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The ‘chair doctor’ is in

Brooksby’s Larry Baldwin masters the art of caning

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July 20th, 2016
Larry Baldwin has been caning chairs for nearly 40 years, including these chairs in his apartment home at Brooksby.

Larry Baldwin has been caning chairs for nearly 40 years, including these chairs in his apartment home at Brooksby.

After spending five years in a condo on Florida’s east coast, Larry and Joanne Baldwin decided to return to their New England roots.

“Our children are in the area, so it made sense to return to the Northeast,” says Larry, who grew up in Hartford, Conn.

The couple knew of Brooksby Village in Peabody, Mass., because their daughter’s in-laws, Dwight and Cora Levick, live at the community.

Their daughter Betsy saw the apartment first. “When she was describing it to us, she spoke of the large bay window overlooking the woods near Brooksby Farm,” says Joanne.

Larry and Joanne settled into their two-bedroom, one-and-a-half-bath Hastings-style apartment in September 2010.

Now, Larry is putting his many talents to use for the benefit of the community.

Chair-caning expert

“I head down to the woodshop every morning and work in there until noon,” says Larry, who retired in 1979 after a 40-year career with Hamilton Standard Propellers, a division of United Aircraft Corporation [now United Technologies].

Brooksby’s well-equipped woodshop is a gathering place for residents of all interests and skill levels. Larry is the chair-caning expert in the group.

“When I retired from Hamilton Standard, we had a chair that needed caning,” says Larry. “I bought a book on how to cane and taught myself. Neighbors found out that I fixed our chair, and soon they were asking me to cane chairs for them.”

Larry’s clientele expanded so quickly that Joanne suggested he start his own business. He printed business cards, advertising himself as the “chair doctor” and promising quick service and reasonable rates.

“I continued to cane after we moved to Brooksby,” says Larry. “Residents still bring me chairs. From 1979 until now, I don’t think there’s been a week that goes by that I haven’t had a chair to cane.”

Larry is well versed in chair-caning’s various techniques. From the checkerboard pattern of the Shaker cane chairs to the unique look of rush weaving, Larry has spent copious hours in the woodshop perfecting his craft.

New pursuit

Chair caning isn’t the extent of Larry’s skill set. He has another, related talent that he continues to put to use. 

Before Larry and Joanne moved to Florida full time, they spent winters in the Sunshine State.

“One of our daughters lived in Florida, and she had a friend who knew how to make Nantucket Lightship baskets,” says Larry. “She told her friend, ‘If you teach my dad how to make Nantucket baskets, he’ll teach you to cane.’ And that’s what happened.”

Nantucket Lightship baskets date back to the mid-1800s, when the state of Massachusetts commissioned lightships to act as floating lighthouses and provide light to passing ships in the waters around Nantucket Island. The crew, needing an activity to pass the time, took to weaving rattan baskets during the day. The baskets soon became popular with visitors.

Characteristics of Nantucket baskets include a solid wooden base, the use of a mold to shape the basket, tight weaving with cane over wooden staves, and a swing handle.

‘Weaving is weaving’

Larry proved to be a quick study of the Lightship baskets.

“Weaving is weaving, whether it’s caning or making Nantucket baskets,” he says. “You go in and out, just like knitting. If you know how to cane, it’s easy to learn to make Nantucket baskets.”

Larry learned to craft Nantucket Lightship baskets in 2000. Since that time, he estimates that he’s made more than 200 baskets, averaging ten a year. 

“Nantucket baskets can be used in many ways,” says Larry. “I’ve made purses, magazine holders, napkin holders, ice buckets, and wastepaper baskets. I usually give the ice bucket as a wedding gift.”

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