Q&A: Don’t “rush” to judgment

Question: My set of six kitchen chairs has something other than fabric in the seats. The chairs are about 60 or 70 years old and I think they are oak. Various people have referred to the seats as cane, rush, rattan or wicker. I am really confused about this. Do they all mean the same thing or are they different, and which do you think I have??

Answer: Without even looking, I can assure you that you do not have wicker or rattan in those chair seats. Rattan is the stem of a type of tropical palm tree most often found in Borneo. The stem has its leaves removed and the outer skin scraped off. It can then be bent to shape to make furniture. Larger pieces are steam bent and smaller ones are merely soaked to provide flexibility. Larger pieces of rattan look like bamboo with the hard shell removed.

Older wicker is made of small diameter (usually 1/4-inch or less) lengths of willow or rattan wrapped around a structural frame of maple or birch to make complete pieces of furniture. This type of wicker furniture is all handmade and relatively expensive. “Paper wicker” was invented in the late 19th century by wrapping strips of brown paper tightly around a central core of stiff wire using looms in a factory. This accounted for the proliferation of Victorian wicker. Wicker is almost never used as seating material except as part of a wicker chair.

Rush is a seating material made by twisting some substance into long strands of about the same diameter as wicker. It is then woven in a pattern around the top stretchers of a chair seat, creating a type of suspension seat with no wood visible. Rush, like wicker, comes in two basic varieties. The original form is made of very tightly twisted wet cattail leaves and gets very brittle after a number of years. This is called “natural” or “cattail” rush. The newer version, euphemistically called “fiber” rush, is similar to paper wicker in that it is essentially twisted brown or variegated craft-paper but without the wire core. It usually requires a top coating of some sort to protect it from moisture.

Cane is just that – cane. It is the outer skin of cane cut in very thin flat strips that can be woven almost like fabric to make a seat surface. In woven form, it is very durable and has been known to last centuries. The earlier form of cane seating is called “seven-strand hand cane.” After soaking in glycerin or water, seven different strands are woven in and out of holes drilled through the wood of the seat, creating any number of patterns. If you turn the chair upside down, you can see the loops of cane under the seat going from hole to hole. The most common pattern has a series of octagonal shaped holes in the material. This type of hand work is relatively expensive.

Another type of cane is “sheet cane” or “pressed cane.” This comes from the manufacturer in pre-woven sheets and is installed in a groove cut near the edge of the seat and has a border called a spline glued over it. It has no holes drilled through the seat. Like hand cane, pressed cane comes in a variety of patterns and sizes. The newest twist in cane seating in inexpensive furniture is paper cane, paper imbedded with a cord and installed and finished to look like real cane.

So what do you have in your chairs?

Question: What is the origin of the style “Eastlake?”

Answer: Eastlake styling, one of the many subcategories of the Victorian era, is named after its creator, English architect and author Charles Lock Eastlake. His book in 1872, Hints on Household Taste was a hit in America and led to the popularization of his style. His emphasis was on quality of material and workmanship and simplicity of design. He was associated with the simplistic ideals of the English branch of the Arts and Crafts movement, but in America his original concepts were taken to excess by the furniture manufacturing industry and he disavowed his name from the style in the late 1880s.

Visit Fred’s Web site at www.furnituredetective.com. Send your antique furniture questions to Fred Taylor, Common Sense Antiques, P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423-0215, fax 352-563-2916 or e-mail to fmtaylor@aol.com.