Wood steaming

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I’ve always been driven by the desire to create something unique, which makes people question the concept of how a product should conform, especially in terms of aesthetics.

With a background in product design and sustainability, I have always loved products made from natural materials, particularly those created out of wood.

But it was only when I began to experiment with the process of steam bending, I realised how much could be done using the material. Frustrated by the constraints of traditional steam bending, I developed my own way of working using complex 3D forms for solid wood.

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Since then, I have never looked back and am passionate about the material and techniques I use. This focus has helped carve a completely new aesthetic with wood, competing with the newest and most advanced materials of the 21st century.

It is not just the potential and possibilities the steam bending process offers which are beneficial. The concept is an age old tradition and is essentially a low tech method using steam to heat and plasticise the wood. Minimal energy is required and no nasty glues or toxins are needed or emitted.

In terms of sustainability, it is about as green as you can get. It also avoids having to dry it in a kiln and stabilise the wood beforehand, as the steam bending does this at the same time.

All our timber is sourced locally from sustainable managed forests near our workshop. There are so few stages involved from the tree to the finished product, the carbon footprint of our pieces is very small.

Through my own business I now have a range of furniture and lighting designs, which are handcrafted at our workshop in South West England, to sell to various private and commercial clients across the world. We also offer a customised product to suit a particular location.

Initially, I struggled to get the business off the ground because the products and service we deliver are unique and niche. I remember my first job was a wine bar in London.

We installed a selection of pendants and the response was fantastic. It has been like a snowball effect ever since and has demonstrated to me the power of ‘word of mouth’ marketing.

Although we have been lucky enough to receive a number of awards for our products, including ‘Best Pendant Light 2011’ for the Pendant No.1 and Flock Light at this year’s Lighting Design Awards, it is mainly through recommendations and reputation on which I build my business.

We have supplied furniture to the Dorchester Collection of Hotels, London, Tommy Hilfiger, Amsterdam and our lighting to The Tiara Resort Hotel and Residences, Palm Jumeirah, Dubai, The Aldo Zilli Green restaurant, London and The New Waterfront Hotel, Stockholm.

My most unusual project to date is the one I am doing now, a seven metre diameter Giant Kingfisher nest with huge sections of steam bent oak circling three, two metre high stone eggs.

The fantastic thing about a project like this is, not only will it look striking and have a profound visual impact as a piece of sculpture but, children can climb and interact with it.

If I had to offer any tips to someone who wants to break into the profession I would say focus on the things you are good at. You can outsource and use the expertise of other people to help you create a high quality finish, but you can never substitute your own passion and drive.

Obviously, this is not always possible when you are starting a new business with a small cash flow, but don’t be afraid to ask questions and seek advice. At the beginning, the tasks ahead are overwhelming.

It is crucial to stay focused and try not to do too much. Concentrate on developing, making and taking one thing at a time to market and do it properly.

Tom Raffield is the owner of Tom Raffield Design. Visit www.tomraffield.com

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