Gloria White can seat quite a few people in her home. Not because of the home’s size, but because of the number of chairs she has. The wooden beauties are not only used as an extra seat for guests, but more impressively display her skills in the art of chair caning.
On a chilly winter afternoon White brought chair after chair out of her basement at her home in Beaver Dam, showing and explaining the ornate and detailed work of a chair with a caned seat.
“Chair caning is really a dying art,” she said, as she explained the process of weaving cane through tiny holes onto a wooden chair. White is one of a handful in the area who can do chair caning and has customers throughout the Midwest.
“I’ve always enjoyed antiquing and love press back chairs, but over the years I always stayed away from chairs with caning,” she said. “Then my father, who is a jack-of-all-trades, decided to take a class on chair caning at MATC and I decided to join him.”
White enjoys working with her hands and was a hair dresser and seamstress when she took the class. Chair caning, which requires a lot of meticulous hand work, seemed to come naturally for her. After one semester of the class, the instructor encouraged White to start her own business.
“People always called this instructor to repair their caned chairs and she was getting older and wanted to get out of it, so she referred them on to me and the business took off,” White said. “I don’t take out ads or have a website. People find me through word of mouth and that I believe is the best form of advertisement.”
Since then she has caned chairs for people in Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois and throughout southern Wisconsin. One of her most memorable and most challenging chairs was one at the Governor’s Mansion in Maple Bluff.
“I was helping to take care of my mother at the time. I came home and she said I had a call to do a chair and it was from the Governor’s Mansion,” White said. “I was just shocked when it turned out it really was the Governor’s Mansion.”
Tommy Thompson was governor at the time, and although she didn’t get to meet him, she did get a tour of the mansion when she came to pick up the chair.
“This chair was sitting in the main quarters where the public can go and apparently a mother set her baby carrier on this chair and it broke,” she said. “The chair was donated and came from France.”
The chair had a caned seat and the entire back was curved and caned. It was painted black and had a painted picture of a little girl in the middle of the back of the chair. Gloria believes it dates back to the 1800s.
“A caned chair that has curves in it is extremely difficult to do. I took it to my instructor for some advice and she told me to turn it down,” Gloria said. “But I will always take on a challenge. It took me several months to complete.”
She saw the chair several years later during a Christmas tour of the mansion. It was sitting in a room not open to the public. After that chair she was asked to fix several other chairs for the Governor’s mansion and office. Those chairs had more basic backs and seats.
Many of White’s customers are people who own a chair that has been broken, others are those who found a chair and want it fixed. Some have taken a class in caning and think they can do it on their own.
“A lot of people go to an antique store and pick up these chairs that may need some fixing. Some try to do it themselves first,” she said. “Eventually I end up getting it and fixing it. Many people don’t realize how time consuming it is and how hard it is on your hands.”
Craftsmanship of caning
The process of caning begins with choosing the size of cane needed for the seat. It comes in various sizes from common cane to super fine cane. The size needed for the job depends upon the diameter of the holes that go around the seat where the cane is weaved. White purchases her cane from a seller in California.
To start a chair she has to first prepare the cane. She soaks it in warm water in a milk pail for 15 minutes so it will bend without breaking. Once it is soaked she can start her caning pattern. If she stops for the day, the following day she must soak her cane again and also place wet wash cloths on the portion she has finished.
The highly meticulous hand work includes a repetition of eight different strands on a seat or back.
The steps start off with the first row going from front to back. The second row is side to side. Next she makes a diagonal row. The fifth step is a weaving lock while the sixth step is another diagonal. Her seventh step includes binding the edges and finally she makes sure to cover all of the holes.
“Once these chairs are complete a caned chair can last 25 to 30 years if used properly,” Gloria said. “That means people should not stand on them and kids should not run toys over the seat.”
White discourages people from staining a newly-caned chair believing it will make the cane more brittle. The cane starts off light, but over time it will darken.
White’s work varies throughout the year and she may sometimes have a waiting list of 20 or more chairs. She also likes to find time to work on the chairs she has collected over the years with her partner, Ron Faust, who is retired from the Dodge County Sheriff’s Department. They have more than 100 chairs ready to be caned in a storage unit in Beaver Dam.
“I love creating things and I don’t feel like caning is a job to me. It’s relaxing and it can be mobile,” she said. “I can take it wherever I go.”
While White’s main work includes caning, she also weaves rush seats, using flat reed, shaker tape, round reed and Danish cord.
“If only these chairs could talk, imagine the stories they could tell of what went on around them: What the people were like that used them, who were the children that raced around them,” she said while running her fingers along the wooden frame of a chair. “I’m so grateful for my customers who’ve saved these chairs from a burn pile or a landfill.”
For more information contact White at 920-210-5748 or 887-0876.