Tuesday, April 5, 2016

BentWood rings (aka, yes you can glue your fingers together)

Welcome to the world of bentwood jewelry, 

By laminating several layers  of veneer around an appropriately sized form you can create rings that are unique, strong, attractive with a wide variety of colours, grain patterns and embellishments possible

One of my first rings had a piece torn out by aggressive use of the dremel so I cut the hole bigger and inserted a piece of shell.  Even mistakes can teach you something.

Bentwood is a relatively simple process but it does take some time and planning as it requires a bit of work over a number of days instead of an afternoon project.   The best thing you can do is start a score of them at once because the early steps take little more time for 20 than one.

This seems like a lot of work to  when you could just drill/bore the center out of a solid slab of wood to make a ring, bangle, one of those horrid spacers for the giant hole in your ear lobe etc.  The major difference between the two techniques is a drilled ring won't have the  the continuous run of wood grain to make it strong,, an average ring made with 3 layers of veneer is very hard to deform by compression between finger and thumb.  While you could squeeze and break it in a vice or  channel locks  the average non gorilla like person would be hard pressed to accidentally destroy their ring.  Scaling the technique up to  bangle size would requires 4-5 layers of lamination to hold this strength but it would still be more resilient than many plastic, jade, glass bangles I’ve seen.  When a solid piece of wood is turned into a ring/bangle the grain is not continuous and be as short as a few mm wide, definitely a ring you could easily break by striking or squeezing,  It could even just dry out and crack.

Of course that’s not to say you can’t bash your hand into something and take a chip out of bentwood ring but I expect most people wearing these are more dainty and lets klutzy than I am. I’m also not likely to take it off when doing rough work in the garden, shop or garage.   I do take it off for showers and dish-washing but not much else.  I have these rings in several colours but the one I wear most often seems to be holding up fairly well, that said I’m starting to put more layers of CA glue on the inside of all my rings as the constant wearing seems to be thinning the inner finish far more than the outer.

Just a few of the woods I received, some work, some don't and many weren't labeled by species so I sell my rings by colour not wood type.. "what kind of wood is this?"  "Brown with spots." 

Ok so you're hooked, the first thing is find some veneer, you can buy a sample pack like I did at Lee Valley or some other wood working store and have enough sheets for several thousand rings (what the hell was I thinking?) or with a nice piece of wood and a good carpenters plane you can make your own shavings which will work just as well so long as you can make the long enough and a consistent thickness

As I don’t always wrap and glue the veneer perfectly straight I generally cut my strips at least 1-1.5 cm wide so I have plenty of leeway to sand my mistakes out. With practice you can eventually save wood but with the glut of veneer I have now I’m not really that concerned about it.  Cut your veneer with the grain using a good straight ruler,  a hobby knife, or one of those mini  pizza cutters things they use for crafts or even an office surplus guillotine.  When using a blade  make several shallow passes rather than hack through the wood in one cut so you have less chance of slippage from your straight edge and so you cut rather than tear the fiber in the wood.

Don't tell my wife where her biggest roast pan went

Next you find a container to soak your veneer strips in, many will say 2 hours of soaking is enough but I find a day or two works better and I’m even experimenting with boiling them for an hour or 2 then letting them sit.  If you find a type of wood you particularly like (the unlabeled black wood in my sample kit) but you find it hard to work with you can always experiment with an Alkali solution similar to many furniture manufactures use for bending wood,, that said I’m not too keen to playing with Caustic Soda in my basement but I might try it outside come summer. If you get a big selection of woods like I got in my sample pack you'll soon find that some were too thick and needed sanding down, some are either too brittle , have very short grain which won’t bent too well and some might even have burl hoes.  Trial and error time but remember to sort them into piles of ,,” good”,  “workable”, “needs to be sanded thinner” and “not suitable , AKA find a different project”   Trying the same wood 3 times only to find out it sucks ,, Sucks..

Once you have thoroughly  soaked your veneer you can wrap it around a doweling that’s roughly ring size and tape it down to dry.  Once dry the veneer will be in a coil already very close to the right curve for your project.   If you find a wood that is still brittle when you try to wrap it you might need to work it a bit.  Add a little tension and pull the veneer around a partial radius of the dowel  much like you’d curl a piece of ribbon when gift wrapping..  Keep stressing and pulling the veneer over the dowel with increasing bend until it’s becomes more pliable.   This worrying can break or release tight fibres and while it may  take some time you can sometimes soften woods you’d otherwise not be able to use.. think of it like that note or piece of paper you folded so many times it became like cloth instead. 

Give them a day or two to dry, take the tape off and  toss your veneer blanks into a bin, from this point the work becomes less assembly line and you might decide to complete one project at a time

Next you need a form to wrap the veneer around for gluing,, I’m sure there are many things you could use, me I’d like to have a bunch of exactly sized forms turned on a lathe, in reality I’m using several sizes of dowel which I tape up with green painters tape to make  the dowel pieces a variety of sizes.   Generally I make from size 5 to 10 by  half sizes.  Since most of my rings have been  for ladies , sizes 5 to 8 would be fine for 90% of customers.

The trickiest part is the lamination.  
1. you need to roll the strips evenly so you don’t end up with a ring  that's twice as wide as the strip.

2. You need to apply enough pressure that you don’t end up with voids in the bonding,  you will not always notice these until you start sanding and find a space between layers

3. You should sand both ends of the veneer strip, 1/2-3/4 inch so they gradually thin enough they transition smoothly when glued down,, you can glue and sand latter but pre-sanding makes it easier, especially if you are going to blend two colours by layering two different wood strips.

4.  You need to judge the number of wraps and overhang of the two ends so ensure the ring is approximately the same thickness all around the ring.  (I suffer here)

5. You must use enough glue , generally a quick setting super glue aka CA (
Cyanoacrylate) to bond the piece but not glue it to your dowel, desk, fingers, etc.   (and yes I’ve done it all.)  (Don't bother with latex gloves,, the glue melts them)

Yes these glues set quickly but it pays to take as much time as you have to ensure your ring starts wrapping straight, I glue the portion of the veneer facing up while I push and roll against the bench to avoid glue voids, I progress in ¾ to 1 inch sections, glue, roll, glue roll until it's complete.  You want full coverage with the glue but no leakage or soaking right through like some woods allow.    After a minute to set I push the ring off the dowel, sometimes I must really push hard or even use a small hammer and screwdriver and top it off.  Occasionally you destroy a ring you that you can't get off without it ripping apart , other times it comes off clean or with just a little green tape on the inside of the ring to be sanded off.   Of course you may turn out to be a hell of lot more careful or precise than me and won’t have these issues.
While you need these veneer strips to be dry or the glue will go cloudy and set almost instantly,  if the wood is too dry the glue won’t set at all.  If I’m using veneer that was I coiled and dried many days ago I often wipe the wood with a damp sponge and then dry it off with a dust free towel.. That little bit of moisture will make all the difference between a 20 second bond to 5 minutes later your hand is cramping and it’s not set yet.

At this point you have your blanks ready to sand.  Start with the two sides making the ring straight with an even width on the entire diameter.    I generally use the bench sander to take the bulk off and then proceed to use sandpaper tacked down to the work bench..   The bench sander is very aggressive so  use a light touch and keep your finger off of it.   When you start to do the finer work on the bench a fine sand paper and a figure 8 motion works best to give you a nice even ring, many people on the web only use hand sanding but the lucky ones use a lathe to cut the rings from an over sized  blank.  

At the next stage use can use pin files, a dremel or more sandpaper to smooth and shape the edges,  while finishing the top and inside with progressively finer sand paper. Your goals are smooth, even and the correct size,, good luck with that. 

The final stage is to finish the ring.. While you could use wax, wood sealer, or resin, most people simply use the same CA glue used for the lamination  Apply multiple light coats with lint free rag and give it  a find sanding between coats until you build up a nice finish.   You could even go with wet sandpaper, brass or steel wool and eventually a supper fine sanding to finish.  In my case I polish with blue compound on a dremel pad but the cleaning and buffing I generally do by hand as the heat from a clean buffer pad on the dremel actually heats up enough to mar the finish.

Make sure to seal all the edges too not just the flat surface, the leading edge of the ring is where you'll take the most dents.   Don't attempt to seal the entire ring at once, you'll just end up gluing the ring to yourself or a tool, do inside and outside layers separately, it drys fast you can wait.

In this pic you can see the difference between the inside unfinished and the outside with only 2 of it probable 5 coats.

A selection of Bentwood Rings

Once you get confident you can even set a stone (as above) or attempt an inlay with a different woods,  crushed stone, glitter or (as below) some sterling wire.

Give it a try , or if you know me personally buy one please
sorry kind of a long post!

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