The Dale C. Maley Family Web Site

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Steam Bent Basket or Tool Box [NOTE: This page is obsolete]

Use this link to see an updated web page with all the project photographs included.

On Rockler's web site, if you search and find their steam generator, they also have a free plan for the basket shown above.  You can download a copy here.

I will have to build one of these in the future.

Ash Handle

In the plan article, it says the author tried kiln dried ash for steam bending the handle, and several pieces broke.  Then he got air-dried ash, and it worked.  But, the article also says he did not have the steam chamber hot enough when he did the kiln dried. He also did not use a steel bending strap.

Based upon my experience with kiln dried white oak, I am going to do the following:

1. Buy kiln dried ash from Rockler. I have no known source for air dried ash.

2. Design a bend fixture that does use a steel strap/clamp set-up.

3. Soak the ash in water and Downy for 7 days before steam bending.

I think this is the most robust process design I can come up with, to be successful.

Rockler Ash

I ordered enough ash from Rockler to make several handles. I may need to tune my process. If this works, I may make several for Christmas 2017 family gifts. I also get cherry wood from Rockler.


I redrew the plan in Sketchup, because I need to design a new steam bend fixture...........because the fixture in the plan is not designed to be used with steel clamping.

I redrew the straight view of the ash handle, so I could print out a pattern to use to make them.

Pattern Routing

I made a pattern from 1/2" plywood for the handle. I sawed it within 1/8" of final dimension on the bandsaw......then used a follower bit on the router make all 3 handles the same.

2-sided tape

I often don't have good luck using 2-sided tape to temporarily attach the work-piece to the plywood pattern.  I made sure both sides were clean of sawdust and used my Ace tape.  This time it worked well.

Once I got the 3 pieces routed to shape, I removed the plywood pattern and 2-sided tape.  Then I used a 1/8" round-over bit on the entire handle.  On the picture from the plan, they stop the round-over about where the handle meets the box. I am not sure how my 2 steam bent ends will come out for length.......I may have to cut a little off one side, don't know I will just round-over the whole handle.

I took the 3 pieces to the drill press, and sanded to 220 grit with a drum sander.

Water Soaking

I dumped in 2 cap fulls of Downy into my 3" PVC tube, then filled with cold water.

Steam bending Fixture

While the 3 pieces are soaking for 7 days in water and fabric softener, I need to build the steam bending fixture.

Based upon my experience with steam bending 3/8 by 1.5" white oak, I would have designed in more "Spring-back" than the plan does.  But ash probably bends differently than white oak, so I will stick with the spring-back amount they had in the plan design.  If it doesn't work on the 1st piece, then I can revise the fixture.

The nice thing about Sketchup is that you can print full size paper patterns, which I use white Elmer's glue to temporarily attach to the wood blank.  When I am done, I can remove the glued on paper using a wet dish rag.

Per the photo above, I glued (3) 2x4's together to form the main part of the steam bending fixture.

The next photo shows the steam bending fixture being built.  I cut a scrap piece of 1.x29" pine, because you need to build the bending strap to fit the work-piece. I also bought some 20 gage heavier duty plumber's strap from mcmaster-carr. This is a little thicker than the Ace standard plumbing strap. I'm going to try it on this project.

Completed fixture..................

Below is the completed fixture with a piece of string to hold the plumber's strap, or bending strap in place.  This reduces the storage space required for the fixture.

Making the Cherry Box

The sides of the box are 1/2" thick, so I planed my 3/4" cherry boards from Rockler down to 1/2".  The plan calls for 2.5" high sides, but since the Rockler cherry is 5.5 inches wide, I sawed it down the middle........which gives just a hair under the desired 2.5" height.  I then got out my old 2011 dado set.

This old dado set was an economical one, but it has a lot of tear-out, or blow-out when the dado set exits the work-piece.

I made a trial box out of pine, to make sure the settings were all correct.  I did get tear-out on the when I switched to the cherry wood, I inserted a piece of sacrificial Luan thin plywood behind the cherry work-piece.  This prevented any tear-out.

I used the string and nail (or bolt) method of clamping up the box. I made sure it was square using a small machinist square.

The plans call for changing out the dado set for a saw blade, then cutting 45 degree angles on the edges sticking out on the box.  I just took my Dremel with a 1/2" diameter drum sander and put on the chamfers.

Box Bottom

The plans called for an 1/8" chamfer, but I used a 1/8" round-over router bit all around the top and bottom of the base piece.

I set the box on top of the bottom plate, then made sure the gap all around between the box and the plate was about even.  I put pencil marks on the ID and OD of the box, at 4 points in the center of each side.  I drilled a pilot hole about 1/8" in the center of these marks.  Then I set the box back on the base plate.  Holding it carefully, I flipped it over, making sure the plate did not move with respect to the box.  Then I countersunk drilled the 4 holes for the wood screws.  This method worked pretty well.

Now I am waiting for the 7-day soak time to get over, so I can try steam bending the first handle.........

During this 1 week wait period, I thought about what possibly could go wrong when I try to bend the ash.  In engineering terms, the fancy name is FMEA, Failure Modes & Effects Analysis).

In the original plan, with no bending clamp, it is likely one would mark a centerline on the bending fixture, and also mark the centerline of the work-piece. Then when you bend it by hand, you just line up the two centerlines.

On my process, I do use a bending clamp. If my starting end position is wrong, the bends won't occur at the same point on the reduced width area of the handles.  To check this out, I traced the outline of my handle pattern onto a piece of paper 29x1.5 inches........then put this piece of paper in my fixture...

Sure enough, my starting point was about 1 inch off.  Luckily, I had enough extra plumber's strap on the end, that I could unscrew it, reposition it by 1 inch, then scew it back into place. I also made a 1" long wood spacer to fill the hole.  I'm glad I caught this one, because my 1st handle might have looked goofy.

I revised my Sketchup design to show the 1" spacer.....

Amount of Compression

Out of curiosity, I wondered how much the inner part of the steam bent handle compresses.

With the bending strap, the outer length in theory does not change during bending, it stays at 29 inches.  In reality, the plumbing straps have a little give, but we are going to assume 0% practical length change.

Using Sketchup, I calculated the amount of compression the inner radius sees during a bend.............

At first, I looked at the entire 29 inches length, and only got 1.19% compression.  This is true over the entire length, but does not accurately reflect the compression just at the bend radii.

So, just at the bend radii, the compression is a whopping 12.7%. It is amazing that wood will compress this much.  However, it will take almost no tension on the outside of the bend before it splinters. The Veritas steam bending booklet says that tension greater than 1/2% on the outer radii will break the wood.

First Steam Bend

I got my wife to help. I wasn't sure if c-clamps would be needed or not with the bending strap method.  I steamed the 3/8" thick by 29" long piece of ash for 30 minutes.  The rule-of-thumb is 15 minutes steaming for every 1/4" of thickness...........but I wanted to be on the safe side so I went 30-35 minutes.

The first bend went ok.  I pulled it around the first bend, then had my wife add a c-clamp on that bend.  I did the 2nd bend, and she had to add a 2nd clamp. But it all went ok!!

My bend fixture is held in place in my bench vise.......

The only thing I don't know at this point, is if the bend fixture design allowed enough for "springback".  When I take the work-piece out of the fixture, the 2 ends will tend to spring back, or open outwards.  

I learned my lesson on a past steam bending not put the work-piece in  a 120F oven to dry it out quicker.........because the bends will open up quickly!

Houston--We Have a Problem

Although the ash handle bent ok, the 2 ends did not come out even......which means my bending fixture start point is wrong.  You can see the error below........

The ends are about 1" off, with respect to the perpendicular distance from the top of the handle.  This means the bend fixture start point is about 1/2" off.

I messed up when I checked it with the paper piece.  My paper piece was 29" long, which is the straight length, and also the outer length after the bend.  I placed the paper on the inner bend radius when I did my pre-check.

I should have measured the inner length from Sketchup, then used it to set the starting point.  Darn!

I think I can still salvage the 1st steam bent handle.  I will just have to do some rework on it. I sawed off the long end about 1". I then changed the transition point for the smaller width on the handles.

In hind-sight, I would have been better off to design my own bend fixture, versus using the one in the plan.  Then in Sketchup, I could calculate the inner and outer lengths, so I got the starting point right.

After I reworked the handle, I decided to go ahead and glue it up to the basket.  After it is glued up, I will drill the 1/4" dowel holes, and probably use a 3/8x3/8" inlay of a different colored wood to hide the dowels.


Process Steps to Attach Handle    

  1. Glue handle to 2 sides
  2. Mark centers 3/4" and 1-3/4" up from bottom of box
  3. Mark 3/8x3/8" square
  4. Chisel out squares to about 1/8" to 3/16" deep
  5. drill 1/4" hole in centers, stop before it breaks into interior of box
  6. mark 1/4" dowels so they will be below inlay, saw each one
  7. glue in 1/4" dowels
  8. glue in 3/8 x 3/8" inlays. I used red padauk on the 1st basket. Yellow heart or purple heart would work also.
  9. Dremel sand inlays leaving 1/8" sticking out
  10. Remove bottom. Sand inlays flush using stationary belt sander

Next step was 3 rounds of 220 grit and pure gloss polyurethane. On future models, I could try mineral oil also. Mineral oil worked good on previous cherry animated toy models.

Finished 1st Basket

Closing Thoughts on this Project

These are neat looking small baskets, when they are completed.  The square inserts are a nice extra visual touch, versus plain old 1/4" dowels sanded flush.

The only real problem I had was not getting the handle properly centered on the steam bending fixture.....on the 1st piece.  I should have designed my own fixture from scratch, versus using the fixture on the Rockler plan. My process uses a bending strap, and the Rockler plan does not use a bending strap.

I plan on making quite a few of these for Christmas 2017 presents to family members.

December 2016 Follow-Up

I decided to make a total of 6 of these baskets for Christmas 2017 family gifts.  The 1st piece of Rockler was big enough that I got 3 handles out of it.  I used the 1st piece to make the 1st basket above.  I soaked all 3 at the same time, so I went ahead and steam bent the other two. Using the table saw fence as a guide, my revised bending fixture gives the handle ends such that they are within a 1/4" of each other.  This is close enough, so my revised bending fixture is fine to crank out 3 more handles.

I found that short piece of 2x4" works well for letting the steam bent handle dry, so the bending fixture can be used to steam bend the next piece........

Jan 2017 Follow-Up

I steam bent 6 total basket handles, with 0% scrap! I made a Youtube video explaining how to steam bend kiln-dried wood....

Steam Bent Handles a Consistent Size

The photo below shows that the steam bending process is pretty repeatable, in terms of the dried handles being the same size and shape........

Photos of Making 5 More Baskets.......

Band-Saw Resaw fixture

I ran out of 1/2" thick cherry stock to make the basket bottoms, so I had to use some 3/4" thick cherry stock. Rather than plane it down to 3/8", I decided to try using my new band-saw resawing fixture on the 3/4" stock.  It worked great!  I saved a lot of cherry wood cost by resawing versus planing down the stock.

Mineral Oil Finish

I decided to use a mineral oil finish on the 5 baskets versus polyurethane.  It worked well on the cherry wood pull toys that I made a few months ago.  I got the gallon jug from Farm & Fleet in Bloomington.  It is sold there as a laxative for cows :)

Draining Mineral Oil

Since I had 5 baskets to dip, I decided to let them drip off the excess mineral oil onto pieces of scrap brown paper........

5 Completed Baskets

I will let these set all year in our Sun Room.  The sunlight should turn the cherry baskets into a beautiful  red-brown color by next Christmas!