June 25, 2016


Her, a caner

John Gladden | The Gazette

SULLIVAN TWP. — When Becky Tomko was expecting her first child, someone gave her the gift all families with newborn babies need: a comfortable rocking chair.

The only catch was its cane seat and back had seen better days. The rocker needed rewoven, but she didn’t know how to do it. No one she asked knew, either. So, Tomko went to the library, found some books on chair caning, rolled up her sleeves, and taught herself how.

That was 21 years and many, many chairs ago. What started as a repair project grew into a hobby she could pursue while she was home with her children. Now, it’s a part-time, home-based business called “Her. A. Caner” — a name bestowed by her brother.

Becky Tomko works on caning a chair in her Sullivan Township home. (John Gladden | Gazette)

As a trade, the tools and materials of caning are not fancy. Mainly, the work requires one thing. OK, make that three things.

“Patience, patience, patience,” said Tomko, 52. “If you rush, or twist the cane, it can be a nightmare.”

Here’s a primer on chair caning.

The thin, tan strips of material commonly used in seats is rattan, which comes in a long, loose bunch called “a hank.” You’ve got your herd of cows, your gaggle of geese, your hank of cane. It comes from a type of palm tree that also produces wicker.

The comparatively wide, flat strips sometimes used in woven seats are a type of reed. They’re often found in a herringbone or checkerboard pattern.

The third material a caner often sees is rush, which today is usually comprised of strong, round cords of paper. The real rush is made of cattails, Tomko said. A finished seat with a rush weave looks like four triangles that meet at a center point.

Another of the main ingredients in weaving is water.

“You have to keep the cane wet while you’re working with it or it will become brittle and just snap,” said Tomko.

She pulled a strand of cane from her trusty water bucket to demonstrate — weaving it back and forth and diagonally across the seat of a small wooden chair. Wooden pegs hold the cane tightly in place in the holes at the seat’s edge while she works.

Every strand must follow an exact pattern to produce the characteristic series of octagon-shaped holes when the weave is done.

“Believe me, I’ve had many years of taking out what I did incorrectly,” Tomko said.

A typical chair takes six to eight hours to cane. Several factors go into the cost, since each project is different, but caning usually is priced by the number of holes in the finished seat or by the length of the longest seat rail.

Tomko, who is a customer service manager for Wright Tool in Barberton, graduated from Wadsworth High School and was a commercial art major in college. She has two children and a grandson. Tomko and her husband, Eric, live just over the Medina County line in Ashland County, with lots of Amish neighbors.

Tomko is not much for television, she said. She prefers having something to do with her hands.

“I’m a busy-type person. I enjoy being busy,” said Tomko. “It (caning) helps my creative side since I don’t draw much any more.”

Properly cared for, a cane seat should last at least 15 years before it needs repaired, she said. They’re built to last. In fact, Tomko knows most of the chairs her customers bring her are family heirlooms.

It’s a good feeling, she said, to know that someday a chair — and her work — will be handed down to future generations.

Contact John Gladden at gladden@ohio.net.