What To Know About Wicker Furniture

From thrift shops to Crate & Barrel, modern wicker has been a perennial favorite. But what is it, exactly?

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Wicker furniture was good enough for King Tut — archeologists found a woven bed in his tomb! And he wasn’t the only one. Turns out wicker holds up, as a material and a stylish choice for indoor and outdoor living.

Our grandparents bought wicker furniture for its durability and distinct artisan style. Today’s interior designers like it for the same reasons. But can you confidently define wicker? Read on — you may be surprised.

What is Wicker?

Artist Reed Weaver Heffelfinger owns Reed Weaver, a studio where she repairs wicker furnishings. She’s also created new pieces for more than 40 years. And, she confirms, wicker might not be what you think it is.

Wicker is a word meaning “woven.” This means any piece of furniture with strips woven together to create a seat, chair back or footstool, among other items, is wicker.

The woven part can be bamboo, leather or some other material, like rattan, a thin, flexible reed made from a climbing vine. “I’ve made stools that have a rattan frame and are interwoven with leather,” she says. “That’s still a wicker stool.”

Bamboo is often used with rattan. Bamboo provides a structure for the furniture, with rattan forming the seat, back or visual interest.

Finally, vinyl weaved around a metal frame (usually aluminum) creates a rattan wicker effect, but with the durability to stand up to outdoor elements. These are good for decks, patios and other outdoor settings.

What Is the Difference Between Wicker and Rattan?

The wicker you might be imagining looks braided or woven, but it’s possible you’re thinking of the material itself. Often, people associate “wicker” with a light wood-tone reed material. This material is most often harvested from a climbing vine that grows quickly in the jungles of Borneo, Malaysia or Sumatra. Then it’s processed for use.

The stripped-off outer material becomes what we know as rattan. The inner pith becomes reed. Both are processed and cut at different widths and thicknesses to create various reed-like products that offer different effects when woven.

How to Clean and Care for Natural/Indoor Wicker Furniture

If you’re specifically trying to maintain rattan, the steps are simple.

Wicker dries out easily, making it brittle and susceptible to breaking. To prevent this, wicker needs a coat of oil in the fall and in the spring. “I tell people to think about seasons,” Heffelfinger says. “If you don’t oil your pieces regularly, they will break.”

Changes in humidity, weather and exposure to sun can make rattan dry out. So can furnace heat and air conditioning. For basic maintenance on a sturdy, well-maintained piece, all you need is a high-quality lemon or orange oil, along with a paintbrush.

For isolated stains on indoor wicker, follow these steps:

  • If you’ve had a major incident, such as dumping a glass of red wine or worse, act quickly. Before the stain sets, gently hose off your rattan with a garden hose. Let the piece dry completely before moving on to the next steps. If you can’t take your furniture outside, wipe it with a damp cloth and warm, soapy water.
  • Find a place indoors where your furniture will not be disturbed for a few days.
  • Lay down plastic or paper to protect your floor. Coat the rattan thoroughly with the lemon or orange oil, applying with the paintbrush.
  • Let it dry. You’ll know it’s ready when you swipe your hand or fingers across where you oiled and nothing comes off.

Some really old, special or “feathery” delicate pieces may need more frequent oiling. Check with a wicker expert if you have questions. Some materials need oiling up to every two months. And some should not be sat on anymore; just appreciate them as art pieces.

And if your indoor wicker furniture needs repair? Many wicker artisans can fix pieces for you, but there are also myriad online tutorials. Heffelfinger says most techniques are DIY-friendly.

If you aren’t sure what material your wicker furniture is made of, check with the manufacturer or artist who created it, or contact a wicker expert in your area.

How to Clean and Care for Synthetic/Outdoor Wicker Furniture

Typically speaking, synthetic/outdoor wicker furniture is made from vinyl and tends to be more durable than indoor wicker. But Heffelfinger says she’s learned anecdotally that outdoor wicker can still dry out like indoor wicker because the sun bakes it and makes it crack. These are her tips for how to care for synthetic wicker:

  • Hose off your vinyl wicker pieces.
  • Coat vinyl wicker with a good-quality lemon or orange oil and a paintbrush, just like the indoor stuff. That can make cracks disappear.
  • As always, check with your particular brand or purveyor and follow their care instructions. If you’re looking for a quick fix on an older set, oiling may work just fine.
  • Bring synthetic wicker furniture into a heated storage space in the winter, if possible. At a minimum, cover it completely.

Katie Dohman
Katie Dohman is an award-winning freelance writer who has written about home, design, and lifestyle topics for more than 15 years. Her work has been featured in Artful Living, Midwest Home, Star Tribune, and Teen Vogue, among many others. She is currently living her own how-to story as she and her husband work through a complete gut remodel on their 1921 home—while parenting three tiny tots and dodging their dog and cat, who always seem to be underfoot.