One of my goals of the “Furniture of Necessity” is to encourage people to build things that look complex but are actually simple once you know the trick. Think: compound joinery without a single numeral or calculation. Or, in today’s case, make curved parts using raw materials from the grocery store.
Steam-bending wood is fun and easy. And I own a steambox, a steam generator and all the clamps and forms that make it a snap. But that’s a lot of money and effort if you want to make one steamed part, such as a simple crest rail for a chair or backstool.
When I first learned to make Shaker boxes from John Wilson more than a decade ago, we boiled the parts in a steel planter box that was heated by a hot plate. That works pretty well, though you have to monitor the temperature to keep it boiling.
Another way to bend wood without fussing over the temperature is to use my mother’s recipe for beef brisket.
She would seal the brisket in a roasting pan covered in foil and cook it in the oven until the meat fell apart on your fork.
So I went to the grocery on Friday and picked up a bundle of firewood ($3.99) and a roasting pan ($2). The firewood is all split stuff that is 14” to 16” long and air-dried. My bundle of wood had oak, ash, poplar and sappy walnut. All the stock was about 30 percent moisture content – plenty dry enough to use for this operation.
I managed to get three crest rails from a split of oak and planed them all four-square. I preheated the oven to 450° F. Then I filled my aluminum roasting pan with hot water, put the oak in and sealed the pan with two layers of aluminum foil. I cut a small 1/2” slit in the top and roasted the oak in the oven for 75 minutes. Then I took it to my bending form.
My bending form is made from a stack of 3/4” MDF that’s glued together. The easiest way to bend a 3/4” crest rail is using the help of a bench vise. I clamped half the form to the jaw of my vise and the other half to the bench.
I dropped the oak between the two parts of the form and cranked the vise closed. Simple. I then put two bar clamps across the form and removed it from the vise. In two days I’ll take the clamps off and I’ll have another crest rail for my next chair.
— Christopher Schwarz