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Using the Earlex Steam Generator to Bend Wood

Photo courtesy of Louis Cahill Photography Photo courtesy of Louis Cahill Photography

I have a project coming up that has a bent panel and bent edge. First, let me say that I love bending wood. Its one of my favorite aspects of woodworking because it allows you to create even more interesting shapes and designs.

Bending wood used to seem so scary and difficult, almost like magic. Well, after learning how it's done, I can safely say that the difficult part is merely getting your head around the idea that you can do tons of different wood bending at home.

The first type of wood bending I want to go over is steam bending.  There are many ways to steam wood, but I'm going to talk about what is the safest and easiest way I have seen to do it.  Here at the Infinity Tools shop, we carry the Earlex Steam Generator.  This simple device is basically a wallpaper steamer with a very nice brass steam box adapter.

Earlex steam generator unboxed

Looks fairly simple, right?  It really is.  This little device merely needs to be screwed together and filled with water and inserted into your steam box.  That's it.  This is so much simpler than any other way I've ever seen it done (you might need to hook up two to do large quantities or if you have a very large steam box).

I decided to make my steam box out of Schedule 40 PVC pipe as it creates a very simple solution for relatively little cost.  Mine ran around $17.00 for a 1/4" dowel, some 4" PVC pipe and two end caps.  I also grabbed a meat thermometer to keep track of the temperature inside the steam chamber.

The first thing I did was to drill a 1/2" hole into one of the end caps to accept the brass steam box adapter plug.

Earlex adapter plug installed in PVC pipe cap

Next I fastened the PVC pipe to a 2x4 as the PVC will soften and bend as it heats up.

Steam box made from PVC pipe

I then drilled some 1/4" holes along the mid-line of the PVC on both sides for the 1/4" dowels that support the lumber we are bending.

Holes drilled in PVC pipe hold dowels for steaming wood Wood dowels create a rack for holding wood while steaming

Drill a small hole on the bottom rear of the box to allow for drainage and then a hole for your thermometer up near the front on top of the box.

Meat thermometer displays temperature inside steam box

Fill the Earlex with water up to the fill line.

Water-filled Earlex steam generator

Slip the caps onto the PVC pipe (without glue). Make sure the plug and drain are set up on a downward slope.  Since you don't glue the caps, if too much pressure builds up, the caps will easily pop off, preventing an explosion. Plug the Earlex  in and wait for steam and heat to come.

Earlex steam generator and steam box

When steaming lumber, you typically want to use air-dried or green lumber as they bend way better and with a lot less splintering and breakage than kiln-dried lumber.  (I used some kiln-dried walnut on this test because I had it lying around and knew it would bend ok, just not as good as air-dried).

You want your steam box temperature to stay at or around 212°.  My setup here stayed at 213° for 2 hours with no problems.

A general rule of thumb is to steam the lumver for one hour per inch of thickness. Kiln-dried lumber may take longer.

Always use thick, heat-resistant gloves around the steam chamber.  This is very hot steam making the wood very hot.  When you pull the cap off the PVC or open the door of your wooden steambox, hot steam comes out.  You then reach your hand in and grab very hot lumber.  Wear protection.

If you're using a form to bend the wood, you'll need metal band straps over the wood or it will break and splinter as you bend it.

Oh look, its time to pull out my wood. I decided to bend it over the closest round form I had — my drill press.

Using the drill press as a bending mandrel for steam-bending wood

Well that bent pretty nicely.  A few different thicknesses later and:

Wood thickness affects steam-bending properties

Steam-bending is easy with the Earlex Steam Generator and some PVC pipe.  I'll go over steam bending with forms in a later Getting Bendy post.

10 thoughts on “Using the Earlex Steam Generator to Bend Wood”

  • Sternberg

    Those wall paper steamers are only marginally effective. For the same money, you can get camp stove or a turkey fryer that will provide adequate heat, and adequate amounts of water, no matter what the ambient weather.

    Reply
    • infinitytools

      I actually have a turkey fryer set-up for steaming and that is what I have used in the past for all of my bending. I have to say though, that after using the Earlex steamer, that I will grab the Earlex for all of my quick bending projects. It works great and kept me at temp the entire time.

      Reply
  • William Blackstone
    William Blackstone June 2, 2013 at 4:54 pm

    This was a interesting instructional post, I bought a Earlex Generator a few months ago but haven't had a chance to try it out yet,, now I really want to bend after reading this post .

    Reply
  • Al

    You don't have gloves on.

    Reply
    • infinitytools

      Oh trust me I did when we first pulled it out and bent the wood. 212 degrees is hotter than my hands can handle. We unfortunately had to re-photo that for the blog since the other picture did not come out and missed wearing the gloves. Thank you for pointing it out. The gloves are very important to avoid burning yourself and we will definitely show me wearing them when we do the second part of this blog and accompanying video.

      Reply
    • William Blackstone
      William Blackstone June 13, 2013 at 5:07 pm

      A question about bending panels , how do you go about building the tall form and how do you clamp it , I guess a handful of SERIOUS deep reach clamps and cauls ?

      Reply
      • infinitytools

        I actually use my vacuum press and bag for most of the panel work I do. I make an mdf form very similar to a torsion box in the shape that I want to build, then lay a piece of hardboard on top and glue and vacuum clamp it in the bag. I then lay my panels on top of that form in the same bag and I am good to go.

        I will be doing the bent panel part of the getting bendy blog series soon so stay tuned and you will be able to see those progressions.

        Reply
  • K.E. Sternberg
    K.E. Sternberg June 12, 2013 at 5:24 am

    I steamed the laminations for these rocking horses with an Earlex steam box, but they are all thin strips.
    http://www.highlandwoodworking.com/woodworking-tips-1212dec/showusyourwoodworking1.html

    Reply
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