The woven appeal of rattan is almost universal and has been used in furniture for many years but did you know that much of the furniture you see is actually made from a synthetic alternative?

Rattan is a naturally occurring vine which grows in tropical jungles in the world and is renowned for its unparalleled strength. It also has the ability to grow back very rapidly, making it a sustainable and eco-friendly source of material.

However, although natural rattan is a wonderful product there are some drawbacks to its use, particularly in different climates. And that’s why a synthetic alternative was produced, creating an almost indistinguishable appearance.

Many people are unaware that they’re buying synthetic rattan because it looks and feels so much like the real thing. Here’s our guide to both natural and synthetic rattan and just when and how each is used.

What is rattan?

Rattan is the name of a group of tropical vines which grow in areas such as Australasia, Asia and Africa. With more than 600 different types of vine, rattan is very closely related to the palm tree and is one of the strongest types of timber products that exist in the world.

Rattan is almost impossible to snap or break, and with a diameter of up to 7cm, it can reach lengths of hundreds of metres. When cut, the vine grows back remarkably quickly, making it a particularly sustainable resource.

The entirety of the rattan vine is used in making furniture, with the inner core used to create the famous weave effect and the outer core used as binding.

natural rattan in the wild

Wild rattan cultivation

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Technically a type of timber, rattan can be painted or stained in the same way as wood which is how the vast range of colours and tones are achieved when manufactured.

When heated a rattan vine becomes soft and pliable, allowing it to be woven into tight and intricate designs. As the vine cools, it hardens and becomes extremely stiff and rigid, holding the weave.

The added benefit to rattan is that it doesn’t splinter or split, giving it a distinct advantage over other types of wood. Rattan has been used for many centuries in the regions in which it grows naturally.

There is some confusion which arises between the terms ‘rattan’ and wicker’.

Rattan refers explicitly to these types of vine - or the synthetic equivalent - and has certain qualities which can’t be found elsewhere, such as its superb strength and durability.

Wicker is not a type of plant or product but a technique, the much-loved woven effect. Wicker can be created using rattan but also other types of natural material such as rush or willow. It’s therefore essential that if you specifically want rattan, you shouldn’t just buy furniture labelled as wicker.

Wicker furniture may be rattan, but it also may be made from one of the other materials which are all far weaker and less durable. You should therefore check that the term ‘rattan’ is included somewhere in the label.

Why isn’t natural rattan always used?

With such a fantastic natural resource, which is also sustainable and eco-friendly, you may be wondering why boffins have bothered to create a synthetic equivalent.

Unfortunately there are a number of reasons why synthetic rattan is often considered to be a better option than the natural equivalent.

Growing in a tropical climate, natural rattan is a strong and durable resource and one which is almost impossible to surpass. Unfortunately when brought into a different climate, it doesn’t perform quite as well when exposed to the elements.

In the UK for example, the wet conditions are less than ideal for rattan and means that the natural product isn’t best used for outdoors garden furniture. If left out in either cold or wet conditions, natural rattan will rapidly degrade, suffering from mould and then rot, becoming irreparably damaged in the process.

There’s no way to protect natural rattan against the weather, and even if treated, it is still not able to withstand the cold and the wet. Therefore although natural rattan is still one of the highest quality natural products, it can’t survive the UK weather.

Rattan is a product which is used for both indoors and outdoors furniture and so it needs to be robust enough to withstand cold temperatures, wet weather and even ice and snow. Synthetic rattan can step in and succeed where natural rattan doesn’t perform sufficiently, such as outdoors.

Synthetic rattan is now used far more widely than natural rattan because it provides the flexibility for pieces of furniture to be used either indoors or out.

What is synthetic rattan?

Synthetic rattan is a remarkably authentic looking substitute, providing the look and feel of real rattan with none of the frailty associated with exposure to the weather.

Typically used for furniture, synthetic rattan can be exposed to all sorts of temperature changes and weather conditions without suffering any ill effects.

Garden furniture in the UK may well get caught in a downpour, even during the summer months, plus there’s no guarantee of any sunshine. Synthetic rattan won’t fade in the sunlight, and can be left outside in the cold weather as well. Freezing temperatures, frost and even snow won’t have any effect on the quality of the rattan so there’s no need to cover up or put it into storage.

rattan furniture set

Spice up your garden with quality rattan garden furniture

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Even heavy rain will simply run off synthetic rattan; unlike the natural equivalent there’s no risk of mould or rot.

How do I take care of my synthetic rattan furniture?

Synthetic rattan which has been used to make garden furniture can be left out all year round, including during the worst of the weather.

However, all types of rattan furniture feature upholstery and cushions which aren’t quite as resilient. They are typically showerproof which means that getting wet in an unexpected downpour won’t do too much harm but it’s not a good idea to repeatedly expose them to either cold or wet weather.

At night and certainly during the cold and wet weather, the cushions should be removed, just leaving the rattan frame. For maximum convenience you won’t want your cushions too far away so a rattan storage box can provide a convenient solution.

A storage box made from rattan, again entirely weatherproof so can be left out all year round, with lining inside will keep the cushions protected from the elements, but also close at hand for when you need them.

If you think that your rattan is getting too dry and is either splitting or running the risk of cracking, you can apply some lubrication by brushing on some boiled linseed oil. Using a small-headed brush, simply brush it on until no more can be absorbed and the wipe off any excess from the surface using a soft cloth. As the oil dries, it will harden and expand, filling in and gaps and cracks in the process.

This should only need to be doing very rarely, as a special treat if your rattan is showing signs if drying and cracking.

rattan furniture

Natural rattan

In general, synthetic rattan is surprisingly easy to maintain, even after being left out to brave the rain, frost and snow all year round.

You won’t need special creams, treatments or waxes; in order to keep it clean and in pristine condition. Just wipe down the rattan regularly - about once a week is often enough usually - with a damp cloth. You can use water with a squirt of detergent in if you think the rattan is particularly grimy. The air will dry the surface of the rattan and that’s all you need to do.

Particles in the air can sometimes creep into the nooks and crannies and cause dirt to build up. To prevent this you can either use a hoover nozzle occasionally to suction out any lingering dust or you can hose down your rattan furniture - preferably upside down - with the help of a hose pipe. This latter option might be better attempted during the summer months where the air will be warm enough to help the rattan dry from such a comprehensive dousing.

Inside the home

Although it’s really only when exposed to the elements that natural rattan struggles to deliver, there may be occasions when it’s necessary to impose restrictions on its use inside too. Rooms such as the kitchen, bathroom and conservatory are far more humid and damp than the rest of the house and natural rattan may not be able to deal with these conditions.

For this reason, you may often find that synthetic rattan is also used inside the house too. This provides the flexibility of being able to use the furniture even in conditions which are less hospitable for natural rattan.

Natural rattan is as beautiful and stylish as ever and providing the conditions are suitable, the furniture made from it is strong, durable and long-lasting.

Types of synthetic rattan

If you need synthetic rattan, there are several types, so it’s a good idea to understand what you are getting as each has slightly differently qualities.

There are three main types of synthetic rattan: HDPE, PU and PVC.

HDPE is a tough and resilient material which is also entirely recyclable. Made from thermoplastic resins, it creates a strong and durable rattan but it is the most expensive of all the synthetic rattans.

PVC rattan is the weakest of the synthetic options, and although it provides some protection against UV light, it isn’t entirely resistant. It’s usually combined with an additional elastic substance in order to provide a greater degree of flexibility. Unfortunately, it’s not suitable for outdoors use unless it is covered up.

PU offers a good compromise. Not as expensive as HDPE rattan, it is still incredibly strong and durable with an elastic strength which is resistant to splits and cracks. Both UV and mould resistant, PU rattan can easily last up to 10 years.

two rattan chairs at a table

Dining set made out of synthetic rattan

All of these types of synthetic rattan are manmade materials but very closely resemble the real thing. They contain the same level of density as real wood and their carbon and oxygen base is also almost indistinguishable.

These synthetic rattans offer the same flexibility as natural rattan during the manufacturing process and can still be shaped and wrapped by hand around an aluminium frame. Using synthetic materials doesn’t detract from the skill required to create the weave, and the end result is similar regardless of whether natural or synthetic materials have been used.

Synthetic rattan has many of the same qualities as the natural vine and once woven, the furniture is strong and hardwearing.

On trend

Because even synthetic rattan looks like a natural product, it’s a design and material which is very much in demand at the moment for both interior and exterior furniture. With its neutral colours and compatibility with other natural products such as stone and timber, rattan is on-trend and expected to remain so for the foreseeable future.

Being economical and durable, rattan is a style of furniture which suits both contemporary and traditional decor. Both natural and synthetic rattan does not warp and holds its shape, while the latter is the best material for damp and wet conditions, being unaffected by humidity or moisture.

outdoor lighting

Synthetic rattan lampshades, an interesting concept

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There’s now a wide range of furniture available in rattan including tables and chairs, sofas, armchairs as well as accessories. Many designs are intended for either indoors or outdoors use, and thanks to the aluminium frame, each piece is extremely lightweight too. This makes it easy to move around when needed without compromising the stability and strength.

Although natural and synthetic rattan used in furniture weaving are created using very different methods, and contain vastly different materials the end result is surprisingly similar. With the same look, feel and design, both synthetic and natural rattan have much to offer a hungry market and far surpass what other materials such as fabric and timber have to offer.

Image Credits: Jakarta Post Travel and Vimoso Fibras Naturais