This is How to Make an Acoustic Guitar Part Eight – Side Bending Equipment. In this post I’ll introduce you to all the different ways you can bend wood, and give you many actionable tips that will help you bend wood more confidently. Enjoy.
Bending Acoustic Guitar Sides
Cutting wood, sanding wood, and other common techniques are not nearly as intimidating as bending a piece of wood.
In reality, bending wood is really no different then doing any other part of making an acoustic guitar.
It’s just another process, and thankfully a process that you can teach yourself fairly easily if you put in the time and practice.
Like anything, a new process can be scary in the beginning. There are a lot of unknowns, and things that you have to work through in order to be successful. Practice however will make all of these fears go away, and before you know it you’ll be bending sides like a champ.
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Bending Tools Overview
There are a lot of different ways to bend wood. In the beginning, don’t worry as much about with bending method you choose. There are some that are a little easier than others, but in the beginning it’s best to pick one that you feel comfortable with and get started.
If you know that you’re not very good finesse work, and bending seems far more intimidating for you than it does for other people, you might want to choose a bending form. If you like to work with your hands, and you want to save a little money, then try a hot pipe bender.
This type of bender is one of the easiest to come by, but it’s also one that requires the most practice in order to work well. There are even other options as far as form benders go, so in the end there’s a lot of different ways to bend wood, and there’s sure to be one that’s good for you.
The Hot Pipe Side Bender
The most common way to bend acoustic guitar sides with a hot pipe bender. This is a very simple tool, and you can make it with a couple of items that you probably already have lying around in your shop.
This is part of the attraction to this style of wood bending, and that’s because it’s expensive to get the equipment up and running. Literally all you need is a short section of thick walled pipe, a way to hold it, and a torch to heat it.
From there, the hot pipe is used to turn the water inside of your thin pieces of wood into steam, and that allows the fibers to relax and slide past each other. This is how bending occurs, and it’s all thanks to heat, water, and steam.
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You can make a hot pipe bender for a very low price, and have one up and running in your shop in a matter of a couple hours. The great part about the pipe is that you can do nearly any type of bend on its surface.
The downside of the pipe is that it’s going to do exactly what you tell it to do, meaning the learning curve is a little bit higher than some of the other bending methods. That’s fine though, because once you master the pipe, you’ll be able to make any sides you ever need.
With a form bender, you need to have a new side profile, or essentially another machine for every single type of guitar you make. This can get really expensive really quickly. It is a little easier, but there’s definitely a cost involved.
The Electric Side Bender
The step up from the hot pipe bender is the electric side bender. This is still a pipe, but there’s a heating element inside and temperature knob that controls the temperature. The pipe warms up just like the other, but it’s a bit more consistent in the heat.
With the torch bender, you need to have a little bit more monitoring to the hot spots and where the heat is building up. With an electric heater, the heat is a much more even and this means an easier time monitoring your equipment.
There are a number of places online that sell these kinds of benders, and you can find them for a range of prices as well. You can also make your own by ordering a cartridge heater from Amazon, and it’s a fun project.
The Form Bender or Bending Form
Finally, the form bender is a heating method that uses a form that matches the side profile of your guitar. Essentially it either uses heat internally, or heating blankets to allow the wood to bend and take the shape of the profile on the form.
This is by far the easiest method of bending a set of sides. Essentially all you have to do is get everything arranged properly, and then slowly crank down the clamps on the form to hold the piece of wood in place.
Once a piece of wood is fully against the form, you turn off the heat and allow the wood to cool off for several hours. After it comes off the form may need to do a little bit of touching up on a hot pipe, but that will be minimal.
The advantage to a bending form is that it’s the easiest way to bend a set of sides. It’s the fastest to pick up, and the results are good. The downside is that you have to wait several hours to use the pieces, and you may still have to do work on the pipe anyway.
Buying a Guitar Side Bender
Once you know what you want, buying the guitar side vendor is the fastest way to get one into your shop. If you have the money, and you don’t want to spend the time making a bender yourself, then simply shop and buy one.
When you buy your bender, make sure that you look around for a bender that you can trust, and that has good reviews. This is one of those tools that you are going to have for a very long time, so make sure to invest well if you decide to buy.
Because of the amount of time that you’re going over this tool, don’t be afraid of spending a little bit more money. The extra $50 or so might sound like a lot today, but over 20 years it’s going to be very little.
How to Make a Side Bender
The alternative to buying a method of bending wood is to make one. There are hundreds of great plans all over the internet for making different styles of side benders, and you’re sure to find something that fits with your style.
Find a nice set of plans that you can execute confidently. Make sure that when you do so, your builder is thorough, the electric wiring is double checked by someone that knows what they’re doing, and that you’ve done everything really well.
Of all of the different types of benders that you can make, the fastest and easiest is definitely the hot pipe. You can go to a home-improvement store and have a literally everything you need for a very low price, and walk out with the entire bender in pieces.
A couple hours later and a little bit of work, and you will have a fully functioning side bender that you can start using immediately. This is definitely a fast build, and a very easy way to get started bending your acoustic guitar sides.
Teach Yourself to Bend Wood
Once you have a bender, then it’s time to teach yourself how to bend. The first thing you do need to know that it’s not as difficult as it’s made out to be. The second thing you need to know is that all it takes is practice.
Of all the different activities involved in making an acoustic guitar, bending the sides is where most people get stuck. It makes sense, because the operation process is different. However, it’s literally like any other part of making a guitar.
The best way to get yourself through this process is to teach yourself. This is very different from cutting or shipping wood, which you have done before on other projects. Unless you’ve bent wood before, then your skill set is at zero.
Knowing that, you need to set up a method of practicing that will help you build up the skills and the muscle memory necessary to successfully bend your side. It’s easy to do, and all you need to do is make the time.
Practice Consequence Free
I’m a huge fan of practicing. I would even bigger fan of practicing in a way that’s consequence free. How do you practice in a way that has no consequences? You practice for the sake of practice itself, and not with live projects.
Bending your actual acoustic guitar sides is not practice. Even if you accidentally ruined the sides and a had to get another set to bend, that is still not practice. Practice is a completely consequence free activity when you do it right.
The way that you make your practice consequence free is that you do not use any pieces that are destined to be on an actual instrument. The pieces that you bend are all practice pieces, and they have absolutely no value other than that.
Having no value frees your mind to stop worrying about breaking a set of sides that might cost you 50 more dollars to replace. These sides are simply meant for practice, so while you hope you bend them successfully, if you break them it’s not the end of the world.
This is practice for the sake of practice. Bending would on the hot pipe to learn the properties of the wood, the bender tool itself, and the method. The sides have no value to an actual project, they are simply there for training purposes.
Preparing Practice Sides to Bend
Now that you know how to practice without any huge consequences, it’s time to create the pieces that you will use when you practice. I recommend buying a large enough piece of lumber to make several sides from.
Pick a species like mahogany, which is not very expensive, and is rather easy to bend even for a beginner. Buy a piece from a woodworking store that is clear and free of defects, and look for a deal because this is going to be a practice board.
When you get the board into your shop, mill it into thin pieces and then use your thickness planer to get it down to the same thickness of your guitar sites. If you do not have this equipment, pay a few dollars for the wood store to do this process for you.
From a standard 4/4 thickness of wood, you should be able to get three thin pieces that can be practice sides. I recommend figuring out a way to come home with enough wood for six, that way you have plenty to work with and hopefully enough to get through the practice phase.
Normally you wouldn’t cut your sides in multiples of three, because you need two for every guitar. This is the beauty of practice, it really doesn’t matter how many are needed to make a guitar, because these pieces of wood are not going to be used on guitar.
Using a Bending Strap
One way that you can help yourself in the beginning, and even throughout your bending career is to use a bending strap. This is my have to be anything fancy, you can buy one in a store if you really want to.
The bending strap is just a piece of flat metal that is flexible, with a couple of wooden handles at the ends. The point is to wrap the wood on the opposite side of the pipe, which helps support the fibers and also traps the heat and steam.
This makes bending wood a little bit easier, especially for a beginner. Many times, the top of the wood will dry out too fast because the bending action is going a little slow. A bending strap will help hold that moisture in a little longer, and help you successfully complete the bed.
Water and Steam While Bending
Bending wood is much more a function of water and steam then it is of heat. The heat is just the thing that turns the water into steam, and the steam is what really helps the fibers relax and slide past each other as the piece of wood bends.
That being said, you really only need to get your bender hot enough to turn water into steam in a very efficient way. Anything much hotter than that causes problems with burning the wood, and anything lower than that will make the heating process take too long.
You are going to have to experiment in the beginning with the best temperature for your particular style of bending. Though, electric benders that are store-bought will tend to have a setting that is optimal for most cases.
In the beginning, make sure to pay attention to the fact that you are generating steam, and that you are not heating the surface so much that you are burning the wood. Steam is good, but too much heat can cause problems with the process.
Lastly, remember to keep your wood wet. You can’t create steam without water, so once the piece of wood dries out, the bending process slows down. This is where cracking and breaking can occur, so make sure to always watch how much water is on the piece.
See Also: Guitar Building Tips for Beginners
Finding the Best Wood Bending Speed
There is a balance to be had between bending the wood quickly, which can cause cracking, and bending the wood to slowly which can cause burning. Over time and practice, you will feel the wood react to the heat, and you will know exactly what to do.
In the beginning, the best thing that you can do is test the limits of the process during your practice sessions. This means intentionally pushing the wood a little faster than you think you should in order to find the limit for speed and temperature.
Also, try going a little slower than you think you should to see what the effects of more heat can do for your bending process. You might end up finding out through this experimentation that a different speed is actually the right speed.
Essentially what’s happening is the heat is turning the water in the wood into steam, which super heats the wood fibers, and allows the wood to bend. Once this temperature is reached, the wood will bend pretty easily, and pretty quickly.
What you need to do as you are practicing is find that sweet spot of the right amount of time to heat up the wood, and the best way to bend it. You will start to pick this up very quickly as you practice, and before you know it you will bend wood almost like a big piece of paper.
This will only happen however if you test those limits. If you constantly do things the same way, and don’t really exercise the process, you will never really know how to bend each piece the best way. Make sure you experiment as a practice. It’s important.
How to Remove Burns After Bending
In the beginning, you can pretty much count on burning some of your pieces. This is totally normal, because the inclination when you are bending wood is to go slow instead of fast. In most things, going slower is actually better. With bending wood, sometimes it’s not.
In the case of bending your guitar sites, it’s actually better to go as quickly as the wood will allow you to go. This will ensure that you get the bends in place before any of your wood burns, which you’ll have to address later on.
If you do burn the wood a little bit, don’t worry. Most burns are superficial, and they don’t go that far through the actual piece of wood. In most cases, you can use a cabinet scraper or a sanding block to remove the burned sections.
In the event that you really burn the heck out of a piece of your wood, and you end up sanding most of the way through without removing the burn, then unfortunately you will have to bend another set of sides.
In the end however, that’s not really the end of the world. You’ll get a little bit more practice in the process, and you’ll be able to begin again knowing more than you did last time. Work a little bit more quickly to avoid burning, and watch the temperature on your pipe.
The temperature only needs to be high enough to cause the water to steam on the pipe. Anything higher than that is completely unnecessary, and is only making it more difficult to bend your wood fast enough before it burns.
See Also: Bending Acoustic Guitar Sides
Cooling the Sides in the Mold
If you’re bending your sides by hand, one of the easiest ways to cool them and help preserve the shape is simply put them in your outside mold. The mold will retain the shape, and provide a nice place for the sides to cool off.
When the wood is hot, it’s still very bendable. The natural tendency of the piece of wood is going to be to return to its original shape, which is flat. This is obviously no good for a lot of reasons, so you need a way to cool the sides and preserve the sheet you created.
The mold is absolutely perfect for this. Not only is the shape of the mold the exact shape that you want the sides to be, but it’s also very rigid. It has places where you can apply clamps, and a couple of them is all you need to hold the side in place.
Do this for both sides of the guitar, and don’t worry about a little bit of overlap in the head and tail black sections. These little bits that overlap each other will spring right back to flat once you take the pieces out a little later, and they will cause no problems.
See Also: My Guitar Fretboard Slotting Jig
Side Bender Safety
Finally, when dealing with machine that can create enough heat to vaporize water and create the steam that’s needed to bend wood, we need to talk about safety. Dealing with this type of temperature, it’s very easy for a small mistake to be life-changing.
The first and most obvious point is to watch your fingers around the bender. It’s a good idea to wear leather gloves that will help resist some of that heat if you accidentally make brief contact with the hot metal.
Any machine capable of bending wood is also capable of burning your house to the ground. Make sure that you never leave a hot iron unattended and that you turn off and completely cool down your bender before leaving the shop.
The nature of most shops is that there is floating sawdust, and other flammable debris essentially everywhere. This is a recipe for disaster, especially if it makes contact with the bender while you are in another room.
Take every safety precaution possible, and guard your body and your property from harm by being extra careful. Make sure to be safe at all times, and treat your side bender with the respect that it deserves.
See Also: Side Bending Iron
Your Action Assignment
Now that you know so many different ways to bend your acoustic guitar sides, you really need to head out to the shop and give it a shot. There’s no reason not to get started and practice the wonderful art of wood bending.
First thing that you should do is decide on a bending method. If you want to get started the fastest, order something online and it will come to your house ready to use. For those of you that don’t mind a small project, consider making your own tool.
The next thing you need to do is mill yourself some test scraps that you can use for practice, and start practicing. Make these just the same as your sides for a guitar, that way they are the most realistic.
You can even start with pieces of the same length and sickness, but just a little bit shorter than actual guitar side maybe 2 to 3 inches. These will be a little bit easier to bend in the beginning, and you can get the hang of it before moving onto the full-sized pieces.
Bending wood is a lot easier than you might think, and I promise that once you give it a try you will feel the same way.
If you need any help, please Post a Question in the Q&A Forum and I’ll be glad to help. Happy building.
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