L.L. Baileys history and the craft of restoring furniture to its original splendor are woven together as tightly as the cane he works with.
Recaning is the art of creating and repairing woven furniture, particularly chair seats and backs, and occasionally other pieces like vanity benches. The Bailey familys recaning history goes back to 1865, when L.L. Baileys grandfather William Judson Bailey first opened an upholstery business in an old building near Washington D.C. That business was still heated by a coal stove when the family sold it a century later.
In 1919, his father, Lawrence L. Bailey, took over the upholstery shop and Bailey enjoyed spending time there as a child. It was in the shop that he learned how to cane by watching his father. In fact, he cannot even recall actually learning the craft. I think it was just more of us watching, he says. His father employed several people who were blind to do the intricate work, and Bailey recalls observing and then practicing on old chairs.
During high school, he and his friends helped with furniture delivery and took great pleasure in hanging out next door at Jimmys Cafe, drinking milkshakes and rubbing elbows with U.S. senators.
In 1938, Baileys father had the job of recaning President Franklin D. Roosevelts chair in the Oval Office. When Baileys father delivered the completed piece, he brought his son with him, and not only did the President inspect the chair, family folklore has it that he also let Bailey sit on his lap to help him test it out.
The family upholstery business, based in Washington D.C., boasted a government contract, and in 1923, the Washington Post printed a picture of Baileys father recaning a chair that had belonged to Abraham Lincoln. At that time, the government had thousands of cane chairs that needed work. Baileys father brought those chairs home first and let his sisters remove the old cane for about 10 cents per chairand the work was in no short supply. Today there is a sign at Mt. Vernon stating that the furniture was restored by the Bailey family upholstery company.
Toward the end of Baileys high school years, his father became ill, and in 1949, it was Baileys turn to run the family business. He and a friend went in together, but after many successful years, local competitors started advertising low prices Bailey could not match with his higher quality workmanship.
In 1965, he sold the business and began working for a high-end drapery hardware manufacturer. When that company offered him a position in the Southeast, he accepted, telling his family that Atlanta was always sunny and near the ocean. I didnt even look at the map, he recalls.
Bailey retired for a month or two in the 1980s, but drapery hardware and a long-lost passion soon resurfaced. First, his company asked him to continue working as a representative, just to maintain personal contact with his old clients. An even more interesting development occurred when his son Mark mentioned that a friends mother had six chairs that needed to be recaned. Bailey took on the work and quickly rekindled his old love. I got the cane in, got the chairs and sat on the patio, and I said, Good Lord, this is fun, Bailey says.
After that, things took off; Bailey next recaned about 40 chairs for the Ritz Carlton. He had a sign made for his truck and began receiving referral business from furniture companies.
Now his caning business, L.L. Bailey Chair Recaning, located conveniently in his home shop in Cumming, is in full swing. Most sunny days, Bailey can be found in his garagewith the doors open, listening to Glen Miller and caning chairs. I love it, he says, I hate it when I dont have any chairs to do.
Chairless days may be few and far between since Bailey says that when he parks his truck at the grocery store he comes home to a couple messages from people who saw his sign and need his expertise. In fact, it was the truck sign that brought him a client from Hiawassee, Barbara Holliman.
She had just gotten off Ga. 400 when she saw his truck and quickly jotted down his phone number. For two years she had been looking for someone who could do French cane. In all, Holliman had Bailey recane four antique dining room chairs with rush seating and four older dining room chairs with French caning.
He did the most marvelous job of anyone Ive ever had caning, she said. Holliman also found that Baileys personality was just as good as his caning ability. Hes someone that I would go visit with even if I didnt have any chairs, she says. Hes just really an interesting human being and just delightful to be around.
Recently, Bailey has worked on chairs from as far away as Brooklyn, for which the client shipped him the seats. Another client had a chair that her mother bought in Germany during WWI, and the chair was already old at that time. With a hand-caned fan back and a medallion in the middle, the chair had 300 to 400 holes and was so delicate that it took Bailey days to repair.
You get some of these chairs that are so old, says Bailey. That old wood just smells so good. For the older chairs, he must be particularly careful. He is like a surgeon taking out the cane.
Bailey works mostly on hand-caning, pressed caning and rush. The hand-caning style, French lace, includes chairs with holes in the seats and backs through which the cane is woven back and forth through the holes several times. It is the distance between holes that determines the size of the cane.
Bailey describes cane as similar to fine strips of flexible bamboo. Pressed cane is manufactured and comes in rolls of different widths. For this type, he fits the cane into grooves in the chair seats and backs. The third type of seating, rush, is created by hand weaving fiber rush, which has a brownish hue. Occasionally, Bailey also will do splint caning on Brumby-style rockers, which has a herringbone pattern that he weaves.
One type of weaving Bailey does not undertake is wicker. He says working on wicker is so time consuming, the cost to repair something could more easily buy a new piece of furniture.
When Bailey begins work on a new piece, the first thing he does is clean it, since a lot of his jobs come straight out of attics. Once the caning process is complete, he uses orange oil to polish the piece, making it look like new.
Bailey still pleasantly recalls cold winter nights in Washington D.C. when he would decide to go back to the shop to work on just a few more chairs and have a great time. Im just so glad that Im doing that again, he says. I just enjoy working on chairs.