Part of rattan furniture's beauty and appeal as outdoor or patio furniture is its ability to weather the elements. This does not, however, mean that it is waterproof. In spite of being able to be left out in the weather, it does begin to degrade if left in direct rain or even direct sunlight. If painted, the paint needs maintenance and touch-ups to remain beautiful when left outdoors for extended periods. It is easily cleaned, with unpainted rattan and wicker strong enough to be hosed off with a strong jet of water without sustaining damage.
Rattan is a wild-growing tropical vine indigenous to rain forests in Asia, Africa and South America. It grows largely in Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore and China. The vine is vigorous, reaching lengths of up to 500 feet, and must be cut back frequently to both control its size and encourage new growth, making it a sustainable resource. Its strength and flexibility, an unusual combination in woods, is due to its makeup of long fibers that run lengthwise throughout the vine. Unlike bamboo, which is similar in appearance, rattan is solid.
Rattan became widely used throughout Europe and America in the 1700s and 1800s. Its appeal was its simple beauty and relatively low cost compared with heavier hardwood-constructed furniture. Into the 1900s, as second and vacation homes became the growing trend, rattan was an affordable and attractive way to furnish those homes and was used both for casual indoor use and as patio furniture.
The hardy rattan vines are cut and then soaked and steamed so they are able to be shaped and formed without damaging the vines. Wicker furniture is woven from the smaller rattan vines, while rattan pieces use larger-diameter vines. The largest vines are used in the framework of furniture. Sometimes the rattan is wrapped in leather and then steamed and allowed to dry, which shrinks the leather tightly onto the rattan. In addition to furniture, rattan is used in the making of woven baskets and mats, and even for suspension bridges in Malaysia.
Though weather-resistant by nature, rattan should be protected from weather whenever possible. Remove the cushions into safe storage when not in use, such as through cooler months or before inclement weather. Store the furniture out of the weather or cover it with a tarp before heavy rains or snow. Do not place the furniture in direct sunlight or where it will remain wet for extended periods of time.