Steambending Snowshoe Frames

Thinking about what defines ‘shokunin spirit’ it can give pause. I’ve recently been enjoying the work of printmaker/carver David Bull, who tells the story of meeting wood block carver Ito Susumu:

I’m thinking of the exchange where David asks Ito how he feels about having to carve the same image so many times in his career. Ito tells David that he’s just a hobbyist, because he carves what he wants. I guess my point is that when opportunity knocks, go ahead and do the work that is asked of you.

Which brings me to snow shoes… I’ve been commissioned for a couple pairs. Of course, the only answer when asked if such or such a thing can be done is, “Hell yah, do that all the time, haha.” I’m looking forward to getting back to a more daiku-centric work, joinery and the like, but its winter and snowshoes/snowshoe furniture will sell well up here in the mountains.

Supposedly in the mail on its way to me from Japan are a hitachi chain mortiser and hollow chisel beam mortiser bought at auction from Yahoo Japan. I’m excited, super excited. The chain mortiser, 6000 yen, really? But it costs about $300 dollars to get something that heavy shipped over, lol.

So I  started with a book, “Building Wooden Snowshoes & Snowshoe Furniture” by Gil Gilpatrick.

There’s a lot of different skills that go into making a pair of snowshoes: steambending, weaving the webbing, and the leather bindings that hold the shoe to your foot. I was doubtful of finding straight grain white ash that would bend successfully, so that’s the first challenge I’ve taken on, everything else will follow more or less easily.

Developing the pattern from the book was the first step, fairing the curves with a bent piece of kumiko. Damn useful stuff that kumiko.

The pattern represents the inside edge of the snowshoe frame, and is used to lay out the bending form.

Snowshoes come in pairs, so the formwork is double sided.  The bend is one of double curvature at the toe, sweet and smooth.

I decided to go the wood route for a steam box. My setup is just simple things that I had lying around, with a large tea pot for my boiler and a rubber tube to transmit the steam to the middle of the steam box where the bend in the frames is tightest. In addition there are dowels along the length of the box that hold the staves off from the bottom so that the steam can get to all sides of the piece. I should have pre-soaked the frame pieces overnight, the first piece came out at two hours feeling stiff and like the steam wasn’t evenly distributing in the box. I cracked open both of the ends of the box so that a little steam escaped from both ends, it seemed to help.

The frames are nine foot long and shaped for the bend from their own pattern, then cut on the bandsaw and smoothed. One of these days I’m going to make a convex spokeshave for smoothing inside radiuses, but until then my hand scraping card works adequately.

Steam bending takes practice…I had an assistant to help as well.  But we were too slow the first time and made numerous small errors. The first stave cooled too much and failed in numerous places. After a few adjustments we tried again. Success! Or close enough, haha. Thankfully I saved the best Ash for the next time.

Where the upturn of the toe was unsupported by metal strapping I got a little split on one side, but its shallow enough that it will be sanded off I think. In steam bending the softened wood compresses easily, but still can fail in tension. The bend for the tip of the toe has support to keep the bending in compression, that was the easy part. Getting it around the rest of the form, especially at the tail, was harder.

I can see a couple of places where more wedges are needed to push the wood to the form. All together, I expected failures the first time around, but it was really exciting to see the wood take shape! I don’t want  to be the idiot hopping around on one snow shoe, so I guess I’ll have to try again and again until I get the hang of things.

The sides of my steam box cupped a bit, haha. But the joinery held together and swelled steam tight. I’ll try again next week when I can get an extra set of hands. In the mean time its on to sourcing the nylon for the webbing and other assorted parts and pieces, stay tuned.


4 thoughts on “Steambending Snowshoe Frames”

  1. Oddly enough I just went snowshoeing the other day for the first time, up a mountain with the outdoors club, gotta say I’m going to stick to Nordic skis and still need to work on my fear of heights.

    Steambending is an awesome technique, using it to make parts for a canoe in a boatbuilding course here. Opens up a lot of possibilities. Have you seen the ski-making video from Northmen’s youtube channel? Really old-school techniques, filmed in the 70s.

    1. Wow, sounds like you’re doing some fun work these days! I watched the ski-making video you mentioned last night, really great work with an axe, thanks for mentioning it. Using steam bending for a canoe is really taking things to the next level, lots of beautiful curves.

  2. So, a professor is selling ash for a dollar a board foot. Picked out the boards with the most quartersawn grain I could find, me and a friend from boatmaking are planning on making some snowshoes now.

    Any luck on sourcing the nylon? One online guide said to use paracord, if nylon can’t be found that might work.

    1. That is so excellent that you’re studying boat making! Have you run across Douglas Brooks stuff? I was able to find the nylon from an online store, Country Way’s they have lacing kits as well as just flat braided nylon by the yard. I’m pretty sure its meant for some kind of electrical cord sheathing application, the stuff is great! I bought 1/4″ and 1/2″ widths, I also got a bit of fluorescent nylon masons line for edging the toe and heel sections. I’ll write about it in another post real soon. My back is so sore from being bent over the snowshoes weaving the lacing for hours and hours. It sucks so hard to have to pull apart your lacing back to square one because of a small mistake! The book I have on snowshoe making suggest just using different sizes of nylon masons line. I hope you like my next post, I’m getting a real boatbuilding vibe myself of late.

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