This is part of the ANKN Logo This is part of the ANKN Banner
This is part of the ANKN Logo This is part of the ANKN Banner Home Page About ANKN Publications Academic Programs Curriculum Resources Calendar of Events Announcements Site Index This is part of the ANKN Banner
This is part of the ANKN Logo This is part of the ANKN Banner This is part of the ANKN Banner
This is part of the ANKN Logo This is part of the ANKN Banner This is part of the ANKN Banner
Native Pathways to Education
Alaska Native Cultural Resources
Indigenous Knowledge Systems
Indigenous Education Worldwide

Alaska Science Camps, Fairs & Experiments

ANKN is a resource for compiling and exchanging information related to Alaska Native knowledge systems and ways of knowing. We are pleased to create and distribute a variety of publications that assist Native people, government agencies, educators and the general public in gaining access to the knowledge base that Alaska Natives have acquired through cumulative experience over millennia.


Contact the ANKN offices at 907-474-1902 or email


snowshoedog sleddrumdrumAleut hat

For untold centuries oldtimers have been bending natural materials. Some materials bend more easily than others. We have always been looking for ways to improve the bending of natural materials.

The most common traditional applications of bending are: Aleut bentwood hats, snowshoes, drum frames, canoe ribs and sled parts.

When we bend materials, there are two stresses.

  • The inside of the bend is being compressed.
  • The outside of the bend is being stretched.

Obviously, the thinner the material is, the easier it is to bend as the inside is compressed less and the outside stretched less.

Oldtimers spent much time looking for the choice piece of wood that would not break when it was bent.


When wood is dry it isn't very flexible. Wetting the wood helps the bending process. Steaming helps even more. However, there are advantages and disadvantages of each. Excessive steaming weakens the wood.

Many people wrap the wood with a hot steamy towel as it comes out of the steamer. This keeps it from drying and cooling until bending is complete.


It is important to bend the wood gently, flexing it gradually, being careful not to bend too much in one place. If there is a spot that doesn't want to bend, we put it over our knee at that place and gently flex it. If it still doesn't bend, we take a timeout, and thin it at that spot with a hand plane or knife.


If the fibers start to split off, quickly wrap that place with string, keeping the fibers intact. Continue bending gently.


SteamingCut or split identical pieces of green wood about two feet long. Identify which side is from the outside of the tree and which side from the inside. Try bending two ways: inside of tree on the outside of the bend, and outside of the tree on the outside of the bend. Which way seems to bend the easiest? Which way breaks more easily than the other.





Cut or split identical pieces of green wood. Try to bend the first piece. Try to bend a second piece after it has been soaked in cold water for a time. Try a third piece after it has been soaked in hot water, and a fourth piece after it has been steamed. What differences do you notice?

You can make a steamer like either of the ones illustrated here.


SteamingBe careful, as steam and hot water can inflict severe burns. Use gloves and eye protection. Some people say the steamer needs to have a great deal of water, and to use a drum.

Try bending different materials, birch, spruce, willows, and other natural materials after they have been steamed or soaked in hot water. Many people have spent hours shaping a piece of wood, only to have it crack before taking shape. Learn how to steam on scraps first. Then steam and bend carved pieces.

Traditional steaming

In parts of Alaska, steaming was done by digging a pit, and making a fire in the pit. The ashes were scraped from the hole. The wood was wrapped in seaweed or wet grass. The wood was placed in the hole and buried with hot dirt and topped with hot coals, the moisture from the seaweed was heated by the dirt and coals, and the wood rendered soft and pliable.


SteamingCut or split two identical pieces of wood. Soak one in very warm water, bend it, and let it dry. Steam the other piece for quite a while, and bend it and let it dry. Test both pieces. Is the piece that was steamed for a long time weaker or stronger than the piece that was only soaked in warm water?

Since it is impossible to find two pieces of wood that are identical, it might be best to try to bend four pieces, two in warm water and two steamed.

Bending Jig

When wood is bent, we often need a form or shape to bend the wood upon. Many such forms, or jigs are possible. Below is a jig to bend sled runners. The runners are clamped to the jig until they dry. Slow careful drying prevents cracking.

Snowshoes are bent around a jig that shapes them to the proper size and form.


Aleut bentwood hats are often bent around a frame, and then the pieces are held together with clamps. The wood is soaked in a wide pan of hot water, not steamed.

Drum makers often cut very thin strips of wood, steam them, then bend them around a circular jig, gluing the different layers together into a very strong round frame.


Finding and Developing a Science Fair Project

Examples of "Observe and Think" Projects

200+ Ideas for Science Fairs!

Traditional Lighting


Traditional Firemaking


Fishing with Lures

Rabbit Snares

Spearing Fish and the Refraction of Light

Chill of the Campfire

Solution vs Suspension

Seals & Beaver, Floating & Sinking


Selecting a Birch Tree

Spruce & Other Roots

Spruce Gum

Spear Throwing

Berry Pickers

Drum Frames


Book Cover

© 2004 Alaska Native Knowledge Network. All rights reserved.

A partner with the Alaska Rural Systemic Initiative

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0086194. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.


Camps as an Environment for Science & Culture

Culturally Relevant Science Fairs



  pdf icon
Also available in downloadable PDF





Go to University of AlaskaThe University of Alaska Fairbanks is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity employer, educational institution, and provider is a part of the University of Alaska system. Learn more about UA's notice of nondiscrimination.


Alaska Native Knowledge Network
University of Alaska Fairbanks
PO Box 756730
Fairbanks  AK 99775-6730
Phone (907) 474.1902
Fax (907) 474.1957
Questions or comments?
Last modified April 12, 2011