Posted By Wade Prunest on January 6, 2014
There comes a time in every wood workers career where they want to expand their skills. A way to do this is by forming and bending wood to create more advanced furniture, sculptures, and even boats! But in order to do so , a steam box is in order.
If your reading this and your aren’t familiar with the term, a quick explanation is in order! Steam bending or as others call it “wood bending” is the art of taking a stiff piece of wood and being able to soften the wood fibers enough with moister and heat to allow the wood to bend and flex into the shape desired without the wood breaking.
Sounds pretty simple right? It is and it isn’t. The first thing you need is a box to put the wood in to steam. There are kits out there that you can buy that supplies everything you need to build one yourself. But, if you’re like me, spending the money to buy one is a little hard to do and look for more inexpensive ways to accomplish the same thing.
The box can be made from wood. The key to a wooden box is not gluing anything! This is very important because the wood will expand and contract as the box heats and cools. By gluing your joints, it will prevent that movement causing the box to crack and split. With a wooden box, you will want to add weather stripping to the end that you will access the box to put in and take out the wood. Also a hinge and clasp that will pull and force the end in to seal is recommended. You can also make your box with a PVC pipe.This is the way I that makes the most sense to me. Each end on the the PVC pipe can easily be capped. Either method you choose to build your box, there are important things that you must take. One, you will be filling your box with steam. That means you will get water build up. When you make the feet or base for the box, it is important to pitch the box. Pitch means to make one side higher than the other so the water moves downhill. A good general rule of thumb is to raise the box up an 1/8″ of an inch per foot. An example. Your box is 8 ft long. Calculating and 1/8 inch per ft, that means one end of your box will be 7/8″ higher than the other end. At the lower end you will want to a small hole to let the water escape. You will also want the lower end to be the end you use to put the steamer hose.
Another important thing you will need to do because of the water is to elevate the pieces of wood so it doesn’t lay in the water. To solve this problem, you can drill holes, roughly every 6 inches, through the box and put dowls in so that the wood lays on them. This also allow the steam to get around the entire piece of wood being steamed.
The last thing you will need is a steamer. Sounds expensive right? Nope! Buying a wall paper steamer will get you the same results as $300-$400 steamer. I’ve found wall paper steamers as low as $30. The tricky part is figuring out a way to run the hose into the box. This is where your creativity can run wild. I’ve seen them installed just by literally taping them onto the box. Obviously you will need to drill a hole big enough the run the hose into the box. I’ve also seen where they take black rubber pipe reducers with hose clamps and put the larger end into the box, so only the smaller end is sticking out and running the steamer hose into that and clamping it. The idea behind that is the hole drilled into the steam box is a snug fit for the smaller end to go through and by fitting the hose into it, it will expand the fitting enough so it can’t push through. If you wanted to make things simple, keeping with reducers, add a T to the end of your PVC pipe and connect the reducer to that. just make sure the reducer your buy fits both the pipe on the T and the hose. There are countless ways to attach the hose to the box, like I said let your creativity run wild here.
I think the hardest thing about learning how to bend wood is learning how long each species of wood takes to soften the fibers enough to bend. The factors include size, thickness, and species of wood. All this will be experimental and could be frustrating at first. My advice, use a test piece first.
I also want you to know that taking your time on building the jigs to clamp the soft wood onto to get the right bend is worth doing. Also, here is where that test piece comes in handy. Use that test piece in your jig to make sure you have he correct bend you want. )(Tip: when factoring in the bend in the jig, remember that the wood will spring back a little once released from the jig).
Now that you have an idea on making your own steam box, get in the shop and start bending some wood! After you created your wood project, don’t forget to show it of on the Generation Woodworks’ forum. Also, feel free to list and sell at the Generation Woodworks’ marketplace. It free to join and free to list as many products as you want!