Bentwood Ring v0.8

A few weeks ago “bentwood rings” started showing up on my Pinterest feed amongst the usual fare of woodturning and off-grid power systems (that recommendation engine knows its business). I’d been thinking vaguely about wooden rings for awhile, so went down the Internet rabbit hole to see what was up. There’s a ton of good stuff on YouTube, but this step-by-step guide was my favorite.

Bonus shot of the silicon ring Lara got me !

Bentwood rings are made by wrapping a very thin bit of wood (think veneer or shavings) around a form, gluing the overlapping layers together with CA (aka “Krazy”) glue. This basically creates plywood, with the grain running in circles around the ring. A bit complicated, but much stronger than a ring cut from solid wood, which inevitably has narrow bits with perpendicular grain that snap easily. Of course, all that glue doesn’t hurt the stability either.  

Most online tutorials use purchased wood veneers, and you can get some great looking stuff that way. But one of the main reasons I love to build with wood is that I can know exactly where it comes from — material I’ve harvested myself, from a place that has meaning to me. So I chose the shavings method, starting with a branch from one of the beautiful maple trees in our Bellevue yard.

The end result isn’t an unqualified success — there are clear flaws in the finish and it’s a bit bulkier than I’d have liked. But it was a ton of fun to make, and with some practice I think I’ll be able to get it right. So I’m calling this first attempt “version 0.8” which leaves me room to take another shot. Lots of lessons to talk about!

Sourcing and forming the shavings

The first step was to secure the maple branch (green, about a foot and a half long and one inch in diameter) in my bench vise and use my new spokeshave to first flatten it out and then pull off some long curls. It’s important to keep these as even as possible so that they’ll wrap neatly — shaving is easy and fun, so take a bunch and then pick out the best. They should be thin but not translucent, and wider than the final ring will be, to account for splitting at the edges.

If your spokeshave starts to “bounce” or catch as you cut, try reversing direction — you always want to be cutting “downhill” so that you’re not bumping the blade into end grain. This is a really neat tool and just super-satisfying to use when it’s cutting cleanly.

Use medium-grit sandpaper (like 240) to smooth out any bumps or nicks in the shavings. Then sand a shallow bevel into each end so that they taper off to almost nothing. Both of these are to ensure that the layers wrap together as closely as possible to prevent crappy-looking glue pockets.

You’ll want to wrap the shavings against their natural curl — honestly I’m not sure that this matters, but it makes the smoother side of the cut face out and that’s how “they” say to do it. Your shavings may be flexible enough to just wrap them as-is, but I chose to soak mine for about fifteen seconds in hot water, loosely roll them in a loop against the curl, tape them in that position and leave them overnight. This reversed the curl so that the actual glue-up took slightly less manual dexterity.

Making the blank

Next up was wrapping and gluing the shavings into the ring blank. Find something round that is just slightly smaller than the diameter of the ring you want to make (sanding to fit is easier than trying to build up layers of finish inside) — I used a socket from my toolbox wrapped with Teflon plumbing tape. The Teflon worked OK, but next time I’m going to try plain old Scotch tape which seems like it’ll absorb a bit less of the glue. I’m also going to try a stepped ring mandrel instead of the socket, just to take some guesswork out of the sizing.

I used Starbond thin CA glue for this step, which seems to be pretty standard. First, wrap the shaving once as tightly as possible around the form. Add plenty of glue to about a quarter inch bit of shaving and then press and hold until it sets, about ten seconds or so. Soak the next quarter inch with glue, press that bit down, and keep repeating this until you’ve wrapped around the from three or four times (or a little bigger, whatever you like). Don’t be stingy with the glue, you really want it to get into the wood fibers.

Getting the wrap finished takes a bit of finger gymnastics and despite using vinyl gloves I ended up with glue all over my hands — ah the price of art. Do your best to keep the wrap even and flat so that there are no visible pockets of glue. Secure the wrap with some masking tape, drip in a little more glue from each edge, and let it cure fully — overnight should be more than enough.

Shaping and Sanding

sanded but unfinished

This part was the most fun for me. After twisting the ring off of the form, I used a thin pull saw to cut off the rough edges and my spindle/belt sander to clean up the inside and outside of the ring. I found a dowel to hold the ring securely on the lathe and then shaped the ring to what I thought was a good profile (turns out it was a little too bulky, oh well).

From there it was all about sanding through the grits — 120, 240, 400, 600, 800, 1000. I did the same on the inside of the ring by hand, which wasn’t nearly as mind-numbing as you’d expect. The surface area is small so you only need a couple of minutes with each one; I use “one pop song per grit” as my rule of thumb.

I was really pleased with the ring at this point. A little large, but the grain was quite pretty and the ring felt strong and smooth.

Finishing it Up

The last step was to put a glossy protective finish on the ring. Turns out that the most common finish is … wait for it … even more CA glue. Because I was worried about the ring sticking in this step, I bought a one-inch HDPE rod and shaped it to fit the ring (CA glue doesn’t stick well to HDPE). In the end, though, it was pretty easy to keep the glue from dripping off of the ring, so that probably wasn’t necessary.

The technique here was to get the ring rotating on the lathe at its slowest setting (about 45 rpm), apply a drop of medium-thickness CA glue to the ring, and use a toothpick to spread it over the surface, making sure to reach the edges. Let that drop cure, and repeat until you like the look of the finish. The same approach works for the inside of the ring, but since I didn’t have an easy way to lathe-mount the ring with the inside exposed, I just rotated it in my left hand while applying and spreading glue with the right. It worked just fine.

But here’s where I really messed up. First, and I could really kick myself for this, a tiny bit of black HDPE dust was left on the mounting rod after shaping it, and a couple flakes got stuck in my finish. Tiny flakes, but they look like bits of dirt — infuriating. The bigger issue is that I added too much finish with each step (2-3 drops rather than 1), and didn’t let it cure sufficiently between coats. The end result is quite a bit of clouding and a few bubbles deep in the finish. Bummer.

Forging ahead, I re-sanded the ring through the same grits plus 2000 and 3000 at the end, then buffed it out with a plastic polish and buffing wheel. The surface is beautiful, glassy and strong, but the imperfections underneath are still quite apparent. Ah well, that’s why it’s version 0.8.

Next time will be better! I took some red alder shavings from a fallen tree at the Whidbey beach and will have another go in the next week or two (and will get some better in-progress pictures). There are some great advanced techniques to try as well — adding inlays, combining different types of veneer, and so on. There is always something new to learn and try. Hope you’ll give it a shot, and please let me know if you do.