Spotlight on Steam Bending

January 14, 2020

For those that are familiar with our work will know that, more often than not, it involves many curved elements. We frequently get asked if we steam bend our timber, especially with regards to our Freeform technique and design style. Most of the time the answer to this question is no, as most of our curved timbers are constructed using various laminating processes and then hand-shaped, methods that have become Ed’s speciality. However, there are some occasions when we do use steam bending to produce certain results.

Steam bending is a traditional technique that was once widely used in the production of weapons, tools and vessels and is often used in the manufacture of furniture, crafting of musical instruments such as violins and in boat-building.

Steaming bending timber in the workshop

Most recently we have been using the technique to design and develop a new piece that will become part of our Sussex Collection. The method is to expose the timber to steam in order to make it pliable. The heat and the moisture from the steam gradually softens the timber’s fibre enough for it to be bent when still warm and hold its shape when it cools.

The timber is normally placed in a steam box for a set amount of time depending of the thickness and type of wood. Sometimes this needs to be worked out by trial and error to get it exactly right, however, the general rule of thumb is to allow one hour per inch of timber thickness. Once the timber is ready it gets manually pulled around a former as quickly as possible using a reinforcing metal band to the outside to prevent ‘blowout’. The timber is then clamped into position and is left to cool down and dry.

There are both benefits and disadvantages to using steam bending over laminating processes. It can be a lot quicker once you have worked out the timings, there is far less material waste, there is no need to wait for glue to dry, and tighter curves can be achieved. However, on the downside it can take a lot of strength to bend it depending on size, you need to work the timber very quickly, sometimes the timber is prone to splitting and blowout when bent or removed from the mould.

Like most things, when choosing which technique to use it is all about having the knowledge and experience to be able achieve the desired outcome with the best results.

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