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Few things are appreciated as much after a day in a canoe or in the field as much as a comfortable chair. In my twenties, the desire for a backrest on canoe camping trips led me to devise a contraption consisting of a 1-foot-by-2-foot piece of Masonite as a backrest hinged at the top to a section of 1-inch-by-2-inch pine board for support. By sitting on the ground and opening the hinge to form a triangle from the backrest, support and ground, a “chair” was created. It worked, sort of, but there had to be something better.

The desire for a backrest must be universal, and a better design than mine had been around for a while in the form of the folding canoe chair. These chairs can be used as a third seat in the center of a tandem canoe, and can quickly be removed from the boat and used by the campfire or in a tent. Canoe seats are particularly advantageous around a campfire since they allow a camper to get close to a small fire for warmth and to cook, all while most of the smoke rises overhead. They also make a practical and comfortable addition to a deer or turkey blind.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, folding chairs were constructed of thin wooden slats of mahogany or other durable woods, or built on a wooden frame with woven cane. Chairs modeled after snowshoes made of bent wood frames and rawhide were durable and good looking, but expensive. Folding canoe chairs became available at low costs in the 1970s with the development of lightweight aluminum frames combined with cloth seats and backrests. Being low to the ground, these chairs were perfect for use in small dome tents, and the smooth, curved design of their legs prevented damage to nylon tent floors. The only trouble was the cloth part of the chair tended to wear thin and rip under pressure.

Canoeing
Canoeing is one of the most comfortable ways to travel in wild country, and a canoe chair extends that comfort right into camp.

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Custom Comfort

After tearing the seats of two such chairs, I decided the design could be improved. I had bought some 0.5-inch-wide ash splints at a yard sale to use in recaning a rocking chair, and the thought struck me that this material could make a dandy canoe chair. Fortunately, the ash splints I purchased came with a booklet from the H. H. Perkins Company, which has sold supplies for caning chairs since 1917. The booklet gave detailed instructions for caning chairs with excellent step-by-step photos. The rocking chair was fairly simple to recane, but the canoe chair frame required some modification.

The aluminum folding chair frame I used lacked cross pieces on the front and back of the seat for caning. The solution was to drill four holes in the frame so cross pieces could be added. Two lengths of 0.5-inch all-thread were cut to fit as cross pieces. A nut was screwed onto the all-thread before cutting it with a hacksaw, and unscrewed after the cut to rethread the ends. The all-thread was then slipped inside sections of plastic tubing to prevent the threads from abrading the ash splints. The all-thread was capped with lock washers and acorn nuts for a tight, finished look, and to prevent scraping the user. I built the back to slip over the backrest frame.

Before weaving, splints (or “splits” as they are also called) should be soaked in warm water for about a half hour to soften them. I chose a simple “over two, under one” weave for the seat and backrest, producing the general look of a pack basket. A staple gun was used to connect the ends of the splints, and the staples were bent over with needle-nose pliers. Further information and caning supplies can be found at hhperkins.com. The first Foxfire Book has sections on making and using white oak splints to cane chairs for those who want to start from the ground up.

Take A Bow

The combination of traditional, natural materials with modern additions can produce durable and attractive results. I am often asked where I bought my chair when I use it for camping or attending outdoor events. I’ve never seen another like it, and I’ve been sitting comfortably in it for over 25 years without wearing it out!

This article originally published in AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN®  Issue #191. Print and Digital Subscriptions to AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN®  magazine are available here.

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