soften wood for carving

How To Soften Wood For Carving

Softening wood for carving is one of the most common questions I receive about wood carving. Two reasons why people are asking this are; either their wood is too dry for carving, or they have access to several types of wood species but don’t know which is hard and which is soft.

As a beginner woodcarver or whittler, it is faster and easier to learn the art with a soft type of wood like basswood. However, if you have a limited supply of softer wood at your disposal, there are ways you can use a piece of harder dry wood and create a soften wood.

I’ve developed a list of 10 different ways wood carvers can go about softening wood for carving, I go into further detail below about each of these popular ways so keep scrolling for more information.

1.  Softening Carving Wood with Water-Alcohol Mixture

2.  Soak Wood In Water Before Carving

3.  Use WD-40 to Soften Wood for Carving

4.  Denatured Alcohol for Softening Carving Wood

5.  Using Boiling Water to Soften Wood for Carving

6.  Carve Freshly Cut Green Wood

7.  Use Mineral Oils to Soften Wood

8.  Store Carving Wood In Humid Environment

9.  Steaming Wood For Easier Carving

10.  Use Paint Thinner to Soften Wood

10 Best Tips – How to Soften Wood For Easy Carving

1. Softening Carving Wood with Water-Alcohol Mixture

Create a water-alcohol mixture by mixing equal parts water and isopropyl alcohol (70% or higher). Personally, I prefer the 70% solution because it makes wood wet for a longer period of time. This mixture of isopropyl alcohol and water helps penetrate the wood, making it more pliable for carving. Submerge the wood in the mixture for several hours, allowing the alcohol to break down the wood fibers.

Keep in mind that this method is more effective for smaller pieces due to the required amount of solution.  For larger pieces of wood you can spray the alcohol-water solution on the wood surface and allow it to soak in before applying additional applications over the course of 2 to 3 hours.

Wear protective gloves and work in a well-ventilated area when handling alcohol.  

2. Soak Wood In Water Before Carving

Soaking wood in water is the most common approach and a gentle easy way that works well for most types of wood. Fully submerge the wood in water for an extended period, preferably overnight. This slow absorption of water softens the wood fibers without causing sudden changes in the wood’s structure.

Be sure to use a container that’s large enough to hold the wood, and consider covering it to prevent dust or debris from settling.  For larger pieces, I like to use a garbage can with a weight to keep the wood fully submerged.

How Long to Soak Wood for Carving?

For small pieces, or porous wood types and you don’t want to wait a long time, you can soak your wood in water for several hours.  Although the best way is to wait for 1-2 days for the water soaking to fully saturate the wood fibers.  

The general rule that I follow is one day per one inch of thickness of the wood carving piece.  Remember to allow the finished carving several days to completely dry prior to applying any finish application or oil.

3. Use WD-40 to Soften Wood for Carving

WD-40 isn’t just for lubrication; it can also be used to soften wood. Apply a generous amount of WD-40 to the wood’s surface, allowing it to soak in for a few hours. Similar to the alcohol-water solution discussed earlier, the water-displacing oil in WD-40 helps to loosen the fibers, making the wood more workable.

Be aware that this method might change the wood’s color or affect finishes, so I always test on a small area first.  This solution has a very strong smell, and it is advisable to use it outside or in a well-ventilated space. Make sure your knife is sharp to get the best experience carving and I believe this unique solution will soften your wood and make carving more enjoyable.

4. Denatured Alcohol for Softening Carving Wood

Denatured alcohol can be an effective alternative to water for softening wood. It penetrates the wood, making it more pliable without causing excessive swelling. Soak or spray the denatured alcohol on the wood’s surface, and allow it to be absorbed. Wear protective gear, including gloves and a mask, and always ensure proper ventilation.  

Another important piece of information is, denatured alcohol is also known as methylated spirits, and it is usually 94% alcohol which is stronger than the recommended in water-alcohol solution.

To be sure whether this is the best solution to use, do some experimenting with a small piece of sample wood to identify any color change before applying it on your main workpiece.

5. Using Boiling Water to Soften Wood for Carving

Hot water is a quick and straightforward method for softening wood. Immerse the wood in cool water initially, then bring the pot of water to a boil and let it go for about 30-60 minutes, depending on the wood’s thickness. The heat and moisture will soften the fibers, making carving easier. Be cautious when handling the hot wet wood and use tongs to avoid burns.

6. Carve Freshly Cut Green Wood

Perhaps the simplest method is using green wood, freshly cut from the tree.  Green wood is inherently softer and more pliable than seasoned wood due to its high natural moisture content.  For best results, work with green wood for your carving projects.  Whether green or seasoned, butternut wood is a fantastic wood for carvers.

Green wood is easier to carve, and you’ll find that the natural moisture within the wood makes the process smoother. Keep in mind that green wood may change shape as it dries, so plan your project accordingly.

7. Use Mineral Oils to Soften Wood

Mineral oils are excellent for both softening and preserving wood. Apply a generous amount of mineral oil to the wood piece, allowing it to soak in. This method is especially effective for dry hardwoods. The oil helps to moisturize the wood, making it more flexible for carving. Remember to reapply the oil periodically to maintain the wood’s softness.  

Another great oil option that is readily available and safe to use is baby oil.  Make sure plan ahead and only use the oil softening treatment if it will be compatible with your final finishing application and technique.

8. Store Carving Wood In a Humid Environment

Proper storage is key to maintaining the softness of your carving wood. Keep your wood in a humid environment, such as a basement or workshop with controlled humidity levels. Storing the wood in a plastic bag or covering it with a damp cloth can help retain moisture, preventing the wood from drying out and becoming too rigid.  

Be careful though, if your humid area doesn’t have proper air circulation or too much moisture in the air your wood can be the perfect location for mold or fungus to grow.

9. Steaming Wood For Easier Carving

Steaming wood is a traditional method that works wonders for making wood more pliable. Construct a simple steam box using a sealed chamber with a steam generator or a heat source with a water pan. Place the piece of wood inside the box and steam it for 30 minutes to a few hours, depending on the wood’s thickness. The steam will soften the fibers, making the wood ideal for carving intricate details.  

After carving off the top layers of wood, you can reapply the steaming method to soften the next layer of wood.  Spoon carvers also like to use the wood steaming box when carving a wooden spoon.  I also like to steam the piece of wood to help create a more natural curve to the spoon handle or whatever the desired shape is that I’m looking for.

10. Use Paint Thinner to Soften Wood

Paint thinner, specifically mineral spirits, can be used to soften wood for carving. Apply the paint thinner to the wood’s surface and let it sit for a short time to penetrate the fibers. This method is effective for smaller pieces, but exercise caution, as excessive use may affect the wood’s appearance or cause other unintended effects. Test on a small area before applying to the entire piece.

What’s Next?

No matter how you try to soften hard wood, some wood retains the hardness and ultimately may not be the best wood for your carving project.  If this is the case, considering using only power tools for this particular piece of project wood.  When whittling or carving, always make sure your hand tools are sharp and well cared for.  

Wood carving tools like gouges and V-tools have a better chance of breaking when carving dry wood, in addition to the higher likelihood of injury. 

If softening wood isn’t your thing, you can also check out our article about the easiest wood to carve.  We have plenty of tips on finding really nice wood pieces that are naturally the softest wood for whittling.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top