Dave Emerson replies: Red oak bends by far the best. Ash is a considerable second. Fine Woodworking had a very good book on bending with a chart ranking bending capacity. Wood bends by the heat and moisture of the steam loosening the bonds between the cells. The cells will then “cozy up” to each other more. They will not stretch. Leigh Valley (Veritas) had very good tooling for steam bending which prevented stretching as well as a booklet that told you all you needed to know. Wish it had been available when I started turning. The tubes in red oak do not close as it dries. I suspect that’s largely why it bends well as the steam can penetrate better. The tubes close in most other woods, including white oak.
However, wood being wood, does not bend (or stay bent) predictably. For one-ups laminating is best.
Owain Harris replies: To a certain extent that depends on wether you intend to be steam bending or laminate bending. I have had the best luck using ash and oak when it comes to steam bending but I have had no problem laminating most commonly used species of wood (cherry, walnut, mahogany, etc). You may need to make the individual laminations a bit thinner from species to species—if you can’t easily bend the piece by hand around your mold, the lamination is probably too thick. The main thing to be concerned about with both techniques is to find straight grained stock with very little grain run-out along the edge of the piece. This is particularly important with steam bending, as that is where you will tend to have a failure in the bend.