Chair Re-Caning Basics

Here's a generous portion of advice and tips for a beginner about chair seat cane replacement, from craftsmen who've done a little or a lot. September 5, 2010

I've got a customer who wants me to re-cane 5 oak dining room chairs for him. I haven't seen them yet, but I believe only the seat is caned. I've never done any cane work before, but I can buy the pre-woven cane from places like Rockler. It seems it would be pretty simple to remove the old and replace with new.

Approximately how much time should I expect this to take? Any advice on the process? From what I've read, I would just need to cut the panel and install it with the spline. Do you soak the edges of the panel in glycerin or just the spline?

I seem to be getting more requests for repair work like this, and with the market in its current state, I'll do what it takes to feed the family.

Forum Responses
(Furniture Making Forum)
From contributor H:
I have been doing caning for about a year now as an extension of my wife's business. This is not my field of expertise, but I can offer you this: "It ain't as easy as it looks." One of the hardest things you will find is getting the old spline and cane out of that groove without breaking it (the groove).

You soak the entire panel in hot water and glycerin. Never soak the spline. And there are many sizes of spine. You need the correct one. They are all very close in size when viewed by eye.

Keeping the panel straight in the opening is another issue. As you drive the spline it can distort the panel. The spline is not the only thing holding the panel in. I glue the groove with a small brush just prior to driving the spline. Use care cutting off the excess. My first chair, one for myself, took well over an hour.

From the original questioner:
Thanks - I appreciate your honesty! I kind of suspected it might be harder than it seems. Any suggestions on removing the old cane/spline? Do you just remove it with pliers while trimming with a razor to keep from damaging the groove? How long do you soak your cane? Also, what kind of glue do you attach it with? On your spline width, do you measure the old spline with calipers to get the correct size? Do you just trim with a razor after inserting the spline?

From contributor G:
Are the chairs set up for a cane panel? If so, contributor H has you covered. Before you commit, check to see if these are done with the older method, which has no groove but rather a number of holes spaced about 3/8 to 1/2 in apart around the field, and the cane is woven in place. If that is the case, you soak the cane and weave. Or I have seen some get out a router and chisel and make a groove. Any place that sells cane will have a booklet with instructions and cane size info.

From contributor J:
I have done both types and it was usually a fill-in job for a good client. It won't ever pay your wages, but will build good will. Places like Rockler and Van Dykes, who sell cane, carry a chisel to remove old spline. Be sure to get one. It is about 1/8" wide with a crook neck and will get to the bottom of the groove. As far as the finished product, I prefer the single cane hole at a time approach, as you can get it tight enough to sing and don't have to worry about the spline giving. But figure on lots of time to do it right.

From contributor B:
Years ago when I was doing general cabinet work, my wife did most of the woven cane projects and I did the splined pre-woven projects. I never had much of a problem doing the pre-woven with splines, but I'll tell you that the woven projects were tough on my wife's fingers, and even mine when I did it.

As to cutting grooves in chairs that are designed for in-place weaving, I personally would consider shooting someone who did that to one of my chairs. Pre-woven cane fabric held with spline... A spline is a mass-produced poor man's reproduction of the true product, cane woven in place. Don't mean to sound arrogant, but it came about as a machine made inexpensive alternative to hand woven seats.

You can get caning supplies from many sources now, but the original professional source is H.H. Perkins.

From the original questioner:
Thanks. I picked the chairs up last night from the customer. There are five total, and they are around 70-80 years old. They are the spline/panel style with the seat panel being around 9 x 11". They have been re-caned in the past.

I'm to re-cane the chairs as well as do some joint repair (loose joints, one missing rung, etc.) and minor touchup. The finish is in good shape for the age, but it was apparently re-topcoated years ago (I found a couple of minor runs in the topcoat). The client wants the original finish maintained but wants the damaged areas touched up.

Unfortunately, someone attempted to repair a couple of joints with a JB weld type of epoxy (luckily only a couple).

The plan is to access the structural needs first and properly repair the joints using hide glue as the adhesive (hopefully most of the joints still are attached with hide glue so I can get them apart) and reconstruct the missing rung.

After this, I plan to determine what the topcoat is and make finish repairs accordingly. I'm hoping to get the existing runs out without cutting into the original finish, and then give them a thorough cleaning. Next will be the minor stain touchups, followed by wax.
Finally, replacing the cane panels will complete the job. Your thoughts?

From contributor B:
Sounds like the way I would attack the project as well.

From contributor W:
I am a chairmaker and do not do cane. (I weave the seats of my design in braided cotton cord.) I am asked numerous times at shows if I do caning. However, there is a fellow in town that does and he has about 2 years of work (and caning is part time). He gets all my contacts. On the "woven in place" style he charges by the hole, on the order of 50 cents per hole. He is good and fast and does many new patterns using various widths cane.

From contributor D:
I have re-caned hundreds of seats in the last 35 years as a small portion of my business. I would have to agree cleaning out the old groove without doing damage is the hardest part. I slice the old cane out and use a fresh utility razor to slice the old spline to loosen it from the groove. They either come out easy or hard - very little middle ground. I do use a spline chisel, an 1/8" longish chisel, and mallet to tap it out.

Most written instructions say to soak the pre-woven cane for several hours. I have found soaking the cane for 6 hours to overnight causes no adverse effects and you will have fewer broken strands.

I use some softwood wedges I make to push the wet cane down into the groove, not drive it down. After the cane is seated in the bottom of the groove, I trim it off just below the outside edge of the groove. Then glue and tap the spline into place with a tool shaped like the crown of the spline. I use Titebond. The spline size should be dictated by the groove width. There is a chart. You can dress it down with a hand plane if need be. On seats with curved or more shapely patterns, you may want to soak the spline before bending to shape.

From the original questioner:
Thanks! I'll make some wedges, and I'll definitely use your removal method, though I can tell you that mine will be difficult to remove - just my luck (Murphy works at my shop most days!)!

I was able to pull a small section of spline out, and it measured approximately 7/32" wide x 1/4" tall. The groove measures 9/32" wide x about 3/8" deep. From looking at the vendor's charts I see they offer spline for a 9/32" wide x 7/32" deep groove. These chairs have been re-caned before so I'm thinking whoever cleaned them out the last time might have gone a little too deep.

Will the extra depth to the groove cause an issue? If all the grooves are this deep, will I need to add a filler to the base of the groove? Also, when soaking the cane, do I need to use just water or a water/glycerin mixture?

I've read to use hot water, so if I soak if for 6-12 hours, do I need to keep the water hot or just allow it to cool down on its own?

From contributor C:
Be mindful of extracting the old cane. The caner may have loaded up the groove with glue, making the removal very tedious. Take a razor to the inside edge of the groove and carefully separate the cane and spline from the inner wall of the groove, otherwise it may break out at the surface. Soften the top inner edge of the groove with 100C to prevent edge tear as the seat dries. Before laying in the new seat, run a thin bead of glue along the inside edge, not the bottom of the groove. Do not set the new cane all at once... Make three passes around the seat to avoid distorting the pattern. Cut the cane slightly below the top outer edge of the groove before setting the spline. And finally, back cut your mitered corners on the spline pieces and set them such that the curved top is slightly proud of the surface for a nice clean look.

From contributor D:
The depth of 3/8" of the grooves will not cause trouble, but they are a tad deep. Make sure the cane bottoms out in the groove. The spline is wedge shaped to allow room for glue and cane on each side and underneath.

When I put the glue in I use a strand of cane to walk the glue all around, especially on the sides of the groove. The bottom will load up also. The spline will not necessarily bottom out. In fact, in your case, it won't.

Just tap it in until the edge of the crown is even with the groove. The glue on the sides and bottom will hold the cane fine and the spline is held mainly by the glue on the sides. I take a wet rag and clean off any excess glue squeeze out.

Warm water is used for soaking hand weaving cane mostly, and is not needed for machine cane. Same with the glycerin - it provides some lubrication for each strand when sliding through the other strands.

Just don't force the cane, or it will break. Ease it down into the groove with the wedges; push against the side of the groove and down.

If you ever put a piece in and it is crooked, simply and carefully pull it out and re-soak it, have a cool drink and try again.

From the original questioner:
Contributor C, when you refer to softening the edge with 100C, are you just saying to ease the edge with sandpaper? Thanks - I'm feeling much better about this job with everyone's input.

Contributor D, are you saying that you do not soak machine cane panels?

From contributor D:
I said you don't need warm water or glycerin - tapwater works fine. Cut the pieces a little oversize and put the smooth side up.

From contributor C:
About the sandpaper - yes, exactly. Also, when re-gluing old chairs, work on a dead flat surface. When reassembling, fit all the components together, then use a clamp to draw them tight, but do not leave the clamps on. Once the joints are firmly seated, check that the chair is level on all 4 legs, then place a level across the front of the seat to check level there. Once you are satisfied with the position, allow it to dry without clamps. At most, use a deep throated bar clamp to secure it to the table to ensure it dries level.

From the original questioner:
Update: I have completed these chairs (finally). Thanks to all of you, it went very well. I ended up having to make a new back (curved) leg and two new stretchers, which added to the amount of time. I distressed these parts and was able to get them to match the existing components.

The previously refinished topcoat (thank the Good Lord) that had runs in it was shellac, so after scraping the runs off and buffing with steel wool, I re-topcoated with some fresh-mixed shellac.

Three of the grooves had been repaired in the past (due to splits), two of which had to be repaired again. There was also another split groove that I had to fix.

Y'all were right - getting the old cane/spline out was the most aggravating part, but your recommendations worked perfectly.

Re-caning was a snap (after the first one); I soaked the cane for around 6 hours, and used some soft spruce to make my wedges. I used hide glue, since I had already mixed some for the leg/stretcher repair.

For the repairs I described, what ballpark price would you have charged? I had around $100 in materials, but it took me close to 20 hours to do everything. Based on my shop rate that would put me at needing to charge $1120, which I think is too high. Normally, (for new construction - not repairs), I would charge this full amount, but this is for a good customer that has future potential for commissions, so I want to keep him happy. I'm thinking contributor J hit it on the head when he stated this type of work won't pay the wages but sometimes is necessary (paraphrased of course).

In the end, the chairs look fantastic; I will deliver them today, and I anticipate the client will be satisfied. It was satisfying to bring something back to life!

From contributor D:
Glad the re-cane went well. As far as how much to charge for the repair work, that is easier when you estimate or bid beforehand. You will be wrong a few times, but then anticipate what it will take to do each job. Depends on your market as well. Often I heard, "heck, we didn't pay that much for the chair."

How much potential work exists with this client? If you can afford it, make it easy on them, if you have a good feeling and they are happy. Do them right and if they are the real deal, you should get the other work.

From contributor C:
I charge $85 on average for pre-woven seats, including new cane. Reglues are $65. You will have to use your best judgment on the additional repair work. If they are ongoing clients, I would throw that work in free of charge.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor A:
I found the easiest way to remove the old spline and cane and glue was to use my plunge router with a straight shank router bit. Itís much easier than trying to remove it with a chisel.