A few months before Lucy was born, a baby shower was thrown to celebrate this new little life. At the shower, my mom’s twin sister (who has owned a few antique shops throughout her life) gifted us the most adorable bentwood children’s rocking chair. It was in good vintage condition, with some minor wear to the caning near the top of the backrest, so we treated it delicately and hoped for the best. But after almost two years in our home, the chair had become a favorite spot for our friends’ kids, and what started out as minor wear to the brittle caning, slowly became a full blowout to the backrest of the chair.
So although the damage is what actually kick started the makeover, we still had some restorative surgery to get this beautiful vintage chair back to being the stunner it was meant to be!
Rocker | Before
Rocker | After
The pint-sized rocker was one of our favorite gifts we received, but we took this makeover as an opportunity to make a perfect fit for our home. We wanted to maintain the character of the chair, but give it a bit of modern appeal. Here’s how it looked when we started:
We first began by gathering quotes to see who could do caning repair in Chicago, and while we did find a few places, it was shockingly expensive! To be fair, we actually had a bit of a challenge, because the backrest needed to be weaved from scratch – or so we thought, more on that in a minute – and that alone was several hundred dollars. (You read that right.) So Kim challenged me to a DIY, and although I was hesitant at first, it wasn’t anywhere near as difficult as I thought it would be!
Tools + Supplies Used
- cane webbing kit (including new webbing for back and bottom, as well as wood wedges, glue and spline for seat)
- additional spline for backrest
- small flat head screwdriver
- large flat head screwdriver
- white vinegar
- small stiff putty knife
- small chisel for removing old glue
- sandpaper or sanding block
- spray paint
What We Did
The first step of the process was to remove the old damaged caning from both the backrest and the seat of the chair. In order to do this, we started by removing the backrest and seat from the chair’s frame. This simplified this step, as well as the painting process that was to come. Next we used a small flat head screwdriver to remove the thin trim piece that covered the back of the cane holes.
Many of the tutorials we read online and watched on youtube mentioned that white vinegar can be used to soften brittle old caning and glue. It worked like a charm! (Our workshop, however, stills smells vaguely of pickling.) After the vinegar had softened things up, we worked our way around each hoop, gently prying the old caning loose. I followed this up with a small chisel (not pictured) to remove any remaining dry glue and leave a clean channel for the new webbing and spline (the thin strip of wood that helps to hold the caning in place) to fit inside.
Once the old spline and caning were removed from the seat and backrest, it was time to show the chair’s frame some love. We used a 400 grit sanding block to smooth out any chips and nicks. We were looking to preserve as much of the chair’s ‘character’ as possible so we didn’t seek perfection here. If we wanted it to look closer to perfect, we could have filled the deeper nicks and chips with wood putty, but we’re very happy with our decision to keep the chair looking well-loved!
We purchased the caning from a kit, which also came with instructions that helped us throughout the process. These instructions stressed the importance of soaking the caning for 2 hours, which I did while I continued sanding and prepping for paint. This allows the webbing to soften and expand so it remains pliable and eventually shrinks to tighten up once installed – like magic! A clean drywall bucket was the perfect vessel for the size of our pieces. Tip: Caning floats, so you may need something to hold it in place under water.
Next, we got to work spraying the partially disassembled chair frame as well as the backrest and seat ‘hoops’. We chose this Rustoleum satin paint & primer in one because we love the trigger sprayer as opposed to the messy finger-numbing tip found on other cans. This also helped us to cover the intricate curves and details of the chair more evenly. For reference, we used about 3/4 of a can for 2+ coats on the entire chair.
Once the paint was dry and the caning had soaked for 2 hours, we were ready to cane the seating surface of the chair! The instructions called for us to line the cane webbing up nicely, then press one of the five included wood wedges on each side of the hoop. The fifth wedge was then used to work around the entire seat, pressing the cane webbing into the spline groove.
Once the webbing was pressed fully into the spline groove, I got to work cutting away the excess with a sharp utility knife. The small chisel also came in handy here, as we found that the utility knife ‘pulled’ at parts of the webbing a bit more than I would have liked. The chisel was able to press directly into the caning to cut it, as opposed to pulling along it with the utility knife.
After all of the excess webbing was removed, we filled the groove with glue and hammered in the spline using a wood wedge. It was at this point that we finally got a glimpse of what the chair would look like once complete! The webbing felt a little loose at first, which had us nervous, but once it was fully dry, the caning tightened up nicely!
With the seat complete, we were able to move on to the backrest. This step was a bit trickier, as the back of the chair was originally made with hole-to-hole caning (which is done by hand) as opposed to cane webbing. We felt that hole-to-hole caning was beyond our ability level to do right, and as I mentioned earlier, we searched for local companies that could complete the project for us. Even in the chair’s disassembled state, the quotes we received for hole-to-hole caning ranged from $250-$400 – just for the backrest. We understand it’s an art form, but for a small child’s rocker (that will likely get damaged again), it didn’t feel like a wise way to spend money. So, we got to problem solving!
As we stared at the chair (for a long, long time), we realized that if we flipped the backrest loop over and made the back the front, there was a perfect spline channel left behind from where we removed the decorative trim strip from the former back of the chair! In all fairness, this did mean that the spline holes that were formerly on the front of the chair would now be visible from the back, but this didn’t bother us at all since the black paint hides it well. (Here’s hoping that all made sense?) TLDR: we flipped the backrest hoop over so the front was now the back.
I needed to order the appropriately sized spline for the newly discovered channel, and then I was able to get back to work a few days later.
Tip: when ordering spline, measure the channel the spline will press into and order based on that measurement. Spline should fit easily into the channel by itself to make for a tight fit once the webbing is in place.
Finally, I repeated the steps used for the chair’s seat, for the back. Phew! We did it! And it’s so much more ‘us.’
Before | After
The second Lucy saw her newly refinished chair, she literally sprinted to it as quickly as her little legs could carry her. After realizing she didn’t have a book to read, she jumped back down, ran to her bookcase, carried her favorites back to chair and hopped back on!
We learned a lot throughout the process (and much respect to those that cane chairs!), and although we may never need to know how to do this again, I’m glad we gave it a go. It was a really satisfying makeover! Most importantly, to say that Lucy’s happy with it is the understatement of the year – and that’s all that really matters.