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Canin' Able

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For years, Steve Culler has pursued his passion at Harper Hardware in Church Hill, as the store's resident furniture caning and rush-weaving specialist -- a 100-year tradition at Harper's that he's helped keep alive.

Now Culler is striking out on his own, hoping his popular caning classes, and his craftsman's skills will translate well at the old Hub Shopping Center, 6941 Lakeside Ave., in Lakeside.

On Nov. 9, Culler holds his grand opening at the new shop, The Cane Connection. He'll expand his public class schedule, but also hopes to use the private army of caners he's taught to expand the business of re-caning chairs and other furniture.

"I learned from a famous caner named Windham Carter," says Culler. "He was legendary for being a character — knowing his trade and being very gracious to people and showing them how to do things."

Rattan caning — and its older cousin, bullrush weaving — were once common methods of creating chair seats and backs. The Victorian era relied heavily on cane bottoms, distinctive for their lacy, ornate patterns, and both styles remained popular and common until the 1930s. Modern revival furniture frequently incorporates cane — and less frequently rush — often made from synthetic materials.

For his part, Culler picked up caning only about a decade ago after moving to Richmond from California by way of Miami and joining Harper Hardware after a lifetime pursuing other professions. "My family never had cane chairs — we had all ugly 1950s padded stuff," Culler confesses.

But the simple beauty of the caning tradition caught his attention right away.

"It's a craft," says Culler. "It goes way back. Moses sat on a rush chair."

Rush is perhaps the oldest method of creating chair backs and bottoms. It's also far more complicated for the novice, which is why most of Culler's classes focus on rattan caning.

"It's right hard," Culler says of rush. "I've taught lots of people how to do it, and yet I think I could count on one hand the successful attempts. It's fairly simple to see, but to do it is really quite complicated. I can do a rush chair in about three hours — but it's not intuitive at all."

Which is why caning remains his most popular class.

"It takes longer to do a chair, but it's a process you can correct — you cannot correct rush," Culler says, comparing the three hours it takes to do rush to the 12 hours the complicated but easy-to-do caning can take.

Culler estimates that he's taught caning to between 500 and 1,000 students in the past six years. He has about a dozen or so students who now assist him with either teaching his classes or with meeting the market demand for re-caned chairs.

And if the complexity of twisting and bending and weaving a hundred or more octagonal holes seems too daunting an undertaking, consider that Culler has taught the art to blind students.

"There's a procedure that I use — that I've developed for teaching the blind," Culler says, explaining that he starts students with a larger square than a normal chair. "They get the idea of how the weaving goes in with a larger frame. We get to go over all the moves, what a lock step is, what a diagonal is."

"Evidently, I'm the only one in the U.S. doing this," he says, going on what the two blind students he's so far had have told him. But pilot program or not, it's working: "One of my blind students is doing it for the store now."

Which leaves even fewer excuses for sighted customers to bail on the chance to learn caning. And that there's a demand for caning chairs is hardly in doubt. Culler charges between $80 to $250 to re-cane a chair (though prices can go as high as $10,000 for some furniture pieces). Compare that to the $125 Culler charges for a class of five sessions.

At the end, you'll know how to cane a chair, and learn about the craft, Culler says — and you might save a little pocket change.

"I had a woman in my last class and she did her chair, but she had five more chairs at home. She's in the process now of finishing the sixth chair," Culler says.

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