Side Bending Methods

This article is intended to act as just an overview of each of (3) methods of bending wooden instrument sides that are available to you. I know that there are additional devices and method that are available an if you are using one of these, it would be appreciated if you would share your experiences using your method. We will be adding more detailed articles on each of the three methods outlined here and let you make your own choice.

I have used all three of these methods extensively and if you intend to make lutherie a substantial hobby or a profession, you should be familiar with all three methods.

Bending Wood Sides For The First Time?

One of the biggest challenges to the first time building is bending the side wood. Usually this is quite the challenge because even if you are an experienced woodworker, the chances are pretty good you didn’t ever do much or any wood bending – at least not free-form bending. Usually with furniture woodworking curves are made by laminating thin strips of wood together and gluing the strips with adhesive between each strip. When the piece dries, it is stable and stays put.

With wood side bending, we are dealing with one piece of solid wood. Most of the wood that is used for sides and backs is very hard and very resistant to bending without a lot of help from the luthier and the tools at his disposal.

There are three major directions you can take to bend the side wood of your guitars.

Method One Bend Over a Hot Pipe:

This is the old school method. It is still the preferred method by many instrument makers, especially classical guitar, violin family and mandolin family. You can pick up an electric bender to make life easier or you can do it with a torch and pipe, which is really old school. Typically water is sprayed on the wood to generate steam and this is what allows you to bend the wood. Some people soak the wood in water for a few moment and then use a wet cloth or spray bottle to add moisture as it evaporates.

Advantages Associated With This Method:
You can get into it with minimal cost:
You can bend virtually any shape and any type of wood .
Wood color is not effected by the heat.
Once bent, there is very little spring-back of the wood.

Problems Associated With This Method:
Burn the wood:
Crack the wood.
Have uneven side plates.
Burn yourself with the hot iron.

Method Two – Boil The Sides:

Boil the sides in a trough with water and slap the hot/wet wood onto forms and set the sides aside to dry for several days. Typically the trough is set on a 2-burner gas range or camper stove and the sides are allowed to boil for several hours or until they are pliable. After boiling, carefully place the wood on pre-made forms and clamp them into place. This has to be done quickly because the pliability of the sides lasts a very short time. It is best to have another person help you with this.

Advantages Associated With This Method:
You can get into it with minimal cost:
Instrument Shape choices are limited only by your choice of forms.
The forms are relatively easy to construct.

Problems Associated With This Method:
It Boil resins out of exotic woods:
If not done quickly enough, the wood will crack at the waist.
Wood needs to set on the form several days to a week.
Burn yourself with boiling water.
You should have an additional person to help.

Method Three – Bend the Sides on a Heated Bender:

This method is by far the easiest for the new luthier and for the experienced luthier as well. Making all the different forms for each size of guitar can be a challenge of your time and wallet. This may be the easiest but it is also the most expensive method. If you decide to purchase a side bender, pre-made, it can set you back nearly $500 to $800, complete with form inserts, stainless steel slats heating blankets and temperature control device.

Advantages Associated With This Method:
The sides are rarely cracked:
Your shape choices are limited only by your choice of forms.
The forms are relatively easy to construct.
Bending is quick and easy and time on the form is minimal

Problems Associated With This Method:
You can only bend one side at a time:
It is the most expensive method, unless you build a Side Bending Jig.
Building the Jig can be rather time-consuming.

We are offering an alternative to the purchase of this expensive side bender. Check out the article on The Side Bending Jig for details on how to buy plans and put one together yourself.

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