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Tutorials


Hummingbird design by Marie Smith

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The 'Bentbox' Tutorial

About the Cedar Bentbox

Cedar bent-boxes, also known as bentwood boxes, are beautiful yet functional containers carved out of red or yellow cedar that is steamed and bent. Once constructed, the bent-box can be decorated by painting designs that represent the clan history or a supernatural animal crest. The bent-box can also be carved and have shells, abalone, copper or stone inset into the cedar. Once the artist has completed embellishing the bent-box, a natural finish is applied to the box exterior to protect against oils and other contaminants. The interior of the bent-box is left natural so the aromatic scent of cedar can be enjoyed for years to come.

Throughout history, the Gitxsan have built many bent-boxes, of all sizes and adapted or decorated depending on their intended use. Undecorated bent-boxes were functional containers used to store essential items such as food stock, household items, hunting and fishing gear, tools, raw materials, clothing, toys and so forth. In addition, undecorated bent-boxes were used in daily tasks such as cooking, carrying and storing water, and for hauling personal possessions on long journeys. In contrast, decorated bent-boxes are highly valued and can be made as pieces of art for display; or they can be used to store important ceremonial items such as regalia, button blankets, masks, rattles, whistles, talking sticks and more. These decorated bent-boxes are also used to store items of great wealth such as fur, copper, carved dishes, feast bowls, ladles and so on.

Note: one unique characteristic of the Northwest Coast bent-box that separates it from all other wooden boxes around the world is that the bent-box sides are made from one solid plank of wood that is steamed and bent at three corners and joined at the fourth corner with wooden pegs, copper nails or sewn together with cedar roots.

Materials List

The materials needed to begin making a bentbox are few and inexpensive. For this exercise we have provided a list of supplies that our artisans prefer using.

  1. B. C. D - use 100, 220, 280 and 400 Grit Sandpaper
  2. Johnson's Paste Wax
  3. Masking Tape
  4. Weldbond Glue
  5. Dust Mask & Safety Glasses
  6. Sanding Block
  7. Mechanical Pencil & Eraser
  8. Red & Black Paint (Acrylic) Paint
  9. #000 & #6 size Paint Brushes
  10. Ruler
  11. Tracing Paper
Steam-bending

How to Steam-bend a bentbox

The Bentbox lidThe Lid: measure and cut a 6 x 6 x 1 1/2 inch square from a cedar plank. Cut a square bevel into the lid bottom so this can be fitted to rest inside the box top. Cut an angle to all 4 sides of the lid.

The Bentbox baseThe Base: measure and cut a 5 1/2 x 5 1/2 x 1/2 inch piece of cedar for the bottom of the box. Cut a square bevel into the base so that the box sides will fit snugly and create a water tight base.

The bentbox sides (kerfed)The Sides: Measure and cut a 22 x 5 1/2 x 1/2 inch rectangle from the cedar plank. Designate the 'good' side of the cedar plank for the outside and the side with checks and mars for inside of the box. Divide the 'inside' rectangle into four equal sections. With a carving knife, cut 3 division lines on the cedar plank. Do not cut all the way through these lines, approximately 3/4 should be fine. Next, cut a 45 degree angle on both ends of the 22 x 5 1/2 inch rectangle.

Home-made Steam-chamberWith a secure and safe heat source, heat your water and create a lot of steam to funnel into your steaming unit (steam units are any device you can funnel steam through). Place your bentbox side pieces into your steaming unit until the cedar is softened by the steam. Note: use rags or tin foil to block steam from escaping the steaming chamber - avoid more permanent methods of blocking steam as this will create a steam chamber under high pressure and the 'permanent block' you used will pop off and potentially hurt you. Also, use gloves and avoid placing yourself in direct contact with the steam as this is very hot and may cause 1st degree burns.

Sides ready to be gluedWhen the cedar is ready, quickly but gently bend the cedar plank along the 3 division lines and clamp the 45 angle ends together (traditionally, the bentbox ends are either doweled or sewn with cedar roots). Use masking tape, rope or clamps to secure and hold the box shape.

When dry, glue the 45 degree ends together, then take your box side piece and glue to the base piece. This ensures that your bent-box maintains its perfect 95 degree angle. Use masking tape, rope or clamps to secure the side pieces to the base. With a damp rag, clean up any glue that has seeped out from your glue joints as the drips will be challenging to sand once the glue has dried. Fit your lid onto the top and set aside for 24 hours.

Congratulations! Your steamed bent-box is now ready for the sanding, tracing, painting and waxing stage.

Bentbox samplesNote: bentboxes can be any size and for many purposes. If you enjoyed learning to steam-bend, try these projects on for size.

Of particular interest is the large steam-bent drum box. This box is approximately 3.5 feet high x 1.5 feet wide and creates a beautiful resonating drum sound.

 

Sanding

This method is the 'wet sand method' popular with native artists. Essentially you start sanding using coarse sandpaper, graduating to finer sand paper until your wood product feels like silk. Then you apply a damp rag to your bentbox to 'raise the grain' of the wood; sand this down again and you will have a super smooth surface.

Very important: When sanding cedar, always protect yourself by using dust masks and protective eye glasses.

1. Begin by sanding with 100 grit paper and sand all imperfections off the surface of the wood. Check to see if you are done by running your finger along the surface of the cedar and check for roughness. When the cedar is perfectly sanded, graduate to the 240 grit, the 280 grit, then the 400 grit sandpaper. Take care not to rush the sanding process and you will notice the cedar getting smoother as you progress.

2. When you are done the 400 grit sanding, take a moment and feel how silky smooth the cedar feels. Now you are ready to wet the bentbox by wiping the sanded cedar down with a damp rag; allow the cedar to dry completely (1/2 hour). Don't panic if your cedar feels very rough when dry, you will sand the surface again with 400 grit sandpaper only until your cedar is back to feeling like silk. The wet-sand method is done to prepare cedar surfaces for painting by raising the grain before you paint (avoids the wet paint raising the grain and leaving a rough surface on your finished project.

Tip: tear your 7 by 11 inch sandpaper into 4 pieces using the straight edge of a ruler. Don't wreck your scissors.

Tip: use a piece of wood as a sanding block. Wrap a piece of sandpaper around the sanding block and start sanding.





Tracing

Please, for the purposes of this tutorial - you must provide your own design. If you are using one of the YHY Bentbox kits you can use the design provided.

1. Begin by tracing your design onto tracing paper. When tracing move your pencil in short strokes back and forth. The objective is to build up a nice layer of lead from the pencil for a good transfer.



2. Flip tracing paper over so that your pencil lines are face down against the cedar - make sure the tracing paper design is aligned to the bentbox before you tape to the surface. Commence tracing.

When tracing, do not press heavily with the pencil as you do not want grooves indented into the cedar. Instead, use short pencil strokes, back and forth.

3. When you have traced a small section. Peel back a corner of the tracing paper so you can check the quality of tracing. If you can see the design easily, continue. If the design is hard to see, you may have to retrace your template with heavier lead lines.

Note: for demonstration purposes we have exaggerated the traced lines on the bentbox picture.

Tips:

  • The better you can see your traced design, the easier it is to paint.
  • When tracing is done, but before you remove our template - peel back a corner of the template and double check that you have traced all portions of the design. It is better to catch this now, otherwise you will be trying to line your template back up to traced design; or having to sketch in the missing section.

Painting

Before painting, ensure that you are clear on what you are painting red and what you are painting black.

Note: You have worked hard to sand a silky smooth surface. Take a moment to protect all surfaces by wrapping and taping with paper.

2. Concentrate on completing one side of the bentbox first; then begin the other. Paint the red parts first; then black.

Note: Before painting, use scrap paper to cover portions of the bentbox design so your hand does not rub off the pencil lines.


3. We strongly recommend investing in a set of nice quality brushes as inferior brushes will impact negatively on your work. The two sizes #000 and #6 work well for all our painting projects. Also, the acrylic paint from a tube comes in the consistency of toothpaste. You will need to mix paint with water.

If the paint bleeds out while painting, then you have added too much water. However, if your painting is lumpy, then it is too thick and needs more water.

 

 

 

Waxing

1. We like using either Johnson's Paste Wax or Blue Label Paste Wax. Follow the directions on the can.

Essentially, you smear on a nice coating - wait until dry (2 hours minimum) then buff your bentbox to a nice shine.


2. Although it is tempting, avoid using varathanes. Gitxsan artists like to use as natural a material as possible.

Please remember your safety gear. At all times, read the safety labels and take precautions.

Congratulations! You now have a beautifully crafted bentbox made by you.