Wood Steam Bending Q&A

Wood Steam Bending Q&A

Wood Steam Bending Q&A with our founder, Gary Smith

We often get asked many questions about the process of steam bending wood. Please read the insightful Q&A section below to find out more.

How long do you steam wood for?

As a general rule of thumb, we steam wood for around an hour per inch thickness. This allows the wood fibres to become pliable, enough to be stretched, contorted and bent. It’s amazing what wood can do when steamed.

Can you steam bend any type of wood?

We tend to use green or air-dried timber for the best possible results. Not every type of wood is suitable for steam bending. The best ones are hardwoods such as oak, ash, walnut, elm, cherry, maple and beech.

Can you bend kiln-dried wood?

We generally keep away from steam bending kiln-dried timber as it usually leads to poor results. However, if you’re only after a shallow bend, you can try to soak the wood for a period of time and then steam it.

Can you bend softwoods like pine?

Softwoods are generally not as good as hardwoods to bend, but if the bends are gentle, this gives softwoods such as pine the best chance of steam-bending success.

What’s your favourite wood to bend?

We love ash because it’s such a beautiful timber, and we particularly like the colour and grain. However, most importantly, it bends easily.

What’s the best wood to bend?

Through our experience, we’ve found that ash and oak give the best results.

What’s the maximum thickness of wood you can bend?

The thicker the wood, the more force and leverage you’re going to need to bend it. The design and strength of the jig are important too. So, when you design the jig, make sure you design and engineer the jig to withstand the pressure you put upon it.

What other things can steam-bent wood be used for?

Steam bending history goes back a long way and across many cultures of the world. It was first used by Ancient Egyptians for tools and boat building. Today, it’s still used for those and other items too, such as musical instruments, bannisters and furniture.

What can you use to heat water to generate steam for bending wood?

Years ago, old shipwrights would’ve used a giant pot of water boiling over an open flame to generate the heat for steaming. You can heat the moisture that’s already found in wood by using an open fire to turn the water into steam. Now, most modern steam benders would use a gas stove or a wallpaper stripper. A Gas stove is good because you can adjust the temperature for efficiency. A wallpaper stripper is an ideal option if you’re just starting out in steam bending. It’s also fairly safe due to the fact that most strippers have a thermal cut-out switch that prevents overheating.

How likely is wood to break during the bending process?

There are so many factors which could lead to breakage, and steam-bending is an acquired skill. However, the type of wood chosen is very important to avoid cracking. The wood should have a straight grain and be free of any defects or have minimal knots. It should also have some natural moisture and not be too dry, ideally with a moisture content of around 15% – 20%. When it comes to the design, you need to be realistic about the tightness of the bends you’re aiming for too. When it comes to choosing the tightness of the radius you want to bend, make sure your selection of timber is suitable for the task at hand. During the process of bending, you need to make sure the timber is hot enough throughout and is under enough compression. While you’re bending, it must be sufficiently clamped throughout the bend. The more you practise, the greater experience you’ll have, and you’ll learn to avoid any failures.

Do you waste a lot of wood when bending due to breakages?

When we first started bending wood, there were a few breakages during the learning process, but with practice, we developed our expertise. To become good at steam bending and know what works and what doesn’t can take years to master.

What is a compression strap?

A compression strap is used to hug the outside of the timber while bending. It helps prevent the wood from splitting or breaking during the bending process. Metal (stainless or galvanised steel) is a good, solid material for a compression strap.

What do you mean by a jig?

A jig is a metal or wooden structure that you are bending the wood around or into. Whether it’s making a steam-bent wooden light or one of our wooden mirrors, we always use jigs. When designing and making the jigs, we make sure they’re robust enough for the task at hand.

How hot does your steam chamber have to get to bend wood?

A consistent temperature of around 212 Fahrenheit (100 Celsius) is best.

What can you use to build a steam chamber?

Many things can be used to build a steam chamber. Check out the most popular ones below.

PVC pipe

Finding a plastic pipe is easy; just pop into your local plumbing merchant. There you can also find fittings for either end of the pipe. One thing to bear in mind with a PVC pipe is that due to the extreme temperatures, the pipe must be well supported to stop it from sagging. We suggest using HDPE or even polypropylene instead.

A wooden box

In our opinion, this is a better alternative to a plastic pipe as it’s much more rigid. A wooden box can be made from solid wood or even just plywood. If you go for plywood, make sure it’s marine ply as this will last longer.

Stainless steel flue pipe

This is a very durable option that’s likely to last the longest due to its anti-corrosive properties. When making a steam chamber, always put a small vent hole to allow for some steam to escape. You don’t want the steam chamber to be completely sealed as this is dangerous. You should also make sure that the steam chamber is well insulated on the outside for the best possible results. This helps it to reach the required temperature and be more efficient.

Is there a way to bend wood without using steam?

Steam bending is our preferred method, ‘ but there are other ways to bend wood without using steam. Below are a couple of processes.

Kerf bending

This is the process of cutting deep slots into a piece of wood that then allows it to bend.

Bent lamination

Despite its name, it’s not bending as such but more a process of using Multiple thin strips of wood which are glued together and then bent around a form, resulting in a rigid structure.

What is the difference between steam bending and bent laminating a piece of wood?

Steam bending

One solid piece of wood is put into the steamer. Once steamed, it’s then taken out and bent into the desired shape.

Bent Lamination

This is bending several layers of thin wood into a shape by glueing each layer together and then clamping until the glue is set to get your desired shape.

Why do you love steam bending so much?

We enjoy the whole process, from designing wooden lighting and homeware to the labour and the unique finished products. There are endless possibilities with steam bending, and we love coming up with new designs and making unique handmade products which will be passed down generations.

What’s the inspiration for some of your wooden lighting designs?

Nature plays a big part in my daily inspiration for steam bending products. We love the great outdoors and natural beauty. Interior design trends also give us stimulus for creating pieces that are sought after and unique.

Once the wood is steamed, how long does it take to dry out?

Once steamed and clamped into a jig, the wood is placed into our purpose-built drying room. Time spent drying all depends on the thickness of the timber. The minimum we tend to leave all pieces is around 24 hours.

Does steam bending make the wood weak?

If the wood has no defects and the steam bending is done correctly and professionally, then it can actually make the wood stronger due to the fact that technically, there’s no short-grain/ cross-grain weakness. A bonus is that less glue is used, and there are no visible glue lines like you get with laminating.

I’m thinking of trying steam bending at home. Do you think I could do it?

When we first started steam bending, we started off with simple bends, such as bending wood around small objects like gutter downpipes. We also twisted small pieces of wood with our hands and then clamp the twists into basic jigs. If you want to try it for yourself at home, the process of steam bending is pretty simple. All you need is a steam box or something like a wallpaper stripper that generates the steam consistently, a jig or form, and some gloves to protect your hands. Steam bending with thinner pieces of timber keeps things easy, but once you decide to use thicker timbers, you’ll probably need a compression strap for bending the wood, depending on how tight the bend that you wish to make is. Having fun trying things out at home is a great way to get started if you’re keen to learn about steam bending.

Once the wood is dry, does it tend to spring back into its original shape if it’s not supported?

If the steam-bent wood has dried thoroughly and kept at an ambient room temperature, then it shouldn’t move much at all. It’s only if the wood is then brought into damp conditions that it could spring back slightly.

Steam Bending and Blacksmithing: The Overlap of Disciplines

Steam Bending and Blacksmithing The Overlap of Disciplines

Both steam bending and blacksmithing are ancient techniques that change raw materials shape and function. One craft created the wheels of horse carts, the other made the swords of warriors. Although seemingly worlds apart, the two areas share common ground. Early ironwork is thought to date back to 1500 B.C. with some sources believing it may even be as early as 800-500 B.C. Initially, tools would have been crude and likely made of stone. Work would have been crafted over a campfire until the invention of bloomeries in 3000 B.C. which were effectively beehive looking furnaces made from rock. Hundreds of years later, these were replaced with industrial furnaces of which blacksmiths still use today. Like steam bending, which was thought to predate ancient Egyptian times, the process has evolved but its reliance on fire and extreme heat remains. For more about the history of steam bending, you can read our blog here.

Both metal shaping and timber bending are lengthy processes that require careful heating and well-rehearsed timings. A blacksmith forges with swift and precise hammer blows and works quickly to seal the desired shape. Similarly, a steam bender must work whilst the fibres is still soft and bend the timber around jigs before the wood cools and risks splitting. Where a blacksmith uses a furnace to directly heat and shape the metal, steam bending utilises the heat and moisture of steam to temper wood. Once the timber fibres are soft, the wood can be steered, and jigs are put in place to ease it into a new shape. After many hours, the wood is cool and fixed into its beautiful newfound structure. Like steam benders, blacksmiths contort, squash, and twist their material, freezing it in time into a new shape. Beautiful Victorian railings, Georgian balconies and Gothic gates all exhibit the skill and charm of a blacksmith’s handiwork. When seeking inspiration, Steamed Studio looks to history, nature and across craft disciplines to be submerged in creativity and endless design ideas. The inspiring and intricate work of blacksmiths can sometimes be seen reflected in our designs.

Contemporary steam bent and iron forged structures are special and built to last. Mixing ancient techniques with modern design makes for timeless pieces that we can love and enjoy in our home for generations. As people look for something less ‘off the shelf’ and more artistic, as with steam bending, blacksmithing is experiencing a resurge. This means new creatives are learning the old ways and put their artistic spin on their work.

Metal bent lamp shade
Nova Steam Bent Wooden Lampshade

A brief history of steam bending how it began and where we are today

A brief history of steam bending how it began and where we are today

What is steam bending?

Steam bending is a process of twisting and bending wood into various shapes, minimising the use of glue. A continuous end-to-end grain is achieved and so the strength of the wood is not compromised. Steam softens the lignin within the wood fibres meaning that it can be stretched with the aid of clamps and jigs. The lignin then hardens to the new shape as it cools. Whilst seemingly straightforward, there are many branches to each step in the process requiring careful attention and skill.

 

When was steam bending first discovered and what was it used for?

Steam bending is commonly used when making musical instrument, boats, and of course furniture. Humans natural aptitude for curiosity led them to experiment with ways of shaping materials into structures that reflected their requirements. Initially, unseasoned willow twigs were – and still are – bent and woven into baskets, furniture, decoration, and wall divides. But larger structures required longer materials, to which tall trees were explored.

 

Vikings

It is believed that the Vikings were first to successfully use steam bending, and it is argued that the method they used 1200 years ago is still used today. The Vikings steam-bent planks of wood using methods like those used at Steamed Studio- minus submerging them in a fjord!
Planks would be shaped and soaked in water. They would then be heated over a flameless fire, basted with boiling water and then flipped over; this process was repeated several times before it was ready to be bent. As in our studio, purpose-made clamps were put in place to curve the plank and then it was left to dry overnight.

 

Thonet

In the 1830s, Micheal Thonet revolutionised furniture by making the infamously first bentwood chair. His work inspired artists and architects alike and his modernised designs are still popular today.

Thonet Father of the Bistro Chair

 

A modern revival of steam bending

Whilst designs may have changed over the years, the process remains well-trodden. Timeless curves add visual interest to any room and soften the most corporate spaces.
As scandi-style interior furnishings sweep our news feeds and join our homes, we become closer to a slower pace and simpler way of living. There is something clean and uncomplicated about curves. At Steamed Studio we relish contours, spirals and all the possibilities malleable wood presents. Therapeutic in its process, and elegant in its completion- steam-bent products are a joy from start to finish. We hope you enjoy our journey of discovering new designs and indulging in our current collections.