There are certain natural materials which have earned themselves a special place in the affections of those who appreciate good outdoor furniture. Bamboo is one – it might never be completely straight but it’s got character. Much the same can be said for wicker. It has character; it can be rustic or it can be made into elegant, exquisitely designed pieces, painted fancy colors with patterns, pictures – whatever someone with an eye for these things cares to come up with.
EXCEPT – wicker isn’t a material at all. It’s what you get when you weave thin lengths of something into the kind of product we all know as wicker.
You sometimes see it referred to as rattan, which is a material: the reedy, vine-like tendrils of a kind of climbing palm. It’s not technically wood, even though when it’s dry it looks and feels like wood.
So there is fascinating fact number one.
Having established what the word actually means, wicker can be made from any material that can be woven in that way, and that includes the astonishingly popular resin wicker, which, when you strip away the PR and grand terminology, is long extrusions of a high-grade plastic. And there’s nothing wrong with that, as we will see later when we look at maintenance, because this option makes perfect sense for outdoor furniture.
Wicker can even be made from specially formulated twisted paper. That can look and feel right, which is all that really matters.
Visitors to the home of a wicker-lover often come out with the same old line: “Very nice – but isn’t it a nightmare to clean?
The answer is no.
It needs regular attention, certainly, but it’s something anyone can do – it doesn’t require the expensive services of a specialist.
Wicker is thought to have been used to make furniture for 5,000 years, with the ancient Egyptians styling it with their typically flamboyant flourishes. So it is entirely possible that Cleopatra could be found draping herself across an elegant piece made of woven reeds while awaiting the attention of one of her Roman admirers.
If wicker goes back this far, it just demonstrates that it can’t be that hard to maintain and certainly doesn’t require 21st century chemicals. The Romans and Egyptians may have been highly sophisticated, but they didn’t have high-tech laboratories teeming with people in white coats, peering into microscopes. If people were still taking clothes to the river and using stones to wash them, they weren’t using advanced dry cleaning techniques and volatile solvents to treat the furniture they sat on.
So we shouldn’t get too precious about this, but all the same, when we have centuries of technological advances at our disposal, it would be churlish to be heavy-handed anyway.
A darker side to wicker can be seen in the classic 1973 chiller movie, The Wicker Man, set on a Scottish island and starring The Equalizer actor Edward Woodward, which was remade in 2006 with Nicholas Cage. In the movie they didn’t have to clean the wicker, because it went up in smoke, but in reality you’ve got to take care of it.
So here are six simple steps to keep rattan wicker outdoor furniture (and indoor too) looking its best.
Obviously if cushions are involved they should be removed before the cleaning process begins – and if you want to get the covers dry cleaned, by all means do.
Let’s concentrate first on the rattan variety.
1. Dust it
Care and attention, that’s the name of the game when it comes to maintaining outdoor furniture. The nature of wicker means that dust and dirt can get trapped in it all too easily, and they need to be removed regularly. Fur from pets gets everywhere and can be a nuisance when it gets stuck in nooks and crannies, of which wicker has an abundance.You can tackle this problem with a vacuum cleaner, using the brush attachment. That will get the bulk of it out.
If it’s still not pristine, use a new paintbrush or even, for hard-to-reach areas, an old toothbrush. If you’re using wicker for outdoor furniture, it will fall prey to different hazards, such as particles of flying grass and leaves, not to mention insects and the debris they both bring with them and manufacture themselves.
2. Wash it
If the wicker still seems a little grubby, it may need a wash, and that’s easy enough too. Most people recommend using nothing more drastic than warm, soapy water. Give it a loving, damp rub-down.
3. Persist – And Get Tough If Necessary
Some wicker experts sanction the use of a weak solution of bleach, particularly if you’re dealing with mold/mildew that doesn’t flinch in the face of soap. If you’re nervous about using bleach, conscious of the fact that the rattan is porous, you may want to try it on a small area under the seat or on the back of a front leg, just to see what happens.
4. Get Rid Of The Excess
Don’t leave soap or bleach on the surface. Wipe it thoroughly with a damp cloth containing only plain water.
5. Dry It
You might feel a little self-conscious tending to a chair with a hairdryer, but nobody has to see you doing it. And it really is the most effective way of removing the moisture from a weave. You might still want to leave it for a day or two, particularly if you took the tough-love bleach option, before lowering your expensively-clad bottom onto the newly-cleaned chair.
6. Don’t Leave It Outside
You can use natural wicker as outdoor furniture, on the patio or even the lawn, but don’t leave it out there all the time. Wicker looks great outside – it looks like it belongs there. But rain is obviously its enemy and sun is almost as bad. You wouldn’t leave the cushions out, at the mercy of the elements, so apply the same principle to the actual chair or table: take it out when you’re going to use it and keep it in a nice dry place when you’re not. And watch out for humidity. The conditions in which certain plants thrive will harm your natural wicker.
If rattan furniture is painted, this provides great protection for the fibres. But unless it was painted with extreme care, there could be small bare patches that you can’t even see but which water and mold will find, so take great care anyway. Regardless of how much care you take of your garden and/or backyard, you know that there are always bugs looking to make a home out of your furniture.
BEWARE OF TWISTED PAPER
If your outdoor furniture is of this relatively rare wicker material, under no circumstances should you use a liquid – even water – on it. As with the bleach-cleaning discussed above, if you don’t know exactly what your chair is made of but suspect it might be something delicate, it would be best to carry out a test on a small, hard-to-see area, just in case.
DO WHAT YOU LIKE WITH RESIN
Resin, as the artificial material is often known, is an altogether tougher customer – unless it has a wooden frame, in which case you should still take care. But as for the woven parts, the world is your oyster.
Scrub it with soapy water using a firm brush – no problem.
Give it a shower in the bathroom – piece of cake.
Hose it down in the garden – the chair won’t mind.
Leave it to dry in the sun.
That is undoubtedly why “artificial” wicker stormed the world a few years ago. It looks good – not as charming as the rattan variety, but streets ahead of the old ugly, cheap and nasty white plastic. There is a lot to be said for materials such as hardwood or cast aluminium, but resin wicker is a low-maintenance, light and attractive alternative.
If you’re a traditionalist or you just prefer the look of the real thing, you will find modern rattan wicker, and you will also find classic pieces in stores that sell used furniture. You might even pick up a real bargain if it’s a classy old thing that just needs refurbishment.
In that case you can get off to a flying start with your knowledge of wicker care.
So it’s really not so bad looking after wicker. Just like having pets, there is a price to pay in terms of keeping them in good condition. But with a little TLC, wicker adds a certain something that more common materials just can’t match.