How Does Wood Bend?

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Why Wood Can Bend

  • Wood is both a plastic and elastic medium. "Plastic" means that the wood is able to be permanently bent without breaking, and "elastic" means that it can be bent temporarily and then released back into its original shape. Applied pressure creates the type of bend, causing elasticity when the wood bends in proportion to the amounts of pressure applied, and plasticity when the proportion becomes unequal. These properties of wood come from a tree's position as a living organism. When the wind blows, or an animal climbs, the tree must be able to bend or the branches will break. Permanent bends in nature occur when a tree must grow around another object that exerts constant pressure upon it, such as another tree or rock surface.

Why Bend Wood?

  • Wood bending is used in a variety of building applications in order to create a curved surface or support structure. In homes, curved or circular doors, windows and openings require curved trim for support and aesthetic quality. Furniture manufacturing also makes use of curved timber for the legs and arms of chairs or tables, and the trim on some styles of couches. Perhaps the most obvious use of curved boards is in boat building, where the curve of the hull is essential to the operation of seacraft. Wood bending can also be seen in staircase banisters, decorative objects, art and even certain kinds of tools and toys.

Ways to Bend Wood

  • Timber is bent using four major methods: kerf cutting, steam bending, microwave steaming and laminated wood bending. Kerf cutting is the simplest method, done by cutting slots into the compressed side of the wood and gluing the gaps together. This type of wood bending is favored by joiners and can be found in most old homes.
    Steam bending is the most effective method, being the primary way to make boats, but requires more time and equipment. In steam bending, wood is placed into a steam box to create the appropriate moisture for bending. Wood is strongest while dry and cool, and grows weaker as heat and moisture are added. The effect lessens quickly after removal from the steam box, so the conditioned wood is immediately moved into a mold or form that allows the wood to dry into a certain shape. Small pieces of wood can be microwaved inside a wet paper towel, essentially recreating the environment of a steam box. In laminated wood bending, thin pieces of same-size timber are glued together and stacked into a form, as thinner wood is easier to bend by hand. When the glue dries, the wood holds the shape.

Best Wood for Bending

  • Not all types of wood are appropriate for bending. Bending quality is reliant on the number of defects or weak spots in the wood, since they make wood more likely to split when bent. Cross-grain wood at places like knots, ring separations and the center of the tree makes bending failure more common, and wood with decay or existing breaks is not at all usable. Trees that produce the best wood for bending are usually hardwood, as softwood species tend to be difficult, and can be of both open-grain and closed-grain types. Popular woods include Oak, Ash, Walnut, Elm, Hickory, Black Locust, Beech, Maple, Birch, Cherry, Hackberry, Magnolia, Pecan, Sweetgum and Yellow Poplar. The quality of wood in these trees will vary with the location and individual tree.

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