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As I suppose is often the case, completing the last few items of our boat restoration seems to be taking the longest.  We have less than a handful of things to do to our sloop before we can call her completely finished.  In the past two months we’ve had all new cockpit cushions made, installed a new fathometer, and had covers made for both the binnacle and the grill.  One thing left to do is remove the cover to the fresh water tank, clean the tank proper, install a new fresh water system pump, and then connect the fresh water system to a new hot water heater (the new hot water heater is already installed).  Another thing left to do is to install the new auto pilot.

This past weekend me and my guy dived head first into something both of us had anticipated for quite a while:  steam bending kiln dried teak.  The issue is that the below deck settee was modified into a curved booth configuration.  The problem was in fabricating fiddles for the curved counters.  The only solution was to steam bend the 1” X 2” teak planks to fit the curved counters.


Steam bending wood is a pretty straight forward two-step proposition.  First, one must completely saturate the wood in flowing steam…steam the wood for one hour for ever inch thickness of wood.  And, then, remove the wood and quickly – very quickly – clamp the wood into place around a pattern of blocks that represent what your curve should look like.  It sounds simple and in fact it is, but just like everything else there is a thing or two to doing it successfully.

First, you have to be able to generate a lot of steam for a long time.  We solved that problem by using a 35 gallon crawfish boiling pot and the natural gas burner that goes with it.  We had plenty of steam.

Next, one has to be able to confine the steam, yet allow it to flow over the wood to assure the wood is evenly heated.  It might be noted that the steam doesn’t add moisture to the wood, but is only used to evenly heat it…it’s the wood being heated that allows it to be bent, not being moisturized.  We accomplished this by buying an eight foot long piece of 4” light weight flexible aluminum air conditioning duct for less than ten dollars…more than enough for the six and a half foot long piece of teak we had to steam.  We then mated the AC aluminum duct to a round piece of plywood that was used to cover the boiling pot.  Voila…we had a steam box.

Thirdly, we made patterns of the two curves we needed and transferred those patterns to a piece of scrap ¾” plywood.  We then screwed and bolted two by four blocks down that would allow us to anchor our clamps and then bend the teak planks to the pattern.

As with every project we do, me and my husband had to decide who was going to be the project engineer (the brains) and who was going to be the construction superintendent (the brawn).  We both had very strong ideas how to go about bending this wood.   Initially, I told my husband it was fine with me if he was the PE on this.  But after us butting heads for an hour or so Friday afternoon on the direction we should take (in the presence of my amused mother-in-law) my guy in frustration finally said something to the effect of “fine…why don’t you just be the lead on this.”  I said “great.”  And, off we went.

Our first attempt ended in utter failure.  The steam heating went without a hitch.  But we took way too long in getting the wood from the steam box to the pattern and clamped down.  And, lastly, one of the clamp blocks failed in a crucial place requiring we reattach it and then reclamp…further delay.  At first it appeared we had succeeded.  But within five minutes of the final clamp we heard a pop, and noticed a fairly severe failure at the tightest point of the curve…ten minutes later we heard an even louder pop and immediately saw a catastrophic failure that extended almost half way through the plank.  Defeat.  We would have to try again.  With each piece of the teak we were using costing around $75 dollars both of us were really hoping our learning curve would shorten up quickly.

Yesterday morning, I woke up thinking rebend.  After replaying what we did and how we did it, I felt I knew why we had failed.  We had taken too long to get the wood from our makeshift steam oven to the patterns, and then taken too long to methodically clamp the wood in place once we did.  The literature will tell you that every second longer one takes to get the wood from the steam box and clamped to the pattern the chances of the wood failing (cracking or breaking) increases.  As our second teak plank was heating up we carefully lay out and adjusted the clamps and rehearsed how we were going to extract the 212 degree piece of hot wood from the oven, transfer it to the pattern and then quickly, yet methodically, clamp it down.


On the second try we got the heated plank out of the oven, onto the pattern, and clamped down in less than a minute…versus about 5-7 minutes on our first attempt.  Success.  We steamed the second, shorter piece with less bend required and got it clamped as well.  Also a success.  No cracks or failures at all.  The steam bending is done.  All that is left for the fiddles is to put a radius on the top with a hand router, drill the 3/8” bung plug holes and then pre drill the screw holes.  I can then take the two pieces to the boat and hand fit them.  The goal is to have all of the fiddles in place, sanded, and ready for the final finishing by the end of the weekend.

We are planning another trip down the coast over Easter weekend.  One might remember that last Labor Day we were thwarted when we got caught in the middle of the very nasty little Tropical Storm Lee.  My husband and I still talk about TS Lee and 2011 Labor Day.  That trip was one of those occasions one looks back on and say to themselves…HOLY FUCKING SHIT  !!!  A more than somewhat harrowing excursion it was. 

Anyway, we only have a few things to do and almost two months to do them in…hopefully we’ll finish.  Getting the steam bending out of the way was a biggy.


One Comment

    • Robert Grant Clark
    • Posted September 6, 2016 at 2:40 AM
    • Permalink
    • Reply

    Read your article about steam bending teak. Thanks for the tips about the steam source! Read your Aug post about Cuba. Very nice!

    Grant and Kim

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