Wicker chair rattan replacement

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We have a set of six dining chairs, which although mass produced in the far east, are not too bad to look at and are actually very comfortable. Alas at about 28 years of age they are showing some signs of wear and tear as more and more bits need fixing or replacing. I have replaced the cushions before, and now the wicker / rattan / cane backing on many of them is also in need of some TLC. So at risk of becoming a saga like Trigger's Broom, this is the story of their repair.

The Damage

The rattan back seems to be retained using the traditional method, being glued and wedged into a rebate in the wood using a length of reed. Alas in some places this has failed where the reed has come loose and the rattan has pulled out of the grove. On other chairs it has actually torn the rattan or strands have been broken, so the only way to fix this properly will be to replace the whole panel. Since the existing square diagonal weave pattern is not that easy to get, it made sense to do all six chairs at the same time so the all match, and that way I could use any pattern that suited the chair.


Preparation - Removing the reed

The first job (after taking the cushions off, and taking the arms off the carver chairs), was to get the retaining reed out of its groove. Traditionally this is glued in with a hide glue so you have a fighting chance of softening it (moisture, heat, steam etc) to make removal possible. Given these are mass produced and not necessarily of a traditional construction, these were a bit of an unknown!

So with the patient on the table:


A quick slash with a Stanley knife got rid of the bulk of the rattan (the good bits I will save for some future decorative project):


Next I made a tool for the reed removal job (apparently you can also buy things for doing this bit). In this case just a small screwdriver that I did not mind sacrificing! I heated it with a MAPP gas torch and put a bend in, then quenched it. Then sharpened the end on a bench grinder so that it only had one bevel on the top surface and a sharp edge.


This was designed to get under the reed and make prying it up easier. It was also strong enough to be hammered along the base of the groove, or directly into the reed.


Some of the reed came out easily enough - bits were actually loose. Other bits were quite tight and well fixed. There was also a significant variation between different chairs.

I found it safest to run a sharp knife around the outer perimeter of the existing reed before attempting to remove it. This cut through any existing lacquer / finish that may have bonded the reed to the adjacent finish on the wood. Otherwise there is a danger of lifting away or splitting out wood adjacent to the reed when it is prised up. This happened on one occasion on the first chair. Fortunately, the wood did not completely detach, and it was easy to glue it back down with regular wood glue.

On the easy ones I could get long runs out in one piece:


Others were removed small bits at a time. (Some guides advocate drilling small holes in the reed to allow water or alcohol to get into the base of the groove to soften the glue).

One of the problems I soon found was that this rattan had been fixed in place with staples in the base of the groove in various places, and that made getting those sections of reed out difficult, since you could not slide the pry tool along the grove past the staple.

Pulling the staples

Getting the staples out was the next challenge. These being set in the bottom of a narrow groove. Eventually after searching about I found an old pair of pointed nose pliers that were small enough to get to the staple, but also strong enough to get some grip. Alas it was still not possible to get enough grip just with those, but by using a large pair of combination pliers to grip around the jaws of the small pliers near the nose, I could then lift the handle while pivoting on the nose of the big pliers (using a paint scraper as hard surface to lever from), it was possible to get enough pull on the small pliers to extract the staples:


The last prep job was to sand and clean the groove:


Taking some time to round over the inner edge of the groove so that there was no sharp edge to damage the new rattan.

Fitting the new rattan

The next job was to cut a section of rattan to roughly the right size with a small overlap all round. It is delivered on a roll protected by a postal tube, and you can choose various widths and lengths. The one used here is a 3.4m length of 60cm wide roll:


Then also cut a length of reed to the approximate length of the groove (just under 2m per chair). The reed came in 2 x 5m coils:


The rattan pattern is a fairly common one that creates an illusion of small "hex" cells. The reed was just a plain 5mm round reed. (Both ordered from Ali express since it was somewhat cheaper than from the more traditional furniture restoration / wicker suppliers that I could find).

Before the rattan can be used, it needs to be softened by soaking in warm water. I found a paint scuttle was just about large enough to get it folded in there (and a bottle or Tightbond a handy weight to stop it floating!):


While that was soaking I made myself some small wedges.

After 30 minutes of soaking, we were ready to start:


Note that natural rattan has a top and bottom side - the top side from the outside of the reed is more shiny and also more durable, so that wants to be on the "wear" side of the furniture. The back of the rattan is a little more dull in appearance with a flatter less convex profile.

A couple of wedges to pin it in place and get the alignment of the pattern spot on, then add more on each side to hold it firmly:


Adding more as we go:


Once it was well wedged, I could use a spare wedge to start hammering the rattan into the groove all the way round:


I made myself a giant wedge to make hammering in the edge quicker and easier. The extra width covering more distance at a time, and the height keeping the hammer (and fingers) clear of the other wedges:


Once pushed into the groove all round the rattan stays in place nicely without the wedges:


At this point I could trim off all the bits on the outside of the groove so that the free edge will be completely hidden by the reed. A combination of a sharp Stanley knife did most of the work, and a 1/2" chisel in other parts. I changed the knife blade after every couple of chairs.

Gluing up

Now I could apply a generous bead of glue all round the groove.


I am using Titebond Hide Glue. It is traditional to use a hide glue since it makes future replacement of the rattan much easier (since unlike modern waterproof PVA based glues, dried hide glue will soften and let go when made wet or heated or exposed to directed steam). You can also clean up glue splashes after it has dried:


Starting at the bottom (where the join in the reed will be hidden by the cushion), I could start driving in the reed:


First with a rubber face hammer, and then with a small wood push stick to drive it a bit deeper into the groove. Since the reed is fairly soft and easy to mark, I rounded the ends of the push stick so that it would not make any sharp dents in the reed:


The damp reed is quite soft and can be gently bent round the corners:


Once I was all the way around the reed could be trimmed to length and the final section driven home.

New rattan installed

The end result looked quite pleasing:


So I mopped up any glue that had squeezed out with a damp sponge, and left it for 48 hours to dry properly.


Note that as the rattan dries out, it shrinks a little, and that helps tension the panel, and "iron out" any creases or slightly looser areas.


The next job prior to finishing was to "flame" the rattan. This is just a quick pass with a blow torch (keeping it moving at all times!) to cause any small strands of rattan to burn and "flame off". That will stop them turning into little sharp spikes to catch skin and clothes once a finish has been applied.


The next question was what to finish the rattan with? I tried a few experiments with stains and wood oils, but found that the rattan is not very good at taking colour (especially the more shiny face).

So I decided to go for a polyurethane varnish instead since that would create a strong film finish that could be built to colour with multiple coats. Also being quite slow drying will give it more chance to sink in to the rattan and help get a better bond to it.

After a bit of experimentation with colours, I found that a half and half mix of Rustin's Mahogany, and Rustin's Dark Oak looked good. I wanted something that was a similar tone to the original but slightly darker. (the chairs were always slightly lighter than their matching table). The mahogany finish on its own was too red, and the dark oak too brown, but a mix gave the Goldilocks colour!


I gave the front face of the wood a light sanding with 220 grit paper, and then started painting in the reed. The first coat was diluted with about 10% white spirit to make it soak in more easily. :


And moved onto the open areas:


After getting a good first coat on the front (brushing from multiple directions to make sure all the surfaces were covered), I also did a single coat on the back to stain that to colour (the back of the rattan is more absorbent than the front so it only took one coat to get the required colour) :


Left that to dry for a day, and then did a second coat, taking care to feather the new colour into the existing woodwork colour.

Job Done

Lastly it was time to reassemble the chairs:


Then get them back to the table:


The remainder of the job was just do it all over a few more times!

Leftover Materials

With all that done, I have about 1.2m of rattan left, and a few metres of reed... I might save these for a future repair, or possibly include them in a future woodworking project.


Time, materials and costs

In all I bought a 3.4m length of 60cm rattan, and two 10m packs of 5mm reed, for a total of about £115 including delivery. £11 for varnish, and £7 for the hide glue, bringing the grand total to about £133 for all six chairs. I still have enough material left over for another project. Total work was probably around 2 hours per chair - although that could be reduced if doing a couple at a time. There were quite a few enforced gaps though waiting for glue and coats of varnish to dry.