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How to Bend Wood

…or J is for Jack

Working on the boy bedroom refresh for my son, Jack. I wanted to add some decor that would be unique for him and fit in the industrial “gaming” theme. A big marquee-style J seemed fun, but metal edges can be sharp. I figured I could use thin wood strips…. but J isn’t a straight letter. Researching how to bend wood was a bit overwhelming, so this is how I did it, if you want to give it a try.

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The Letter Build

The first thing I needed for this project was a base for the letter. I wanted it to be thick enough to be able to secure the strips around the outside and fairly lightweight. Wood is an easy medium so I grabbed a leftover piece of 1/2″ plywood.

piece of plywood leaning against a wall in a workshop setting

I needed to get the letter to the piece of wood while maintaining the proper proportions. (and not risk leaving this to my sometimes shaky free-hand drawing). A tracing projector is perfect for this. Wanting a simple J, I used the font Helvetica Neue. I printed it on a piece of paper at just under the 4″ maximum size and placed it under the projector. Turning off the lights displayed the letter outline on the piece of wood.

Letter J reflected onto a piece of plywood leaning against a wall

Next I traced the outline with a pencil and turned the lights back on.

letter J traced with a pencil onto a piece of plywood.

Using my Ryobi table saw, I cut the wood close to the letter, and then used my Ryobi Scroll Saw to cut along the lines made with the pencil.

letter J cut from a piece of plywood

Staying a bit outside the line gives you room to touch up. You can easily take some material away. it’s a bit more complicated if you need to put it back.

close up of imperfections in the cut

The little spaces left, were easily touched up using the drum sanding attachment of a Ryobi Cordless Rotary Tool.

When the shape was right, I flipped it over to add some thickness to the letter. Adding 3/4″ plywood scraps to the back with glue and then using brad nails to secure them from the front was quick and easy.

scrap wood blocks being added to the back of the wood letter to support the wood strips that will be added later

I added other supports in the places I knew would get the most stress when attaching the bent wood. (Oops- I forgot to take one during the process. This picture is after it was finished.)

back view of the finished letter showing where the wood blocks were added.

Then I flipped it over and added scraps of Aspect’s self-stick Distressed Metal Tiles in Bronze Relic.

wood letter with Bronze Relic distressed metal tiles from Aspect added to the front.

Now is where the “fun” begins.

How to Bend Wood Trim

Using a table saw, I cut strips of 5 mil flooring underlayment to about 1.125″ wide. I left them long so I would have room to work, knowing I could always shorten them later. The straight sides would be easy, but along those curves, the wood needs to bend and not snap. Clamps would hold them in place as I went, but moisture was the key to the process. Being impatient, I didn’t want it to take days to work. Heat + moisture is faster so steam was the way to go.

The first clamp for the wood strip was placed just before the curve started. I held the steamer wand right next to the wood to really let it soak in.

close view of outside edge of the letter J and steamer head in process of how to bend wood

Make sure you get both sides. As the steam is doing its thing, gently push on the wood strip to bend it towards the letter. if it starts to resist, or you hear cracking, pull back a bit, and steam some more.

clamp on curve in place on outside edge of letter as steamer is used to show how to bend wood

When the wood strip would bend enough to reach the next block, I would attach another clamp and keep going.

steamer on other outside edge of letter J with clamp in place in wood bending process

The process isn’t quick. I managed to get the outside in place in about 90 minutes.

letter J with outside edge wood strip bent and clamped in place waiting to dry.

This was the easy part because the curve is pretty wide and slow. I let it sit overnight to dry. The next morning, I pulled it all off and had this:

outside edge wood strip after overnight drying period

I probably pulled it off too early. Hey- it was still bent! Had I left it for a few days to dry, it would have stayed closer to the actual shape. No matter, “most things can be fixed in the finishing process” is my philosophy for this project.

The inside of the J took longer. It wasn’t really possible to hold it and secure it as I went so I ended up steaming and bending little by little until I got the curve tight enough to slip into place. I may, or may not have snapped several “test” pieces in the process of being impatient.

clamping process for inside edge of letter J

This time I let it sit for a few days to make sure it was good and dry. I did not want to have any issues getting that strip back in place after painting. The result was much better when I took it off this time.

wood strip from inside edge removed after drying for several days

See that broken piece of wood at the top? My foot caught it as I stepped over it walking into my shop one day. Luck was on my side at that moment. It snapped at EXACTLY the point it needed to be trimmed for the edge. Crisis averted- I was grateful not to have to start the interior piece over.

Finishing

I took the two strips outside and gave them a solid base coat of Canyon Black spray paint.

wood strips on gravel driveway after spray painting

Once the strips were dry, I began the assembly process. I used a Ryobi brad nailer, 5/8″ brad nails, and Loctite Power Grab adhesive for attachment. I would place a bead of adhesive along the 1/2″ edge of the plywood and also along the wood support strips as I came to them. Then I would nail the wood every 3-6 inches or so, then use more clamps to hold the strips in place. Letting it sit clamped together for at least the adhesive open time (about 15 mins) is ideal. I left the letter for about an hour to be sure everything was good and tight.

close up of edge of letter J after glue up and nailing. Held in place with clamps until set.

Trimming up the sides to be flush was easy with the Ryobi rotary tool and sanding drum attachment. Next, I added to straight pieces at the top and end of the J, then covered the metal with Frog Tape. After a quick finish sand with 400 grit, I did a final coat of spray paint to polish it up.

letter J covered in frog tape and after the final coat of paint.

Peeling off the tape had the added bonus of cleaning up the metal from the build process as well.

letter after finish painting. Ready to be hung up

Display

I took it up to Jack’s room to show him- where he promptly leaned it against the wall as I was painting the wall edges…. this kid has a death wish.

letter made using how to bend wood leaning on a partially painted wall

See those scuff marks? After my experience with the new Behr Scuff Defense in the closet makeover, I wanted to do everything I could to fend them off in here as well. So I had the paint custom mixed to my favorite gray- Filtered Shade by Valspar.

Once the walls were dry, we played around with how to hang it up. This is the angle he chose:

Letter J hanging on a wall tilted backwards
letter on wall in boys bedroom hanging over a small leather sofa.

Jack is a quirky one- much like his mom.

His room is starting to come together. With only paint and one piece of decor, it already looks fresher in there. Now when you walk in, the first thing you see is this:

full view of the wood trimmed metal letter J hanging on the wall over a leather loveseat. WIth a copper topped black side table

Next time I’ll show you why I had those leftover pieces of metal tile and what I did with the bulk of them.

Well, what do you think? Now that you know how to bend wood, what projects do you want to try?

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1 Comment

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    Metal Tile Wall in a Boy's Bedroom - Saved by Scottie
    May 11, 2020 at 9:33 PM

    […] Part 1 is Boy bedroom refresh and Part 2 is How to Bend Wood […]

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