Add a piece, or a set, of cane furniture to any room and the atmosphere instantly relaxes. Your proximity to the nearest beach dwindles, your vacation days increase (and inch closer), sunshine glimmers in the forecast. Barefooted-ness becomes a regular consideration. Ice cream for dinner. I’m not kidding. Have you tried it?
The plants used to make woven, natural-fiber furniture take many shapes, but two of the most common materials used are rattan and cane. Often confused and used interchangeably, rattan and cane are different applications of a similar material. Rattan includes over 600 different species of solid timber vine (different from a material like bamboo, which is hollow), native to tropical forests. Cane, on the other hand, is actually a specific part of rattan, which is removed from the thorny outer skin of the plant. It’s naturally very light in color, somewhat shiny, and far less porous than other parts of rattan—making it exceptional at repelling liquid spills.
But what all of it has in common once it’s become furniture is porousness, which means that, when not properly cared for, natural woven furniture can dry out and crack over time.
This became especially evident to me recently, when I acquired a pair of old, crackly rattan chairs. I don’t mind that there’s some breakage and wear on the weave from an aesthetic perspective—but I was worried about one of the seats falling through.
So I did some poking around for a professional to restore them. I’m crafty but I don’t know a thing about sourcing or weaving rattan. Fortunately, some people do: I came across Katherine Wilson, of Weaving Restoration in Southampton, New York, an incredibly adept restorer of natural, woven furnishings with a specialty in traditional weaves. While I’m saving up a mattress fund for the full and proper restoration of my chairs, Katherine was kind enough to share her tips for keeping cane furniture healthy and happy and well-moisturized.
Follow these tips and you’ll make sure your cane furniture outlives you:
Keep it out of direct sunlight.
Exposure to direct sunlight will, over time, dry out and discolor your cane furniture—and drying out is what will lead to tears and breakage in the construction. Instead, you want to keep it moisturized…
Yes, really. One method is to keep your pieces in a room where you have a humidifier, or, if you live in a humid climate, on a covered porch. Katherine likened the ideal conditions to a cigar humidor.
But if your home isn’t humid enough to keep a cigar hydrated (mine is decidedly not), hope isn’t lost. You can give them a monthly spritz with an oil- or glycerin-based soap that’s been diluted in water to work some moisture into the surface. Katherine dilutes Murphy’s Oil Soap in a spray bottle of water and spritzes the chair or couch’s back and underside before wiping clean with a rag. (Don’t spray the top side, lest you want an oily imprint on the seat, and let the chairs fully dry before adding back any cushions.)
If you paint it, leave one side unpainted.
For the same reasons as above, your cane furniture needs to breathe or it will get crackly and dry. If you’re painting it, just coat the outward-facing side, leaving the back and bottom uncoated.
To protect the seat, use a cushion.
A flat cushion or pillow set on the seat of a cane chair will do the job of dispersing weight over the surface, easing up pressure on the center so that breakage is less likely to occur. Even if the seat of a chair has already started to give, as mine has, setting a pillow on it can stall the progression.
Or you can take it a step further by upholstering a cushion to sit atop it: Have a piece of plywood cut to be the size of the seat, add some batting atop it, lay a piece of fabric across that and staple its edges to the back of the plywood. This will put almost all of the pressure on the frame, rather than the woven seat.
Don’t let it sit in water.
Katherine sees a lot of mildew on the feet of old natural fiber furniture. Since brick and slate patios, for example, won’t immediately drain, they aren’t the best place for these pieces (unless you don’t mind carting them inside at every sign of a shower).
And as enticing as it is, “all-weather” wicker furniture, Katherine tells me, is often made of pressed paper that’s coated in a water-repelling substance, meaning that any breach in that protective surface will spell mildew in a heartbeat.
When All Else Fails, Source a Repair.
Sometimes, even our best-intentioned care tactics just don’t cut it. In the case of a very old and inherited piece of rattan or cane furniture, for example, it might be beyond the point of a revival with some oil-based soap and water. If you’re hoping to get your piece refurbished by a professional, it will likely cost about $1 to $3.50 per hole (or per inch). For some perspective, an average hand-caned seat probably has about 400 holes. It’s definitely pricey, but for heirloom items, the extension on the life of the piece might be worth it. And if you’re working with something new, treat it right from the start and “it’ll outlive us both,” as Katherine puts it.
What other furniture care tips would you be interested in learning about? Tell us in the comments.