Steambending

On Friday and Saturday, 5-6 October, Alan and I will be at Hearne Hardwoods (a premiere retail hardwood yard) for their open house. These things are usually fun for us because it gives us a chance to meet new potential students, catch up with old friends, and flex our “wood working chops”. On this occasion, we’ll be flexing plenty of chops as well as forearms, backs, and biceps. We’re planning on breaking a major sweat.

A completed Comb-back Windsor with curved armposts.

In addition to a running slide show, showcasing examples of workshop classes (blanket chest, Jefferson Lap Desk, Waterbury drop-leaf table), we’re going to be steambending Windsor chair parts. If you’ve never witnessed this woodworking miracle, you’re in for a real treat. A Windsor is any chair whose various parts (legs, armposts, spindles) are anchored to a slab seat; this type of construction is fast and direct and enabled l8th century chairmakers to produce a finished chair in only a matter of days instead of weeks or months. Building a Windsor chair is an amazing experience with little precise measuring; no complex angles to fiddle with; no fussy formulas to follow.  I’ve always thought of it as liberating; encouraging a woodworker to push his personal boundaries and take a creative stretch. The steam bent back terminates in a simple, but elegant hand hold. Steambending is just a part of building a Windsor, but probably the most important one. When bending wood, you’re taking a straight, freshly-cut length of oak, subjecting it to steam then quickly bending it to a curve- without any loss of strength. The only ways to achieve curves without steam bending is to build up a segmented curve with solid wood that would require skillful joinery or do a bent lamination.

Our steam box is made of 6" PVC. The moving blanket helps to retain heat.

Removing a blank from the steam box, you have a few minutes to affect the bend. The quicker you bend the wood, the better it will turn out. However, you must remember this places a great strain on the material and could cause the bend to fail. So the bending motion must be slow and steady, not quick and jerky. The proper technique allows the fibers on the outside of the bend to stretch and those on the inside to compress.

Mario is bending a back around a wooden form. A steel strap supports the bend.

We’ll be bending like crazy during the open house. And with only a few bending forms, we’ll be removing the bent backs from the jig after a few minutes and tying the ends to maintain their curve. Once the curve is achieved, it will keep. And after allowing a couple of days to thoroughly dry, you can build your chair.        Mario