How Long Do You Need to Soak Wood to Bend It?

Did you know that part of being a master woodworker is knowing how to bend wood? Many believe that woodworking involves cutting and shaving wood into shapes and parts. Although this makes up a significant part of woodworking, there's another crucial task that woodworkers often have to perform. They have to soak the wood in water to bend it and get it into a certain shape.

To efficiently make the wood bendable, it's recommended that you soak the wood in relatively hot water for one to three hours. Many other factors can change this, but one to three hours will work for most wood types.

This is a good general guideline to follow, but again depending on the type of wood you're using. How you're actually soaking the wood, the recommended time can change drastically. If you're interested in woodworking and would like more advice, the rest of the article will further explain how to bend wood by soaking properly.

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The General Process of Wood Soaking 

You now know how long to leave your wood soaking, but it's important to know the entire process so that you can correctly soak your wood for the best results.

The general process is as follows:

  • Identify and select the type of wood you want to bend
  • Select the container that the wood and water will be stored in
  • Soak the wood in the water in the container
  • Wait for the right amount of absorption and then bend the wood
  • Harden the wood after its bent

Choosing The Wood and Container

Knowing and selecting the type of wood that you're going to be working with is the most important step, affecting how you carry out the rest of the bending process. 

When choosing your wood, the factor you should focus on the most is the wood's thickness. There are many other characteristics you should consider, but they will be covered in a later section.

In terms of choosing your container, you obviously want to make sure that it will be big enough to hold water and wood. It's also important to make sure that your container will handle relatively high temperatures because you typically want to use hot water for wood bending. 

There are many types of containers that you could use, so make sure to use one to work well for your wood.

Soaking and Bending the Wood

When you start soaking the wood, you again want to use hot water over cold water to get faster and better results. As we answered in the earlier section, after you place the wood in the water, the general recommendation is to leave it there for one to three hours. 

However, you must realize the recommended soaking time can change very easily, depending on the actual wood type. Some wood can have substantial differences based on the change of only a few minutes.

After you've left the wood to soak for the right amount of time, you want to take it out when it appears that the wood is fully wet. This is very important when you start bending the wood because it will help the wood keep its shape. 

After bending the wood, you want to let it dry naturally, and if needed, you can use direct heat to speed up the drying process.

Making Sure The Wood Stays Bent

This part of the process happens after you've soaked and bent the wood, but it's just as important because you want to make sure that the wood actually keeps its new shape. 

There are many ways to make sure the wood stays bent, but some common methods include: 

  • Coating the wood with a special glue to harden it 
  • Using clamps to make sure the wood stays in place

Different Factors That Affect Bending Wood

When you bend wood, you are essentially trying to increase its elasticity (how easy it is to stretch or compress a certain material). That's why we use hot water to bend wood because heat and moisture are some of the strongest influencers for a material's elasticity. 

That's also why we subsequently remove the water from the wood by drying it when we want the wood to retain its shape. Some people even pre-soak their wood by placing it in a steaming chamber beforehand. 

Using the Right Amount of Force

Another important determining factor is the force that the wood itself is going through. No matter how much you influence the wood's elasticity, you're still going to bend it in a way that wood is not naturally meant to be bent. The wood is going through a combination of tension and compression, and the more you bend it, the stronger those forces are.

Tips to Avoid Breakage

If the forces get too strong, your wood can end up breaking apart. To help avoid breakage, it's advised that you push on the wood's ends while you bend it.

This helps reduce the wood experiences' forces, and it will greatly reduce the chances that your wood breaks. There are many different devices that you can use to help with this. You also want to bend the wood slowly and gradually to absorb the stress more easily. 

What's equally as important as those external physical factors are the traits of the wood itself, which include:

  • Woodgrain angle: you want the woodgrain to be in parallel with the sides
  • Pith strength: you want the pith (center of the tree) to be strong
  • Wood density: you want your wood to be low in density
  • How much the wood has decayed: you want your wood to be fresh and moisturized

Other Methods for Bending Wood

Now that you have a good understanding of soaking wood to bend it, you may be interested in learning about the other techniques you can use to bend wood. All these options each have their own advantages and disadvantages, but many of the factors and affecting traits we've discussed earlier still apply to these methods.

Steam Bending

This method is the most similar to soaking wood, and we mentioned it briefly before. Instead of completely submerging the wood in water instead, place it into a chamber that's very hot, humid, and steamy. 

Once you leave the wood in for long enough, you can take it out and start bending. The drawback to this method is that you have to bend your wood very quickly once you take it out.

Using Glued Laminated Wood

Using Glued, Laminated Wood is another common method. This special type of wood is made by gluing together individual pieces of wood. This will typically make the structure more durable, and, in contrast to what we want when soaking wood, it makes it more resistant to more moisture. 

There's no steam or water involved whatsoever, and it's straightforward to bend the wood by creating it in a certain pattern.

Kerf Cut 

Finally, the Kerf Cut is the most simple method for bending wood. It involves cutting multiple tiny slits across the wood piece so that it's much easier to bend. It's the most straightforward process, but it has some drawbacks when compared to soaking wood:

  • It can't be used for structural parts
  • It weakens the wood itself
  • You need to cover up the cuts with a wooden sheet

Finals Words on Soaking Wood

Soaking wood can be an effective and efficient way for you to bend your wood, but there are a lot of factors you have to think about, especially if you're deciding which other wood bending methods you might also want to use. 

The procedure itself is easy to understand and execute. The only thing you would have to take time with is actually learning about the wood you're going to bend. Other than that, soaking wood is a simple way to make water a woodworker's best friend.

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  • Thank you for your website. I’m hoping to bend some walnut and maple strips (1/16"-1/8" thickness) to make a landing net. I want to find out how long to soak these thin strips before steam bending. How long to steam. Also, can you over soak before steaming?
    Thank you,

  • Hello, I enjoy your piece on bending wood techniques. I would like to read and learn more about this skill. I will building several rocking chairs for family and friends, so I look forward to any all knowledge in this area since it will be my first time doing so… thanks in advance

    Christopher Reyes
  • Is it possible to bend wood by soaking and kref cutting and weight applied to help

    larry naylor

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