This is 10 helpful tips for using a guitar side bending iron. In this guide, I’ll show you several things you can do to make the side bending process much easier, help you learn faster, and make the whole experience a lot less scary. Enjoy.
Bending Wood and Making Guitars
One of the essential processes in making an acoustic guitar is bending the wood that will become the sides. When compared to other types of woodworking, this seems very different. In reality, it’s just another part of the build.
Wood, when placed in the right conditions will bend. It’s a property of the material, and one that you can exploit to make a well bent set of acoustic guitar sites. All you need is a little bit of equipment, some practice, and a belief that you will succeed.
Thankfully the equipment is inexpensive, and you can even make it yourself. Using the equipment is just a matter of practice, and the several tips that are coming up will help you be very successful.
Each one of these is important, and they each cover a different way for you to make the bending process easier, and pick it up much faster. They are all definitely worth your time, and I’ll go into everyone of them in detail starting right now.
Choose the Right Bender for You
One of the most beneficial things you can do in the beginning is choose the right bender for you, because it will make a big difference. Now because I’m not you, you’re going have to think about this a little bit before you purchase or make a guitar side bender.
There are a lot of different ways to accomplish this task, with some of them being a little bit easier than others. The trade-off is that the easier methods are a little bit more restrictive, and the more difficult methods will give you more freedom once you master them.
For example, bending with water and a hot pipe is one of the more difficult methods, but with that one piece of equipment you can make bent wooden sides for just about any instrument you would ever want. In contrast, other methods are easier but more restrictive.
A bending form for example is a pretty darn easy way to bend wood. All you do is get your wood in place, and carefully start cranking and the piece will take the shape of the form. It’s super easy, but you need a new form every single time you make a different shape.
If you only really plan on making one style of guitar, then a bending form may be a good idea. If you are going to do a lot of work, and make several different shapes of instruments, then it’s definitely worth the time to invest in yourself and learn how to bend on a hot pipe.
Having done both, I definitely prefer the hot pipe method. After you do a little bit of practice, it’s actually a lot easier than it looks. You need less equipment, it’s faster, and you don’t have to wait around for the piece to cool down if you only have one form bender.
Watch Videos and Read Tutorials
After you’ve decided on your bender, and before you buy it, watch a bunch of YouTube videos and read tutorials online about that particular bender. Get a really good understanding of the tool, and listen to how actual users talk about it.
This may change your mind and have you look in another direction, but most likely it will assist in reinforcing the beliefs that you already have. Another thing that it will do is show you a lot of the nuances and finer points of using that particular guitar side bender.
This is where the real gold is. The great thing about the internet is that everybody loves to post things and share their experiences. This is awesome for you, because you get to learn from their mistakes, and accelerate your own learning process much faster.
Spend time watching videos and reading tutorials until you understand that bender inside and out. Invest at least a couple days in just watching and re-watching videos that explain the process, show you where the bugs are, and give you the tips you need to be successful.
The videos themselves are not going to make you a good bender of wood. The only thing that can do that is actual hands-on practice. However, the more academic knowledge you have coming into the process, the faster you will learn.
Have the Right Safety Gear
At the same time that you purchase your side bender, make it a point if you do not have it already to purchase the necessary safety gear. This is going to vary depending on the bender that you choose, and you should definitely do your own research.
I use several pieces of safety gear while operating the bender, but you may need more or less depending on your particular situation, so again make sure to invest some time in understanding the safety aspect of this tool.
When bending wood, in general it’s a good idea to have a fire extinguisher nearby. A tool that’s hot enough to vaporize water is also hot enough to burn your garage down. That’s definitely not what you’re looking for, so be prepared in case you need to fight a fire.
Also, safety glasses and leather gloves are a good idea. The safety glasses to prevent any spitting from hitting your eyes as you are bending the wood, and the leather gloves to help protect your fingers if they accidentally contact the hot pipe.
Take a look at what’s recommended by the manufacturer for your particular bender, and follow all of their directions. It’s important to keep yourself safe while operating a side bender, that way you don’t hurt yourself.
Practice With Your Bender
Once you have your bender, it’s time to practice. This tip is really important, and I want to make sure that you fully understand it. Practice means practice. It doesn’t mean start bending an actual set of guitar sides that you would use on a real instrument.
The point of this practice session, and the several that follow is for you to get a really good practical understanding of your side bender. The only way to do that is to get your hands dirty, and start bending pieces of wood in your shop.
Buy several pieces of wood that are already thinned down to the same thickness as guitar sites, and of the same species. If you have the right tools, you can mill this yourself from commonly available boards and save a little bit of money.
Use these practice pieces, and start bending. Follow the instructions from the manufacturer, your books, and videos and tutorials that you watched. Bend all of your practice pieces just like you are bending a real guitar side.
Each time you do, you’re going to get a little bit better. If you need to buy more practice pieces then go ahead and do so before the real thing happens. It’s much better to break a bunch of practice pieces then to break the actual guitar sides that you really need.
Control the Temperature
One of the biggest things that ruins a bending session is temperature. If the temperature is too low, the water will not steam, and the wood will not bend. If the temperature is too high, the water will steam out too quickly, the wood can burn, and it could also crack.
If you are using an electronic bender, the temperature setting will be explained for you, or it will be one setting that you really can’t manipulate. In a case like this you have to work with what you have. In the case of a hot pipe bender, there is more adjustment.
A blowtorch can create hot spots on your pipe, and this can mean certain areas that are way too hot and other areas that are way too cool. It’ll take a little bit of playing around, but you need to adjust that flame so it heats the pipe as evenly as possible.
If you notice that you’re burning your pieces, it’s probably a good idea to turn down the temperature. Also, if you notice that it seems like it’s taking too long to create steam and get a bend going, then you may want to turn the temperature up.
All of this comes from practice, and don’t worry if it sounds intimidating right now. Once you actually start putting into practice, it’ll become really easy to see if your temperature settings need to change, as well as all the other things that practice will teach you.
Heat Enough Wood to Make the Bend
When you’re making bend in a piece of wood, you need to heat up enough length of the wood in order to bend it. This means if there are three or four inches of wood that are going to end up curved, you need to heat up a good portion of that in order to execute the bend.
This is pretty simple, and all you need to do is rock the board back-and-forth. If you look at your contact point on your piece of wood, it’s probably only about a quarter inch wide. That’s not going to heat up very much wood.
Instead, rock the board side to side so that way the iron makes contact with a much wider section of the side than you were bending. This way, it’ll heat up more wood, turn more water into steam, and allow the piece to bend much more easily.
For tighter bends, you don’t need to heat up that wide of a strip of wood. However, for wider and more graceful bends you might have to rock quite a bit, as well as slide the piece from one side to the other as you execute a bend from the beginning to the end.
The tight bends are the waist and the shoulder, and the wide bend is the lower bout. On the wide bend, rock the wood and creep from the waist around to the tail block as you bend. This is actually a fairly easy bend, and a nice relief from the more stressful tight bends in the beginning.
See Also: Practical Acoustic Guitar Making Advice
Move Quickly but Don’t Rush
This is where a lot of new guitar makers run into trouble. The bending process can be a little intimidating, so the tendency is to slow down. In contrast, going too slowly can actually hurt the process rather than help it.
When you make your bends, you need to move quickly so that you can take advantage of the steam in the wood. The super heated steam is much hotter than the water in the wood, and you only get the stem for so long.
Once you get that steam, and the wood starts to go limp, then it’s time to press that bend and set the shape. Waiting or going too slowly when the wood is ready is wasting time and burning the wood.
Over time, you will know what this feels like, and you will be able to press the wood as fast as it can go without breaking it. You will bend your pieces better, faster, and with less burning and cracking too.
See Also: My Guitar Fretboard Slotting Jig
Keep the Wood Wet
Another great tip is to not let your wood dry out. As the iron turns the water inside the wood into steam, it evaporates away. Over time, the wood dries out, and you don’t have any way of creating steam anymore.
At a few places in the process, you need to make it a point to add more water to the wood, which is as easy as spraying some on the piece. This water will soak into the surface, and then you can use it to make more steam.
Dry wood can cause problems, which makes the process harder. These include burning the surface too deeply, and cracking while bending. Both of these are trouble, so make sure to keep your piece moist during the bending process.
Use a Template to Check the Shape
Before you even start, draw out a fill size template of the profile of the guitar sides on a piece of wood. This is your guide, and it’s the shape that you are trying to bend your piece of wood to match.
The template is very important for a lot of reasons. Having it nearby allows you to check your progress against the template as you go. It will also help you make decisions about how to bend the piece, and which area needs more or less bending.
Check your progress against the template often. It’s very important that you bend the piece to match the design, otherwise the guitar will not work the same way that you intended. It’s easy though, just stop and check every once in a while.
Cool the Pieces in the Mold
Once you are done bending one of the sides, and your shape is perfect, you need to place the wood somewhere that will allow it to cool. You also need a place that the wood will not return to the same shape.
Enter the outside mold. Your outside mold is perfect for this part of the process, because it’s the exact shape of the guitar sides. All you need are a few clamps, and you can ensure that your sides will cool without changing shape.
Place your board into the mold, and using clamps, press it against the side profile. The side should fit really well into position, especially if you bent it well. Use as many clamps as you need to get the side right up against the walls of the mold, then allow it several hours to cool and relax.
See Also: Acoustic Guitar Making For Beginners
Bending Wood is Not as Difficult as it Looks
The moral to this post is that bending wood is not as difficult as it looks. From the outside, as someone that has never bent wood before, it can be a little frightening. Like anything else, the first time you do anything there is a bit of worry that happens.
With this process, don’t over think it, and don’t worry too much. It’s just like any other type of woodworking, it just involves a bit of a different process. Once you understand the process, and the techniques, you will be a professional.
The biggest thing you can do to make it a lot less scary is bend for pure practice. Don’t bend actual sides, rather bend wood that could be used as a side, but is purely for practice. Don’t add any pressure to your practice sessions, just bend for pure practice until you get it.
If you do this one thing above all the others, you will get the most impact.
See Also: Practice Like It’s Your Job
Your Action Assignment
Now that you know bending wood is not as difficult as it sounds, and you are packed with ten great tips on bending your sides, it’s time to take action. Maybe you have been stuck on the bending part? Maybe you haven’t started your first build because you were worried about bending the sides?
Either way, your excuses are gone now, and all you have left is a lot of great knowledge and a sure fire way to become good at bending wood. Get out there and make some mistakes. It’s ok. I have a few bent pieces that were made into other things during my practice sessions too.
I actually ended up with a Bubinga mug out of a practice session, so even the mistakes can end up better than you might think. Make it a point to go out and practice. You will be happy you did.
If you have any questions on 10 Helpful Tips for Using a Guitar Side Bending Iron, please Post a Question in the Q&A Forum and I’ll be glad to help. Happy building.
- More than 20 Years Woodworking Experience
- 7 Woodworking Books Available on Amazon
- Over 1 Million Words Published About Woodworking
- Bachelor of Arts Degree from Arizona State University
I receive Commissions for Purchases Made Through the Links in This Post.