Wicker Materials: Understanding Rattan and Synthetic Wicker
The previous chapter laid the foundations to understanding how wicker furniture arrived to its current cultural status. In this chapter, you will learn the foundation for understanding exactly what goes into the craftsmanship and assembly of wicker furniture.
Specifically, we’re going to focus on the materials used to create wicker in this day and age. Generally speaking, wicker today is made out of two different materials: rattan and a man-made substance known as resin, which is similar to plastic.
Knowing what these materials are is only half the battle. Understanding how these different materials behave is just as important, as is understanding the specific properties that make these materials ideal for your next piece of wicker furniture.
As you saw in the last chapter, it’s no coincidence that rattan is often used to make the best wicker. When rattan was introduced as a source of creating wicker furniture, it was considered a great innovation. This chapter will not only explain why that’s the case, but help you to understand what it is about rattan that makes it such an ideal resource for creating wicker.
By the time you finish this chapter, you’ll have a much more deep and thorough understanding for the process of creating wicker furniture. You’ll even know where the best rattan comes from. In short, you’re well on your way to becoming a wicker and rattan expert! Let’s get started.
SEVEN REASONS RATTAN MATERIALS WORK FOR WICKER
Since we already explored much of the botanical history of rattan in the previous chapter, we can skip ahead a step and start discussing exactly why this particular resource works so well when used to craft wicker furnishings.
Specifically, let’s explore seven reasons rattan works so well for wicker:
Rattan is strong.The rattan most often used for wicker grows vertically, but not like the kinds of wood you might be familiar with. Rather than growing rings horizontally, the wood simply grows up and up – giving it a very consistent, strong base that can be used in the base of many types of furniture. Though this means that rattan won’t grow as wide as a sequoia tree, for example, it does mean that even a thin trunk of rattan – already an ideal size for many types of furniture, is as strong as can be.
Although many people associate lightweight wood with weakness, rattan doesn’t fall into any sort of ‘weak’ categories. In fact, rattan is exceptionally strong, just by given the way it grows; a small amount of rattan can support a large amount of weight. Although there are a number of other woods that also work for wicker because they’re strong, rattan is the ideal combination of pliability, strength, and lightness.
Rattan is highly pliable.Speaking of pliability, this is one of rattan’s best features: once steamed, it’s easy to shape into a number of different designs and curves. But what really works well with rattan, is how well it holds its shape once it’s been modified. When the wood dries and the moisture leaves, rattan will retain its new structure alongsideits strength – as if it had never been bent that way in the first place. As you might imagine, this is particularly important for furnishings that require curves.
The end result of rattan’s pliability is that it gives furniture made from rattan a great deal of versatility. The highly-developed designs of the Victorian Era, for example, took full advantage of rattan’s flexibility. Additionally, when Cyrus Wakefield discovered how useful rattan was in making furniture, this was one of the qualities he admired most about the wood.
In fact, a good metaphor for the pliability of rattan is pasta: at room temperature, it will be dry and sturdy, holding its shape. But once you apply moisture and heat, you can suddenly change the pasta into just about anything you like. The difference between rattan and noodles is that rattan will regain its shape and strength after the heat and moisture have left.
Rattan is lightweight. This property completes the “trifecta” of rattan’s properties that make it so ideal for use in furnishings. The lightweight strength of rattan gives it a surprising amount of durability -- even when supporting the complete bodyweight of the people who have purchased the rattan furniture. Transporting rattan-made materials is very easy; in modern furnishings, you can simply take off any cushions for ease of transport and lift the rattan. In many cases, you can lift the entire piece of furniture by yourself -- even if you’re not particularly strong.
This quality also gives rattan furniture versatility: it can be used outdoors and indoors because it can so easily be moved between two settings.
Rattan, like many woods, is porous. What’s so special about being porous? In fact, doesn’t a material’s porousness mean that it’s more susceptible to the weather?
The answer is a little complicated. Yes, natural resources like wood and rattan tend to need protection from elements such as UV rays and rain in order to maintain their shape, color, and quality. But, it’s also the porous quality of the wood that allows a number of alterations to rattan that are highly enjoyable. For example, wood and rattan take very well to paints because of their porous surface; the high surface area gobbles up paint and easily embraces new colors. Additionally, rattan can be sealed for a number of reasons, such as protecting it from the elements so that the old “rattan vs. synthetic” argument is not always so cut and dry.
Because rattan is porous, it is still susceptible to rain and sun damage even after being painted and sealed. You’ll have to monitor your natural rattan furniture and keep it protected if you want it to last longer. If you keep your rattan in a covered area outdoors, it will generally last much longer as it will then only be exposed to wind-blown rain and occasional sunlight.
Rattan is ideal for wicker weaving. Although many people simply associate rattan with the strong wood rods it creates for wicker furnishings, many people forget that rattan can also supply the reeds necessary to create the wicker weaving as well. In essence, rattan is an all-around wicker furniture material that works to create a structure for a piece of furniture, just as it provides materials for the wicker weaving itself. This means that wicker manufacturers can buy wholesale rattan and process the rattan in-house entirely themselves, giving them more control over the process as the whole and allowing them to customize the rattan that will ultimately be experienced by their customers.
Additionally, the skin of the rattan can be used in order to help solidify and reinforce the joints of the larger rattan pieces. When you view a piece of rattan furniture, look at the joints; you’ll often see the skin of the rattan wrapped around the joints. This means that many pieces of rattan furniture, unless reinforced by wood (as is the case for many heavier, straight-line furnishings) is actually entirely rattan.
Rattan comes in different sizes. Creating furnishings from rattan that varies in size is not entirely difficult. This is true because the rattan itself also comes in a variety of sizes. Some pieces will utilize a “pencil-thick” rattan structure. Others will have to utilize thicker rattan in order to be sure that the entire piece of furniture holds up to the stress of weight. But because rattan is so versatile, the furniture and furnishings created from rattan may also express a similar versatility.
Rattan works well with cushions. It’s important not only to have comfortable cushions, but cushions that lock easily into place on your furniture, so that you’re not constantly re-adjusting for comfort. With rattan, it is easy to design furniture so that it locks the cushions in place. It’s even easy to tie cushions onto the rattan in order to hold them in place as a last resort. However, because rattan often works well with cushions, this is not always a necessity.
In many respects, rattan is a very cushion-friendly material: it’s easy to create rattan furniture that keeps the cushions in place, and it’s easy to paint rattan to match a desired cushion color. No matter what you want your room to look like, there’s a good chance that you can find a way to modify rattan to suit your needs and tastes.
Natural vs. Synthetic Wicker: An Easy Choice?
There is, of course, one major disadvantage to rattan that you need to be aware of. Because rattan is porous, similar to most wood, it gobbles up rain and weather fairly easily. Leaving rattan out in the weather can mean exposing it to the potential of rot or even sun damage.
One major innovation of the 20th century, was the arrival of synthetic wicker products. Synthetic wicker meant that you could enjoy the same wicker weave designs in your furniture without having to worry about leaving the wicker out in the weather, whether it’s hot, cold, or wet.
But does synthetic wicker really offer the same kind of experience that rattan does? Is it just as receptive to paint as is the porous structure of natural rattan? Let’s explore this fundamental choice that anyone thinking about wicker will have to make at some point before making a final decision on what kind of wicker they’d most like to purchase.
Natural Wicker: The Advantages
“Natural” wicker, of course, refers to any wicker material that has been made from a natural resource. Rattan wicker is a prime example of natural wicker, though there are plenty of other materials to choose from, ranging from bamboo to willow and other natural fibers.
There is a nice “elasticity” to natural wicker. If you’ve ever sat in a natural wicker chair, for example, you can feel the comfortable “give” that the material has; it doesn’t ever feel like it’s going to buckle, but to some extent it does feel like the natural material is conforming to the pressure you’re applying. The result is a light satisfying “crunch” sound that is the hallmark of a natural wicker -- and it feels just as good as it sounds. This, however, is just one advantage to natural wicker.
Another advantage of natural wicker is that it usually feels cool to the touch – even on warm summer days, when wicker is best used outside. The cooling feeling helps you relax without feeling like you’re overheating on furniture that’s simply absorbing the summer heat.
Additionally, natural wicker has all of the advantages of wood in that it is porous and easy to paint and customize. Painting your natural wicker is very easy – and you can generally feel assured that the paint will stick to the wicker for a long time to come. The result is a thorough coat of paint – or even sealant, which sticks to the wicker and keeps its color well.
Natural Wicker Disadvantages
Although natural wicker has dozens of advantages we could list, you should be very aware of the fact that natural rattan is a green material; it is therefore susceptible to weathering. You need to keep it covered outdoors or keep it indoors in order to maintain its quality.
Natural wicker, after all, is made from typical types of wood, which aren’t indestructible. Wood can swell and rot if exposed to too much rainfall for example, or discolor if it has been exposed to UV rays for too long. Similar side effects that the sun may have on your skin can be as damaging to your natural wicker furniture, if left out for long periods of time.
This disadvantage typically means that those with natural wicker may spend a little more time on maintenance. In some cases, this is simply a matter of remembering to bring your wicker in before a major rainstorm, or after being outside for long periods of time. Having a cover ready for your natural rattan is also an important part of maintaining your furniture.
On the contraire, if you plan on keeping your wicker indoors, most of these disadvantages become irrelevant. Since your home is providing the natural sheltering from sunlight and rain, you won’t have to worry as much about the maintenance that wicker kept outdoors requires. However, it’s important to be aware of the weathering issues present in natural wicker in case you do decide to bring your wicker outdoors — and on those pleasant summer days, you will feel tempted to do so.
Synthetic Wicker Advantages
There are two core advantages to wicker that have been synthesized into a man-made material.
First, this type of wicker tends to be inexpensive. Because plastic and other similar resources generally tend to stay low-cost, your synthetic wicker likely won’t run your wallet dry. This advantage provides plenty of wiggle room in your budget to secure a wider variety of wicker items and furnishings. If you need to stretch your dollar and expand on your home furnishings, synthetic wickermay be your best option.
The next advantage is potentially the most obvious. Synthetic wicker is resistant to weathering. While wood and other similar materials rot if let out in harsh weather conditions, synthetic wicker tends to be resilient. It can take a shower in the rain or absorb the sun’s strong UV rays and maintain its shape and color relatively easily.
An additional advantage of synthetic wicker is how easy it is to clean. Because it’s water-resistant, you can easily hose down your synthetic wicker material. On the contrary, given the sensitivity of natural wicker to water, you cannot do the same with a rattan chair without causing potential damage. For those who favor convenience above all else, there may be no better choice apart from synthetic wicker.
People who enjoy having wicker as their outdoor furniture tend to gravitate toward synthetic wicker. Others may simply be looking for the most affordable option, and find that synthetic wicker best suits their needs. Whether you believe in only possessing natural wicker material or the opposing weather-proof wicker, you can be sure to enjoy advantages to both materials.
Synthetic Wicker Disadvantages
Synthetic wicker furniture comes with a number of advantages. Many people still prefer natural wicker, which means that choosing between the two types of materials is often a matter of taste.
Since synthetic wicker often uses plastic material, common plastic issues may arise. Although it can get wet, plastic tends to be more susceptible to cracking. This is especially true after the material dries and hardens. However, there are certainly ways of maintaining your synthetic wicker furniture, to provide it with as long a life as possible.
Although synthetic wicker still looks appealing and can feature just as many elaborate and specially-crafted designs as natural wicker, there’s simply no changing the fact that synthetic wicker is just that: synthetic. It won’t feel or appear as the real thing. Some people enjoy the look and don’t have problems with synthetic wicker; others swear that the only true wicker is natural. Whichever you lean towards on this spectrum is completely up to you and your individual tastes.
Frequently Asked Questions about Synthetic Wicker
Because so many people are familiar with wicker furniture as natural furniture, they often have questions when they learn about synthetic versions. Many people come across synthetic wicker in their lifetime without thinking about what goes into making the unique brand of furniture that it’s become.
In order to further explain synthetic wicker and the furniture it makes, let’s explore some of the most frequently asked questions.
What exactly is synthetic wicker made from?
This is one of the most common questions about synthetic wicker; unfortunately, the answer can get a little complicated, considering that there are a number of resources that may go into creating synthetic wicker.
Most often, a type of resin or vinyl is used to craft the synthetic wicker. Essentially, these are two forms of plastic—so, for now, consider that a fancy way of saying “plastic.” Thin strips of resin or vinyl will be created and woven into wicker.
What’s important to remember, is that these pieces of furniture must also have a frame for support. In synthetic wicker chairs, the most common resource used to make the frame is aluminum. Aluminum is a light, durable, and strong metal – a sort of “rattan of the metal world” – and has the added advantage of being more affordable than other types of metals.
What makes synthetic wicker weather resistant?
The materials of resin and vinyl are already weather resistant. Since they are forms of plastic, a “sealant” is typically not required in order to add to the weather resistance of the wicker furniture. Considering that aluminum is also highly weather-durable, the makeup of synthetic weather furniture almost comes “pre-ready” for all manners of weather.
However, some supplementation can be done. By using a pre-colored resin, for example, when creating the piece of wicker furniture, a company can add to the overall weather resistance of the synthetic wicker. Obviously white is an ideal color for shunning UV rays from the sun, but realistically this does not alter the overall ability of the synthetic wicker to handle the weather.
Also, remember that synthetic wicker is resistant to heat, while heat in excess of 100 degrees Fahrenheit will cause natural rattan to expand.
What kinds of fabrics for cushions are also weather-resistant?
Of course, a piece of synthetic wicker furniture is only weather-resistant if it’s by itself. If a cushion is added to the equation, then that cushion will also have to be weather-resistant to keep your furniture consistently sustainable.
Many companies will use weather-friendly fabrics in creating cushions for synthetic wicker furniture. Rather than using cotton, for example, which is better-suited for indoor use, a company will likely use a fabric such as sunbrella. Polyester fabrics and acrylic fabrics are also considered sturdy and able to handle much of the strain that weather places on the furniture.
Can I use my synthetic wicker indoors?
You can! Many people prefer using natural rattan wicker if their furniture is going to stay indoors. However, there’s no wrong doing in keeping synthetic wicker indoors. It’s completely up to your individual tastes. In fact, one advantage of synthetic wicker is that it can often act as “two-for-one” furniture, in that it can be used both indoors as well as outdoors, if you fancy taking it out on a nice afternoon. And because you generally don’t have to worry about keeping synthetic wicker in the rain, you don’t always have to hurry inside when you see storm clouds.
When only using your synthetic wicker indoors, the natural weather-resistant materials are largely going to waste… unless it also rains inside your house.
How similar to natural wicker does synthetic wicker look?
It completely depends on the item. Many types of resin or synthetic wicker look very similar to the real thing – so much that even some experts might not be able to tell by looking at a picture. However, it’s easy to tell whether you’re using natural or synthetic wicker once you get up close and are able to touch the material. The two different types of wicker simply don’t behave in the exact same way. Though the differences may be subtle, the two types of wicker possess much diversity. The more you know your wicker, the better you’ll be able to tell which is which.
How close does synthetic wicker come to matching
the feel of natural wicker?
The “feel” of natural wicker is, of course, a highly ambiguous term and is therefore difficult to define. The chief property of natural wicker’s feel can usually be determined from sitting in the furniture; it should have both a strong and “elastic” feel. In other words, natural wicker will have some give as it adjusts to your weight.
Surprisingly enough, synthetic wicker actually does a very good job of replicating this feel. The resin used in synthetic wicker has many of the same properties of materials like rattan, thus making it is strong and somewhat elastic. This advantage gives many synthetic wickers a good “sit-down feel” when compared to natural wicker.
What is ‘resin wicker’? Is it the same thing?
Essentially, yes. Since most synthetic wicker is made from a material known as “resin,” it’s also commonly known as “resin wicker” or “all-weather wicker.” For all intents and purposes, the phrases can be used interchangeably to describe wicker that is made from man-made materials in order to protect the wicker from weathering.
The phrase usually refers to wicker made from polyethylene fibers. These fibers are highly durable and give the resin its main weather-proof properties such as resistance from the sun and against water. Usually color is added to resin wicker during the manufacturing process of the resin itself, so you don’t have to paint over it in order to achieve a desired color.
Is synthetic wicker easy to clean?
Yes; in fact, you might also consider this an advantage to synthetic wicker. Because the surfaces of resin and aluminum are non-porous, there’s usually very little work to be done in the way of cleaning. In some cases, simply hosing the furniture down and wiping it off will be enough to get them looking clean and new again. Obviously, because synthetic wicker is better at resisting water than natural wicker, you can’t use the same cleaning process for natural wicker. We’ll discuss maintenance and cleaning methods for natural wicker later on in this book.
If you don’t see a specific question about synthetic wicker answered here, open to the section regarding “More on Weather-Proof Wicker Furniture” to find more information that you may been looking for. That entire section will deal with weather-proof wicker and what you need to know if you plan on buying and maintaining it.
Choosing Synthetic or Natural Wicker
We come to a simple question: which kind of wicker should you choose?
The answer, however, is not so simple. It relies entirely on you – your personal tastes, your budget, your vision of how you’ll be using your wicker, etc. Be sure to take some time before making a decision on your wicker – especially if you plan on using it for a long period time. The choice you make can affect your home décor and your wallet for many years to come.
With your preferences in mind, this section will address everything you need to know about choosing what kind of wicker best suits your home. Although we’ve already addressed some of the advantages of each, it’s important to examine wicker in a broader context. Namely, you need to come up with an answer to the question, “what kind of furniture do I want in my home?”
If you want your wicker to spend most of its time outdoors… then you’ll need a weather-proof wicker material that will resist sunlight, rain and general moisture. There’s really no debating here; the obvious decision you should make is to buy synthetic.
Verdict: synthetic wicker.
If you’re going to use wicker to build a dining room set… you’ll want a wicker that is pleasant to look at as well as sturdy. It doesn’t have to be particularly easy to clean in your dining room -- especially if your dining room is separate from where your family regularly eats their meals.
Verdict: natural wicker.
If you want your wicker outside in the summer and inside in the winter… then you’ll need something versatile, of course, and a material that can handle various climates. Yes, natural wicker is perfectly capable of handling the occasional jaunt outdoors during the summer, but true versatility comes from plastic.
Verdict: synthetic wicker.
If you want a simple wicker item, like a laundry basket or a night stand… then there’s really no need to focus on weather-proofing. That is, of course, unless you plan on getting a lot of water in your linen closet or by your bedside. Though synthetic wickers do offer an easy clean, there’s no substituting the elegance a natural wicker can bring to a room – even in the simple case of a laundry basket or a night stand.
Verdict: natural wicker.
If you want wicker that will match what’s already going on in your house… then you’re going to have to be open-minded. Many people find that natural rattan furniture works better with certain floors, while synthetic wicker has its own strengths. Ultimately, the aesthetic choice is yours.
If you want wicker that can handle a cooler climate… then you’ll likely want to go with wicker furniture that is capable of handling the drastic changing of the seasons. Going from a deep snow in the winter to a bright sunny summer is not an easy change on your furniture—Choose the wicker that can withstand the elements.
Verdict: synthetic wicker.
If you’re all about quick cleaning times and nothing else… then you’ll want to remember that rattan is porous, like wood, and can be a little more difficult to clean than synthetic wicker furniture. Because the synthetic stuff is non-porous, it can actually be hosed down for an ultra-quick clean. Rattan, of course, absorbs the water a little too well for the old hose technique.
Verdict: synthetic wicker.
If you want your furniture to have “character”… then there’s no way you can beat the natural stuff. Sure, synthetic wicker furniture is often able to replicate the look and feel of natural rattan. It’s even impressive how well this can be done by some manufacturers. However, in some cases, there’s just no substituting when you can otherwise have the real thing.
Verdict: natural wicker.
Even more versatile than the types of wicker you can acquire, there are various types of furniture buyers. Take a look at the facets of wicker furniture that are most important to you in order to determine what kind of wicker will work best for your home in order to draw your own conclusion. The truth lies in the pudding. There is no “better” furniture. It all depends on your needs, tastes, and your individual home.
Where Does the Best Rattan Come From?
A coffee connoisseur is well-versed in the source of the coffee bean. Not only do they know the various types of roasts, but they learn the different geographical areas that coffee is grown in. Tracing coffee to its origins not only helps coffee lovers grow an appreciation for a variety of coffees, but it helps them discover the specific types that they enjoy best.
Needless to say, coffee and wicker furniture are not made of the same material, but a similar principle holds true: if you want to really know your wicker and rattan furniture, you have to know a little bit about the source material. Yes, we’ve explored the botanical history of rattan already. So let’s bring rattan into the present age and ask a critical question: where does the best rattan come from?
The short answer? Indonesia. It tends to be the strongest and most supple. Rattans that grow in Maylasia, Vietnam and most of the Philippines dry, crack and splinter much more easily. In fact, you’ll find that about 70% of the world’s rattan comes from Indonesia – specifically, the islands of Borneo, Sulawesi, and Sumbawa.
Indonesia’s climate and soil are well-suited for the growing of rattan, as are many countries of Southeast Asia and Australasia. In fact, Indonesia is such a natural environment for rattan that its history there goes a long way back. Native female Indonesians of the Wemale ethnic group often wore rattan around their waste as girdles. On a darker note, rattan has also previously made a sturdy instrument for punishment by caning, particularly in areas like Malaysia and Singapore. Needless to say, our modern use in putting rattan in wicker furniture is a far more suitable use of the material.
While Indonesia has a strong grip on the rattan market (many industry insiders will tell you that the best rattan comes from Indonesia), it’s not alone in its rattan production and exporting. The Philippines, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Bangladesh are also key exporters and producers of rattan, though they haven’t achieved the level of rattan exporting that Indonesia has.
There are a lot of positives about rattan production in areas like this. For one, rattan is a quick-growing product. This means that it can be harvested in the wild quite easily with a minimal impact on the environment; so long as rattan continues to grow, it will do so quickly. This has also made rattan a viable alternative to logging efforts in the region; when you can harvest rattan, the demand for wood goes down.
There may not be any wicker “connoisseurs” that concerned with the rattan in their furniture, but it does help if you can find a furniture maker who is able to answer questions about where their rattan material comes from.
After all, the source material of your wicker furniture is of crucial importance. If you have synthetic furniture, it will resist the rain; natural rattan will not. If you have natural rattan, you have to clean it differently than you would synthetic “rattan.”
In other words, the more you know about what’s going into your wicker furniture, the better a customer—and consumer—you’ll become. That’s why in our next section, we’re going to explore what a furniture maker will do with these materials once it’s time to make wicker furniture.