Home > Uncategorized > bending wood with steam – nope. how about an alternative?

bending wood with steam – nope. how about an alternative?

I have been reading all that I can get my hands on regarding steaming wood.  Some of the best reading has of course been from Peter Galbert and Caleb James.  Since building my first Alexander chair in walnut I have had a nagging idea that steaming might not be all that it is cracked up to be.  I have seen the process done via video streams and in person by Stephen Zbornik of the Boggs collective.  He sometimes uses metal straps to avoid grain deflection and tear out.  Of course all of the reading and watching always shows success, but my first attempts while successful were not perfect.  I steamed the legs in a small plywood box using a tea kettle and camp stove.  I generated plenty of steam and left them in for 1 1/2 hours.  Each of my bends had small cracks at the bend site and while structurally fine the look is amateur.  I do not think anyone would really notice, but of course I do.  On the second chair I started to analyze the bend site and think critically about the process.  My self education revealed some debate on the nature of heat and steam and how they may play different roles.  Additionally Alexander uses boiling water to bend the back slats in place which worked well for me.  So I wonder if I could use boiling water to bend the back post and eliminate the steam process all together.  I could not find anything on the subject and was too scared to ask outright – so whats a guy to do?

Here is a picture of the stew pot I will be using.  It is about 12 inches high and takes forever to boil.



Here is a picture of the bend area on my Alexander style chair.  Looks OK.  It will be submerged along with a couple of additional inches


For reference, here is one of my first chair looking specifically at the bend site.



I filled up the stew pot and turned on the burner to high.  I decided to just drop the wood in right away and check the process after 15 minutes.  At 15 minutes the water was hot, but certainly not boiling.  After another 15 minutes the pots was simmering ever so slightly.  I took out each leg and placed it in the form, exercising it back and forth a few times.  I placed them back in the pot for another 15 minutes and decided to give it a go.  The water was almost boiling at this point.  Into the form they went and bent so easy I could not believe it.

Here is picture of the bend legs in the form.



I left the legs in the form for 4 days and upon close inspection I did have 1 legs with some cracking, but I attribute it to a knot close to the bend.  Being from the great plains of Nebraska I am using wood most chair makers would probably consider unworthy – just the cost of living in paradise…

Here is a picture of my leg along side of a throw away from Stephen.  I love how his throw away is my goal state;which I am far from accomplishing.  I added this picture to show the difference in bends and how this process would be much more challenging on the Boggs bend versus the Alexander.



Just to be clear.  I am not advocating my method, nor do I plan to eliminate steaming.  I just had a itch to answer the question of would it work?  My conclusion is yes and at much lower temperatures and time then steaming.  So how green was my wood?  No clue.  I think the tree was cut in late October and sectioned in early November.  Today the logs sit outside under ice and snow.  I plan to try this method again over the weekend to see if I achieve similar results.  For me the process was much easier then setting up the steamer.  I plan to throw in a kiln dried piece of walnut too just for more analysis.

Let me know your thoughts on the process and what pitfalls I am not accounting for.


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