What Is Rattan & What Is It Made Of?

by Jasmine Savery

What Is Rattan Made Of?

The material Rattan is used throughout many of our baskets here at Northern Willow, which got us asking, ‘what exactly is rattan?’ This caused a moment of pause in our household, as we have used, loved and worked with rattan every day whilst running our little business, but we couldn’t answer the question exactly. What is rattan, and why has it become a fast favourite of us here at Northern Willow and worldwide?

It wasn’t until a few nights later, after a long walk out into the peaks and a subsequent much-deserved mug of hot chocolate, that we decided to get ourselves an answer. So, what is Rattan and what is it made of? 

Read on to find out more…

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What Is Rattan?

What Is Rattan Made Of?

Is Rattan Waterproof?

How To Clean Rattan?

Rattan At Northern Willow


What Is Rattan?

Rattan (sometimes spelt ‘ratan’) is the general name given to around 600 different species of palm that grows naturally in South East Asia. The name stems from the Malay ‘rotan’, which means ‘to trim’. Rattan the plant, therefore, is named after how it was seen in practical purposes by those who grew up with this palm growing in their fields, nearby river banks or hillsides. It’s like calling a tree ‘to chop’ because that's how you approached and used it.

Rattan, the plant, is known for its fast-growth properties and usefulness as a material that we enjoy every day in our home lives. This palm grows in vast abundance in South East Asia and has been used to make strong and durable wicker ware for hundreds of years. 

The palm itself is covered in thorns, an outer shell and an inner, softer material. The thorns are removed and, depending on your intended usage, so is the harder outer layer. This harder outer layer is known as ‘cane rattan’ and is similar to a garden cane, which is made out of bamboo. 

What Is Rattan Made Of?

Due to the size of South East Asia, with its abundance of islands such as the Indonesian, Malaysian and Philippine Archipelagos, rattan has grown in many different climates, crossed many oceans and competed with many different species along its way. This has diversified rattan into 600 varieties including single-stemmed, clustered and high or low-climber species. For our purposes, which are lightweight, tightly woven, often handheld baskets and hampers, only a few certain varieties are suitable. These include

Reed Rattan:

Reed Rattan is the thinner, lighter, woodier part of the rattan plant. Once stripped of its hardy outer exterior, the reed has its natural porous properties exposed. This porous property makes it ideal for dying or tanning, but also susceptible to taking on water. You often find reed rattan being used for wicker-ware that incorporates intricate designs and patterns, such as our Boat Shaped Rattan Log Basket.

Reed Rattan is perfect for woven-ware as it can be manipulated easily, is lightweight, and can take on dyes and tans readily. Taking care of reed rattan takes a little know-how. We wrote a blog on ‘Taking Care of Your Wicker & How To Make Them Last’ recently. We use these tips and tricks daily and they should help you keep your reed rattan looking its best for many years to come. 

Kubu Grey Rattan: 

Kubu Grey Rattan is cane rattan that goes through an ancient dyeing process whereby it is rubbed into ground materials such as clay or soil. This gives the baskets a rustic look and rest assured, the colour won’t run into any items stored in your basket under regular day-to-day use!

Kubu Grey Rattan is our favourite style of Rattan here at Northern Willow as it's the most rustic and traditional form of Rattan in our opinion. We have various beautiful examples of Kubu Rattan throughout our store, our favourite is the Tall Fireside Grey Rattan Log Basket. Note its almost blue-like hue on certain strands, and earthy bronze tones on others. This is due to slight regional differences in the clays or soils used to dye each strand. Kubu is hardier than regular reed rattan as it employs full cane plant fibres. 

Cane Rattan:

Cane Rattan is a material made using the full Rattan plant palms. The harder outer shell is left on the palm, making it better suited for outside or structural use. This harder shell does bring with it some drawbacks, however, as the strands are larger in diameter and are less malleable than the inner strand. 

You would normally find Cane Rattan being used in wicker furniture, or for the structural parts of some of the hardier products we make. The outer shell makes for a sturdier product which is slightly more resilient to the extremes. 

You won’t find much cane rattan in our store. We tend to deal with reed rattan, its thinner more malleable cousin. 

Rattan Shades Example Pic

Is Rattan Waterproof?

No, rattan isn’t waterproof. Depending on your variety and cut of rattan, you can get it wet to an extent, but you won’t get long-lasting rattan if it continues to get wet. Rattan is dyed using earth-based materials which, once wet, are susceptible to possibly running onto the surface upon which they are placed or onto the items held inside the basket itself. It should also be mentioned that the rattan fibres are made malleable by soaking in water or steamed, then placed into position and dried. As a result, once rattan gets wet, it is liable to reshape and reform with an undesirable result. 

This isn’t to say that you absolutely can’t get rattan wet. Of course, a Garden Trug wouldn’t be much use if it wasn’t able to get wet to some extent or a Bathroom Hamper would be expected to get wet a little bit. Your mileage may vary on each product depending on how wet it gets and how often. Rattan is often quoted as being ‘weatherproof’, meaning that it can be exposed to weather, but you wouldn’t want to leave it out in the rain. 

How To Clean Rattan

Rattan is amazingly easy to clean and maintain. As previously mentioned, you want to try and keep your rattan dry and away from harsh cleaning chemicals. Following these steps should allow your rattan to stay looking its best for years to come. These steps need to be repeated as you see fit!

  • Gently brush your rattan with a dry duster or hand brush
  • Dab and wipe with a damp microfibre
  • Allow your rattan to dry naturally under regular household temperatures or outside on a summers day

If you encounter any resistance with the dust on your rattan basket then the item may have other particulates on its surface. If you find that this is the case then you can repeat steps 2 and 3 but with a small about of washing-up liquid on your microfibre. This will help break down any grease or oil buildup that may have occurred over regular household use. 

For more cleaning tips, on maintaining and getting the most out of your rattan baskets, read our dedicated blog on How To Clean Your Wicker Basket & Top Tips For Making Them Last. In this blog, we outline a few other steps for making your items last a lifetime, including leather care and tips on looking after rope handles or bespoke linings. 

Can You Paint Rattan?

Sure! Painting rattan is a great idea, you should feel free to zhuzh-up anything you buy from us. We’d love to receive any products you have altered or repaired for our social media pages as it's something we love doing ourselves. We’ll have more details on that below.

First, let's address some concerns you may have about painting your rattan at home. Two of the main reasons you’ll want to paint your rattan would be for customisation or restoration. These purposes may cross-pollinate methods, however, we think it would be useful to differentiate some key areas so you can get the most out of your project. 


If you intend to repair and paint your rattan, we recommend carrying out the repair work first. Once repaired, allow all glue to dry, then repeat the cleaning processes we talked about above. Paint will adhere to clean rattan way better than dusty or oily rattan. This is the best way to make sure any paint you wish to apply stays looking its best. 

If your wicker is muddy or in particular disrepair, then feel free to scrub in between each strand with a medium-bristled brush. Remember, each strand of rattan is strong on its own, it can take a strong brushing and come out relatively unscathed. 

Once you have restored your basket, and it's ready to paint, follow the steps from our customisation tips below. 


We have found that some paints take to rattan better than others. You’ll get the best results using chalk based, oil-based or spray paint depending on your intended aesthetic, outcome and budget. 

Chalk Paint:

Chalk-based paints add to the rustic, traditional and timeless look we think our baskets already exude. These styles of paint can be picked up at your local hardware or DIY shop for cheap and require minimal prep and drying time. 

One coat of chalk paint will give off a shabby-chic aesthetic to rattan, and two or more will build a solid foundation of colour that will last 5 - 10 years. It’s the perfect option for projects with kids or if you just want to make minor changes to a rattan piece you’ve had for a few years already. We love the Annie Sloan Collection, which we have used once or twice customising rattan baskets for our bathroom, however B&Q also has a great range available for a little cheaper and available readily in store. 


Oil-based paints are great for long-lasting projects that may come under more duress than projects where you perhaps planned on using chalk-based paint. You’ll want to apply any oil-based paint with a brush small enough to allow you to get in between each strand and provide coverage to the various nooks and crannies. 

We’ve been asked a lot if oil-based paint protects your rattan from outside environmental risks, and we can’t promise it will make your rattan impermeable to the outdoors. Covering every strand of rattan evenly to ensure it is guarded against outdoor use is tough, which is why we rarely use oil-based paints on the baskets we stock, however, friends of ours have had very good results using a microfibre to apply the oil-based paint which allows it to evenly coat strands. 

Spray Paint:

Many people chose to spray paint their rattan as it tends to give an easy and even coat of paint across each strand when applied correctly. Soft colours work best, and always be sure to follow the instructions provided on the can. 

We find that finding the correct spray paint is crucial for painting wicker or rattan. As a general rule, if it’s made to apply for wood then it will naturally take to rattan. Add masking tape or plastic concealers to any part of the rattan that you don’t want to apply paint when spraying from about 1 foot away from the area you wish to spray. 

It stands to reason that you carry out any spray painting either outside or against a disposable tarp. Temperature and humidity play a role when spray painting, so it would be best to leave these projects until the warmer months when you can leave furniture outside to dry without the risk of rain. 

Chalk Paint for Painting Rattan at Northern Willow

Rattan With Northern Willow

As you can tell, we’re absolutely rattan crazy here at Northern Willow. We think that rattan has a use in all rooms of the modern, British household due to its versatility and customisability. Kubu Grey Rattan comes with a higher price tag than other types of rattan due to the methods of dyeing and tanning, but it truly stands out against other materials such as willow or bamboo. In 2023, we’re going to have much more rattan available throughout our range to celebrate this wonderful material. 

Keep an eye on this blog for future deep dives into the materials we use every day. We’re going to cover;