Introduction: Bent Wood Rings

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Wood rings are beautiful.  They feel warm and have a lovely sheen when finished properly.  They tend not to be very durable, though.  Often they crack along the grain after continued wear.

Bent wood rings address this problem.  Made from very thin layers of wood wrapped with the grain running all the way around the ring (instead of across or through), these rings can stand up to quite a bit of pressure without cracking or breaking.

I gave Josh wood this past father's day.  Woodcraft sold various turning blanks of exotic hardwoods, and we had a lot of fun turning rings on his tiny micro lathe.  I still prefer the look of wood rings made from a solid piece of wood with the grain running through the ring.  Some exotic woods hold up quite well, but some do not.  We began looking into ways to make our rings more durable and read about bent wood rings.

There wasn't a whole lot of information out there as to how exactly to make the rings.  After a fair amount of experimentation, I've come up with a method that works for us.  We don't make wood rings any more (our passion for making them lasted about a month before our attention spans expired and we moved on to the next interest), but I wanted to share the method with others.

I also sometimes put a bent wood interior inside a solid wood ring to make it stronger.  It would be impossible to use some woods for rings (like figured satinwood) without some type of serious strengthening.  I haven't included directions for that in this instructable, but they're not too hard to figure out once you know the basics.

I'll also show you how to add a crushed stone inlay.

Some people are now choosing bent wood rings for wedding or engagement rings.  They can be pricey from some retailers.  They might take a little bit of practice if you want perfect rings, but the technique is simple and the materials are cheap.

Step 1: Form the Ring Shape

To make the rings, you'll need:

wood veneer
a straightedge
a thin, sharp blade
something to hold and boil water
something finger sized to wrap the wood around
masking tape, rubber band, or velcro cable tie to hold wrapped wood in place
various grits of sandpaper
dremel (optional)

If you're adding a crushed stone inlay, you'll also need:

stone to crush
a hammer and anvil or some other device for crushing stone
a toothpick or other small, disposable implement to mix and apply epoxy
a metal file

We bought a sample pack of wood veneer at the local woodworking supply store.  It cost $20 and contains more than 20 pieces of veneer, enough to make hundreds of rings.  Some types of veneer don't bend very well at all.  I had the most success with thin, tight-grained pieces of veneer with the grain running the long way.  I'm sure the more difficult woods could be used if they were sanded much thinner.  I didn't bother, though.  I can use that veneer for something else.

Using a straight edge as a guide, slice your piece of veneer into a long, thin strip.  I've found it works better if I use many light strokes instead of trying to cut through the veneer in one pass.  Sometimes the blade tries to veer away from the straight edge along the irregular grain.  Lighter strokes helps combat that.

Using a dremel with a sanding tip or regular sandpaper, sand down the ends of the strip.  You'll want them very thin.  If you don't sand them down, a kink will form in the wood as you wrap it.  It'll look out of place and will make it difficult to get a tight wrap.  It's also easier to hide the seam when the end is thinned down.

If you want to do a crushed stone inlay, slice two thin strips of veneer to fit over the base strip of veneer with enough space between the thin strips for the stone inlay.  On the ring in the picture, I simply sliced out the middle of a strip of veneer on one end of the strip, leaving the other end intact so I could wrap the base and overlay of the ring with just one piece.  I'm lazy like that.  Please look at the picture for reference.  I wanted the groove for the inlay deep enough, so I left the thinner strips longer than the base portion.

Some people steam their wood.  Some wrap it in wet paper towels and place it in the microwave.  Boiling the strips in a pot of water works best for me.  Different woods take different amounts of time to get flexible enough.  I boil mine for roughly 10 minutes.  They're usually bendable by then.

I've discovered that a copper pipe is roughly the right size to make rings for my middle or index fingers.  We have a stepped ring mandrel somewhere that I could use, but I can't find it.  I've also learned that a AA battery is the right size to make a ring for my 3 year old.

When the wood is sufficiently flexible, remove it from the boiling water using tongs.  It cools quickly, so it shouldn't burn you by the time you get back to the table.  Wrap it tightly around the round item of your choice and secure it with masking tape, a rubber band, or whatever you can find.

If you're making a ring with one color on the inside and one on the outside, only wrap the inner portion at this time.  Leave the veneer for the outside in the pot for now.  If you're making a ring with a stone inlay, make sure to wrap the base part of the ring (the solid portion of the strip) first if it's in once piece.  If the thin strips are separate pieces of veneer, leave those in the pot for now.

Step 2: Glue

Some retailers of bent wood rings claim that the ring strength comes solely from the direction of the grain.

That's not true, in my experience.  When these rings are properly made, they're impregnated with cyanoacrylate (also known as superglue).  The glue adds a lot to the strength.  There's a lot of information out there about cyanoacrylate and woodworking; it's frequently used to finish wood pens because it forms such a clear, shiny, and durable finish.

I was tired of sanding superglue off my fingertips when these photos were taken, which is why I'm wearing gloves.  I always end up with superglue on my fingers when I make bent wood rings.

After the ring has been sitting for 5 or so minute, gently peel away the masking tape and let it slowly unfurl.  The wood should now form a loose spiral.  Starting at the middle, begin wrapping it tightly around the tube again.  As soon as you have one loop formed, put a small amount of glue (less than a drop) on the strip of veneer right where the unwrapped part meets the wrapped part, spreading it a bit with the tip of the glue.  Press the veneer into place firmly.  Hold for a few seconds until it will hold together on its own.  Be very careful on the first applications of glue.  You don't want to glue the ring to the tube you're using.  If you're nervous about your skills, you could wrap parchment paper around your tube before wrapping it.  I usually slide the ring up and down the tube a couple times when I'm gluing the first layer to make sure it doesn't stick.  Keep adding small amounts of glue, spreading it, and pressing the veneer against the lower layer, holding firmly as you work outward in a spiral.  Don't skip any areas.  The ring is strong and looks best when there aren't any gaps or spots without glue.

Don't wait too long to begin gluing.  The water in the wood helps the glue set up quickly.  It also helps pull the glue into the wood fibers to hold everything securely together.  The wood is less flexible after it dries.  You don't want it to splinter on you, and that's very likely if you wait until it's dry before gluing.

It takes a little practice to determine how much glue you need.  Too much glue will leak out and stick to everything, including your fingers (ouch).  Too little glue will leave gaps in your ring.

If you're adding another layer of wood veneer to your ring, you can now fish the second piece out of the pot of boiling water.   Wrap it around the base of the ring and secure it with tape.  Wait a few minutes, then glue it to the base layer in the same manner described above.  If you're using two thin strips of veneer on the outer layers of the ring to create a channel for an inlay, you can wrap and glue them separately from each other.

I prefer to leave the very outside end of the veneer unglued at this point.  Cyanoacrylate likes to turn white when it's exposed to water.  If I glue it now, it'll likely leave a white residue when I go to sand the ring and finish it.  The residue will be impossible to remove because it impregnates the wood fibers.

When the ring is glued, slide it off the tube and let it sit out to dry.  It has to be completely dry before you begin sanding.  This can take several hours.

Step 3: Clean Up the Ring

This is when I glue down the outer edge of veneer.  Sand it down, slip a little glue under the edge, and press firmly.  Because the outer edge is thin, tapered veneer, I use an implement to hold it in place instead of my finger.  I'm really sick of superglue on my fingers.  The glue will take longer to set this time because the wood is no longer wet.  Some woods show the seam more than others.  The pearwood veneer I have gets darker edges in places coated with superglue, even if the ring is finished with that same superglue.  The lighter and darker woods I've used (like maple and walnut) don't seem to have that problem.  The seam doesn't bother me, but you might not want a visible seam, so you might want to experiment with which types of wood hide seams the best.  You could always do some creative cutting and sanding for the outer seam to really blend it with a wood that shows seams.  I don't bother to do much seam shaping; I usually can't even find the seam on my maple or walnut rings once they're finished.

I use the dremel to smooth the edges of the ring.  Even when I wrap the wood carefully, the edges aren't perfectly aligned.  I'm not a perfectly precise type of person.  I don't use the dremel for sanding the rest of the ring.  I'm probably just uncoordinated, but I end up with a lumpy ring if I use the dremel on the rest of it.

Use sandpaper to smooth down any sharp corners at the edges of the ring.  If you have trouble getting sandpaper inside the ring, you can use a small file.  Sand and smooth the edges of the groove if you're doing an inlay.

Proper sanding will make a huge difference in the finished ring.  Use a full range of sandpaper grits and don't skip any.  I use sanding blocks from 60 grit to 320, then switch to my micro mesh sanding sheets.  The micro mesh really matters if you want a smooth, glossy finish.  You only need to sand up to the 4000 grit in the micro mesh before finishing.  Sanding beyond that isn't necessary.  The finish needs a small amount of roughness to grip onto, and you'll be using the higher grits to sand the finish, anyway.

Step 4: Add Inlay (optional)

If you don't want to bother with a stone inlay, skip to step 5.

If you want spots of crushed stone in your ring, take a grinding bit on a drill or dremel and drill holes into your ring.  Don't drill all the way through; just make cavities that you can fill with the crushed stone.

We bought some cheap rocks in various colors from the local rock shop.  None of them cost more than a dollar.

Use a hammer and anvil or whatever else to smash your chosen rock into powder.  Josh bought some plumbing fittings at the hardware store to smash the rock.  The larger metal cap contains the bits of rock so they don't fly all over the place when I'm smashing them.  Fold a piece of paper in half lengthwise.  Unfold and fold crosswise.  Unfold.  This will create valleys that make it easier to keep your powdered stone where you want it.  Dump your crushed stone in the center of the paper where the lines intersect.

On a separate small piece of paper, squirt equal portions of both parts of the epoxy.  Mix them thoroughly with your toothpick, trying to avoid adding a lot of air.  Pour on a little of the crushed stone and mix.  Add enough stone that you won't have empty clear spots in your epoxy when it's in the ring, but not so much that the epoxy can't hold everything together.

Press the stone mixture into the recesses of your ring with your toothpick.  Squash it in carefully and thoroughly.  After I used the toothpick, I put a little petrolatum on my fingertips to squash it in further.  Scrape off as much excess as you can while still keeping the stone mixture slightly above the surface wood in the ring.  You'll save a little time if you also scrape the epoxy off the surface wood as much as you can while it's wet.

My container of epoxy said 5 minutes.  It was misleading, in my mind.  I had 5 minutes of work time, but it wasn't hard enough for me to sand after that time.  The small print on the package stated that it took 8 hours before it was usable and 24 hours for the full cure.  I'm impatient.  I waited an hour or two.  You should probably wait longer... although I didn't have any problems with my rings.

It would take forever to sand down the excess stone mixture with sandpaper, especially if you use the types with a less durable grit.  I used a large metal file to get most of it, then refined it with sandpaper.

Work your way back up the grits of sandpaper.  Make sure the stone portion and the wood are now flush with each other.

Step 5: Finish the Ring

There are lots of different types of finishes.  I won't talk about most of them.

I've heard good things about layer upon layer of a drying oil, such as tung oil.  I've never tried it.

Josh is fond of shellac.  So am I; it's hard to go wrong with edible bug excretions.  (You don't believe me?  Check your candy labels for shellac, resinous glaze, or confectioner's glaze. )  Shellac doesn't leave a very durable finish on a ring, though.  It flakes/rubs off pretty quickly with continued wear.

Some people prefer to finish their wood rings with beeswax and olive oil.  The oil and wax should be reapplied regularly and won't be as glossy as other finishes.  They leave a really nice, "natural" feel to the wood, though.  I love using olive oil and beeswax to finish a ring made of solid olivewood.  Olive oil and beeswax do not fill the pores in wood.  Some wood has bigger pores than other wood.  When choosing a finish, consider the effect you want, including whether or not you want to fill all the pores to make the surface completely smooth.

My own personal opinion is that cyanoacrylate is the best finish for bent wood rings.  It's durable, water resistant, and it's already used throughout the ring.  It's sometimes a pain to work with.

Before you add any finish, look closely at your ring.  You might see some pale or dark streaks, depending on the color of your wood.  These are pores in the wood, and they're likely filled with fine sawdust from sanding your ring.  If you don't get rid of the dust, it'll get stuck in the finish and leave your ring dull and dirty looking.  Find a cotton swab, a buffing pad, or a very soft cloth.  Wipe your ring down, making sure to get as much dust out of the pores as you can.  Sometimes you need to use a cloth with very fine fibers to get all the pores cleaned out.  Sometimes you'll need to dampen the cloth a bit.  If you do use a little water, let the ring dry completely before you apply a finish.

Find a tweezers or some implement to hold the ring if you feel a bit clumsy like me and don't want glue on your fingers.  Carefully squirt out a small amount of superglue onto the ring (about a drop or less).  Spread it around as much as you can with the tip of the glue, or use a clean cotton swab.  Hold the ring away from your face and let it dry.  DO NOT blow on it.  The moisture from your breath can cause the glue to turn white.  If that happens, you'll have to sand it all off and start again.  If you touch it before it's dry, the moisture from your fingertips can also turn it white.  Once it's dry, add glue to another area of the ring.  Continue until the ring is all covered, inside and out.  The glue will look less shiny and smooth once it dries.  That's okay.  

It's now time to sand.  If the coating is particularly rough, I might go as low as my 320 grit sanding block and then work my way up with the micromesh.  If it looks relatively smooth, I'll usually just use my micro mesh to sand it all the way up to 12000 grit for a high gloss finish.  Inspect the ring carefully for things like white spots or dull spots where there is no glue.  Sand down and redo any white spots.  Add glue to any bare spots and sand smooth.

Some people add several layers of cyanoacrylate.  Some people layer it with boiled linseed oil.  I've never tried boiled linseed oil because I never think about getting any when I'm at a hardware store.

I used one layer of cyanoacrylate to finish my 3 year old's ring.  It's holding up really well so far, even after playing in the sand and washing his hands.  Wood rings will last longer if properly cared for.  Scratches should be sanded with fine sandpaper and refinished to protect the wood from moisture.  Ideally, they should be removed before swimming, showering, or washing dishes.

Thanks for reading!  I hope you try making your own.
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