The Basic Material
The use of rattan in home furnishings is not new. It dates back to the 1700’s in Asia and the Philippines where rattan was used to craft many household articles. Canadian’s love affair with wicker and rattan began back in the 1920’s when practically everyone longed for a porch full of white wicker furniture. In the ‘50’s and ‘60’s much of the wicker and rattan on the market was cheaply made and was strictly a type of furniture used in the patio. Today, innovative, well-made designs and combinations of wood, metal and leather with the rattan make an attractive option in livings rooms, dining rooms, bedrooms and family rooms. Wicker and rattan are definitely back for an encore as consumers again delight in their casual and comfortable appeal.
Rattan is a vine that grows in the mountain regions of Southeast Asia and the Philippines where rainfall averages 80 inches annually. It grows in tangles, horizontally, like ivy, but is a solid timber, not hollow like bamboo. Rattan is pliable and easily bent and carved (with the aid of steam ovens) to form many shapes and frames, although highly flexible, it is one of the strongest timbers available. Although rattan is as strong as a wood for furniture making, it is much lighter in weight and will withstand tough, daily usage.
Harvesting the rattan takes place when the vine is 6 to 15 years old. At this point, stems can be as long as 600 feet and a growth path through every part of the jungle. Harvesting is done completely by hand since the jungle terrain will not permit use of vehicles or other machinery. As the vines are removed, they are cut into 18 and 20 foot lengths; the stems are stripped of thorns then washed and dried in the open sunlight. Next the stems are tied into bundles and usually 50 poles are carried on the backs of the workers sometimes several miles to the furniture factories.
When the poles arrive at the furniture factory, typically just an open-sided hut, they are fumigated to remove insects (in Indonesia the poles are “deep-fried” in coconut oil which drives away all insects, as well as moisture) and then stood on end in teepee style to dry. The cured poles are then sorted into uniform size and sand graded according to quality and color. Next, the tough outer skin is carefully peeled away. This skin becomes peel cane which is used to bind the joints of the furniture frame. Peel cane, an extremely tough material, is also woven to make cane seats and backs in addition to other uses. Next, the stripped poles are sanded and cut into appropriate lengths needed for frame parts.
There are two ways the poles are bent to produce the frame: Steam ovens and molds: poles are steamed in a drum which makes them temporarily flexible enough to form into a furniture part. When cool, the poles retain the shape. The advantage is that it is accurate and economical for huge quantities of poles. The disadvantage is that it requires much team work. Blow torch: poles are heated with a blow torch to make them pliable. The advantage is that this skill can be done by an individual worker, but it is not as accurate as the oven method.
Either of these methods are used in combination with a handmade jig around which other poles are shaped. This jig, a sort of mold that is handmade and crude in appearance is actually two precise measurements. Using either steam oven or blow torch to make the poles pliable, the worker molds the pole to the jig. The formed parts are then joined to make a piece of furniture using screws and glue.
The next step, weaving or binding, is usually done by hand by one person who takes the piece of furniture from frame to furnish. However, sometimes two or three people specialize in one step of the process.
Natural finish: this is a clear lacquer used on rattan that still has its bark. For a more refined finish, the lacquer is applied to rattan that has been scraped. Stained finish: like wood furniture, rattan is most often given finish using stain. With some pieces, the stain is applied after framing and assembly, but with some sophisticated pieces, each component is individually stained and then assembled.
Three types of stain are used:
- Water base stain: because it is the most economical but not conclusively refined finish, this stain is used more for wicker.
- Oil based stain: superior to water based stain, but will cause tearing if applied to rattan poles unevenly. Alcohol based stain: the most superior stain for rattan. The characteristics of the stain allow the grain of the poles to show through.
- Painted finish: white is a favourite colour for rattan, although many pieces are now showing up in pastels and even black.
Care of Wicker
Rattan is one of the most maintenance free furniture materials you’ll find. To keep it looking its best and to protect the finish, wipe occasionally with a damp cloth. You can also use a soft brush or brush attachment of a vacuum cleaner to clean dust that can accumulate.
Because wicker and rattan furniture have a history of inconsistencies in quality, a store owner as well as his consumer must be able to tell quality workmanship from shoddy workmanship.
- The finish on the piece should be smooth and consistent without streaks and bubbles. Because of the different absorption of rattan poles, colour may be slightly different from pole to pole. This is not an imperfection, but part of the beauty of rattan.
- Run your hand over the frame to check for rough edges that may snag clothes and pantyhose. Of course, the finish cannot be as sleek as the finish on a piece of wood furniture, but should be relatively smooth.
- Joints should be secure and nailed or screwed into place. Look for joints wrapped with peel core or stripes of leather.
All-weather wicker is manufactured predominantly for use in outdoor patio furniture. It is meant to look like natural wicker, but is made of a synthetic material, generally polyethylene, a food grade plastic that only requires minimal maintenance and is extremely durable.
Unknown to many, wicker is not actually a material, but a method of weaving. The word is said to be derived from the Scandinavian word “wika” which means “To bend.” Traditionally, natural plant materials were used to manufacture a variety of different products including baskets, trays, indoor and outdoor furniture. Wicker was originally made from natural fibers, such as rattan, a material gained from the so called rotan tree, a vine like plant. The term rattan is sometimes used interchangeably with wicker, but in fact depicts the fibre used to create the wicker work. Rattan is very elastic and therefore greatly apt to produce baskets, hampers and chairs. The branch like material is woven for the purpose of constructing a sturdy but elastic product, wicker. The end result are those comfortable deep seating wicker chairs that we all know from our parents or grandparents. The elements gradually break down the color and make the wicker brittle. The fibres lose their elasticity and eventually break and the product ceases its use. Nowadays, most natural wicker products are used indoors, e.g. as furniture in a sun room or solarium.
Resin wicker is a very similar looking material. However, it is not subject to the impact of the elements. Synthetic polyethylene fibres resin wicker is durable, resistant against the sun’s UV radiation as well as against humidity and water. The color is added in the production process and forms part of the fibre, thereby maintaining the desired visual appeal of the product it is used for. Resin wicker is very elastic and sturdy, providing for great stability and seating comfort, those exact features that we like traditional wicker for. Furthermore, resin wicker requires much less maintenance. It is very easy to clean; it can simply be hosed down. It also does not require to be re-painted, as its colors barely fade over time. Due to these features, resin wicker has become extremely popular for outdoor products such as patio furniture.
Resin wicker is generally used over an aluminum frame to create light weight outdoor furniture. This type of furniture benefits from the advantages of resin wicker. Often described as all-weather resin wicker, it withstands the forces of the elements. Be it in very hot and humid climates or through cold winters, it has become the material of choice for swimming pool lounges, patio dining sets, outdoor sofas and terrace bistro type settings. Especially with the newer modern designs, resin wicker furniture is the new trend in the entertainment industry, i.e. patio parties, outdoor dining and lounging.