Wood carving is a fulfilling craft, but working with hard wood can be challenging. Fortunately, there are several methods to soften wood for carving, making the process easier and more enjoyable. Whether you choose to use heat, moisture, or specific products, softening wood can help you achieve smoother and more precise carvings.
By following the techniques I will outline in this article, you can enhance your woodworking experience and create beautifully carved pieces with ease.
Method #1: Alcohol Spray or Rubbing alcohol
In fact, most experts suggest using isopropyl alcohol of at least 50%, but you can opt for concentrations as high as 70%. To create a mixture for cleaning purposes, take a spray bottle and fill half of it with water, then add the same amount of rubbing alcohol to the bottle.
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.
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.
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. I 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. Even most 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. It’s not recommend to use odorless thinners because they are safer to work with and don’t release as much fumes.
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 I’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 . 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.
Method #12: Treat with Ammonia
Ammonia gas can be used to soften wood for carving, as it acts similarly to steam in making the wood more pliable. Additionally, an ammonia solution can be sprayed onto wood for bending purposes.
However, it’s important to note that different types of wood may react differently to ammonia, so it’s advisable to conduct a patch test first in an area with good ventilation.
Method #13: Use Alcohol-Water Solution/Denatured Alcohol
I’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, I would suggest 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.
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 I would prefer 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.
Soft and Carvable Wood Types
Some woods don’t require any pre-softening for carving. The following are my 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?
Carving dry wood is generally preferred over wet wood because it can readily absorb moisture, leading to loosened fiber bonds and increased flexibility. In contrast, wood that has already been soaked can resist absorbing additional moisture, making it less suitable for carving.
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.
Dealing with extremely hard wood can indeed be frustrating for woodcarvers. Fortunately, there are various methods to soften wood for carving, often using readily available household products.
By implementing these techniques and carving with care and precision, you can transform hardwood into a more workable and enjoyable medium for creating intricate and beautiful details in your carvings.
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