"Bending wood", the phrase alone seems hard to believe. But it is very real, and with practice and professional training, our craftsman flooring guys can do it.
All it takes is a little bit of understanding about the material you're working with. Start off by using a piece of fresh green wood, which is far less likely to snap. Also, you can use kerfing (cutting kerf in a piece of wood to thin its cross section, allowing easier bending), laminating (building up a curve by gluing together multiple thin strips of wood), or steaming (plasticizing wood and making it more flexible enough to bend it in a curve).
Make sure to choose a wood that bends well because not all wood will bend and not break. Also, it is smart to practice bending a new wood before diving head-first into a new medallion or inlay project. One of the biggest challenges of bending wood is selecting the appropriate bending stock. Look for a wood with long tubular fibers, as these will bend well. Oaks, hickories, and ashes are are all dependable woods that are good choices for bending. Other good choices include soft maple, cherry, sweet gum, walnut and yew.
It is possible to bend woods that are relatively brittle, however. Woods like hard maple or rosewood will bend if you follow a few simple rules. If you follow the tree's natural sway and take from the butt area of the trunk, you should be more likely to successfully bend the piece of wood.
These pieces can be found at the end of the tree with more widely spaced growth rings. Take fast-grown wood from the lower half of the tree to ensure your wood is pliable. Try to avoid wood with lots of grain runout along the edges. Straight grain runs the full length of the piece and will be less susceptible to breaking along the grain lines.
If you're going the steaming route, make sure to use green wood. Keep in mind, the fresher, the better. If this is not a viable option, go with air-dried wood, but try to avoid kiln-dried. Rive your wood to ensure you get a straight piece of wood.