Fabric Softener for Steam Bending

Fact or legend? Rumor has it that fabric softener makes steam-bending easier. October 26, 2007

I am bending 7/16" thick, 1/2" wide sapelle with a 1/2" radius on one side (bead). It will be going into a 3/16" deep dado that will have a 56" radius. The finished product will be this radius and it will look like an antique style bullnose. After the piece comes out of the steamer and I place it into the bending jig, how long does it need to set? It will be glued into the same piece that I am using as a jig. I assume that I can't just glue it into place while it sets because it will shrink due to escape of moisture as it sets. Also any clue as to how long it will be in the steamer? Or just trial and error? I will be using a wallpaper steamer and PVC vessel.

Forum Responses
(Furniture Making Forum)
From the original questioner:
Never mind, got it done. Cooked the wood for about an hour. Might have worked with less, but I wasn't taking any chances. Work fast! Needed two pieces, cut four for breakage, steamed two at a time, and now I have two left over. Must have done something right, no errors, ding ding.

From contributor R:
Next time you need to steam bend something, put some fabric softener into your water. This softens the fibers of the wood and makes for a stress free bend. Also when dry, it won't interfere with any finish you apply.

From contributor I:
Got anything scientific to back up the fabric softener claim? It's the heat that does the most work. This is backed up by the fact that guitar makers bend the sides of guitars over heated forms with no steam. I'd be willing to bet the fabric softener is one of those urban myths. Where's Gene Wengert when you need him? I bet he's got an opinion on this.

From Professor Gene Wengert, Sawing and Drying Forum technical advisor:
I have heard of using fabric softener diluted in water (some people are very specific and say that it has to be Downy brand) for bending wood. I seem to recall having first seen this in an article in Fine Woodworking some years ago. I do not know if it works, but the idea certainly shows up often. In order for the chemicals to do something to the wood, they would have to diffuse into the wood. Not all species will allow easy diffusion, so the results will be variable.

From contributor L:
Downy does have some affect, but mostly on thinner stock, as it doesn't seem to penetrate fast. Allowing extended time for penetration will result in some discoloration.

From contributor R:
Exactly and precisely what in the world do you mean by scientific? I'm not so sure that NASA would want in on such a low budget test, but perhaps the UN would be interested. I only pass on tried and trued advice to anyone who seeks it. Thirty years ago when I worked for a piano finisher we steamed many a piece of wood and veneer to accommodate difficult curves. Fabric softener was a main ingredient. Too much of it and you get mush. I also learned that if you're having problems finishing a badly siliconed piece of wood, you can wipe it with gas and then strike a match to it. That's not an urban myth either; it's known as "knowledge gained from experience."

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor A:
New fabric softener ingredients vary, but basically it just gets the water and some silicone into the wood. Heat and water both have individual effects on the stuff that holds wood fibers together, allowing the fibers to slip, hence bendable. All three together or individually help to soften wood for easier bending. Iím not sure if water softener dissipates or stops working when the wood dries out, or if too much will turn the wood to mush.