Steam Bending

January 12, 2022

What is steam bending?

Steam bending is a traditional technique that was once widely used in the production of weapons, tools and vessels, and is now still used in the manufacture of furniture, crafting of musical instruments such as violins, and in boatbuilding. It can be a beguiling and magical experience to witness solid timber being manipulated and curved into various forms.

The method is to expose the timber to steam to make it pliable. The heat and moisture from the steam gradually soften the timber’s fibres enough for it to be bent when still warm and retain the shape once it has cooled.

The timber is placed in a steam box for a set amount of time depending on the thickness and type of wood. Sometimes the timing needs to be calculated 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. In the sample illustrated below we use a reinforcing metal band to the outside to prevent ‘blowout’. The timber is then clamped into position then left to cool and dry.

Steam bending timber in the Edward Johnson studio.
Steaming bending timber in the workshop

Do you use steam bending to make your furniture?

For those who 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. The answer to this question is yes, on occasion we do, although it is important to note that we use more than one technique to make our curved furniture. Another construction technique we use frequently to make our curved elements is the process of laminating which is one of Ed’s specialities (and how our Freeform Collection is made). However, there are circumstances when we do use steam bending to produce certain results, and it all comes down to each design, and what technique would best suit what we are wanting to achieve.

Two good examples from our portfolio that incorporate steam bending are our Sussex Chair and Sussex Mirror which both form part of our Sussex Collection.

Steam bending vs laminating.

There are both benefits and disadvantages to using steam bending over the laminating process. Steam bending can be a lot quicker once you have worked out the timings: there is far less material waste, 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, and sometimes the timber is prone to splitting and blowout when bent or removed from the mould. It is good to note that some species of timber are also more suitable than others for the purposes of steam bending.

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.

Edward and his team demonstrating steam bending at Goodwood Revival

Would you be interested to learn more about steam bending?

If the answer is yes, you may like to consider participating in one of our new 5-day masterclass workshops. Come and join Edward Johnson and his experienced team and make your own Sussex Mirror in our well-equipped workshop and studio. You will learn about steam bending, spoke-shaving, shaping, sanding, refining, and oiling, with the advantage of taking home your own Sussex Mirror at the end of the week. Find out more…

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