The art of steam bending, beautifully executed by former Rowden student, Ben Rawlinson
Steam Bending: Cabinetmakers learn to have a great affinity with wood. Its attractions are numerous. It is quite easy to work with compared to other materials like steel or plastic. It can be inexpensive, is strong and, most of all, it is warm, regenerating and beautiful.
But, it doesn’t come without its vices. These are usually in the form of knots, shakes, twists and erratic grain. Of course, it is rarely as straight as you’d like and, should you want a bent piece, it just never, ever comes bent the way you’d like!
One solution for creating bent components and, arguably, the most reliable, is to laminate veneers over a mold to create the shape you want. But boy is that time consuming!
Bring on the Steam
Arguably, a more elegant way to bend wood is to steam bend it. Now, it must be said that this is not a process to enter into lightly. You do need some hardware, and the results can be a little erratic. But, with patience and a bit of practice, it is possible to encourage wood to bend to your needs. And without torturing it or putting the piece of furniture under any undue permanent stress.
The first thing you need is a sealed box, large enough to take the pieces of wood you wish to bend. It must have one end that can be opened to put the wood in and that, when closed, creates a really good seal. It also needs an access entry for steam to be piped in.
Steam Bending Box: not fancy, just efficient
The amount of time the wood needs to spend in the steam box depends on its density, its cross-sectional area and length, and how dry it was in the first place. My advice – experiment and be patient!
Well steamed wood can then be bent around formers and jigs and held in place with strong steel straps on the outside of the curves. But be advised, steam bending involves crushing the inside of the wood, not stretching the outside…
There is usually a bit of spring back, even when the wood has completely dried, and so formers typically run curves 10%-20% tighter than needed to offset this. Note the above point about experimenting!
And that’s kind of it. It’s a wonderful skill to master, and can create forms from solid wood that no other route will get to.
So don’t torture wood, give it a sauna!
Until next time,