Quick Tips — Questions & Answers 6

How to build a steambox

Q: Great article by Michael Fortune on steam-bending. Now, how do I make that wooden steambox?
A: MAKE THE BOX from 3⁄4-in. exterior plywood. Unlike interior ply, it will withstand the steam and last for years. Don’t paint or line the wood, or dampness will lie against the surface, promot-ing rot. The length of the box is up to you. Mine is 48 in. long, but it’s made to accept extensions (see drawing).

Keep the interior of the box to roughly 7 in. wide by 7 in. tall. That’s large enough for several good-size blanks, and compact enough to easily maintain the necessary 200°F temperature. Holes drilled in the top let you check the temperature with a probed cooking thermometer throughout the steaming process.
Attach a hinged access door to one end of the box. A 7-in.-sq. piece of plywood fits loosely into the other end. Sliding it up close to the blanks minimizes the space to be steamed.

Pins inserted horizontally form two “racks” for the wood blanks. In use, the top rack should be loaded first to take advantage of the hottest steam.

The most reliable steam-maker I’ve found is a propane-powered turkey fryer, available at hardware stores. With this setup, 3 to 4 gal. of water will generate all the steam you’ll need for most bending projects. However, until you’re accustomed to the timing of your specific setup, check the water level every 20 minutes. Lifting the lid briefly to check will not affect the steaming process. Nor will adding water when the level is low.

Pressurized steam is very dangerous, so the entire system must have outlets. Vent the box along the bottom so the cooler steam slips out. Use a loose lid on the steam source, with a weight on top that’s light enough to let the lid lift open under high pressure.

When you’re done steaming, leave both ends open and let the air dry out the box.


Make four identical sides from exterior plywood. Build the length to suit your needs but keep the interior space to about 7 in. square. A propane-powered turkey fryer filled with 3 to 4 gal. of water will produce enough steam for most projects.

Cutting veneer with a knife

Q: I would like to try veneering, but I’m put off by how difficult cutting veneer seems to be. Most articles describe techniques that involve special veneer saws, jigs, and fixtures. Must it be that complicated?
A: ABSOLUTELY NOT. In fact, the process is simple.

First, you need a fence. I use a machin-ist’s straightedge (Starrett makes one; it’s sold by GarrettWade), but any flat and straight length of steel will do, if it’s heavy enough to hold the veneer down flat for the cut.

Clamp the straightedge ends to the table, making sure that the veneer extends under both clamps (so the straight-edge won’t bow up in the middle). If a clamp can’t reach the middle of the straightedge, hold that section down with a heavy weight.

The knife must be beveled on one side only, giving you a flat side to ride against the fence. This produces a square edge on the veneer that will butt tightly against the square edge of the adjacent piece.
To begin, place the fence over the veneer so that the waste side is exposed. Make a shallow scoring cut along the entire length of the veneer, going “down” the grain — that is, in the direction that takes the grain toward the fence. This might require switching hands, but it will force the knife against the fence during the cut.

Then, starting a few inches from the exit end of the score, make a through-cut down to the exit end. Work your way up through the rest of the cut the same way. This lessens the chance of splitting the veneer if the knife snags a tough spot.

To crosscut the veneer, start by estab-lishing one straight edge along the grain. Now, using a square, make a scoring cut across the width of the veneer.

Next, as before, work back toward the beginning of the score. However, because you’re cutting across the grain, you need to start delicately. Place the edge of the knife into the last 1⁄4 in. of the score, and with a rocking, paring motion, cut down through the veneer. With the exit end severed, you can make the rest of the cuts without fear of tearout.

Cut with the grain first. Start with a shallow score down the length of the veneer, keeping the flat side of the knife against the straightedge fence. A steel weight holds the middle of the fence down, while clamps secure the ends. Finish the cut in stages. Starting a few inches from the back end of the score, push the knife through the veneer. Then cut through in a series of short cuts, working up to the front.

Square up for the crosscut. With one edge of a carpenter’s square on the newly cut edge, the other serves as the fence for the crosscut score. Next, keeping the square in place, cut gently through the veneer at the back end of the line. Then follow the same procedure used to cut with the grain.

Plywood workbench top

Q:I would like to build a top for my workbench with layers of plywood. I’d also like to install benchdogs. What type of plywood will work best for this situation?

A. three layers of 3/4-in.-thick plywood are a good choice for a strong, stable benchtop. Choose a plywood with no voids and as many layers as possible, such as Baltic birch. Place the top sheet upside down, and glue and screw the middle sheet to it using lines of 1 and 1⁄4-in. Spax or deep-threaded drywall screws sunk flush with the surface. Locate these screws carefully to allow the third sheet to be screwed down and the dog holes to be drilled.

Surround the top with a maple or other solid-wood edge, at least 3⁄4 in. thick and fastened to the plywood with the same type of screws. Miter the ends of the edging to give it a crisper, more pro -fessional look.
Making square holes in ply-wood is difficult, so I suggest using cylindrical benchdogs. The most common sizes require 3⁄4-in. or 1-in. holes. Chamfer the holes at the top to minimize the risk of chipping.

Triple-thick plywood top. Three layers of 3/4-in. Baltic birch make a hefty workbench top. Maple strips attached with coarse-threaded screws give the top a splinter-free, solid-wood edge. Holes for round benchdogs are drilled, then chamfered at the top.