Introduction: Bent Wood Hand-shaped Bowl

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Give yourself a helping hand, with some hand-shaped bowls.
Made for keeping your everyday carrying things in one place when you're at home; dump your keys, phone, coins and other sundries into a pair of open hands to keep them safe. Place this hands near your front door or coffee table you're sure to have a conversation piece the next time you have visitors.

This project uses thin plywood bent with steam and shaped over large bowls, then stained with shoe polish to bring out the grain.

This Instructable was entered in the Craftsman Tools Contest and the Holiday Gifts Contest.
Check out all the entries and the winners!

Enough talk, let's make some hand-bowls!

Step 1: Tools + Materials

Though they sell plywood at most lumber stores, I would advise against using 1/2" or 1/4" variety commonly sold there. Thin plywood is easily found at craft stores, the plywood used for this project was 3mm (1/8"). They also sell 1.6mm (1/16") plywood, but I think it's too thin for this application.
My plywood sheet cost less than $3 CAD.

  • jigsaw (rotary tool, or laser cutter)
  • sandpaper (150-250 grit)
  • vice
  • large pot
  • steaming apparatus (bamboo basket or other)
  • bowls (various sizes, for bending)
  • safety goggles / gloves
  • pencil
  • thin birch plywood (3.1 x 152 x 304 mm [1/8 x 6 x 12"])
  • masking tape ($dollar store)
  • wood glue ($dollar store)
  • shoe polish ($dollar store)

Step 2: Trace Hand

For the sheet of plywood I had, my hands were too large to both fit on the same piece. I had to ask for some help from someone with smaller hands, my Mum.
If you're fingers are too beefy, you may need to find somebody with smaller hands to help with this part.

Loosely interlace fingers and place on plywood, heel of palm at back edge of plywood on each end. Make sure there's enough room between fingers to trace all digits without any overlap. With a pencil, trace between each finger.
The trace doesn't have to be perfect, there's plenty of time to refine the shape later. Make sure all digit tracings are approximate the correct width and length.

Step 3: Cut Shapes

Now that you have an outline on your plywood, it's time to cut out the hand shapes.

I first scored the outline with a sharp utility knife, then used a manual jigsaw to separate the hands from the plywood for easier working. Complete cutting between fingers to have a rough hand-shaped outline. Rough cuts are acceptable as the hand shape will be cleaned up in the following steps.

As an alternative to a jigsaw you could use a Craftsman rotary tool, or an Epilog laser cutter.

Step 4: Clean Up Edges

With the rough shape cut out of each hand, it's time to clean up the sharp edges.

Round off corners and any sharp edges, then sand using a rough grit (150) sandpaper. The shape doesn't have to be perfect, sand to a create smooth corners and a filleted edge.

Step 5: Steam

After each hand has been roughly sanded we can steam them for bending.
Start by placing both hand cut-outs in warm water to soak while the steamer pot is being prepared.

While wood is soaking, place steamer basket in in large pot, then fill pot roughly 1/4 full with water. There needs to be enough water in pot to sustain a 7-10 minute boil, but not too much water that your steamer basket is completely submerged. With water and basket in pot, cover pot with lid and place on high heat to boil.

Once water is boilinged, carefully remove lid and place wood hand cut-out on top of steamer basket. To determine the steam-time we can use the adage "one hour of steaming per one inch of wood". Actual time wood needs to bend will also depend on type of wood used...but you got the same wood I did, right?

Some quick math based on my plywood thickness: 1/8" / 60 = 7.5 minutes

Step 6: Bend Over Mold

After steaming, the wood will need to sit in a mold to create the bowl-like shape. The best bowls to use have a smooth transition from the tapered side of the bowl to the underside. I used stainless steel stackable metal mixing bowls since they fit together and mirror the desired shape.
NOTE: Ceramic bowls have a rough place on bottom of the dish from when it was fired, this can result in unintended imprints on your hands.

Once hands have steamed carefully remove from steamer and place between two of the stackable bowls and make a wood sandwich: smaller bowl > wood cut-out > larger bowl.

Using some pressure carefully compress the bowls together, squishing the hand between the bowls and bending the wood. Once the bowls are compressed place a heavy weight on top of the bowls to keep the wood from springing back into shape.
Leave wood cut-outs in bowls overnight to dry out.

CAUTION: Be gentle when bending wood, although the wood used is thin and easily bendable, there is a risk of cracking/splintering the wood if it's over-bent.
If in doubt, steam for a few minutes longer or reduce bend angle on wood.

Step 7: Re-laminate Wood

After removing wood cut-outs from the overnight mold you may notice the wood de-laminating, the heat from steaming and stress from bending have pulled the layers of plywood apart.

Working one hand at a time, apply a thin layer of wood glue between each sheet of plywood and relaminate each hand. After glue is applied drape each hand over bowls, bind glued hand cut-outs to bowls using masking tape. This is a good time to make any refinements to the bowl shape, once glue dries the final bowl shape will be set.

Smooth bottomed bowls were not necessary at this stage like they were for the steaming phase, as the wood is dry and won't retain most indentations, just the curve shape.
Let glue cure overnight.

When dry use a utility knife and sandpaper to remove any glue burrs and smooth out and rough edges. When sanding start with a coarse grit (75-150) and work your way up to a finer grit (250+), cleaning between each sandpaper sheet with a dry brush. Consider 3-4 sheets of sandpaper: 100, 150, 200, 250 grit should suffice.

Step 8: Stain

If you didn't already know, shoe polish can be used to repair dings and minor damage to furniture. With this technique in mind, I used shoe polish as the stain for these hands.
Shoe polish is typically made with turpentine, naphtha or some other mix of equally stinky stuff. Best to be in a well-ventilated area, I also used gloves.

I used a blend of brown and black shoe polish, giving the wood an antique look of weathered wood. Grab a gob of polish and smear it on the wood.Work the polish into the wood grains with a rag and brush. Make sure to get into any cracks and between the fingers. Let wood absorb the polish overnight.

Next, use a rag to wipe each hand of excess polish. Then work a small amount of talc or baby-powder into the hands with the cloth, this will absorb any residual polish and help give a dull buff to the wood. Buff each hand with talc for about 5 minutes.

Step 9: Mount and Display

After hands have been stained it's time to mount them, these hands were cupped and joined together to make a bowl.

With some clever bending your hands could be contorted into all kinds of hand gestures: fingers together and palm flat to make a small shelf, or maybe bend hands into gang-signs and mount the hands on a wall for your hats. This method of wood bending can replicate many of those same gestures allowing for a wide variety of designs.

So, what kind of things can your hands do? Happy making :)

Epilog Challenge

Participated in the
Epilog Challenge

Craftsman Tools Contest

Participated in the
Craftsman Tools Contest

Holiday Gifts Contest

Participated in the
Holiday Gifts Contest