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Steam Bending Wood

Steam Bending Wood

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Published by DonT_RN
Tying wood in a bow
Tying wood in a bow

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Published by: DonT_RN on Jun 19, 2013
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Steam Bending Woodhttp://www.primitiveways.com/bending.html1 of 35/10/08 11:49 PM
Steam Bending Wood
by Norm Kidder (September 1, 2001)
 If you want a real challenge, walk through the woods and find a straight stick. Even if you think youhave succeeded, leave it in a corner for a few weeks and check it again. Trees are living things, and theyrespond to changing conditions and stresses, especially moisture and wind. The life history of each treeis reflected in the wood grain. As they dry, they shrink unevenly - resulting in warping and cracking.Today kiln drying, milling and laminating are all used to deal with these tendencies, but in ancient timesone became intimate with the art of steam bending.Wood is made up of long tube-like cells of cellulose connected end to end forming long fibers runningthe length of the tree. Additional fibers run across the grain, tying everything together. Except for theoutermost layer (cambium), wood is dead, serving the plant for structural support and water storage andtransport. Each year a new layer of fibers is added under the bark, its thickness determined by growingconditions and stress - more moisture = a thicker ring, and more stress = a thicker ring on the stressedside. Over time, the inner layers may fill with resins, forming heartwood, which is usually denser, andmore rigid. The newer, outer layers, sapwood, are still relatively flexible and wet. (Excellent bows aremade with the compression resistant heartwood on the face and flexible sapwood on the back.) Heatingthe wet wood turns the water to steam which dissolves some of the bonds between fibers allowing themto realign, reforming the bonds when they cool. So, steam bending is the process of weakening,stretching and reforming wood fibers to the desired shape. Rawhide acts in a similar and more dramaticway when it is wet, and then dried to shape.There are many applications forsteam bending in primitivetechnology. Straightening shaftsfor arrows, spears and fire drills isprobably the most common.Others uses include straighteningblowguns, recurving and reflexingbows, bending basket rim sticks,net hoops and looped stirringsticks, bending curfed woodenboxes, and shaping dugout canoes.A complete list wood (oops)would quickly becomeencyclopedic.There are three basic ways of softening the wood fibers. Thefirst is to heat moisture already inthe wood. This means usingalready moist, green wood, orsoaking dry wood to replace thenecessary moisture, then using afire, or other heat source to turn
Steam Bending Woodhttp://www.primitiveways.com/bending.html2 of 35/10/08 11:49 PM
the water to steams. The secondmethod is to create steam first, andthen force the steam into the wood.The final method is to use boilingwater to penetrate the wood fibers.[There are also chemicals that willdissolve the wood bonds -definitely not primitive.]The choice of steaming method is determined by the size and dryness of the wood to be bent, themethod of bending, and the available options. Small green sticks of solid wood for arrow shafts are easyto do over the coals of the fire or a heated soapstone arrow straightener. The only problem that may arisecomes from over heating the stick, drying it out and making it brittle. Thicker pieces of wood, such asbow staves and boxes are more difficult, as the outside may dry out before the inside becomes softenough to bend. For these, wet heat - boiling or steaming - is necessary. Dry wood may be soaked andheated if it is thin enough (this is how the sides of violins and guitars are made). When steaming orboiling is required, the method will be determined by what you can practically do with the availablematerial.The process most used in a primitive camp is direct heating of a still green stick over the coals, and thenbending it to shape. The stick may be solid wood, such as chokecherry, or hollow, like rivercane, orhave a pithy core as with elderberry. If your goal is to straighten out gentle curves, heat the inside of thecurve over the fire (a good even bed of coals is preferable) as you are going to stretch this side. Usinggloved hands, bend the stick past where you want it to end up, so that it will spring back to the desiredpoint. You know to apply this pressure when you feel the wood lose most of its springiness. Sightdown the length of the stick after each bending operation to check on your progress and to make sureyou didn't over-bend it. Sharp bends can sometimes be worked out using a soapstone arrow straighteneror an arrow wrench (see illustrations). Some compound bends can be handled by a push/pull maneuver.. If you heat both sides of the stick, you run the risk of the inside collapsing while you are stretching theoutside. This is especially true of elderberry and other soft woods. Rivercane and phragmites both havehollow spaces between sealed nodes, so expanding air may cause these sealed containers to explode, orburst out the side if overheated.If the stick you start with is fresh cut, there is a very good chance it will warp as it dries. If cut duringpeak growth times - late spring and summer, the large amount of water in the stick may actually make itmore brittle. Dormant season wood, with less moisture may be more flexible. This is one reason to startwith a dry stick and rewet it. It is even better to let the stick dry to a point where it has just enoughmoisture left to produce steam, but the process of bending brings it to full dryness. Knowing just whenthis happens takes experience, but it will keep you from having to re-straighten your drills and arrowsrepeatedly as they dry. Changes in air moisture will always cause wood to warp, so somere-straightening will be necessary for arrows and darts to fly perfectly straight. Cold straightening willsometimes hold long enough for you to shoot, or start your fire before the shaft warps back (since youwon't be able to heat bend it until you have a fire started).Bending a green stick into a circle for a basket rim, or a net hoop can be done with no heat if the bend isnot too sharp for the diameter of the stick. The hoop must be tied until the wood has dried completelyfor it to hold its shape. If the curves are too sharp, then heat must be used. Tying off is still necessary if the wood is still wet. Bending compound curves, as in a looped stirring stick, or simple rims when thereis a weak spot are aided by the use of forms, which can be as simple as a chunk of wood and somecordage (see illustration). Even with a form, the hot wood should be massaged gently over the form, andclamped or held to avoid split outs (delaminating) on the outside of the bend or compression failures onthe inside. Once the stick is cooled, it should hold its shape.To make and use steam to bend already dry and thick (over about an inch thick) wood, you'll need toconstruct a device of some kind. BPT # 9 (or Primitive Technology - a Book of Earth Skills) has acouple of set ups for steaming boxes within the article Bent Corner Box Making, by Greg Blomberg(page 47 in BPT #9). For small stuff, I simply boil water on my stove, put aluminum foil over the topand slide in my stick. Bigger stuff requires building a box or pipe to hold the wood, and then channelingsteam into it from a boiler. None of these methods is of much use out in the field. One quick field

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