How to Bend Wood with Water and Steam: A Step-by-Step Guide

How to Bend Wood with Water and Steam: A Step-by-Step Guide

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While in most cases, you will be able to get by with using straight planks of wood, every now and then you might need to turn those into bend pieces. Some of those cases might be if you are trying to build a musical instrument, a horseshoe-shaped counter, or similar.

Below, I’ll take you step-by-step through two of the most common wood bending methods – water bending and steam bending.

Water Bending vs. Steam Bending vs. Other Wood Bending Methods

There are a couple of different methods to bend wood. The two most common and easiest methods are using water or using steam. In both cases, either the water or the steam essentially heat the wood up and make it malleable. By repeated heating and bending, the wood will eventually accept its new curvature.

There are other, much more difficult methods that take more time as well.

One of them is called kerf cutting. This is a method in which you cut parallel notches along the bend that you want to make. You then compress the wood, and the notches act like reliefs and create a weak point in the wood that you can bend at. You then fill the notches with adhesive and let it dry.

Another method, laminate bending, uses thin slices of wood glued together and bent. That method takes advantage of the fact that when thin, wood is much easier to bend than when a piece is thick.

How to Bend Wood with Water

As we established above, water isn’t just for making wood rot and degrade – it can also be used to bend wood. Before starting, make sure you are using the right type of wood. The thinner and more pliable the wood is, the better results you’ll get.

Then, follow the six steps below.

Step 1: Find a Tank

In order to bend a piece of wood, you’ll need to fully submerge it. For this reason, you need to make sure you have a tank or container large enough to fully fit your workpiece.

Step 2: Fill the Tank with Hot Water

Now we need to fill the tank with hot water. The water is going to heat up the whole tank which makes the bending process possible. Let the water sit for a while before the tank gets hot.

Step 3: Put in the Wood

Fully submerge the wood in the tank. You need the wood to be fully soaked. This could take a few minutes or a few hours, it all depends on the wood you selected.

Step 4:  Score the Wood

While the wood is soaked, use a knife to start scoring the wood in the area you want to bend.

Step 5: Start Bending

Take the water out of the tank and start bending it. Use the scores as a reference for where to bend. When the wood starts to dry, put it back in the tank and wait for it to soak then score it more. When the Bend is close to what you want, soak the wood one more time

Step 6: Apply Adhesive

Apply adhesives into all of the scores you made. Bend the wood again to its desired shape after applying adhesive. Allow for the wood to dry completely. Now you have a bent piece of wood using water.

How to Bend Wood with Steam

Using steam is not quite as easy. You need to make a fully contained unit that’s big enough for your wood and will allow for steam vapors to bend it.

Step 1: Assemble Your Steam Box

The bending process is going to be done inside of a steam box, so first, you have to put one together. Make a box frame that’s big enough for the length of the wood as well as a stovepipe. Include guides and stops for your stovepipe.

Step 2: Insulate and Cap

Now that the steam box is assembled, you want to make sure the steam isn’t just going into the atmosphere. This means that you need a ton of insulation. You want to make sure your stovepipe is completely encapsulated in insulation. Also, make sure the insulation is heat-proof otherwise you’ll have a big problem.

After the assembly is insulated, cap the rear side of your stovepipe. You need to make sure that one end of your stovepipe is completely open while the other end is capped with a small port. The port will be where your steam supply is delivered. The steam will travel along the stovepipe and exit through the open end.

Step 3: Steam the Wood and Bend It

Now that the full assembly is done, we can start the bending process. You will insert the wood you want into the open end and plug in your steam source. Use rags or a towel on the open side to slow down the steam release a little. The towel needs to be permeable enough to let the steam escape, so you aren’t building up pressure.

The rule of thumb is the wood needs 15 minutes of steaming per 1/4-inch diameter. After the wood is steamed at the desired amount, you need to take it to your jig to start bending it.

The jig will have the outline of the bend you want. Press the wood firmly against it, using C-clamps and guides along the way. You might opt to screw a hold-down on either end of the wood to keep it firm. This is where you’ll keep the wood overnight.

When the wood is done on the jig, remove the clamps and unscrew the hold-downs. You will have a bent piece of wood.

Summary

Whether you choose water bending or steam bending, the end result will be essentially the same. As such, rather than trying to figure out which of the two ways is better for your application, simply choose the one that you will be able to implement more easily.

Considering that steam bending requires an enclosed steam box, you might be better off going with simple water bending.

In either case, you will need to use your medium to heat the board up and then clamp the piece to your jig. Depending on the severeness of the bend you are looking to make, you might need to go through the process multiple times.