The Art of Chair Seats

“It was as if my father had entered the room,” Sue Stone said, “as if he had channeled through Arvid to help me!” Stone had brought a family antique side chair to the “Clearing in Winter” caning and rushing class that meets at Scandia Village. As she removed the old woven rush, she found writing by her father, Max Sherwood, explaining that he had purchased the chairs in 1930 in Canada and re-rushed them in January of 1972. Now, 30 years later, she was rushing them again.

She added her name and the date to the chair that she is restoring for her daughter whose grandfather passed away in 1978. “When I uncovered the writing,” Stone said, “the whole class had goose bumps.”

Most people take the class because of family connections, Arvid Munson said. “Someone has an old chair, an heirloom, and they take caning or rushing so they can put some of themselves into the piece and pass it on to the next generation.”

Munson has been the instructor since 1996 when his teacher Evelyn Risseeuw retired at age 85. She launched the class in 1976, “the longest running class at the Clearing,” Munson said.

When in 1993 Munson retired from a Great Falls, Virginia company that tested the safety of pharmaceuticals, food additives, and implant materials, he and his wife made their cottage in Door County a full-time home

Nancy Rafal enrolled in Munson’s class in 2002, and since 2006 has been team-teaching with him.

The long history of The Clearing’s caning class seems fitting as the techniques taught have ancient origins. Natural rush seating dates from 4000 BC Egypt, and cane seats were already a tradition in China when that country opened its borders to foreign trade during the Ming Dynasty in 1567.

Munson and Rafal instruct about a dozen students in the process of weaving rush and cane seats. The natural materials for both processes are manufactured from the rattan palm. The leaves are twisted together to form long cord-like coils used to wrap seats in rush work. (But a less expensive alternative is fiber rush made from a paper product.) The bark of the rattan palm is machine split into long thin strips that are used to weave decoratively patterned cane seats; some are woven by hand and others are hand-applied using machine-woven pieces.

Rush work is usually done on chairs with square or trapezoidal seats with dowel rails. Generally, fiber rush is used, but natural rush is sometimes chosen for quality antique chairs. After removing the old material, rush weavers follow a traditional process to achieve the classic look of long strands wrapped to make a simple woven pattern that extends diagonally from each corner of the seat toward the center.

Chair caners begin by removing the old caning. After soaking the new cane strips in warm water, artisans follow a seven-step process to create the traditional intricately woven pattern for a new chair seat.

A walk around the workroom is a stroll into the past, not only because of the traditional caning and rushing techniques in progress, but because of the stories that the owners tell about the provenance of their chairs.

Kristen Peil works on a set of captain-style chairs that her husband’s grandfather had acquired years ago from a Masonic lodge in Rockport, Massachusetts. He had re-caned them, just as she is now.

In a previous class, Bev Schulze used machine-woven cane to restore a 100-year-old chair that had belonged to her grandmother who was born in Wales. This year she is back in class to hand cane a chair to use with her grandmother’s desk.

In another class, Jane Weis caned two late 19th century chairs that had belonged to her grandmother in Lake Geneva. Because she enjoyed the experience, she returns this year to cane another.

Roy Omundson is working on one of the oldest chairs, part of a mid-19th century tiger maple set that had belonged to his wife’s family in upstate New York. Because of the age of the chairs, he is using natural rush for these pieces his son will inherit.

While students work at their own pace in the class, Munson and Rafal offer suggestions and answer questions, as each chair is at a different stage of completion. The projects require a variety of techniques and offer unique challenges.

Rafal provides practical guidance to learners, drawing upon her professional experience; during a recent winter she completed 10 caned chairs and a half dozen rush work pieces. And Munson has a wealth of expertise to share, not only from his work as a craftsman but also from his many years in a classroom.

“I like to teach,” Munson said. And his students praise his abilities as an instructor. One of them is director of The Clearing, Michael Schneider, who took the class to cane an antique chair belonging to his wife. “I enjoyed it very much,” he said. “Arvid is very patient and Nancy, helpful. They have a knack for sensing when you’re in trouble and over your head, and they’re by your side. The class is low key, helpful, and fun.”

While the students in this Clearing in Winter class learn to weave rush and cane, they not only strengthen the seats of their chairs but ties with their families and the past.


While the intricate pattern of a caned chair seat might appear daunting to the beginner, the methodology described in the steps below soon becomes apparent. Nonetheless, novices will benefit from a class with an instructor to answer questions.

  1. The rails have drilled holes on all sides of the opening. A strip of moistened cane, the loose end temporarily secured with a peg, is threaded from the seat back to the front, back and forth until the area resembles the warp of a loom ready for weaving.
  2. Cane is threaded from one side of the seat to the other, forming a second layer atop the first.
  3. Another strip of cane is threaded from the back to the front of the seat atop the first layer of cane.
  4. Cane is woven from one side of the seat to the other, the strand passing over the cane from step 3 and under the cane from step 1.
  5. After the strands running in both directions are pushed into double pairs, cane is woven diagonally from the right, under pairs that go from side to side and over those that go from front to back.
  6. From the left side, cane is woven diagonally under pairs from front to back and over those from side to side. The result is a weave with hexagonal openings.
  7. The caning project is finished by securing a binder strip atop the holes with a woven strand, and then tying off the ends.

Rush Work

While rush work generally follows the seven steps given below, beginners are advised to enroll in a class as the process is technical and demanding:

  1. As chair seats are generally wider in front, the weave of the seat must be squared. The first strands of rush are misted for pliability and the ends tacked at intervals along the dowel side rails for filling in the corners.
  2. Each successive damp strand is pulled over and under the front rail, across itself, then over and under the left side rail across to the right rail, again over and under, across itself, then over and under the right rail and tacked. The process is repeated until a square opening results.
  3. One end of a 25 -foot piece of moistened rush is tacked to the left-hand rail near the back corner, and then woven to continuously advance the pattern begun in the previous step.
  4. The seat stuffing begins when about two-thirds of the rail surface is covered. Triangular pieces of paper or cardboard are worked between the two layers of rush strands.
  5. The weaving is continued until the side rails have been covered.
  6. The seat is completed with a figure-eight weave called the bridge.
  7. The surfaces of the woven strands of rush are smoothed and finally sealed with a shellac-alcohol mixture.