Steam bending by Tom Raffield

Tom Raffield makes furniture and lightening at his workshop in Redruth, Cornwall, using a technique called steam bending, drawing inspiration for his designs from the wilderness, tranquility and natural beauty of his surroundings. Despite being extremely busy, he was kind enough to answer some questions about his work and process.

Can you expand a little on how your surroundings have influenced your work?

I really learnt to appreciate my surroundings. We lived in quite an isolated area growing up and as I grew older I started to see the beauty within the nature surrounding me. I always loved drawing and making things and these abstract shapes and forms I drew or made were either directly or indirectly influenced by what I saw. I am very happy in this kind of environment and this helps me be more creative.

Is steam-bending a commonly used technique? How did you learn it? What are your feelings about these types of techniques and their place in the modern world?

It is a technique I learnt whilst studying for my degree several years ago. It is a commonly used technique, especially in timber/ traditional boat construction and has been around for thousands of years. Michael Thonet mastered and developed the technique over 140 years ago and since then, if anything, it has regressed with the advent of laminating (using toxic glues and expensive tooling).

I was not a trained wood worker but more a designer, and so I started using the process with an open mind and was so fascinated by its potential, I began to look at new ways of using steam bending. The outcome was my own method of ‘localised steam bending’, so with making some changes to the traditional process and some different tooling, I was able to put several bends in one plank of wood and at the same time make the process simpler with higher success rates.

I think that by finding my own way of using this age old process and creating something new with it, it becomes relevant in today’s world. It is such an environmentally sound process with having very low levels of wastage, using minimal energy and producing no toxins like competing processes, it has a definite place in the contemporary world.

It seems to me there has been a shift in recent years that has created almost a “re-interest” in craft, and that there is a value in something that we can trace the origins of in the same way people have this interest in the food on their table. Have you noticed such a trend, and what are your thoughts on craft in general and why it is important?

People want products with more meaning; something made by hand which has taken time and individual. Craft-made products fulfil this desire; they are products which are special as they are made by man and not machine, although there is of course a definite place for both!

Despite being very busy, do you get a chance to enjoy the beautiful part of the world in which you live or are you stuck in the workshop all day? Where are your favourite spots that you would recommend to people coming to your neck of the woods?

I am unbelievably busy at the moment and need to employ another apprentice as I currently spend way too much time in the workshop and office. There are some beautiful spots down here; too many to recommend just a few although far west Cornwall is my favourite with the rugged coast, beautiful sandy bays and small fishing towns such as Mousehole or St Ives.

Can you tell me a bit about the Giant Chair? I saw that it originally came from a special commission… how many of them are now in existence and what kind of people/places have bought them?

As it says on the website it was designed for an old manor house tucked away in Cornwall. We really wanted to use it as an opportunity to push the boundaries with steam bending and see what the thickest piece of solid Oak was which which we could bend around the tightest curve. Because of the amount of best quality Oak and time involved in making the chair we have not sold many because of the price tag; One went to Western Australia, another to Santa Barbara and one to Edinburgh in Scotland all private clients.

You can find out more about Tom and his work on his website.

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