How to Bend Wood


Over 30 strips of 2.5mm in place on the jig. This is just a dry run to check that every thing is ok.

There are many ways to bend wood but it will depend on the job that you want to do as to which method you will use. For example if you only want a slight bend, maybe simple brute force will be sufficient but it depends on the size of the wood. No amount of brute force will bend a foot square section of oak for example!

Thinner wood bends easier than thicker wood and some woods bend easier than others. The greater the curve, the thinner the wood needs to be. These are all basic rules that cannot be broken but if you know what is possible then wood can be shaped into almost any form. Even time can bend wood as can heat and moisture. Wood really is an amazing material.

As wood bends, the inner section compresses and the outer section expands. Sometimes it is possible to stop the wood breaking as it is bent by placing a steel band around it as it is bent into shape, in much the same way that a plumber inserts a steel spring into a copper pipe in order to bend it without it kinking.

Steam, or in fact any kind of heat can be used to bend wood but it helps if the wood is green, or in other words, freshly cut so it contains more moisture and is naturally more flexible. But steaming is only good for relatively thin sections of wood. So what does one do if you want to bend a larger section?

Well, it depends on how much you want to bend the wood. It also depends on the orientation of the grain and as I mentioned earlier on the type of wood. Often brute force and time can bend quite substantial pieces of wood but these days people are in a hurry and can’t wait months for gravity to do its thing.

Perhaps the most effective way to shape wood is to laminate it. This is done by gluing thin strips together using a jig to create the shape required. The thickness of the wood required will depend mainly on the radius of the curve required. The greater the curve, the thinner the strips will need to be.


Making the three sections of the jig from layers of 20mm plywood. This jig was made in three pieces because there are many knees to make and they are all slightly different. By keeping the curved section the same, only the other pieces need to be modified each time.

The down side of laminating wood is the fact that you have to make a jig and use glue. You can use almost any kind of glue but for the best and strongest results it’s best to use epoxy. The trouble with epoxy is that it is messy and expensive. That said, once the jig is made it’s easy enough to bang out any number of glued laminations.

Recently I was called in to reinforce a 20 metre wooden sailing boat. The deck had lifted due to the compression forces of the mast and rig and in order to put more strength into the boat new and larger hanging knees were required. So that the knees did not intrude into the boat too much they needed a fairly sharp radius but as they were 75 mm square that meant that they would need to be made from very thin strips indeed. In fact sometimes laminations can be made with wood as thin as one millimetre!


Just some of the strips of mahogany cut to make some laminated knees.

In this case it was decided that 2.5mm would be about right. The ideal is to use the thickest laminate possible as it requires less work and less glue and arguably looks better as there are less glue lines visible in the finished product. 2.5mm wood bends very easily even into a very tight curve but once you pile a load together it becomes much harder. It’s not so much the physical limits that you can bend the wood too but more the force needed to force a stack of laminations into the jig.

To create a 75mm thick knee, over 30 strips of wood were required and because there is quite a lot of force involved, the jig needs to be pretty strong. The jig was made from 4 pieces of 20mm plywood stacked together to create a support for the stack. The wood is actually cut about 8mm thicker than required as it will need planing down on both sides afterwards. When the wood is in the jig, it is slightly proud of the jig. This enables it to be bashed or clamped down into place.

The jig was made in three pieces and then they were bolted through the work table with 10mm bolts to ensure that nothing can move. Where the wood bends around the most, an inner block was also made to ensure that the clamping pressure on the curve was even.


The inner block is crucial to a quality lamination. This ensures that there are no visible glue lines in the finished product. The other areas are easier to clamp.

When the jig is made it’s time to do a dry run. This is to ensure that you will have no problems when you come to actually glue it up. What you do not want is to discover a problem half way through gluing. Epoxy is unforgiving in this respect. If it goes wrong, the wood will be glued like that forever and since epoxy, wood and your time is expensive, it’s worth taking a little while to do a dry run just in case. If the dry run is successful, remove the clamps and the strips and prepare some epoxy.

The stack is laid down on its side and the first strip is coated in glue. I always mix in a little thickening agent to ensure that the epoxy has a little flexibility and also to ensure that the epoxy goes on thick enough. Making sure you use the right amount of glue is a matter of experience but it’s certainly better to use too much glue rather than too little! Once the first strip is coated with glue (using a roller) the next is laid on top and then that is coated and so on until you get to the end.

Then the stack is placed into the jig which has been lined with plastic to avoid the assembly from gluing to it and thus making it impossible to remove once the glue has cured! The stack is clamped in place starting at the centre of the curve. As the first clamp is tightened a little, it’s worth bashing the stack down onto the work surface. Now work outwards in both directions clamping and bashing as you go.


The laminations, glued up and clamped in place. Leave to cure for 24 hours before removing.

If you have used sufficient glue and enough even pressure from the clamps you should end up with a solid piece of shaped wood that doesn’t even look like it was made from many pieces. Once it has been in the jig for 24 hours it can be removed. It is possible that the finished piece will ‘spring’ that means that it may open slightly as it tries to go back to its original shape. The more laminates you use, the less chance there is of the laminates springing.

Once out of the jig, an electric plane is the ideal tool for removing the glue that has hopefully squished out from between the strips. A belt sander also works well though sand with progressively finer grades to ensure that no scratches are visible in the finished product.


The knee, planed down and sanded. A bit of spirits on a rag show how the knee will look once varnished.

If you want to get really carried away you can assemble the stack for gluing so that the colour of the wood is uniform. Often wood, even from the same tree can be different depending on the direction or orientation of the grain so you can disguise the fact that a beam is made of many pieces by carefully matching each strip to the one above it. In reality it’s not really worth it unless you are trying to create something really spectacular. In time, most woods with either darken or lighten with exposure to sunlight which will make the colour more even.


A close up of the curved section of the knee. No glue joins are visible but it is possible to see a slight difference in colour of some of the laminations. In time these will fade slightly until you’ll have to look closely to see if the beam is made from many pieces.

You can of course make a feature out of using different woods in a lamination. Often boat tillers are made like this. It’s a bit cheesy but it does show what’s possible. Laminating wood is a great deal of fun and also very satisfying. It is also quite amazing how a stack of thin strips of wood that were collectively very floppy suddenly become unbelievably strong and resilient once glued.


Laminated tiller on a Dana 24. This one is made from mahogany and ash.

Leica m9

Leica M9 is a bargain

st tropez

Leica M9, Elmarit 21 asph, 160 ISO f11 @ 250 Bay of St Tropez, March 2010

Buying an M9 was not a rash decision for me, it wasn’t a sudden thing at all. This was the camera I had wanted for 15 years, ever since I realised that the future was digital. The Leica M9 is everything I want in a camera. I had to laugh when critics complained that it could only take 7 shots continually and only two frames a second. Admittedly this is rather pathetic compared to most DSLRs but this is missing the point. Using a rangefinder just isn’t like using any other camera.


Canal du Midi Leica M9 Summilux 21mm

How could I justify spending so much money on a camera? Well, I’ll tell you. I do not plan on buying another camera for a very long time. When the M10 comes out I will still own an awesome camera capable of taking superb images. This will never change. Leicas are built to last. I do so hate this disposable world we live in.


Island of Porquerolles, France. Stasha nesting sailing dinghy Leica M9 Summilux 21mm

Many people who love the rangefinder philosophy and those wonderful Leica lenses but can’t afford an M9 can still buy any number of film Ms to use but this may be a false economy. Asides from the damage that film causes to the planet it’s a costly process. With the amount I use my camera it won’t take more than 5 years to get the cost of the camera back in saved film and developing costs alone.


Church pew, Portugal. Leica M9 Summilux 21mm

Then consider that an M9 will always be worth something. Sure, it will be superseded soon enough but historically it is an important camera, as important as the M3 was in it’s day and as such will always be desirable. I dare say it will lose much of it’s value over time but it will always be worth something which is more than can be said for most digital cameras.


Tired girl on Metro. Portugal. Leica M9 Summilux 21mm

Because the M9 is such a competent camera if I do take any nice shots I can easily sell them and this too will help to pay it off. But having said all that, even if I never sold any shots from it and assumed it will lose all it’s value over the time I own it, it would still be worth it to me just because it’s so beautiful and inspiring to use.


Mad tiled pavements. Lisbon. Leica M9 Summilux 21mm

Let’s look at value for a moment. Yes, £6000 is a lot for a camera but if I keep it for ten years (which is entirely feasible and likely even) it will only have cost about a tenner a week to own. What is £10 these days? It won’t buy you much , a newspaper and a package of cigarettes would cost as much. It’s a pittance that almost anyone can afford.


A crypt in Portugal. Leica M9 Summilux 21mm

Everyone is amazed that I would pay so much for a camera but these are the same people who probably lose more each time they part ex their old car for a new one. It costs about £200,000 to bring a child up in the UK and these same parents are amazed when they learn the price of the M9. Yes, the M9 is expensive compared to other cameras but it’s nothing compared having children or redecorating a house, even a holiday could cost more.


Foggy morning. Portugal. Leica M9 Summilux 21mm

You could buy a lesser camera and replace it every two or three years but you will probably lose about the same as if you bought an M9 and held onto it for a decade.

Then there are the lenses. What a choice! Even other manufacturers make lenses to fit the Leica M so you are completely spoiled for choice and since the M9 can use just about any Leica lens ever made that is a lot of lenses.


Children play at a wedding. Cadiz, Spain. Leica M9 Summilux 21mm

Then there’s the inspiration that the Leica gives you. I have never owned a camera that I wanted to use more. It doesn’t sound as beautiful as my M3 did but it’s pretty quiet and the discreet shutter setting is very clever and makes the camera even more stealthy than it is anyway. And it’s totally perfect, a joy just to hold and admire. The detailing is amazing and the quality of every part is obvious.


Morning after a storm. France Leica M9 Summilux 21mm

How many cameras inspire you so much that you actually want to get up pre dawn to be ready for the morning light when it arrives? Not many. The Leica M9 is that camera. Your heart glows just thinking about it waiting for you to pick it up and point at something.


Girl on bike, Florence, Italy. Leica M9 Elmar 50mm

Let’s also consider the invisibility of an M camera. There’s something quite spooky about this. Often you can get right in people’s faces and they just don’t see the camera. This happens a lot but I have never quite worked out why this is. Perhaps it’s because it doesn’t look like most cameras, maybe it’s to do with it’s shape, perhaps because half of your face is still visible to your subject when you are behind the camera, unlike DSLRs with their central viewfinder. I really don’t know, but if you want stealth you couldn’t do much better than a Leica M9.


Panerai Yacht Eilean. Leica M9 Summilux 21mm

All this for just a tenner a week. Bargain. I really don’t understand those who moan about the price of Leicas. I think they represent fantastic value. If I have a problem, I know that I will be taken seriously and treated as a valued customer, you won’t get this with a Nikon. This alone is worth a lot to me. One might also mention that the camera comes with Adobe Lightroom which is a very powerful and clever program.


The high mountains. France. Leica M9 Summilux 21mm

The M9 has been my constant companion for about 4 months now and I just love it. I’m glad I didn’t wait, I would have missed out of 4 months of glorious picture taking. What if I had died before I got my hands on one? I’d have been really annoyed about that.


Seagull after my lunch! Leica M9 Summilux 21mm

Update September 2012

It’s been three years already since i bought my M9. My how time flies. I have just re read this article and am pleased to say that nothing has changed at all. I still feel exactly the same about my M9 now as I did when I bought it.

Next year 2013 is Leica’s 100th anniversary so no doubt it will be a year of surprises from them. Will they bring out the M10? I wouldn’t be at all surprised. Will I want one? I doubt it. How will it differ? It will surely have more resolution but I don’t need any more than the M9 can offer. I took a nice picture of a friend’s motorcycle and had a huge 1.3 metre wide print made of it. The quality was astonishing, with practically no visible grain. Each picture is already 35 meg and that causes enough headaches as is what with storage and back ups.

So I’ll stick with my M9 thanks.


Flood! France. Leica M9 Summilux 21mm

Update: July 2016

Amazingly it has been almost seven years since I bought my M9. Still nothing has changed. It’s still a brilliant camera and it works beautifully. Values seem pretty steady and M9 prices seem to start at about £2000 so my camera has only lost half its value in seven years. That doesn’t seem too bad to me. The value of an M9 has likely fallen about as far as it will so.

My body now has a few brass areas where the paint has worn through. It has a lovely patina. Better than new.

One last observation. Recently I tried to take some pics of a friend’s kids. They have known me forever and have never minded me taking shots of them but this time they were not happy and ran and hid. Why is this? They didn’t like the camera I was using, they were intimidated. It was a compact Sony Nex7 so I don’t know why it freaked them so much but I know one thing, that never happened with the M9.

I’ll update this post again after I’ve owned and enjoyed my M9 for ten years but I can’t see anything changing. Leica did bring out the M10 but they called it a 240 or something. Is it any lighter or smaller than an M9? No. In fact it’s heavier. So I was right all along about the M9. A classic.


Hoopy wooden bicycle. 50 Summilux