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Should I be afraid of wicker outdoor patio furniture?

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Like many other categories, wicker outdoor patio furniture runs the gamut in terms of quality, price, how it’s made, and what it’s made of. If you want temporary furniture that looks good for a party, it doesn’t matter what you buy. Buy it for it’s design and pretty color. If you want furniture that’s going to last, you need to carefully interrogate what you’re getting before you pay for it.

The word wicker itself is misleading. There are several words used when referring to this type of furniture that are confusing and sometimes inaccurate. It’s a good idea to know a few terms:

Wicker: To bend; the act of weaving. Wicker does not refer to a type of material, but rather what has been done with the material.

Rattan: The name referring to approximately 600 species of palm trees. Rattan furniture would be made from fibrous, strand-like material from these trees. Wicker furniture could be made with rattan. Many times “rattan” furniture is made with reed, cane, seagrass, or bamboo rather than actual stems from a rattan tree. All of these materials are organic.

Vinyl: A synthetic resin or plastic consisting of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or a related polymer. Vinyl is in powder form before it’s compounded into the material that you see in furniture. During compounding, it’s mixed with various additives and modifiers. How the compounding is done dictates how rigid or flexible the material is, how thick it is, how color fast it is, and how it will react to sun exposure in general.

PVC: Polyvinyl chloride, the world’s third most widely produced synthetic plastic polymer, after polyethylene and polypropylene. PVC is less flexible and elastic than other similar materials. In order for it to be adequately heat resistant for full sun applications, an expensive chlorination process must modify it. PVC is petroleum based and is used in everything from intravenous tubes, underground pipe, flooring, and imitation leather. Exposure to the elements can lead to surface embrittlement and microcracking. PVC carries with it an environmentally unfriendly stigma. Many consumer products today are labeled “PVC Free” to let buyers know that it’s not included in their item.

Polyethylene/Polypropylene: Polyethylene is basically synonymous with plastic, resin, and HDPE (high density polyethylene). There are some technical chemical variances that create different densities and strength of this material. It may be clear, cloudy, or opaque depending on the catalyst used during production. This is a very good type of material to use in the manufacturing of outdoor patio furniture. As with most anything, there are differences in overall quality of polyethylene given the application. For example, would you want clear polyethylene as your base material with a color applied to the surface? No. You would much prefer a product that is opaque and colored all the way through. In other words, all polyethylene patio furniture is not created equal.

Resin: A heat resistant, plastic chemical-based substance that is made from a mold. It begins as a liquid and then hardens. The hardening is irreversible, so there is no concern that resin patio furniture will ever melt in hot sun climates. The word resin is quite general considering it can be derived from petroleum, plants, or insects, and many additives can differentiate one particular resin product from another. You can generically refer to resin as plastic.

Synthetic: Patio furniture is sometimes referred to as synthetic if it’s not made from real rattan, reed, cane, bamboo, grass, or similar plant parts, or metal. Synthetic patio furniture is often used to describe the various plastics

All-Weather Wicker: This is a very general term often used to describe any non-rattan polyethylene, resin, or recycled plastic outdoor furniture. This means it is intended to be used outside without concern for temperature, sun exposure, humidity, rain, salty air, or snow.

Woven: Woven is a newly adopted term that the industry uses to refer to any type of synthetic wicker patio furniture. Since wicker carries with it a connotation of olden days, rattan, sun-fragile furniture that doesn’t hold up well, woven is the new wicker. Customers often say “I don’t want anything wicker” until they start to touch the synthetic woven pieces and discover how durable they are. Then it’s just a matter of style and if they like the more contemporary designs available today. Many people learn to love it once they are comfortable with its durability.

Mixed Media: This term typically means that there are woven panels mixed with aluminum. The piece could be largely woven with aluminum trim, mostly aluminum with woven panels in the seat or back, or a mix of woven chairs and coordinating aluminum tables, or vice versa. Mixing materials within the same set is very popular and attractive. It provides for more versatility in designing an outdoor space that resembles an indoor space. You can even mix materials to help define different spaces, or rooms, within a large space such as a back yard with several sitting areas.

To summarize, wicker furniture is an exciting, versatile category that can be very durable and enjoyed for many years. Real rattan furniture should be considered temporary. It won’t last in the weather. Quality woven outdoor furniture is probably made by hand, and therefore may be more expensive than other sets. If you’re looking at a woven set and it’s inexpensive, it’s probably cheap. It’s made from vinyl, PVC, thin synthetic material, lacking UV stabilizers, the construction may be substandard, and the cushions are probably not Sunbrella. If you’re looking at a high end set, you’ll know it. The quality will be unmistakable. Touch it and examine the materials. You get what you pay for – there really are no shortcuts here.

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  • Anesia St. Clair