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Bending Solid Wood to Fit Furniture Designs
About a mile south of Homestead Furniture, on the other side of Mt. Hope's main intersection, sits 77 Coach Supply. Here, wood is bent in a time-proven process that has been advanced to meet the needs of modern furniture production. If you are looking at a curved piece of hardwood furniture in the Homestead showroom, chances are 77 Coach Supply had something to do with its beauty and quality construction.
Atlee Kaufman has mastered the art of looking both serious and joyous at the same time. It is the look of a man who has spent the better part of his lifetime devising ways to bend solid wooden planks into the curves, loops and angles that furniture designers need to bring their sophisticated visions to life. He even finds ways to bend solid oak dowels into pretzels to demonstrate the full range of his craft.
You can't really understand the company's name without knowing where it all began. As a young married man, Atlee, a carpenter by trade, began making wooden staves for the Amish buggies his father-in-law made. For those who've never harnessed a horse to buggy, staves are the gently curved wooden shafts that connect the horse to the carriage. The workshop was located on County Road 77 amid the world's largest population of Amish in one location, hence the name 77 Coach Supply. By 1985 the demand for curved furniture parts had eclipsed the need for buggy parts, but the name stayed as well as the commitment to manufacturing well-crafted parts.
Why bending solid wood creates better quality furniture
There are few things more appealing than a curved line along the back or arms of a beautifully designed chair. Furniture designers have long used subtle curves to enhance both beauty and comfort. We have become so used to seeing these graceful curves that we seldom stop to think about how they got there. Certainly trees don't grow in such precise arcs, and you can't force thick dry wood to bend more than a few degrees without cracking.
The bending process
There are three ways to create curved furniture parts. You can either
(1) laminate thin wooden strips together in curved shapes. Of course anything laminated can also de-laminate and exposed laminations are not as attractive as solid edges.
(2) Kerf-cut along the inner surface allowing space to bend the wood back. Of course, this doesn't work if both sides of the part are exposed.
(3) You can steam bend solid wooden planks.
Steam bending yields a more natural and graceful appearance. This process, used in centuries-old classic furniture designs, requires a deep knowledge of wood's natural properties. When wood planks are steamed thoroughly, the combination of moisture and heat "plasticizes" the plank, making it malleable enough to bend. However, if the natural wood fibers are stretched during the process, the planks will crack as the wood cools and dries. Consequently the internal wood fibers must be compressed as they are bent, a seemingly incongruous combination.
A time-proven technique
Coach 77 uses a technique learned from observing industrial-age English wood bending machinery. They place inward pressure on the ends of the wood as it is bent around pre-cut forms. This compresses the fibers so that those along the outer edge of the bend do not stretch.
Atlee remembered seeing an old hydraulic machine at a Pennsylvania auction. When the bidding rapidly passed his target price, his only alternative was to work with a local machine shop to create a similar machine for his growing shop. Today a number of these Variety Benders are hard at work in the front rooms of the 77 Coach Supply factory. They are called Variety Benders because they can bend a wide variety of wood products into virtually any simple curved shape.
- Planks are first arranged side-by-side on thin stainless steel sheets with cast iron ends.
- Hydraulic cylinders push against shanks placed at both ends of wooden planks to create inward pressure. This compresses the fibers to prevent them from stretching. The machines simultaneously bend the planks upward.
- Side-by-side planks, nested within stainless steel sheets, are bent around precut wooden forms that set the proper curve.
- The ends of the stainless steel sheets are then drawn and chained together holding the planks in the proper curve until the wood cools.
- Once the curved and cooled planks are removed from their stainless steel nests, they are placed in racks and taken to heated drying rooms until enough moisture is removed from the fibers to create permanence to the shape. This process alone can take as long as three days and, like any other natural process, cannot be hurried.
Hot Plate bending
A completely different process is used for steam bending gently curved chair backs and delicate Queen Anne bends that first curve one way and then another. Toward the back of the plant we came upon the odd sight of stacked Hot Plate Presses used in this one-step process. They look like giant stacked waffle irons with open spaces where planks of solid oak, cherry, hickory and maple are steamed, bent and then dried in a process that usually takes about two and one-half hours. These parts are then kiln dried giving permanence to the new shape.
Wood bending meets the home gardening revolution.
As we moved through the factory, Atlee steered us to a side room where an older machine had found new life creating gently curved long wooden handles for push cultivators for a company riding the crest of the home gardening explosion. In order to create a strong, mostly straight part, only the handle section is steamed for bending. These handles look like ancient plow handles from the Sears and Roebuck Catalog, but are actually fitted on the hot new thing in green products.
You have to know the wood
Steam bending affects the internal fibers of the wood. The species of the wood, and even where it was grown, will affect how it reacts to the steam bending process. Oak, maple, hickory and cherry are the most popular woods for bending, but each has its own characteristics and regional peculiarities. Poplar, on the other hand, doesn't plasticize well no matter how long it is steamed, so is never used.
Oak bends well since the fibers lie flat and neatly compress together as it bends. Trees grown in central and northern Ohio are slow growing and therefore more stable than those grown elsewhere. However, when making carriage parts, 77 Coach prefers southern-grown oaks since they have more "give" so are stronger when flexed during use.
Cherry is among the most popular woods for furniture and home millwork. However, this softer wood presents some challenges in the bending process. The fibers are both softer and more burled than oak. Therefore they do not fit as neatly together when compressed by pressure from the ends. As a result they tend to mushroom out and bulge at the bend. The best cherry woods for bending are found in central Ohio and east into Pennsylvania. Cherry trees grown in the south and west tend to have gum in the their growth rings creating problems during the steam bending process.
This distinctive wide-grained wood bends well. However, 77 Coach prefers wood from Hickory trees grown in southern states, mainly Kentucky and Northern Tennessee. since they tend to have more plasticity when steamed.
The best furniture-grade Maple trees are from the northeastern states, especially northern Pennsylvania to New York and east. As Atlee told us, "Ohio Maples come in many shades of pink, or even gray." There are both soft and hard maples, but both tend to have a clear grain and fibers that compress neatly making them a good bending wood.
Powering the process
Bending large quantities of wood requires a lot of steam. Until 2008 this also meant a lot of natural gas to fire the large steam boilers powering the system. In that year, Atlee and his crew devised an ingenious way to cut expenses. They installed a waste-burning boiler powered by the mountains of sawdust created when wood boards are cut into planks for bending.
The importance of steam in the entire process places an added emphasis on boiler pressure and Atlee has found that handling the boilers is just as much an art form as bending wood. As an added benefit, hot water pipes were run from the boiler room to heat the adjacent homes of Atlee, and his family.
The state of the wood bending art
Today there are only a few steam bending companies left in America. Those that remain, like 77 Coach Supply, find themselves involved in a wide variety of projects ranging from simple chair arms to fine millwork for homes and businesses. 77 Coach Supply has even been making 16' long wood bows for reproduction conestoga wagons. As we walked through the quiet, gently lit factory, we stumbled upon old carriage and wagon bodies waiting for new bent parts. In one corner were long oak planks bent to form sleigh runners. Everywhere bent wooden shapes lay silently waiting.
77 Coach Supply is now a far cry from the small workshop making staves for the local Amish buggies. The company still makes carriage parts shipped as far away as Australia, but today these parts account for less than 10% of the overall business. The curved wooden shapes made in this plant are now shipped all across America and occasionally to foreign countries, as well. It is comforting to know the traditional wood bending art has found a good home in the middle of America's Furniture Heartland.