Streams

Niche Market | Chair Caning

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Dorvan Jordan, 77, working on chair with a French caning style. (Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC)

New York is a city of specialists from foodies to academics, laborers to shopkeepers. Every Wednesday, Niche Market will take a peek inside a different specialty store and showcase the city's purists who have made an art out of selling one commodity. Slideshow below.

Veteran's Chair Caning & Repair
442 10th Ave
New York, NY 10001

Hidden among tire repair shops on a wide and noisy stretch of 10th avenue, preservers of an ancient craft toil away. Veteran's Chair Caning and Repair has been mending broken cane furniture for New Yorkers who prefer to rest on woven strips of the rattan plant since 1899.

"It's much more comfortable, it's durable, you could sit on it all day and your butt doesn't get square, and it breathes with you," is how owner John Bausert described the experience of sitting on a cane chair. The 63-year-old was sitting in a cane chair himself, surrounded by stacks of chairs ranging from antique Lincoln rockers to Danish Modern and Mies van deer Rohe designs.

Five generations of Bauserts, have worked in the caning shop, but the individual who started the family business remains a mystery. The only information Bausert knows about this forefather is that he was a veteran of the Spanish-American War — which is how the shop got its name.

The craft of the repair work has hardly changed an iota since 1899 — or for thousands of years for that matter—and Bausert said business remains steady. "We will always have work; we will not always have workers. It's a dying art," he said with a wince. It takes from six months to a year to train someone how to painstakingly — yet quickly — weave thin strips of cane in an intricate "open hole" pattern that will support the weight of a sitter.

A fair number of antiques enter Veteran's for replacement seats after a naughty child jumps on a chair, or someone puts on a few too many pounds, breaking through the tightly hand woven cane. Depending on the size of the cane and the complexity of the pattern, hand cane repairs can cost from $225 — $1,000. The shop also caters to restaurants, who decorate dining rooms with cheaper machine-woven cane furniture, and usually charges about $70 for those repair jobs. 

Bausert trained many of his seven employees, who work in the back of the shop, quietly weaving cane strips over and under each other. "If you can do it to please me you can please the customer," Bausert said of his training technique. He published a book, 'The Complete Book of Wicker and Cane Furniture Making, on the craft in 1976.

Dorvan Jordan, 77, who Bausert calls the best technician he has ever known, learned the craft at the age of 14 in Barbados. On a recent afternoon, Jordan sat with a chair in the back of the shop, pulling long strips of cane out of a bucket of water that increased its suppleness. The pattern of holes drilled into the wooden perimeter of the chair in front of him dictated the pattern of the cane. One of the most challenging cane designs, as well as one of the most beautiful, was the "medallion," Jordan said, pointing to a chair where cane radiated out from a suspended circle of wood to the perimeter of the wooden chair back. "It's a copy of from a spider web. You know how the spider is in the center and the web goes around? That design is going to be exactly the same way," Jordan said. 

The shop’s cane workers had different perspectives on how much they enjoyed the ancient craft. Sean Bausert, who is taking over the family business, said it was "OK." He added, "It's provided a good living for our family for a long time, so I have no complaints."  Others, like Godfrey Daniel, truly enjoyed the work, which he had been doing for 40 years. "It's fun actually, and very meditative, I'm perfectly content to sit here all day and do this," he said. "Another day in the old caning shop."

Medallion pattern(Photo: A cane chair with a medallion pattern in need of repair./Sarah Kate Kramer for WNYC)

Interview with John Bausert, owner of Veteran's Chair Caning & Repair

What exactly is cane?

Cane is the outside peeling of the rattan plant. There's a thousand species of rattan, only a couple of them can be turned into cane. It's cut down in the jungles, processed, turned into cane webbing, or, little pieces of cane that are woven into a pattern, and there you go, you've got cane.

Where does your cane come from?

It's fabricated in China, and the Chinese get the raw material from Indonesia.

What's difference between hand canning and machines?

Hand caning you start out with a blank slate basically. For instance, on a seat there will be holes drilled around the frame and then you have to stitch the cane through those holes to come up with the cane pattern. Machine caning, it's pre-woven and there's a groove around the outside of the perimeter and you push the cane into the groove, you put some glue, cut off the excess, put some spline in and yadda yadda yadda, magically you have a seat.

Are these chairs delicate?

The caning itself? No. It's very strong. I mean, you can't stand on it, can't jump up and down on it but it's very strong.

Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC

The classic cane design. The craft is thought to have been invented in Egypt. The Met has a piece of cane furniture, Chair of Reniseneb, that dates back to 1450 B.C.E.

Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC
Sean Bausert
Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC
A chair in need of repair at Veteran's.
Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC
Hank of cane.
Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC
John Bausert outside his shop.
Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC
A half moon pattern in cane.
Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC
Dorvan Jordan, 77, working on chair with a French caning style.
Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC
A jumble of chairs at Veteran's Chair Caning and Repair.
WNYC
Eric Aguilar canes a chair.
Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC
Diego Maldonado, who has been working at Veteran's for 12 years, hand caning a chair.
Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC
Cane chair with a medallion pattern

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Comments [1]

Betty Eriksen from New Zealand

Such a shame that there are not more apprentices learning this ancient craft. At least with family businesses the skills are being passed down through the generations.

Thank you for an interesting article.

Dec. 19 2012 12:14 AM

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