Steam Powered

1508_steambendingSuccessful wood bending with heat and water is more art than science

by Michael Dunbar
page 50

Long ago, some caveman made a curious discovery: Wood becomes pliable when it is both hot and wet, allowing it to be bent to a desired shape that it retains when dry. Ever since, woodworkers have been bending the stuff.

Bending, like carving and turning furniture parts, does not usually create a finished object. It is a technique you incorporate into your work, and is a skill worth developing because it makes you much more versatile. As you are about to learn, bending wood is more of an art than a science.

Bending is used by lots of woodworking trades, including boatbuilding and cooperage. It is most closely associated, however, with common chairs – ladderbacks, “Fancies” and Windsors – because every one of these forms incorporates bent parts. But I’ve used bent parts for all sorts of other projects, too, ranging from a coat rack to a steering wheel for an antique car.

Wood is capable of being bent – a state known as plasticized – when it is both hot and wet. Those conditions are reached at 180° Fahrenheit and 25-percent moisture content.

The old guys boiled their parts in a metal trough called a chairmaker’s copper. Boiling water in a long container is awkward, and fishing out the parts is risky. That is why I prefer steaming, and rely on an efficient and easy-to-build steam box.

Web: Read more about the author’s school.
Video: Watch Mike Dunbar explain bow saw ergonomics.
Article: “The Best Oak Money Can’t Buy,” by Peter Follansbee
Blog: What makes a Windsor design work?
In Our Store: “Make a Windsor Chair with Mike Dunbar.”
In Our Store: “Restoring, Tuning & Using Classic Woodworking Tools,” by Mike Dunbar.

From the August 2015 issue

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