of examples about what kinds of things to not do. “The finished product dictates whether the job was a success or not.”
May has been caning for himself for about 15 years and accepting work from others for the last 10. “Most of my experiments, and learning bottoms, I have around our house, so I see them daily.” This is a constant reminder “to make sure that I always do the best job possible for others. But it is still a learning experience for me because I know that I do not know all there is to know about the process.”
Each type of seat needs special tools to successfully complete the job, said May, a Lawrence County, Ky., native. He said that when caning, the most important thing is the material used to make the seat.
“Most caners use purchased reed, an imported product, usually purchased in 200-foot bundles,” May said. Reed comes in a variety of widths, depending upon the intended type of chair. His list of standard tools include a good size bucket for soaking the reed, scissors or shears for cutting, string, hammer, measuring tape, a pick or awl, and most importantly “two good hands.”
Depending upon the type of chair bottom, additional tools might include a caning needle, wood-workers chisels, tapered wedges, wooden pegs, wood glue and masking tape. He said it is also beneficial to have a good book close, especially when first trying to cane, “because there will always be a lot of questions.”
As with any caner, May admits he “likes to see the finished product and the way it looks. As I work, I have envisioned the way the product will look when it is complete, and it is exciting to see the chair turn out to look the way I had envisioned it. There is also some pride in it, thinking that I did that and in seeing how others appreciate the work that was put into it.”

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