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Steam Bending

An ancient skill reworked for the modern world

Steam bending is a traditional process steeped in history. It was once a vital practice, paramount to the production of weapons, tools and water vessels but sadly, with the advance of technology the practice has become less common.

Steam bending is also a low energy and ecological method of manipulating wood with no nasty glues and very low levels of wastage.

With time and a lot of practice Tom has developed his own way of using steam, which has reinvented this traditional process and brought it into the 21st century. The new tools and methods Tom has developed mean he can twist and bend wood to create shapes as freely as you use a pencil for drawing.

Having such a good understanding of the material and the process ensures there are no restrictions on creativity – knowing that anything can be achieved is extraordinarily liberating.

Tom’s bag technique

Creating complex 3D shapes from a single plank of wood is made much easier with Tom Raffield’s bag technique.

Whilst studying at Falmouth College, Tom realised he wanted to be able do more than traditional steam-bending techniques would allow and so he invented an innovative new method of steam-bend wood, which he called the bag technique.

Traditional steam bending sees wood placed in a chamber of steam and then removed into the air to be bent- but this method didn’t allow Tom the time to create the complex shapes he wanted. He developed a new technique using a steam filled bag on localised sections of the wood, enabling him to create bends in the wood whilst it is still being subjecting to the bending effects of the steam.

Being able to bend the wood whilst it is being steamed allows Tom to craft pieces much more slowly and carefully as the time restrictions usually imposed by the rapid cooling of the wood being are no longer a problem.

A jig system with clamps and composite straps is used to actually bend the wood, creating a space to do so within a series of scaffolding bars and thus removing the confines of shaping on a bench.

The bag technique allows the development of far more complex 3D forms than traditional chamber steam-bending, as well as enabling work on localised sections of a piece of wood in order to achieve a high quality finish, with far less risk of splitting owing to temperature change.

Tom said: “This technique is perfect for sculptures and one-off pieces but is very time consuming and therefore not commercially viable for large-scale production. It’s really an art process, enabling the artist to shape wood as you might shape clay.”

If you would like to find out more about commissioning Tom Raffield for a unique commercial project please contact us.