7 Best Methods to Soften Wood for Carving

By Kevin Kessinger •  Updated: 06/28/22 •  5 min read

Let’s face it some woods are harder to carve naturally. If you run across these types of woods, knowing how to make them softer will help you by improving your flexibility and precision when carving. Softening a hardwood can also help by making it more flexible and easier to bend.

How to Soften Wood for Carving

1. Use an Alcohol-Water Spray

If you’re working on a small wood carving and need to soften the wood, then a mixture of 50 percent water and 50 percent alcohol will do. For woodcarving, this technique is ideal for detail work. Depending on how you want the mixture to be applied, you can use a spray bottle or a dry cloth.

This method works perfectly as opposed to using only water or alcohol. The alcohol reduces the surface tension of the water, which in turn helps the mixture to be easily absorbed by the wood. Keep a spray bottle with this mixture close by to spray your carvings as you carve through harder wood.

2. Soak in Water

This is a simple method you can try to soften wood before carving. Simply, you soak the wood in water for an hour or two before carving. Make sure the wood is fully submerged in water for best results. This process, however, will not make dry wood feel pliable compared to the greenwood.

Depending on the type of wood, keep checking at different time intervals to make sure the wood does not become waterlogged, which might make the wood prone to splitting once it dries up. Soaking it longer can also damage the wood and allow the formation of mold.

3. Steam Boiling

Steaming wood is one of my favorite ways to soften up wood for carving. Steaming involves just that, and it helps loosen the fibers and make wood easier to carve. This method is also more efficient than submerging the wood in water. It also helps preserve the shape of the wood and improve its strength to a greater extent.

As the wood takes in hot moisture, it becomes flexible and, therefore easier to carve. Woodworkers also use steaming to bend wood for use. Caution should be observed when steaming. Steaming for a longer time may compromise the shape of the wood permanently.

4. Use Ammonia to soften wood

The use of chemicals on wood is common, especially for wood bending. To soften wood, Ammonia treatments are applied to the wood. Ammonia then breaks the bonds of hydrogen which are responsible for the natural stiffness of the wood. This softens the wood and makes it easier to carve or bend.

The advantage of using ammonia to soften wood is that the structure of the wood is restored once the ammonia evaporates. However, the drawback of using ammonia is its toxicity. It must be handled with care to prevent burning of the eyes, nose, throat, and respiratory tract.

5. Storing in a Humid Environment

The more you dry wood, the tighter the wood fibers become, and thus harder it is to carve the wood. Most of the wood processed for carving has a moisture content of between 5% to 15%. To make it softer, storing it in a humid environment can make it easy to carve.

Different regions have different climates, and this will affect your storage options. If you live in a humid climate, a shed or garage will do. However, those in dry environments will appreciate the use of a good humidifier to add moisture to the storage room.

Avoid storing wood in a very humid storage area to avoid fungus growth and rotting.

6. Boiling in Water

Compared to just soaking wood in water, boiling the wood in water is even a faster way to soften wood. For this method, heat a pot of water to boil with the wood immersed. The size of the pot will be dependent on the size of the wood. The thickness of the wood will affect how long you should boil the wood.

The downside to this method is it can result in color change in some types of wood making them appear paler. You should also be careful to avoid hot water burns on your skin.

7. Denatured Alcohol

Denatured alcohol has long been used to clean wood after sanding it down. Denatured alcohol or methylated spirit consists of about 94% alcohol and is stronger than the alcohol-water solution I recommended. For this method to work, first, soak or use a spray bottle on the wood before carving.

After this, use your knife to carve down the wood and see how easier it will feel. Because different types of wood will react differently to denatured alcohol, it is better to test on a piece of wood before using it on your carving.

Alternatives to Softening Wood for Carving

1. Use Freshly Cut Wood

It is easier to carve into greenwood, compared to dry wood. If you have the time, looking for freshly cut wood is the easiest way to guarantee the wood is at its softest point for carving. You can get greenwood from local parks by clearing downed trees on roadsides or trails.

2. Keep your Carving Knives Sharp

A sharp carving knife or tool is what leads to a successful and better carving experience. Keeping your carving tools sharp not only produces clean cuts, but you can also carve through harder wood easily.

How often should you sharpen your wood carving tools?

There is no possible way to quantify how often you should sharpen wood carving tools. The best way to know when to sharpen is when the knife feels dull. You cannot say several days, an approximate number of strokes, or some other measuring guideline.

Kevin Kessinger

Kev is the founder of Pro Wood Carving and has been carving spoons, small pieces, and whittling since his teenage years. He has continued to level up his wood carving skills and wanted to share his journey and knowledge with other wood carvers. He launched Pro Wood Carving in 2021 to make wood carving more approachable for everyone looking to improve their skills.