It may be difficult to determine when rattan began to be used as a raw material for furniture, but it is reasonable to assume it began with the natives of Asian countries where the vine grows profusely. The wide variety of species of rattan, their toughness, the pliable nature of the wood and its easy workability provided early craftsman with raw material for a wide variety of uses including furniture.
Rattan is not an ordinary material - far from it! It has been called exotic and indeed it is, for it has qualities that cannot be imitated by any other material. It appears to be a vine but in reality it is a palm. It has great variety in its natural form, yet an inherent consistency of basic characteristics. It is flexible but extremely tough. It can be formed into intricate shapes without loss of its exceptional strength. Its products are enjoyed in the most modern and sophisticated homes yet its origins go back to primitive times. Rattan is not an ordinary material; it makes beautiful and distinctive furniture.
The production of rattan into home furnishings starts its long journey to the living rooms of the world as a sprout deep in the tropical rain forests of Southeast Asia where it grows profusely in moist swampy areas. There are a number of different species with a mature stem diameter ranging from 1/8" to more than 2" and with lengths from a few feet to several hundreds of feet. As the forests of the world are destroyed by illegal logging and slash and burn techniques, rattan production has began to shift to plantations. There are approximately 852 square miles of rattan plantations in Asian countries. In Indonesia approximately 4,200 households engage in rattan harvesting and production, spread across South Kalimantan, Cirebon and Central Sulawesi. In the Philippines more than 4,000 workers engage in the production of rattan furniture and handicraft. Income received from weaving rattan is 75% higher than income received from farming.
The new rattan sprout starts life growing upward like a small palm; however, as it increases in size the weight of the fronds become too great for the stem to support and the stem bends causing the growth direction toward the ground. Growth will continue along the ground until a bush or tree is met where it will grow upward, seeking sunlight, until it gets to the top where lack of support forces it to return to the ground where it will start the process all over again. The vine clings tenaciously to the trees by means of grapples or thorny projections of the leaf stems, which grow from nodes on the main stem. Rattan trees can reach lengths as long as 600 feet with growth paths through every part of the jungle.
Removing the vines from their paths of growth is very difficult. The numerous thorns hold stubbornly to everything they touch and make grasping the stem by hand dangerous. The large thorns on the nodes of the rattan tree can easily impale a hand. Even with the inherent danger the collection process must still be done by hand because the jungle terrain will not permit the use of mechanical equipment. Rattan is harvested when it is 7 to 10 years old. As vines are removed they are cut into 18 to 20 foot lengths depending on stem diameter; the stems are stripped of thorns then washed and dried in open sunlight. Next they are tied in bundles of approximately fifty poles, which is about all the average worker can manage. The density of the jungle and the moist ground prohibits the use of trucks to take the poles from the jungle. Consequently, they are carried on the backs of workers or oxen, sometimes several miles, to a river where they will start their boat trip to the furniture factories.
Prepping and Manufacturing:
Rattan furniture factories in the Orient usually are not the typical structures one thinks of in North America. More often they are simply posts in the ground with a roof - open on all sides. This highly ventilated design permits good air circulation to help combat high temperatures and humidity that prevails much of the time in these areas. When it rains, and it does with a vengeance, things get wet - but when the rain stops everything dries very quickly.
When the poles are received at the factory they are fumigated, then stood on end for curing. Cured poles are sorted into bundles of uniform size and graded according to quality and color. Next the tough outer surface is carefully hand stripped to a precise depth and the surface material removed. The stripped poles are then carefully hand sanded and cut to appropriate length to be formed into frame parts.
Frame parts are formed using handmade jigs. Though these jigs appear crude, they are made with great accuracy by skilled artisans so the formed part will be exact shape. Prior to forming, poles are heated with a blow torch or steamed in a drum which makes them temporarily pliable for inserting into the jig - when cool, the parts retain the shape of the jig. The formed parts are then joined to make the piece of furniture using screws and glue and with joints wrapped with leather for additional strength and attractive appearance.
The best wicker furniture is made of rattan core. The rattan core is produced by pulling small diameter rattan stems through a special knife that shapes the core to 1/8" diameter strands. These strands of rattan core are very strong yet flexible for the production of wicker furniture.
In summary, this is the story of rattan from the forest to the completed product; but this is a two-party story. The second and most important part concerns the use of rattan furniture and the effect it has on the people who live with it.
It is well known that a relationship exists between people and the environment they inhabit. Colors, forms and textures can be artfully combined to create an atmosphere that will affect the mood of a person, and today the desired atmosphere is one of leisure and tranquility, which includes piece of mind. To achieve this goal designers are turning more and more frequently to wicker and rattan home furnishings.