Bentwood is Back in Town!

Have you ever used a piece of furniture and wondered about its history and how it was made? If it is an antique then the answer most likely is, yes! But even modern designs have a certain amount of history behind them and certainly almost every modern piece harks back to construction techniques that have been developed over the years. Bentwood being a case in point.


We are seeing more and more bentwood furniture in our homes and offices these days. Its smooth curves are appealing to the eye and it makes for ultimate comfort. Bending wood has been used as a technique by the makers of the famous ‘Windsor’ chairs since the 18th century, though it was not until the mid 1800’s that this method was fully exploited by Michael Thonet, when he made his famous ‘cafe chair,’ a design which is still used in modern cafes worldwide. So how exactly can you bend wood and make it stay in the desired shape?


The practice of bending wood has been around since the stone age, when thin strips of bark and wood were soaked causing the fibres to swell and soften, so much so that they could be and woven into baskets. This idea was then extended to wood to make weapons such as bows, as wells as barrels, boats and furniture such as the much loved Windsor chair.


The Windsor style most likely has its roots based in 16th century furniture made in the West Country, Ireland or Wales. These chairs were originally made by wheelwrights.


Employing the same specialist methods of soaking and steaming lengths of oak and ash used to make wheels, they were able to create the continuous ‘bow’ backs for these famous chairs.

Windsor chairs are made in pretty much the same way today using almost the same techniques. Split green wood is steamed for about 45 minutes and then is quickly bent around a form on a device called a jig. The jig has holes into which pegs are placed to keep the wood in the desired shape. The ends of the wood are tied to keep the shape and the bowed backs are then removed from the jig and hung to dry or are kiln dried. Today the well-known British brand Ercol still uses this same process in their Princes Risborough factory, in the Thames Valley area long-renowned for furniture making.


Laminated bentwood was developed in the mid-1800’s. Thin layers of wood were glued together in sheets and are then manipulated with steam to produce anything from simple arches, to undulating shapes. This technique can be used to produce spectacular furniture designs with curvilinear shapes and is the basis for many of the more recognisable mid-century modern pieces.


Apart from the aesthetic appeal, why would you bend wood when you might more easily cut the shape out of a solid plank? Well, the answer lies in the nature of wood. In a nutshell, when you saw through a piece of wood you are cutting the grain and creating an area of what is called ‘short grain’, which is weak and prone to fail under strain. Bending wood lengths solves this problem because now the grain length flows with the arc, making a strong, pleasing shape.


With the mid-century modern look very much in vogue, we are seeing a massive revival of these centuries old ways of crafting furniture. At Peter Green we have a huge range of beautiful styles spanning living, dining, office and bedroom, all using bentwood and bentwood laminates in a range of colours and finishes.


Bentwood is back in town!

13th July 2021

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