Experimenting with steam bending

After falling in love with a virtual coat stand made from oak and copper, I’ve been having fun steam bending wood. It turned out to be a lot more straightforward than I’d expected. This is the result of my first trial piece, two curved strips laminated together.

2 bent strips, laminatedThere’s a lot of advice online on steam bending, but one message that comes across loud and clear is that you need to experiment to find the best way to achieve what you want to with the wood you want to use. Even then, apparently, things don’t always go to plan. The wood may break when you try to curve it around the former, or it may spring back unacceptably when you remove it, or any number of other things can go wrong. I concluded it was time to stop reading and start doing instead.

I’m aiming to make a freestanding coat rack with bentwood arms – or is that legs? I’ll be using engineered oak floorboards left over from last autumn’s flooring project, with the plywood base layer removed to leave just the 6mm (1/4”) oak veneer.  I expect to have to laminate two or three veneer strips together to give the arms/legs sufficient strength, and to hide the surface that was previously glued to a plywood backing.

I ripped the ply off the back of a narrow strip of board with a saw and then snapped it in half to make two more manageable lengths of oak. Looking around for something that would work as a former, I happened upon the galvanised steel lid of the old dustbin we keep outside to store kindling for the fire. Perfect.

Next, I needed a steam box. Fortuitously, the spare piece of rainwater downpipe that has been in the garage for years was just longer than the oak strips. I taped a plastic funnel to one end of it with parcel tape, and then connected the hose from our wallpaper steamer to the narrow end of the funnel with electricians’ tape. The other funnel fitted reasonably snugly in the other end of the pipe. I tilted the pipe with that end downwards, so condensate could run out. (Actually, steam came out of it and precious little water.)

Steaming set-upThe whole affair looked somewhat Heath Robinson, but I figured there was only one way to find out if it would all hold together. To my surprise, the taped joints performed fairly well, but the downpipe is probably PVC and once the steam started flowing it quickly sagged under the weight of the heavy G-clamp I’d laid on it to stop it moving. It didn’t collapse completely though, and there was still plenty of room inside for the wood.

rips clamped to formerAll the advice on steaming suggests that one hour per inch is sufficient, so I left the strips in there for 15 minutes. Then, with help from my dear husband – two pairs of hands are definitely better than one for this job – I wrapped each one in turn round the edge of the dustbin lid and held them in place with G-clamps. Even with strips that are only 6mm thick, it needed quite a lot of force.

Bent strips before glueingI resisted all temptation to unclamp the strips for 24 hours. In the meantime, I measured the dustbin lid and was pleased to find that its radius is 240mm, very close to the 250mm radius curve I want at the top of the coat stand arms. When I did remove the clamps, the newly bent wood sprang back more than I’d expected, to a radius of about 400mm in the case of the more tightly curved piece. So now I know that I’ll need to use a former with a substantially smaller radius than 250mm.

I’ve glued the 2 pieces together, which resulted in a combined radius of about 425mm.  The laminated curve feels nice and rigid.

Laminating two stripsMy steam bending session was serious fun. I’m sure I’ll be doing more of it. But first, I’m going to try other methods of bending.

Saint Rémy sweater

Saint Rémy sweaterI’ve finished the sleeves on this Knitty design I started back in 2016 and I’m back on the body. It’s slow going, with over 200 stitches on 3.5mm needles. I’m lengthening the section between the waist decreases and increases, and then I’ll probably keep going in the multi-coloured yarn until it runs out, before switching to the stripes.

About yorkshirecrafter

I live and work in West Yorkshire.  I've always enjoyed crafts of all types, from woodwork to lace-making.  I also enjoy anything mathematical, which makes knitting a favourite pastime, especially complicated designs.  I've been advising businesses and industry on environmental matters for 30 years and also have an interest in green living, especially where it saves me money. I live with my husband and our Maine Coon in a 100-year-old cottage that constantly needs something doing to it.  Fortunately, I enjoy DIY too.
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