LOST SIGHT in one of my eyes in 1951," says Carvin Solomon. "I was in the hospital with glaucoma. Then the other eye went, and I came here."
"Here" is the Columbia Lighthouse for the blind, at 1421 P St. NW. Solomon sits on a high stool in a warehouse-like room on the ground floor. Before him is another stool, and on top of that is an old woven cane chair. Solomon is recaning it. It will take six or seven hours, an average work day, "depending on my mood," he says - like composing poetry or music.
"I've been caning 22 years last December," he explains. He is 52 now. "I'm thinking of retiring soon. I've had a problem with my legs lately, and they get tired." He smiles, and the lines of his eyes behind the dark glasses smile, too. "When I walk around, I never know when somebody's gonna bump me, and down I go."
He has taught his craft to several people. "I guess I've trained three caners, and there were four who went on to other things," he reflects. It takes six months to learn the fundamentals, and years to acquire expertise. Few people have the patience to wait for progress to come naturally.
"There was one man with partial sight. That can be a problem. Some people strain their eyes, trying to use them to help their hands along. But you've got to rely on your sense of touch."
Two caners work with Solomon at the Lighthouse jobs. The Lighthouse was set up in 1900 as a nonprofit organization to provide employment and companionship for the blind. As one of the 90 workshops that comprise the nonprofit National Industries for the Blind, it also produces household items such as brushes and towels, which are then given preferential status for sale in military PX's and commissaries under the Wagner-O'Day Act of 1938.
Chair caning is a self-supporting sideline to these activities. There's no dearth of work, and the Lighthouse's caners average 15-20 jobs a week, according to Paul West, who handles the Lighthouse's subcontracting affairs. You can bring a chair in for recaning any time, West says, and it'll be ready in 30 to 60 days. But first, it's a good idea to take care of any defects or damage to the chair's structure, since some can destroy a chair's usability and make recaning impractical.
A recaning job should last 12-15 years with moderate use in a humid climate, less in hot, dry weather that dries the cane and causes it to split. To prolong the cane's life, you can rub it periodically with paraffin wax, says Solomon, but "never use oil, paint or anything with an alcohol base. Alcohol dries and splits cane, and oil makes cane expand and loosen - and there's no way to tighten it again."
Fees at the Lighthouse are based on the number of holes in the frame of the seat or back perimeter through which the cane is woven, with different rates for rush and splint work. The charge for a standard weave is 40 cents per hole. Most dining chairs have about 80 holes, so the average fee runs about $32. For rush caning, the Lighthouse charges $1.22 per inch, measured at the widest point of the weave. Splint caning costs 34 cents per inch of the weave's perimeter, and prewoven sheet caning costs $1.05 per inch, measured at the widest point of the weave. (Prewoven sheet cane is glued into a groove around the chair's seat rather than woven through holes. A spline is hammered onto the groove to reinforce the glue.)
Claude M. Huret Cabinet Shop at 3348 M St. NW also handles chair caning jobs. Huret charges 55 cents per hole for standard weaves, and about $38 a chair for prewoven caning. Rates for rush chairs average $35 each. Splint caning jobs range from $35-40.
With time and patience, you can learn caning on your own. There are a number of self-help manuals, like the "Fixit Yourself Book of Furniture Care and Refinishing" put out by the Petersen Publishing Co., and the "Reader's Digest Fit-It-Yourself Manual." Caning supplies can be bought at arts and crafts shops. The cost of materials averages $5-6 a chair.