Bending wood with water seems like a far stretch. After all, wood is a hard material with lots of fibers, and water is, well, just water!
Well, I beg to differ. Anyone can bend wood with water if they know the proper steps. Having tried it countless times, I can safely say it’s one of the easiest procedures of woodworking.
Here’s everything you need to know about how to bend wood with water.
- Supplies Needed for Bending Wood With Water
- Things To Consider When Bending Wood With Water
- Step 1: Fill the Container With Water
- Step 2: Soak the Wood in the Water
- Step 3: Prepare the Wood’s Bending Mold
- Step 4: Take the Wood out and Clamp It to the Mold
- Step 5: Allow the Wood Enough Time to Dry and Harden
- Bending Wood With Water – 3 Tips
- Alternative Methods for Bending Wood
- The Takeaway
Supplies Needed for Bending Wood With Water
- Wood slabs
- Hot water
- Bending form/mold
- Heat plate
Things To Consider When Bending Wood With Water
To bend wood with water, woodworkers soak the wood in water for days.
Then, when the wood is pliable enough, they secure it on a mold and keep it that way for days. Afterward, the wood will be bent and ready to use.
However, as with everything else, the theory is always easier than trial. There are multiple considerations if you’re bending wood with water. To name a few:
Thickness of Wood
The first consideration to keep in mind is the thickness of the wood.
Wood slabs that are too thin may break easily if you attempt to bend them with water. On the other hand, slabs that are too thick may prove hard to bend.
It’s better to choose a medium-thickness wooden piece for the best results.
Some woodworkers prefer working with wood that’s thinner than 1 inch, and some have no problem with thicker slices. It depends on your expertise.
Type of Wood
It’s no news that some types of wood are easier to bend than others. These usually have open grains, which allow the water to seep inside and soften the fibers.
If your project doesn’t require a specific type, you should aim at a pliable wood. For example, white oak, beech, and elm are known to be easily bent after soaking.
There are also a couple of more types that bend well, including hackberry, hard oak, pecan, magnolia, and ash.
Some woods bend well but discolor, like walnut, so if that’ll affect the quality of your project, avoid them.
Lastly, some types are the worst to bend, so avoid them at all costs. These include maple, yellow walnut, crow’s ash, and boxwood.
The Direction of the Grain
The direction of the grain can make a world of difference when it comes to bending wood. It’s common knowledge that wood with a straight grain is easier to bend, but why?
Well, to put it simply, straight grain means that the wood’s fibers are parallel to the vertical axis.
So, the chances of the wood breaking are low because you’re bending in the same direction as the grain.
Cross-grain wood is more likely to break because the grains may split when you’re bending in another direction.
Try to find a wood slab with straight grain. Not only that, but you should also bend it in the direction of the grain to ensure it doesn’t split.
No matter how small the grain angle is, it may still cause the wood to break, so it’s better to stay on the safe side.
Bear in mind that knots may cause the grain to change the angle, so try to avoid knots when bending wood.
Additionally, avoid bending wood slabs that come from the tree’s center. These are more likely to break.
Size & Heat Tolerance of Container
When choosing the container for soaking the wood, there are three factors to consider: size, heat tolerance, and water resistance.
It should be large enough so that you can move the wood into and out of it quickly.
You should also consider that you’ll need to keep it on a heat plate for days, so choosing a suitable size is essential.
Aside from the size, heat tolerance is also crucial to consider.
As I briefly mentioned, the container will stay on a heat plate for a couple of days, so it’s essential to make sure the material won’t deform.
For example, copper is known for its high melting point—(1984℉ or 1085°C)—, so it’s a good option to consider.
Other materials with high heat tolerance also work, such as stainless steel and nickel.
If you have to, you can make the container yourself if you know your way around metalworking.
After considering the size and heat tolerance, you need to consider the water resistance. The container will be filled with water for days, which will typically take its toll on the material.
Copper doesn’t rust underwater. In fact, it’s commonly used for underground tubes, so it’s a suitable choice. There are also nickel and aluminum—both resist water well.
Moisture Level of the Wood
Before attempting to bend the wood, make sure to check its moisture level. Wood slabs with moisture levels of 25% are ideal for bending, and they’ll be easier to work once soaked.
Slightly lower or higher is okay too, but make sure the moisture level isn’t too low.
The moisture level can’t be below 10% because the wood may burn. At the same time, it can’t be too high because it’ll become soggy.
The easiest way to check the moisture level of wood is by using a moisture meter. This model would be perfect. It’s priced very reasonably, yet it provides an accurate reading time and time again.
If you’re on a tight budget, you can use the oven method instead.
Step 1: Fill the Container With Water
Now that you have chosen the wood, considered its thickness, and measured its moisture level, it’s time to start the actual bending process.
The first step is filling the container with water and heating it.
You can keep the wood soaked in cold water, but it may not yield good results. Using a heat plate is a good idea because the water stays hot.
Just place the container directly over the heat plate, and make sure that it’s stable.
Step 2: Soak the Wood in the Water
Now that the container is ready, place the wood slabs inside. If the container is small, you can soak one piece, bend it, then start with the others.
The wood should soak for one or two days, depending on its moisture level and pliability.
To make sure the moisture level is within reasonable limits, you can use your moisture meter to monitor it.
Step 3: Prepare the Wood’s Bending Mold
While the wood is soaking in hot water, you should work on the bending mold.
To bend the wood, you need to do it on some sort of template so it takes its shape. Without a mold, the wood won’t stay bent.
The mold should have a completely smooth edge. Any ridge or knot will reflect on the wood, and it may serve as an unnecessary pressure point.
So, whether you’re creating a mold yourself or using one that’s pre-made, make sure to smooth its surface first.
You can use multiple items for this purpose. Bent pipes can work, as well as smooth tires and wooden forms.
Step 4: Take the Wood out and Clamp It to the Mold
After two days of soaking, it’s time to take the wood out and clamp it to the mold.
You should place the wooden slab on the form and keep pressing until the slab is taking the shape of the mold. After that, you need to clamp it.
There are multiple methods for clamping the wood. You can use C-clamps, bolted clamps, or even U-bolts if you have a couple lying around.
Make sure to get sturdy clamps because the wood will stay that way for a week or more. For the best results, it’s better to keep the wood on the mold for 7–10 days.
Step 5: Allow the Wood Enough Time to Dry and Harden
While clamping the wood to the form, you shouldn’t forget that the wood has been soaking in the water for two days prior.
You’ll want to give it enough time to dry so that you make sure its moisture level is back to normal and it’s hard again.
Some woodworkers are eager to finish their project, so they resort to direct heat to harden the wood. While the method may be efficient, it’s sometimes dangerous to do without past experience.
You’re risking burning the wood after you’ve spent days trying to bend it.
So, it’s better to let it to dry naturally in a hot room. If you absolutely need to hurry the process, you can opt for a heated fan.
Bear in mind that rapid drying can cause cracks to appear on the surface. As a result, the wood machining afterward will be a pain. At the same time, however, the slabs shouldn’t be too wet.
The ideal moisture content (MC) for the wood to machine it is 7%. Using that moisture meter I mentioned earlier, check the wood’s moisture level when you’re about to remove it from the clamps
Bending Wood With Water – 3 Tips
Bending wood with water may be challenging for beginner woodworkers. Following these tips, you’ll hopefully have a smooth, seamless experience.
Use Hot Water
Whoever told you that soaking wood in cold water works the same as hot water lied.
Heat is much more efficient in increasing the wood’s elasticity than cold water. So, in only a couple of days, you get the effects that a week in cold water can have.
Make sure to use hot water to soak the wood. Otherwise, you may find the wood not suitable for bending after you’ve already worked with it.
Bend the Wood Gently
When bending the wood on the form after soaking it, you’ll want to be firm enough to bend it yet gentle enough not to break it.
Keep in mind that wood isn’t supposed to be bent this way. Bending it like this, we’re defying the force of nature and adding tension that shouldn’t be there.
So, any wrong or aggressive move may cause the wood to crack or show splinters on its surface. Make sure to press lightly but constantly, and don’t apply much force at once.
Additionally, bend the wood from its edges rather than its center. Bending the wood slowly allows it to absorb the stress better.
Consider the Wood You’re Bending Closely
When choosing the wood you’re bending, you should think thoroughly and long.
The type of wood can make a world of difference in the bending process. Aside from the type, there are a couple of things to look out for.
For example, high-density wood isn’t suitable for bending. The same goes for decayed wood because it’s too weak to bend.
It’s also better to avoid knots because they cause cracks to appear on the surface upon bending.
Lastly, avoid wood with a rough-sawn surface. It may break when you attempt to bend it.
Alternative Methods for Bending Wood
Bending wood with water isn’t the only option. In fact, there are two equally effective ways. The choice depends on the availability of the required items.
Using a Steam Box
Bending wood using a steam box is a common practice among woodworkers. It’s the most common method of bending wood, with using water coming in a close second.
To put it simply, woodworkers keep the wood slabs in a steam box for a couple of days. Paired together, the moisture and heat soften the wood and make it easy to bend.
The steam box is typically made of wood. To create the steam, you drill a hole in the box and pass the steam tube through it. The other end of the tube should be attached to a kettle or a pressure cooker.
The thing with steaming is that its effect diminish quickly. So, you need to act fast to bend the wood once it’s out of the box.
A lot of woodworkers use glue to bend their wood. The way they do it is that they apply glue to laminated wooden slabs and bend the wood before the glue dries.
The wood used should be thin, and you don’t want to use regular wood glue. It’s not ideal for the process.
Instead, use epoxy. It’s highly effective but costly.
Now that you know how to bend wood with water, it should be easy enough to go through with the procedure.
As long as you have the right equipment, the process should go smoothly. Remember to follow safety precautions if you’re using a heat plate, and choose your wood wisely.
The process as a whole should take two weeks max, and once finished, the wood should be as hard as its normal state again.