Molding wood - easiest method for a n00b?

I’m trying to create a miniature prototype of a chair design using wood.

My questions:

  1. What type of wood should I get and where from?

  2. What’s the best/easiest/most logical method for bending the wood to the curves I need?

  3. How do you keep the curves in place until they stay in that form permanently?


im assuming you’re making a 1/4 scale model for furniture?

steam bending is easy… you can also laminate plys.

you’ll have to build a buck or form to bend against… use little clamps. If you steam bend, you have to allow for spring-back in your form, for laminating you don’t.

if you’re steaming i would use a soft-wood, if you’re laminating use thin birch sheets.

It all really depends on what you are exactly trying to accomplish…

  1. I would get some “wacky wood” a really bendy plywood, bending birch, or aircraft grade plywood.

  2. You COULD use steam bending, where as not everyone has that type of luxury. Most of the time you make a jig and form your pieces over that. Basically get some MDF and make the shape that you are going to mold your pieces over. Then you would cut your pieces roughly to the shape you want, leaving enough room for cleanup and laminate them together using a wood glue.

  3. Then wrap them around the mold… clamp them down and wait about 24 hours…
    The best way is to have a vacuum bag keeping pressure on the mold, but chances are you dont have that, so I always will turn to some bicycle inner tubes and wrap them around as tight as possible and tie them off… try using a combination of the tubes and clamps… chances are you might have to try it a couple of times before you get the results you want.

Hope that helped…

JG, how do you steam it? Make a box?

Midwest, I used somekind of softwood used in arch. models, like balsa but it wasn’t, dogwood maybe? I soaked it in warm water for about 10 min bent it around my buck with some ties and stuck the hole thing the microwave for 10 sec and it worked alright but their was springback.

Did you know,

another way to steam bend wood, that works for students and the financial novice, would be to use a heat blanket.

you will need:

a heat blanket, like the one we use up here in the winter on our beds.
some towels, enough to cover the surface of the wood you would like to bend.
plastic trashbags, the thick black, non-sustainable kind.
electricity, water and time.
you may also need a sandwich or beverage of some sort.

first, prepare the jig, or the negative form of the shape you would like to end up with. a simple way to do this is to take the mdf and cut a few profiles, maybe three or four at the most. some people will then cover the face of the jig with flashing (thin metal sheeting) to create a solid-esque shape over which to bend.

next, you will lay your sheet of wood to be bent, I suggest the birch plywood, because I make everything out of birch plywood there are some other wood suggestions above. if you expect it to stay put youll be using at least 1/2 in sheets at least, over the jig/form

Actually sandwich the wood in between wet towels on both sides. place the heat blankets in the enourous black trash bags sandwich the wood/wet towel sandwich between them. so from the bottom up you should have in this order, jig, trashbag/heat blanket, wet towel, wood, wet towel, trashbag/heatblanket. The heat blankets are inside the trashbags because water plus electric anything equals calling the paramedics and/or fire department.

the heat blankets should heat the water in the towel up enough where it will allow the already slightly flexible plywood to become more plyable. I doubt it will make a lot of steam, so it will take longer that true steam bending, but it should work. After the wood begins to get flexible, you want to begin to bend it around your jig, this can be achieved using weights, or straps depending on the profile you are trying to achieve.

during the heating process you may want to apply sandwich to yourself as necessary. use beverage sparingly, as it is never a good idea to be drunk around shop equipment.

good luck, tell me how it works out. oh yeah once you get the shape you want turn off the blanket, and let the thing cool off and dry out before you unclamp/strap it. afterward, youll want to seal the wood with some sort of surface treatment, i.e. furniture wax

robert -

you can make all kinds of little micky-mouse steam-boxes. I remember one of my teachers making one with a hot-plate, a kettle, some ducting and a rag. this was for small peices of wood mind you.

theres always going to be some springback, this depends on the type of wood you use. Its good to experiment.

depending on the type of results you’re looking for, i would suggest the laminating method, theres less of a chance of something going wrong.

maybe show what the design looks like and people can suggest more specific modeling methods.

Well, I don’t know much about Mickey Mouse or any other Disney characters,but if you do it right, there won’t be any recoil or spring back or whatever. Laminating is another effective way to go, make sure you bend with the natural bend of the veneer to get much better effects. Either method worked well for me, and for the people I showed in the shop classes I taught.

hey thanks a lot everyone who answered my question!

what I’m trying to accomplish isn’t really worth posting a sketch of – it’s more of a first-timer’s experiment rather than a full-blown serious project.

the techniques you all gave me, sound pretty easy to get into.

i used to wonder how skateboard decks were made and how they got the nose and tail to curve upward. Whenever i look at an eames wooden lounge chair, i see some kind of minor similarities in the subtle curves.

I could be mistaken here but, I believe skateboard decks, and those Eames elephant stools (I know that wasn’t what you were referring to) are formed in some sort of hot steam press. Lots of heat, and lots of pressure. Also, something I was really impressed with, Olympus figured a way to hot press a block of wood into a camera body, giving the wood attributes similar to the materials currently used in cameras and cell phones, only stronger, and the wood ages much better than plastic. I believe Burton just began doing something similar with snowboards and are getting really cool results.

My advice would be, if you like working with wood at all, get into it now, because its way harder later when you don’t have a shop just sitting there. I was the shop tech for our design shop, and a wood shop instructor at another in college and I STILL wish I would have spent more time in the shop.

Just wanted to point out he doesn’t have to build a full on steamer for a small model project. - and you’re right, if you’re carefull at clamping and use the right wood, the springback can be reduced to almost nothing.

Here is a video I took in China a few years ago showing the process. This is how it’s done in a large scale factory. You could try to scale this down instead of up.


no its cool, your absolutely right that he may be able to simply laminate. I have a coffee table that people swear I must have steam bent, when in actuality I built a subframe and carefully wrapped 1/8th inch birch around it.

one-word, thanks for posting that. could you tell me the proper name of that machine that moves downward to press/mold the wood into shape?

also, can someone explain lamination a little more?

remember, you’re talking to a person who has interest but is at the very base level of understanding wood processes/fundamentals. :slight_smile:

carton - i saw the price tag of one of those elephant stools. wow! i was shocked, but it’s certainly one of a kind.

The forming press uses both pressure and heat to cure the glue between the layers. If I remember correctly, some of the presses used RF (radio frequency) to cure the glue. If you look at the video there is a big metal cabinet with dials and gauges on it. That’s what supplies the RF magic.

The lamination process involves making your own plywood. Depending on the severity of the bend in the wood you may or may not alternate the direction of the grain. Once the lamination process is completed you get a super-strong piece of wood that’s more stable than a solid piece of wood formed in the same shape. The glue layers are the secret sauce.

Hope that helps.

hey there thanks for this link i truly learn allot from this video…

ultimatly the material and process you choose are functions of the radius you want to achieve. Birch ply can turn a 6" safely without splitting. Steam, depends on the material, choose something porus. Bending ply (wacky wood) can turn 3" easily. Any tighter than that, use veneer. I suggest the paper backed kind - makes it lots easier to manipulate and gives more glue options.
for a small form you can actually take foam to a hot wire and make a simple jig, I’ve seen students even make male/female (compound curves) jigs out of blue foam and get good results.