Every chair has a story. My favorite chair enthusiast, Benno Forman, said that “chairs are documents, and caners are historians that preserve centuries of designs and techniques.” Whether you’re restoring a family heirloom or rejuvenating a flea market find, chair seat weaving is a meditative process with a fun and functional end result.
Photo by Brandy Clements
Chair-weaving materials and patterns vary widely. For this project, you’ll use splint reed from the rattan palm — a tropical climbing tree. Reed is the inner pith of the tree that’s been processed into 1⁄2-inch strips. It’s a common material to replace wooden splints, which are more cumbersome to use and harder to source. Splint reed is available in many sizes, as well as raw and dyed colors.
You’ll be weaving what caners call a herringbone twill pattern for this project. Splint weaving employs a warp-weft process: The warp is the reed that’s wrapped around the front and back rails, which creates the base for weaving, and the weft is the reed that’s woven over and under the warp strands and wrapped around the side rails. Because these terms can be confusing, I’ll call the warp “the warp” and the weft “the weaver.”
You’ll need a chair with four round rails in good condition. Most side chairs require two coils of 1/2-inch splint reed. The overall process will take a couple of days. Plan on weaving the first day, which will take 4 to 6 hours, and sealing the seat on the second day, which will take about an hour.
Tools and Materials
- Plastic tub or bucket, large enough to soak a reed coil
- Wire cutters
- Needle-nose pliers
- Spray bottle filled with water
- Small hammer
- Flathead screwdriver
- Butter knife or small putty knife
- 2 coils of 1/2-inch flat reed
- Small sheet of 1-inch open-cell upholstery foam
- 23-gauge galvanized steel wire
- Shellac or polyurethane
Prepare Your Workspace and Materials
I like to work standing, with the chair on a table so the seat is at elbow level. Clean up any debris on the floor that might cling to your materials.
Fill a small tub or bucket with warm tap water. Clip the strings around one coil of reed, but keep it coiled. Soak the reed for 15 to 20 minutes, using a towel to keep it submerged.
While the reed is soaking, place the foam on the table. Turn the chair upside down over the foam. Trace around the inside of the seat, 1/2 inch in from the rails. Cut out the foam, and clip all four corners. Check the fit to make sure the foam won’t be visible along the rails and in the corners once the chair is finished. Set the foam aside. (Foam will distribute the weight of the sitter, increasing the longevity of the seat. If your chair will be exposed to moisture beyond the typical humidity in a house, don’t use foam.)
Remove the soaked reed from the water, letting excess water drain off into the tub. Hold up the ends of the reed bundle. The short strands will pull away; set these aside on a damp towel, separating them from the medium-to-long strands. Set aside one long strand. Recoil the remaining strands, and put them on a damp towel to keep them from drying out.
Splint reed has a top side and a bottom side. To determine which is which, bend the reed in a U-shape. If fibers pop up, it’s the bottom side, which should face inside the seat. The top side is smooth and should face out. It can be hard to tell sometimes; if both sides look furry, get another strand. Reed is a natural fiber, so slight color and shape variations are normal.
Bend your reed in a U-shape to determine the top and bottom. Fibers will pop up on the bottom, and the top will be smooth. Photo by Brandy Clements
Start by splicing the first reed strand onto itself. Continue splicing as you go, using wire ties to hold the spliced strands in place. Photo by Brandy Clements
You’ll use long reed strands for the warp, and wrap them around the front and back rails until the back rail is covered. (The clamp will be your best friend during this step.) Proper tension is tricky because the front and back rails are often at different heights than the side rails. If the warp is too tight, it will be hard to weave. If it’s too loose, the warp will bump out along the front rail. For most chairs, 1-1/2 to 2 inches between the top and bottom warp layers is ideal. This will allow you to wiggle the foam between the two layers when the warp is finished.
Start the warp with the chair upright and facing you. Find the top side of the long reed strand you set aside. With the top side up, run the end of the reed across the top of the front rail, over and around the back rail, and under the seat about 8 to 10 inches. Clamp the reed on the back rail to temporarily hold it in place.
Now, bring the long end of the strand around and under the front rail to meet the end that’s under the seat. Sandwich the reed together, and wrap it with wire so that the strands form a V-shape at the back of the chair (see image above). Wrap the wire so it’s snug to the edges of the reed, with the wire ends lying in the middle of the reed so they don’t cut you while you work. Using pliers, gently pinch the wire to secure the two pieces of reed.
Continue wrapping the reed around and over the back rail, across the top, and around and under the front rail until you run out of reed.
To splice a new strand, first clamp the old strand to the front rail to temporarily hold it in place. Get a new long strand, and find the top side. It should face down toward the table, and be joined midway between the front and back rails. Always splice on the bottom of the chair. Overlap the new strand onto the old strand by 6 inches, and secure with wire. Cut off any excess reed from the old strand, leaving 3 inches of reed from the wire.
Continue wrapping until you fill the back rail. If you get to the end and space is a little tight for a final strand, use a hammer and screwdriver to tap the reed together to make space, but don’t overlap the reed.
To finish, splice the last strand to itself midway between the front and back rails — the same way you did at the beginning. The V-shape will be near the front. Clip the excess reed, leaving 3 inches in case you need to adjust tension.
Slide the foam between the warp layers.
Before you begin weaving, adjust the warp strands so they’re perpendicular to the front rail. Unless your chair is rectangular, the front rail will be wider than the back rail, meaning it will be exposed on the right and left of the warp strands. Don’t worry about that; you’ll use short reed strands to fill in these spaces when you’re finished weaving.
Follow an “over three, under three” herringbone pattern while weaving. Photo by Brandy Clements
The first three rows of the herringbone pattern, shown from the bottom. Photo by Brandy Clements
You’ll weave back to front, weaving the top and the bottom until you fill up the side rails. As you go, pull the weaver strands tight against the side rails, and push each row snug against the previous row.
An “over three, under three” herringbone pattern is best for 1/2-inch reed. To create this pattern, you’ll repeatedly weave under three warp strands and then over three warp strands until you reach the end of the row. For the second row, you’ll weave under two strands before starting the pattern, and then you’ll weave under one strand to start the third row. This will create a herringbone “stair step” pattern.
Always splice weaver strands on the bottom of the chair, halfway between the side rails. Instead of wire wraps, you can simply overlap new weaver strands with the old strands by about 8 inches, and tuck the ends under the warps, which will hold everything snugly in place. Be careful not to pull the new strand out of the weave as you start working with it.
When you’re ready to start weaving, spray the warp with water. Dunk each new weaver strand in water before using it, and shake it to remove droplets. Remember to determine the top and bottom of the reed before you start.
Turn the chair upside down. The end of the first weaver strand should tuck under the last three warp strands on the left side at the back rail. Count it out before you weave. Use three fingers to count the leftmost three warps as “under,” move to the right and count the next three warps as “over,” and then repeat until you get to the right-side rail. You may end up with only one or two warp strands at the end, which is fine. The “Vs” created by splicing the first and last warp strands onto themselves will count as one strand once they overlap.
Splice new weaver strands by overlapping the old strand and tucking under the warp. Photo by Brandy Clements
Now, use a long strand to weave according to your count, so the end of the strand is tucked under the last three warps on the left, and then woven in the “over three, under three” pattern until you reach the right-side rail. Push the weaver strand close to the back rail to secure it. The pattern on the bottom of the seat will slant slightly, which is OK.
Flip the chair upright. Bring the strand around the rail on the right side, and then weave it into the top warp layer, going under three and over three warp strands to the end of the row. Pull the strand snug against the side rail, and push it toward the back rail.
Flip the chair over to weave the second row on the bottom. This is where the herringbone pattern will begin to take shape. Think of it like a stair step; for the second row, you’ll “step back” one warp strand and go under two instead of under three. Once you’ve gone under two warp strands, continue across with the “over three, under three” pattern. Push the second weaver row snug against the first.
Flip the chair right-side up again to weave the second row on the top. As on the bottom, you’ll now go under two strands, and then continue with the “over three, under three” pattern until you finish the row. Pull the reed tight at the end of the row. Push the second row up against the first one. Flip the chair over. For the third row, you’ll go under one strand, and then continue the “over three, under three” pattern.
The finished herringbone pattern, shown from the top, before filing in the front rail. Photo by Brandy Clements
Once you’ve woven the third row on both the top and bottom, you’ll start the fourth row by going over three first, instead of under three, and then continue with an “under three, over three” pattern. Similar to before, start the fifth row by going over two, and start the sixth row by going over one. After the sixth row, the pattern will restart, and you’ll begin again by going under three. To see a video of this pattern being woven, search for Silver River Chairs on YouTube, and watch the “How to Weave a Chair with Rattan Splint Reed in a Herringbone Pattern” video.
At some point, it will get difficult to push weaver strands through the warps. Use a flat tool — such as a butter knife or a small putty knife — as a “ramp” to help the weaver strands glide up from under the warps. This will be especially important as the seat gets tighter, particularly close to the front rail.
If only short strands remain for the last part of the weaving, soak the second reed coil and use longer strands so you don’t have to splice repeatedly. The last two rows will be tight! Use your knife to guide the reed under and over warp strands. It may help to weave half the row, pull the reed tight, and then weave the rest of the row.
If the weavers bow toward the front rail, you’ll need to make space before weaving the last rows. Use a hammer and screwdriver to tap the reed back along the side rails, starting in the middle of each side. Then, tap the reed back on the top of the seat, taking up micro-spaces between the rows.
Finish on the bottom of the seat. Tuck the final end under the last warp strands, as you did at the beginning. If the pattern ends with the weaver strand over the warps, back up and tuck the end under instead. Clip any excess reed at the corner post.
If you’re weaving a rectangular bar stool or footstool, you’re finished! If your chair’s front rails are still showing, you’ll need to fill them in.
Fill In the Front Rail
You’ll fill the front row with short reed strands, called “fill-ins.” One side may require more fill-ins than the other.
Start on the left side. You’ll see a triangular area of unwoven weaver strands. Spray these strands, and soak some short pieces of reed.
With the chair upright, weave a short piece of reed from front to back, following the pattern. Tuck in the end of the fill-in near the back left post, under three weavers, so it’s hidden. Bring the long end over the front rail and under the seat to weave later. Fill the rest of the left side following the stair step pattern. You may have to tap the material toward the middle with a hammer and screwdriver to make space. You’ll need to use your knife — space will be tight! Repeat on the right side.
Weave fill-in strands on the top and bottom, following the established herringbone pattern. Photo by Brandy Clements
Once you’ve finished the top, flip the chair, and weave the fill-ins into the bottom. It will be trickier on the bottom because of the V-shaped warp strands, so it’s OK to deviate from the pattern slightly by overlapping the fill-in you just finished.
Finish the Chair
Remove any visible wire wraps. (Gently pry them up, snip them in the middle, and then pull them out with pliers.) Clip any warp splices that are longer than 1/2 inch, and use scissors to clip any noticeable fibers sticking up. (Don’t pull them.) Let the chair dry overnight.
Once the weaving is complete, your chair seat will be ready to seal with shellac or polyurethane. Photo by Brandy Clements
The following day, seal the seat with a single coat of shellac or polyurethane. (I prefer shellac, because the fumes aren’t as harsh.) Start on the bottom, and use a brush to apply a single layer of sealant. Keep a rag handy to wipe any splatter on the rungs or posts. Then, turn the chair over, and wipe any drips along the edges of the seat before you brush a coat on the top. Shellac should dry to the touch in 30 to 45 minutes, but wait until the next day to sit on the chair, just in case.
The Country Seat, Country Seat
H.H. Perkins, H.H. Perkins
Frank's Cane and Rush Supply, Frank Supply
For Dyed Reed
Gina’s Baskets, Ginas Baskets
Brandy Clements is a fourth-generation chair caner, and considers herself an ambassador of the traditional craft. She and her husband, Dave Klingler, operate Silver River Center for Chair Caning in Asheville, North Carolina — the nation’s only chair caning school and museum. Learn more at Silver River Chairs.