Microwaving Wood

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The “funny” thing about making curved drawer fronts is that they’re pretty tough to open without handles. I don’t begrudge my beloved Lee Valley for not accommodating my needs for custom-fit curvey drawer handles, so in this comedy of oversights, I decided to try a new experiment.

Typical Bending Techniques
I think the two most common bending techniques are laminating and steaming.

Of course, I’m kinda learning this stuff as I go, so I was nothing short of elated to find “lamination” was a common bending technique, having just bumbled my way through building the (granted, hair-brained) curved drawer fronts.

Laminating Drawer Fronts

Steaming, on the other hand, was something I was familiar with, but lacked a steam box to actually try it. For a small shop, this could be as simple as a household kettle supplying steam to a semi-vented wooden box. Wood is then placed within the box and, as I “understand” it, the steam permeates the wood over several hours. The combination of heat and moisture allow the wood fibres to stretch without breaking.

Similarly, the natural moisture found in “green” wood is why freshly fallen branches, for example, you’d find in the forest are so bendy.

Back to the experiment. First off, given a choice between handles and knobs, the handle is my preferred pull. But given a choice between laminate and not, solid wood has the durability and quality needed for a proper handle. But I don’t have a steam box, let alone a small shop. (insert sadness) I do, however, have a microwave. How does this help?

1. Soaking: I started with 16″x1″x1/2″ strips of solid maple and soaked them in a bucket of water overnight. The goal is to saturate the wood with water. Perhaps this probably should have been longer, but as with everything, I am an impatient oaf. :)

12-hour Soaking

2. Microwaving: I wrapped a strip of wood in a soaked hand towel and tossed it in the microwave for about 3-4 minutes, turning once at the 2-minute mark. This, of course, requires some experimentation since every microwave is different, but it also changes depending on the type of wood, size of strips, and the moisture content.

The microwave will rapidly heat up all the moisture on the surface and within the piece which, in turn, heats up the wood fibres. The towel just helps and contains the steaming process…at least, that’s what I’m going with for now. Were it to catch on fire, I’d also like to think it would keep the flames down. :)

Microwaved for 3-4 minutes

3. Removing: Assuming the wood hasn’t caught on fire, it will still be VERY hot, so take care to remove it with heavy gloves. And NO, I didn’t learn this the hard way! :)

Steaming Hot!

4. Bending: It’s pretty cool to see that, even after just a short period of time in the microwave, the wood is maleable enough to bend with just a bit of hand strength…or maybe I’m just THAT strong. :) In any case, you should now be able to clamp it into a form.

Overbent Form

5. Drying: You’ll want to leave it in the form at least overnight to cool and dry; but even after 12 hours, mine wasn’t completely dry. However, I made the form to over-bend the wood with the expectation that, once it was removed, it would naturally unbend to the shape I needed as the fibres were free to contract while drying in the open air.

It is by no means an exact science, but I was more-or-less satisfied with the results. They don’t look like much now, as this experiment was more of a “proof of concept”. But once they’re sanded, stained and polished up, I think they’ll suit the drawers nicely…I think.

Unfinished Handle
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