What are Chair Cane and Rattan Reed?
by Cathryn Peters Copyright 2002
Chair Cane and Rattan Reed, which are both used in weaving chair seats and baskets, come from the rattan palm, the vine calamus rotang which is imported from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and China.
This natural vine grows wild along the jungle floor as well as through the trees in the Rain Forest, and looks somewhat similar to our grapevine. Lengths can be up to 600 feet with an average diameter of about 2-4 inches.
Processing Rattan to Make Weaving Material
After pulling the vine from the trees (it doesn’t harm the trees of the Rain Forest since it winds around them and the trees are not cut just for the rattan harvest), and bringing the harvested crop out of the forest, the outer thorns are removed and discarded.
The majority of the processing is done in China and Indonesia, so the materials are shipped there where the outer skin or bark called “cane” is stripped off and machined into strands, as is the inner rattan pith called “reed”.
These processed strands and strips are wrapped into coils, hanks and bundles and are ready to go to the consumer.
Wholesale cane & basket suppliers purchase the products and then resell to the end product consumer or retail customer, through their brick and mortar stores, hard copy catalogs, or their online website catalogs.
Defining Chair Cane
The width or gauge of processed cane varies from the smallest super-carriage (1.5 MM), to large slab rattan (8-10 MM), with many sizes in between. The most popular sizes used in chair caning are medium, narrow medium and fine.
The strips or strands of cane are bundled and sold to consumers in either 1,000-foot hanks (enough to weave four chairs), 500-foot hanks (enough to weave two chairs), or 270-foot coils (enough to weave one chair).
These cane strips are also loom woven into big “sheets” of cane that are used in pressed cane chair seat weaving. Pressed cane, machine woven cane, cane webbing or sheet cane are some of the names referred to when talking about machine woven cane panels. It comes in a variety of designs and gauges or sizes too.
Cane webbing comes in the traditional hole pattern, close woven pattern which is solid without any holes, herringbone, Star of David, chevron and others. Check with your cane & basket suppliers to see what they carry.
Cane is a very widely used material and is found in:
- the weaving of chair seats and backs
- for wrapping rattan and stick wicker furniture legs and joints
- basketry projects either as the entire weaving material, an embellishment, or rim wrapping
- room divider panels
- decorative use in cabinetry door panels and radiator covers
- canoe seats
Also some reproduction furniture is made woven entirely of wide binding cane or slab rattan. And many chair seats with rungs or dowels are woven with the third kind of chair caning in what’s called a “porch cane,” “binders cane,” or “basketweave” pattern technique. Here we use wide binding cane or slab rattan, wrapping around the rungs, covering both the top and bottom of the seat.
Since cane has a natural glossy finish, it does not accept a stain or paint well , and can be difficult to match to an existing set or to “age” its appearance, because of this finish.
It is not necessary to apply any varnish, lacquer, poly or any other final finish material to a cane woven seat, back, or furniture wrapped with it. In fact, it’s best to leave cane furniture in its natural state to age gradually, turning to a nice, amber, honey color after several years.
The cane can also be treated minimally with an oil furniture polish product, or oil-based clear finish like tung-oil or rejuvenated somewhat if weathered, by using a mixture of turpentine and boiled linseed oil. Since cane has this natural glossy finish and is resistant to moisture, it’s been a popular material choice for use on antique chairs and rockers used on covered or protected porches.
For example, the very popular Plantation or Victorian wooden rockers from the 1880s-1910s used on porches, were frequently woven using wide binding cane on the seats and backs, hence the term “porch cane” furniture. Chair caners will often substitute the term “porch cane” instead of binder cane when referring to the material, also. Do you have questions about how to care for your cane furniture? Check out this page for answers Cane Furniture Care and Cleaning
Defining Rattan Reed
REED , the inner pith or core of the rattan palm is an extremely versatile material used in weaving wicker furniture and basketry. Since rattan reed is the inner pith, it does not have the smooth, glossy impenetrable skin of cane, but is instead white in color and has a very porous quality. This porous reed material does accept a paint, stain, varnish, lacquer or poly very well.
Because of this porous feature, along with its flexibility and the fact that it’s available in a variety of widths and lengths, makes reed a very popular material for any basket weaving or wicker repair project.
Reed is mechanically cut into strips and processed into flat, flat-oval, oval-oval, round and half-round strands. It now comes in both the natural tan or white color as well as smoked and dyed and is generally sold in one pound coils. Widths of the flatter materials varying from 1″ to 11/64″ with lengths of up to 12 feet or more.
Round reed comes in sizes ranging from the smallest of #00 1/8″ (1.25 MM) to the largest, 5/8″ #18 (16.00MM) and also are available in lengths of over 12 feet.
Because both round and flat reed are so much more versatile than the skin-on rattan poles that were used in the early wicker furniture of the 1840s-1870s, reed quickly became the weaving material of choice for the later Victorian era wicker.
It was especially well-suited for the fancy embellishments of the curlicues, loops, braids, and wrappings of the Victorian furniture and baby buggies, because it was extremely flexible after soaking in water, could be steam-bent easily and could be so readily stained, painted or lacquered.
Reed remained the favored choice of weaving materials for wicker furniture long into the 1920s. But in 1904 when the man-made paper fibre rush product was invented, reed took a back seat in consumer popularity.
This new product was in stiff competition with the reed manufactured furniture and later in 1917 after the Lloyd Loom fabric-like sheet wicker was invented, it greatly surpassed reed in popularity amongst the buying public.
Then in about the late 1930s-1940s wicker almost entirely fell out of fashion throughout the country. Everyone was intrigued with the new plastics, teak and metal furniture of the 50s, 60s and 70s. It’s interesting to note that about every 20-25 years, wicker makes a resurgence and is again the “favorite child” among designers and the consumer.
Reed is still used extensively in reproduction and new wicker furniture, but is not to be used outdoors exposed to the elements. If you want to have the romantic look and feel of wicker outdoors, then substitute some of the very fine and well made resin all-weather wicker furniture that’s currently being manufactured.
Care for your wicker furniture , preserve, save and protect those old antique and collectible wicker pieces and only use them indoors. “Once an antique wicker piece is gone, it’s gone forever, you can’t make another antique!”
Reed continues to also be the choice of materials for basketweavers here in the United States over willow and other natural hand-gathered materials, because:
- reed is a very forgiving and easy to use material
- reed is easy to obtain from a retail source
- reed is relatively inexpensive to purchase
- it has relatively long shelf life
- reed does not need to be prepared prior to use, other than a few minutes soaking in water
- reed is easy to transport to weaving sites