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How to Steam-Bend Hickory Handles

Karren Doll Tolliver

Hickory is a hardwood that lends itself well to steam-bending. Steam-bending exposes a stick of wood to steam for a period of time to make it pliable enough to bend without cracking or snapping in two. Once the wood is bent and allowed to dry, it retains its shape. Therefore, steam-bending is a good technique for making handles for walking canes. Steam-bending requires specialized equipment and several hours. The time required for bending hickory handles depends on the thickness of the wood.

Steam-bend hickory into walking cane handles.

Step 1

Begin with a hickory blank that has not been kiln dried. Green wood is best for steam-bending. If the hickory has dried out somewhat, soak it in water overnight.

Step 2

Insert the hickory blank into a steam box. Commercial steam boxes are available, but they can be expensive. You can make your own out of any container that can withstand high heat and moisture, such as a large-diameter PVC pipe. The steam box must be enclosed, but there must be a hole in one side for the steam to enter and another hole on the opposite side to vent the steam. Steam must flow across the wood inside the box. Clip a thermometer to the steam exit vent.

Step 3

Attach a hose to the steam portal on your steam box. Use a hose designed for use in a car engine. Ordinary garden hose will melt under the heat of steam. Buy car hoses at any auto parts shop.

Step 4

Attach the other end of the hose to your steam generator. You can buy a steam generator made for steam-bending wood, or you can use a kitchen water kettle or a new, empty metal gas can. The water container of the steam generator must be large enough to hold all the water you need to steam the hickory for the duration of the process.

Step 5

Place the steam generator on a heat source such as a heavy-duty hotplate. The heat source must be robust enough to be turned on for hours at a time without overheating the electrical wires or plug. Commercial steam generators have their heat source built in.

Step 6

Turn on the heat source so steam forms and begins to flow through the hose into the steam box and out the other side. Monitor the thermometer to ensure the temperature reaches 212 degrees Fahrenheit and stays at or slightly above this temperature.

Step 7

Steam the hickory at least one hour for every inch of thickness of the wood at its thickest part.

Step 8

Keep a close eye on the water levels in the steam generator’s water container. Refill the water if necessary. Do not interrupt the steaming process.

Step 9

Remove the hickory from the steam box. Immediately bend it into handles around a bending mold shaped for the purpose. Start the bend at one end of the hickory and slowly wrap it around the mold. Clamp or strap the wood to the mold and let it cool completely. When you unclamp it, it will retain the bend. Finish or otherwise work the hickory handle as desired.