Steaming ahead!

The longer bends (up to 16ft) are now coming out of the steamer and seem to be behaving very nicely.

I decided to add a steel backing strap to each bend. The boards do free bend without a strap pretty easily. But when I was bending the shorter 8ft lengths, I had failures on several of the bends; even the less extreme ones. Also, occasionally, a single board will twist and warp while its being bent and there is no way I can supply sufficient torque to pull it back out of wind before it cools too far to be elastic. I think that the back-strap will maintain a more consistent compression throughout the board, help constrain twisting, keep the board warmer (and so flexible) for longer, and will give me a more consistent bend following the form laid out by the jig.

I love the steaming process. It has a nice rhythm to it. The work can’t be rushed. There is an precision to it that can only be discovered not predetermined. Its all dependent on the weather, the particular board being bent, the vagaries of the particular days work, and the individual curve that needs to be followed. Its a bit like baking bread!

Everything in the studio needed to be juggled to allow for quick placing of the steamed board into the jig, with strap in place, followed by the bend of a 16′ curve in one even sweep.

Board in place, ready to bend!

I love the Veritas steam-bending strap and adjustable end stop, to control the compression as the bend happens.

Bend complete, with steam still rising.

I like to imagine that I’m following in the footsteps of the great 19th Century cabinetmaker, innovator, inventor, industrialist Michael Thonet. I always start my History and Theory of 20th Century Furniture class at CCA with Thonet; his discoveries, set-backs and the development of his company makes such a great story. It’s the perfect exemplar of the industrialization of furniture production based on innovation; from technology and production methods right through to social engineering and international marketing. Apart from the fact that I’ve got on my trusty Blundstone boots, what I’m doing isn’t very far from these Thonet workers a century ago.

Michael Thonet and the boys

pre OH&S

Tough toes!

“Now where did I put that part?”

Steaming into 2011

I’ve spent the last couple of months in the studio (when I can spare some time from teaching) working out the kinks in my new steam-bending system. I decided last summer to change the material and process for the sculptural outdoor benches I’ve been making (with help from Chris, Yvonne and David) for the last few years. In keeping with my own manifesto, I decided to use only locally available, sustainably harvested material (as opposed to the Jarrah, that I love, but which I had shipped from Western Australia) and to use steam-bending rather than laminating to reduce the amount of waste byproduct and to avoid any chance of de-lamination of the benches in the rather extreme environment of the Napa Valley.

Steam-bending requires almost total control of the process of making from the milling of the lumber through to final assembly. For wood to be suitable it needs to be air-dried only to around 20% moisture content. Most commercially available lumber has been kiln dried to close to 8% moisture content and is difficult to bend. Then each board has its own strengths, weaknesses and inclinations so that total control of the final shape of each component is less reliable that when laminating. But this can be kind of interesting as the nature of the wood still comes through in the final form.

I managed to get the first fully successful steamed element formed just today on the last day of the year. I now have the process fairly well dialed in (I hope) and so I’m expecting that the steaming can become somewhat routine over the coming weeks. Like baking bread!

I’ll continue to post images as the first steam-bent bench comes together.

The 8ft steaming set-up. I can extend it to 20ft!

The redwood boards ready to steam.

The indigo color on the wood comes from the tannins in solution in the wood reacting with the iron of the machine beds as the moist boards are dimensioned. The thicknesser actually wrings water out of the boards! this will be sanded off before the boards are assembled finally.

2″x2″ boards of redwood ready to steam.

Board #1 in the bending jig. No back-strap required as it’s a pretty gentle bend.

In the image above you can see the pencil line on the jig to the right of the board. That’s where the board is expected to flex back to after it has dried completely in a few weeks.

Steam Bending. Cut to size, steam and bend! Nothing could be simpler!