How to Soften Wood for Carving in 14 Ways

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Wood carving is enjoyable, but not when you come across wood that’s hard to work with. Some types need more tools and products to make them more pliable. 

You probably don’t want to live with the imperfections and would want to easily steam-bend lumber. In this article, our team will explain how you can soften wood for carving in more ways than one.

Method #1: Alcohol Spray or Rubbing alcohol

Our professionals recommend working with at least 50% isopropyl alcohol, but you can go as high as 70%. In a spraying bottle, pour half with water and then the other half with rubbing alcohol. 

Test a small section first and spray the liquid, observing how the wood reacts. Once you’re confident it wouldn’t ruin the material, you can use it on places that need carving. Let it sit on the wood surface for about 30 minutes, until which the solution completely evaporates.

The alcohol-water solution spraying works because rubbing alcohol lowers the surface tension of water, enabling the liquid to penetrate the wood effortlessly. Without water, alcohol will simply dry instead of being absorbed.

clean rag and rubbing alcohol



Method #2: Soak in Water

This method is as easy to do as the water-alcohol solution but takes a bit more time to prepare wood for carving. It also ensures that all the wood absorbs water evenly. 

For this method, you need to take a container that is large enough to accommodate your project. Submerge the wooden piece completely in the water-filled receptacle and use a cover or a weight to make sure it stays in the water.

However, don’t leave the dry wood soaking for too long. Otherwise, you’ll end up with spongy and waterlogged wood. Ideally, take a look at the wood every half an hour until it achieves a state that is moist enough but still firm.

soak wood



Method #3: Use Boiling Water

Boiling water is another method to make wood softer. Similar to making wood wet in a water-filled container, boiling wood needs a receptacle big enough for your project.

However, you need to boil the water while the wood is already submerged. We don’t recommend dipping wood in boiling hot water because it could be unsafe. Skin contact with boiling water when it splashes or overflows could cause burns.

boiling water



Method #4: Store in Humid Areas

To a layman, it might seem counterintuitive to store wood in a humid environment. However, dry storage conditions remove the moisture of wood much faster, resulting in tightened wood fibers and dry wood that’s difficult to carve.

If you live in a humid area, then storage can be as uncomplicated as placing the wood inside your garage. If that’s not the case for you, you can install a humidifier in a shed that serves as your storage for wood. 

The ideal relative humidity is anywhere between 60% to 70%. Anything below wouldn’t be such a good idea because the wood would lose too much moisture. However, be careful not to go too high either as it would be more susceptible to fungus and speed up decomposition.

drying wood



Method #5: Utilize Freshly Cut Wood

This option isn’t available to everyone, but if you can source freshly cut wood then the material is in the best condition for carving. The wood is at its softest because it still retains its natural moisture. 

You can get freshly cut wood for your carving project at tree removal services, parks, and nature preserves. However, you’ll have to coordinate with their managers first.

drying stacks of lumber



Method #6: Utilize Air-Dried Wood

Air-dried wood is more pliable than most processed carving lumber and there is no need to soften the wood.

Carvers prefer air dried compared to kiln-dried wood because the former was dried for a longer time, usually taking months or even years. 

Meanwhile, the latter only takes days to dry in a kiln, which removes much more moisture content. The wood fibers in air-dried wood are not bound up tight. 

drying Elm slabs



Method #7: Applying Mineral Oil/Baby Oil

There is another product in your home besides rubbing alcohol that you can use in softening wood for carving. You can take mineral oil stored in your kitchen or baby oil among your body care products. 

You don’t need such large quantities either unless you want to soften the wood on a large project. Apply mineral oil or baby oil liberally on parts that need softening and allow the sections to dry for about two to three hours. Afterward, you should get soft dry wood.

Mineral oil also has additional uses besides having to soften wood for carving. It can be a great wood finisher so you can seal your woodwork, too. It also works as a blade lubricant so you can carve dry wood easier.

natural oil



Method #8: Use WD-40

WD-40, a water-displacing spray containing mineral oil and other solvents, usually is in the form of a spray bottle. You can apply the product to soften the wood for carving and only wait a minute or two before the solution is absorbed, soaking wood momentarily.

The mixture should leave a shiny effect on the dry wood when applied, but this won’t get in the way of carving soft dry wood. However, your work might require a few more spritzes so the wood piece becomes pliable.

Don’t use this on hard wood that you’ll use in the kitchen or will be in contact with food. The solvents in WD-40 make the product unsafe. Our woodworkers also recommend keeping the wood carving away from open flames for about a day.




Method #9: Using Odorless Paint Thinner

Paint thinner is often used as a wood sealer and wood finish, but did you know that you could also use thinners to soften wood for carving?

When used prior to carving, the product improves the absorption of lumber for much-needed moisture.

Paint thinners contain chemicals that can be harmful when inhaled or in contact with skin, so make sure to work in a well-ventilated area and wear protective gear. We recommend using odorless thinners because they are safer to work with and don’t release as much fumes.

paint thinner



Method #10: Soaking in Low-Odor Kerosene

Another way to soften wood for carving is by applying low-odor kerosene. Most timbers readily absorb kerosene and the resulting soaked wood will be more pliable for a longer time than the other methods we’ve listed.

Application is also simple, especially if the lumber is dry. With a brush or a lint-free soft cloth, you can rub the kerosene to the piece.

A word of caution though – similar to paint thinners, it’s not a very good idea to do this near an open flame. It can be poisonous when swallowed or inhaled [1]. Kerosene also is easily distinguishable with a particular smell but you can opt for odorless or low-odor options.




Method #11: Steam Wood

Softening wood makes it more pliable, but you don’t have to work with potentially toxic chemicals if you can help it. This method also involves water, but you’ll need a chamber to heat water until it reaches boiling temperature. 

The heat and steam will make the space very humid, which in turn will loosen the wood fibers. The moisture should saturate your wood easier. Don’t wait long after the fibers of the wood absorb it though, because if wood heats up too much, you might break or see cracks on it.

This method works best with highly porous woods. It’s also a not-so-risky option because it doesn’t affect the shape and integrity of the material. It also gives similar results, regardless if you’re working with green or seasoned wood.

Steaming woods



Method #12: Treat with Ammonia

You can use ammonia gas, which will act like steam that will soften wood for carving. Ammonia solution can also be sprayed for wood bending. However, not all woods react the same way to ammonia. It’s better to do a patch test first while in an area where there is good flow of air.




Method #13: Use Alcohol-Water Solution/Denatured Alcohol

We’ve discussed using an alcohol-water solution earlier but for spraying. This time around, the alcohol will be applied by rubbing. 

You can use denatured alcohol, also called methylated spirits. The product is 94% alcohol, which means that the solution is stronger so you wouldn’t need a prepared alcohol-water mixture.

Rubbing alcohol makes it easier to penetrate the wood grain and soften wood. However, we recommend a patch test first because some woods don’t react great with denatured alcohol. After application, wait it out to dry for about half an hour.

denatured alcohol



Method #14: Use Green Wood

If you want to avoid needing to soften the wood altogether, you can store green wood properly so that it doesn’t dry quickly and retains moisture for a long. 

A plastic bag won’t do the job, and our team prefers storing any green unfinished workpiece inside a freezer. The former might be capable of keeping the condition of the wood, but you also risk growing fungi. Green wood is pliable and won’t damage your tools, but it’s also prone to wood splitting.

green firewood



Soft and Carvable Wood Types

Some woods don’t require any pre-softening for carving. The following are our woodworkers’ favorite types to work with:

Chemicals to Soften Wood Easily

The following products make wood more conducive for carving:


Is It Better to Carve Wood Dry or Wet?

It’s better to carve dry woods. They will more readily absorb moisture than wet wood. The loosened fiber bonds turn timber into a more saturated material while also possessing high flexibility. Already-soaked wood can resist moisture.

You might want to check out these articles: 

How to Make Carving Easy Aside From Softening Wood

When you start wood carving, there’s one other thing you can control to make carving almost effortless: having sharp tools. The process isn’t as easy as having to sharpen a pocket knife, but you can use a sharpening block, leather strop, and sandpaper for carving knives.

Next Readings


It’s frustrating to deal with wood that feels rock solid. However, learning how to soften wood for carving in different ways allows you to experiment and make more use out of common with products that are commonly found at home. 

Remember to carve with care – this should help every movement create intentional and beautiful details.

Robert Johnson is a woodworker who takes joy in sharing his passion for creating to the rest of the world. His brainchild, Sawinery, allowed him to do so as well as connect with other craftsmen. He has since built an enviable workshop for himself and an equally impressive online accomplishment: an extensive resource site serving old timers and novices alike.
Robert Johnson
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