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The Craft of the Steam Box

May 23, 2014
Tribal Yurts in Kyrgyzstan
 
The art of yurt making is most accurately understood in the heart of Central Asia. Journeying around Kyrgyzstan I was intent on discovering the secrets of the craft and the spirit of those who made them. I wasn't to be disappointed.
 
Some people love crafts, they love making things, some like taking a bunch of fresh cut sticks, a knife and some animal hide and producing a yurt wall for instance.  It was these craftsmen and women I was intent on meeting. I wanted to soak in their way of living and being, the very essence of what makes them superb craftsmen. I wanted to be challenged and stretched, to learn new skills and understand the exact reasons for their methods and designs. 
 
Steam bending is an ancient craft. Wood is heated in a steam box so it is softened and can be moulded around a former to a specific shape, and upon cooling it holds that shape thereafter.  This technique has been used to make many interesting and diverse products including boat building, violin making,  furniture construction and of course yurt making. 
 
Kyrgyz Steam Box In Action 
 
Steam bending is ecological and economical, it is a craft that can be applied safely to many areas and there are many variants in how it is applied. 
 
My own set up is a traditional stainless steel cooker, hand made and welded by my local steel worker to my exact specification. I heat this with butane gas, not traditional but highly controllable and we find it produces much more reliable results. 
 
The Asian yurt wall makers used a different set-up.  A fire pit heated the actual bottom section of a steel pipe, used to hold the wood, and set at an angle to allow the condensing water to drain back into the heat. The top of the pipe, where the wood enters is covered with a thick hessian cloth while the steam is applied. 
 
 
Steaming is at the heart of our work. We take great care to make sure the wood is heated to the correct temperature for the right length of time, not too short, otherwise we get breakages, not too long otherwise we get over-dry wood.  After a while we get so familiar with the process that we just know when its done, the craft becomes and art. 
 
Yurt making at the yurt workshop has taken the qualities of these central Asian artisans and distilled the essential qualities, the spirit of the artisan and combined them with the quality materials and attention to detail demanded by first world customers. 
 
If you enjoy high quality, attention to detail, made by artisans then check out the yurt workshop and spread the word. 


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