Introduction: Faux Bamboo

About: I'm a lowly data analyst for NYSDOT. I make database and maps. I LOVE DIY Projects!

I love the look of bamboo but hate how it cracks!  Plus getting larger diameter (3-inch) around by me (Western New York) is only by shipment and fresh bamboo weighs a lot!  In this Instructable, I'll try to show you how to make your own fake bamboo out of PVC pipe.  I know it's not "green" but it should really last!

Step 1: Cut and Clean the PVC

If you're gonna use a whole section of PVC pipe (they typically come in 10-foot lengths) then you can clean the whole pipe before you cut it.  It really doesn't matter.  We need to remove the ugly lettering and all the left over junk (chemicals) from the production of of the PVC pipe.  For this step I use Acetone because a) it's cheap b) it works good c) I had it laying around.  Make sure you follow the directions for using whatever you choose since some cleaners can be dangerous without proper ventilation!
I applied the acetone by wetting some paper towels with it and wiped until the lettering was gone.  During this step I use Nitrile gloves (Can be found at home improvement stores in the paint and stain section), I just don't like that stuff soaking into me!  The ink can go back on the pipe from the paper towels if too much ink builds up on the paper towels so you may have to find a clean spot on the paper towels and re-wet with more acetone.

Step 2: Cut for the Nodes.

Nodes are the larger diameter portions of real bamboo and our fake bamboo can't be without.  In real bamboo these points are solid where the rest of the bamboo is hollow.  Luckily these are easy to create.  At this point you may want to reference some pictures or some real bamboo if you can find it to find a good nod spacing.  Another thing to keep in mind is node placement if you want to have a solid node (like a stopper or just a top).  Don't forget to place a Cut line near the end of the pipe (3/4 inch minimum is what I've found) for this purpose.  Using a razor knife, cut a line around the pipe.  For a better effect go around twice to get the cut a little deeper.

Step 3: Make the Nodes Look Good!

Now the reasoning behind cutting for the nodes.  At this point we will heat the PVC with a propane torch to give us a good look.  Heating the pipe will give us a node that has a larger diameter then the rest of the pipe and it will also give us a different colored ring which seems to give a more realistic look.

So the way I have done it is like this.  I would place a smaller diameter piece of PVC on my WorkVice table so that it is standing up.  It doesn't need to be that long, it just needs to help guide the PVC that we are decorating.

Work on one mode at a time as this can help with consistency.

Fire up your propane torch and lightly burn the knife mark that you just made.  I found that to give a quick burn mark the tip of the blue flame should be right on the PVC.  Remember to just lightly burn at this point!

Now heat the plastic until it's slightly pliable without burning it more.  I did this by holding the propane torch a few inches from the PVC and spinning it VERY quickly so that you evenly heat the pipe.  The amount of time it takes will vary based on the diameter of the PVC.  After the PVC is slightly pliable compress the pipe  and put some force to get it to expand some to a nice size then hose it off to cool it down quickly so it holds its shape. 

If you're creating a viaduct style fountain then don't forget to burn the inside also!  You'll need to cut the pipe in half before you burn the inside.  A band saw works pretty well.

On a 3-inch pipe each node took about 5 minutes each.  3/4-inch pipe takes less then a minutes this way.

Creating top nodes which were solid was both easy and hard.  Buy a PVC cap for the same sized pipe, and using a hole saw of the pipe size, drill it out.  Gluing it in place, at first, was a bear but after some tries I got a system that was pretty good.  Before you place the solid nodes, stain all pieces first!  Inside and out!  TRUST ME!  Now all you have to do is glue the solid node into place.  My glue of choice was aquarium cement since it goes on thick and doesn't drip and can support some weight (like the cap you drilled out).  First, place a bead of glue just slightly below the height that you want the node at.  Then lower the cut out cap into place (so that it resembles a bowl) and let that glue dry.  After it is dry put another bead of glue at the top to fill in the gap between the pipe and the cap cut out.  Using a gloved hand, spead out and smooth out the glue.  Since you stained/shellaced everything first the effect should come out pretty good.  Using a 2-inch hole saw to place a node in a 2-inch pipe can leave a substantial gap to fill but with 2-inch and smaller pipe you can but slightly larger hole saws (like 2 1/8-inch) to fill everything fairly tight.  Unless you plan on using the node as a water holding structure, I don't recommend filling the small center hole from the guide drill bit to allow water to drain that might build up.

Step 4: Sand and Stain

Now the fun boring part!  I used shellac to "stain" the PVC because it was recommended in a few forums.  Before we begin shellac-ing you need to lightly sand the entire PVC pipe.  The sanding gives a slight texture for the shellac to grab to.  Follow the instruction for the shellac application.  I applied 3 coats and was able to sand and re-coat after an hour.  I picked an amber shellac because all Home Depot had was clear or Amber.

The good and bad of shellac.  The good: When applied with a rag, the shellac gives a really nice uneven finish which I'm not sure regular stain would give. This finish reflects the imperfections of natural bamboo.  The bad: shellac doesn't adhere to the PVC really good even when all the instructions are followed.  Covering shellac with a polyurethane isn't recommended since shellac has a wax portion which doesn't allow the polyurethane to adhere well.  As long as the feature isn't regularly beat up too badly then this shouldn't be a problem.  Using stain may help, but I hadn't tried it yet.  Other forums seems to be split regarding stain vs shellac.

Step 5: Finished Product(s)!

Pick something to build!  My first PVC conversion happened because I built a Dear Chaser fountain out of bamboo in 2006 and by 2009 it had cracked to the point of uselessness.  My mom liked the fountain so much I made her a triple fountain in a whiskey barrel for her birthday.  Then I replaced a viaduct style fountain I had also built out of bamboo in 2006 that wasn't ageing well.  Almost anything that you can think of that you could build with bamboo you can us this technique.  Bamboo hut, fountains...  use your imagination!

One thing I found is that the shellac doesn't hold too well in terms of abuse, mostly winter abuse, I think. I live near Buffalo, NY so can have our share of winter. What I ended up doing was sanding down any areas that had chipped / damaged shellac and re-applied the shellac. After it looked good and fully dried, I coated the entire shellac-ed surface (old and new) with about 4 coats of Rust-Oleum Crystal Clear Enamel Spray paint. It held up over the rest of the summer and winter so far but time will tell.  I may just touch it up with the Clear Enamel every year or so in order to have a wear surface.  So far, so good!