If you’ve never tried it, the idea of taking a rigid piece of solid wood and bending it into a graceful curve may seem prohibitively difficult. I know, because years ago, I felt the same way.
Since then, I’ve done a fair amount of bending, and I’ve done it in many different ways – Shaker boxes, guitars, custom trim and cabinets. And what I’ve discovered is this: Bending wood may take a little bit of fiddling and experimenting, but it’s really not very difficult to do, and the results are always worth the effort.
No-bend bending. In some cases, wood that looks bent hasn’t been bent at all, it’s simply been cut to a curved shape. The vanity I made for my bathroom is a good example. The two front corners of this oak cabinet are curved in a graceful 2-inch radius.
To achieve this effect, I simply glued up each corner with a 90-degree butt joint – the simplest joint in the book. Then I cut two strips of 1-by-1 oak the full height of the cabinet and glued one into each corner of the cabinet to reinforce the joints.
Finally I took a plane and shaped each corner to the desired radius. This took about five minutes per corner and was easier than it sounds. The resulting smooth, flowing look really “makes” the vanity.
Bending wood. There are a number of ways to bend woods. In some cases, you may need no special tricks at all. In others, you may have to use two or more techniques to get the job done.
Before we discuss any specific techniques, here are some basic rules of bending to keep in mind:
—Thin wood bends easier than thick wood.
—Green wood and wet wood bend easier than dry wood.
—Hardwoods such as oak, maple and cherry bend easier than softwoods such as pine.
—Heat and steam make bending easier.
—Good, clear, straight-grained wood is easiest to bend.
—The tighter the radius, the more difficult it is to bend without cracking.
Keeping these rules in mind will help you work out the right bending solution for your needs. Now let’s look at some of the various bending techniques:
Unassisted bending. Relatively thin wood bent around a large radius may require little or nothing in the way of special techniques. Example? I once bent a piece of 1/4-inch-thick ash trim to fit around a round-topped window in my bedroom. I just had a helper press the stock into place and hold it while I secured it with glue and small finishing nails.
Kerfing. This is probably the easiest technique for the homeowner to master. Use a table saw, radial arm, or portable circular saw to cut a series of closely-spaced kerfs nearly all the way though the piece of stock you wish to bend. This, in effect, decreases the thickness of the stock and makes it easy to bend to a surprisingly tight radius.
Just how tight? It depends upon the wood being bent, and the width, spacing and depth of the kerfs. The deeper, closer and wider the kerfs, the easier the bend, BUT the weaker the finished product. Experiment with this technique on scrap to see what works best.
The downside of kerfing? Obviously, kerfing weakens your stock, but in some cases, strength may not matter. In other cases, you may fasten the bent piece to a second piece of stock that beefs it up.
Another problem with kerfing: The kerfed face is ugly. In some cases, this face is the back side of the work, and it’s invisible. In other cases, the kerfing may be covered with veneer or laminate. Or you can fill the kerfing with polyester auto body filler and paint it. You can even tint the polyester with fiberglass coloring agent and use it as a decorative element in your design.
Laminating. Laminating is somewhat more difficult than kerfing, but it looks good and yields great strength. The trick here is to slice your stock into thin sheets that are easy to bend. Put glue between then, bend them around a form and clamp until the glue dries.
As with kerfing, it pays to experiment with scrap when laminating. The thinner your plies, the easier the bending will be.