What changes occur to wood when it is permanently bent with the aid of steam? — MH, Perth, West Australia
The main structural component of wood is cellulose, a polymer (plastic) consisting of long molecular chains of sugars. While cellulose is extremely useful and is by far the most common polymer/plastic in the world, it can’t be melted because the temperature at which its molecular chains begin to move relative to one another is above the temperature at which those molecular chains begin to fall apart. In short, cellulose decomposes before it melts. Shaping or reshaping cellulose is very difficult, though chemical processes have made it possible to reform cellulose into such materials as cellophane and rayon.
The process you describe, bending wood while heating the wood with steam, takes advantage of the fact that cellulose molecules bind strongly to water molecules and that the water molecules then lubricate the chains so that they can move relative to one another. Water is said to be a “plasticizer” for cellulose. Heat, water, and stress allow the cellulose chains to slide slowly across one another. With enough patience, the wood’s internal structure can be changed forever. When the heat, water, and stress are then removed, the wood keeps its new shape.