Chris Schwarz's Blog

A Simple Steam-bending Setup

Once you set up a steambox, bending furniture parts is almost too easy. I’ve been bending wood using a variety of methods for the last 11 years. When I use steam, here is my current rig.

The steambox can be almost any box. You want it to leak steam and water so it doesn’t become a bomb. So simply screwing together some scraps of CDX plywood makes a great steambox. Drill some holes in the box to let the water and steam leak out. And add a door at the front with some cheap hinges.

The workpieces sit on 1/2”-diameter white oak dowels – an idea I got from chairmaker Peter Galbert. This allows the steam to easily surround the workpieces.

Until recently I used a kettle on a hotplate to make my steam. But Earlex now sells a steam generator that is easily hooked up to a steambox. It is safer and shuts itself down if it runs out of water (look for a review in a future issue of the magazine).

When you are getting started with steam-bending, it’s best to try something easy – like the crest rail of a chair. This is a simple and easy bend (you’ll want to work your way up to the compound bend for a continuous-arm Windsor).

I make a two-part form for the bend using some scrap MDF pieces that are glued and nailed together. Steam the part for an hour (if it’s less than 1” thick) and then put it in the form. Easy bends like this don’t need compression straps or other special equipment. Just your weight and a few bar clamps.

Let the wood sit in the form for two days before releasing it.

You’ll be surprised what you can bend. Green wood and air-dried wood are the easiest to bend. But you can bend kiln-dried wood if you soak it for a day before steaming it and are OK with a few broken pieces here and there.

There are lots of ways to bend wood. Here’s how to do it with Compwood. If you want to learn more about different ways to bend wood, check out this DVD from Marc Adams. Good stuff.

— Christopher Schwarz

 

8 thoughts on “A Simple Steam-bending Setup

  1. Guaps

    Very cool, thanks for sharing! Any tips on how to make a form to bend a piece on two axis? For example, I want to make a bar stool seat that bends up on the sides and on the back. I’m not sure how to make that form since I can’t just cut a single piece of MDF on the band saw and use it as the two halves of the form.

  2. apbeelen

    I’m surprised that you got the wood to bend under your weight…or was that a stunt double? I’ve thought of trying steam bending, but haven’t got the equipment yet. With your recommendations it sounds easier and less expensive than I thought. I just need to find a portly stunt double of my own.

    1. TCBound

      I build Windsor chairs and, from experience, the bending itself is so easy that it may scare you the first time. [at least in the size parts I’m bending.] The “trick” is in having the patience to wait long enough for the wood to become “plastic” enough to bend. Read Mike Dunbar’s book on Windsor chair making for a longer study on steam bending.

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