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An Introduction to Steam Bending

By ercol on 29 October 2018

Windsor dining collection
Windsor dining collection

Wood is a fundamental material in furniture production, with good reason too.  It’s strong, naturally beautiful and impressively versatile, with a vast array of wood species and techniques there are also numerous ways of using and shaping wood to add to its beauty and functionality.

In this post, we take a closer look at steam bending – one of the most important woodwork techniques both historically and in modern furniture production.

A brief history of steam bending

As the name suggests, steam bending involves using steam to make it easier to bend and shape. It’s been used for centuries, with various sources even suggesting the Ancient Egyptians used it to create chariots for transportation and military use.

While steam bending was originally primitive and inaccurate in many ways, it has been perfected over time to become an essential practice in crafting timber. Some of the finest pieces of woodwork throughout history have used steam bending, from perfectly crafted violins to robust wooden boats and even lacrosse sticks.

Today, steam bending remains an ecological and highly-skilled way to manipulate and shape wood. As a result, the practice is still used for all kinds of stylish, traditional items, including ercol furniture...

Steam bending: the basics

To begin the steam bending process, wood is placed in a steam heated retort to make it pliable enough to bend. Once prepared, the wood is bent around a former to provide the right shape for the furniture in mind. This could be anything from the beautiful curved bow back of a Windsor chair to our Renaissance sofa.

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Steam Bending Renaissance

Choosing the best technique

Not all wood bending is the same.  It is dependent on the species and thickness of the wood, the depth of the bend or the shape required. A number of bends in one piece of timber, for instance, will require hand bending, while a single shallow bend can be achieved using radio frequency bending.

At ercol, we carry out 3 forms of bending to maintain the best finish on all pieces:

  • Steam bending
  • Hand bending
  • Radio frequency bending

The back bow of the Evergreen armchair, for instance, has 4 bends in one length of timber. This requires hand bending by 2 men working in unison to ensure the same pressure is applied from both ends.  This is the best way to achieve the correct bend on this piece. After this process, the wood needs to stay in the former overnight to dry out in the kiln as with any of the steam bending by hand or machine.

Marino chair
Marino chair
Evergreen chair
Evergreen chair

The elegantly steam bent solid ash arms of the Marino collection are machine bent to create a striking contemporary sofa which reflects ercol’s design heritage of chair making and fuses both traditional craftsmanship along with modern furniture making techniques.

On the other hand, the Renaissance back and arm slats have much shallower bends. To achieve this, wood is bent in the radio frequency press, which is ready immediately after bending. That said, the bending process takes longer as bending is done slowly and monitored carefully.

Renaissance sofa
Renaissance sofa

Heritage, beauty and function

At ercol, we put craftsmanship, beauty and functionality at the heart of every piece of furniture. Steam bending is just one of many traditional techniques we use to enhance the design of each piece.

To watch more steam bending, sanding and chair making you can watch the video below.

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Video by Lisa Dawson

To browse the full range of ercol furniture, you can either see a digital version of our 2019 catalogue online or request a hardcopy.