How To Soften Wood For Carving: 10 Best Ways

Softening wood for carving is one of the essential steps in getting your carving ready to go. Without softening wood, it can be challenging, if not impossible, to get the fine details of the carving done right. It’s also hard to carve out any mistakes in the carving if you try to do that before you soften it! If you don’t know how to ease the wood or want some new ideas on how to do it, this guide will help you.

Methods used to soften wood for carving.

1. Steam Boiling

Steam-boiling is an effective way to soften the wood. Steam-boiling involves heating your wood in a water container with some steam. Boil some water on your stovetop, and once it begins to boil, turn off your heat source and place an open container of wood inside. Then allow for steaming until your wood is soft enough to carve out.

This works with wood as thin as a pencil and as thick as six inches. Hardwoods will not soften, so unless they’re necessary for your project, forgo them. With little time or work invested, steam-boiling will produce good results using green or seasoned wood.

Also read how to steam bend wood

Advantages of steam boiling

  • It does not change the shape of the wood
  • It doesn’t harm the interior or exterior structure wood
  • The method is applicable in both thin and thick wood
  • The color of the wood remains the same

Disadvantages of Steam Boiling

  1. It requires you to carve the wood quickly from the steaming chamber or else the wood would crack.

Check the best wood for carving

2. using mineral oil to lubricate

Oil can be used to soften the wood. If you want quick results, I recommend using at least two methods in conjunction. Because the oil takes a while to permeate deeply into the fibers of your wood, it’s better to do it in conjunction with another approach, such as heat or moisture. This may necessitate soaking your wood in oil for several days, if not weeks. This will take about 5 minutes of steam for every inch of thickness you’re trying to soften.

Mineral oil works best for this approach of softening wood because it preserves the wood’s natural appearance. All you need to do is use a soft, lint-free cloth to apply mineral oil to your wood. After completely soaking the lint-free cloth in the mineral oil, apply it to your wood in a uniform manner, covering all parts of the wood. The mineral oil will soak into the wood, saturate the fibers, and loosen the links between them as a result of the absorption process that takes 2 to 3 hours to complete. The wood becomes elastic and soft as a result.

With mineral oil, you have to wait before carving the wood because it takes longer for it to be absorbed into the wood. However, the results are fantastic and you’ll be able to carve wood with any instrument smoothly without worrying about chipping it.

Advantages of using oil to soften the wood

  1. Using mineral oil enhances the wood’s natural look.
  2. It improves the look of the wood by adding thickness to the grain and bringing out the natural color of the wood.
  3. In order to provide some protection against fluctuations in humidity, mineral oil penetrates into the wood grain. As a result, the wood is less likely to split or warp.
  4. When exposed to heated temperatures, mineral oil stabilizes the wood and prevents it from deteriorating.

Disadvantages of using Oil to soften the wood

  1. Due to the slow mineral oil absorption, there is a long waiting period.

3 Apply WD-40

Using WD-40 to soften wood for carving is a very useful choice that almost every household may have available. Because WD-40 is mostly made of mineral oil and a few solvents, it absorbs quickly into the wood and allows for easy carving.

Spray WD-40 on the chosen area of the wood that you want to carve, then wait a minute or so for the mixture to absorb into the wood to soften it. If the wood is dry, it will quickly absorb the WD-40 and develop a glossy finish. Apply once or twice more for a smoother cutting experience if the wood absorbs it quickly (10 seconds or less).

However, keep in mind that despite the fact that mineral oil is one of the main ingredients, this is not a food-safe solution and is only advised for carvings that will be used as a showpiece. The carvings should also be kept away from an open flame for a few hours to a day to allow the fumes to evaporate.

Advantages of using WD-40 to soften the wood

  •  It doesn’t stain and it evaporates
  • It absorbs quickly into the wood
  • It is easy to use
  • It makes the wood more flexible and easy to carve

Disadvantages of using WD-40 to soften the wood

  • It is not food safe
  • It needs a well-ventilated area because of the hazardous chemical
  • It is an expensive method

4. Soaking in Water

This method is not the best, but it is worth a shot. All you have to do with this technique is completely immerse your dry wood in water. Ensure that you immerse both edges of the wood entirely in water for adequate water absorption. Allow the wood to soak in water for about two days to soften. As the water soaks into the surface it will soften that area of the wood and carve much easier.

Note that: After getting the wood out of the water, make your carvings quickly before the wood dries again, as it will become harder than it was before.

Advantages of softening with water

  • It is cheaper
  • The procedure is easy

Disadvantages of softening with water

  • water gets inside the grain and can cause the wood to crack when it gets dry
  • water can change the natural color of the wood

Check Out: How to straighten warped wood using water

5. Soften with a 50/50 water and alcohol solution

This method is also one of the best to soften your wood for carving. The alcohol here acts as a thinner allowing quick absorption, as well as evaporating in a timely fashion not to allow the water to ‘soak’ the wood limiting the effect of grain raising.

To achieve a uniform result, spray or rub the solution into the wood. Mix equal parts alcohol and water in a disposable cup. Fill a spray bottle halfway with the solution and spray it all over the wood, making sure not to miss any spots.

To rub it on the wood, use a lint-free soft cloth and soak it in a prepared alcohol-water mixture before rubbing the wood surface. Since rubbing will reduce water’s surface tension and facilitate alcohol penetration of the wood, it is preferable to rub alcohol rather than spray it. Allow the area to dry for around 30 minutes after you’ve finished rubbing or spraying it with alcohol.

Advantages of using 50/50 water/alcohol

  • It softens wood both inside and out.
  • It is an easy process
  • it has less waiting time for you to begin carving


  • You must do an experiment before using it on your actual project.
  • Excessive spraying or rubbing may leave watermarks on the wood.

6. Soaking in Salt Water

Saltwater is one of your best options if you want to soften the wood. Soak your wood overnight or longer if it’s particularly hard. You’ll find that after enough time in saltwater, it will become much easier to carve your design—not quite as soft as some other methods, but still considerably softer than before!

However, this method has a drawback; while allowing the wood to soak can sometimes help deepen natural markings and colors, soaking too long can do the opposite.

A good rule of thumb is about an hour for every inch of thickness. But keep in mind that different woods soak differently, so always watch closely. Also, be aware that other wood species require different amounts of soaking.

7. Boiling Water Bath

Boiling water is a standard way to soften the wood. While not perfect for all types of wood, it can work in a pinch when nothing else is available. However, be sure to monitor your piece not to warp or crack from overheating. It’s also essential to maintain an even temperature not to burn your carving.

Be careful handling hot materials! If you have any doubts about softening your wood using boiling water, avoid doing it and try one of these other methods instead.

8. Electric Heating Rod

This quick and easy way to soften wood for carving starts with heating a metal rod in an open flame and applying it to your piece. This will heat your item very quickly, but remember that if you’re trying to carve wood that has already been heated by another method (like hot water), be careful—you don’t want to keep heating it until it catches on fire! The best results are obtained using either brass or copper rods.

The important thing is that they conduct electricity well; avoid steel wire hangers, sticks from your yard, etc., unless you’re prepared to put them through your shop’s tumbler multiple times to smooth out all of those burrs before using them.

9. Fuming or Ozonizing

Fuming and ozonizing are the two most popular ways to soften wood for carving. Fuming uses a combination of ammonia and HCL gas. It is ideal for softening end grain and tight knots.

On the other hand, Oxidization is very effective at softening all types of woods, including hardwoods such as oak, mahogany, and walnut. After Oxidization, it takes about 48 hours for your freshly cut pieces to be ready for carving!

Both of these processes will remove paint from wood, so if you’re working with an older piece that has been painted or stained, you may want to seek other methods such as boiling and steaming. One easy way to do it yourself at home is using items found around the house!

Ozonizers can be purchased online or in home improvement stores. You might also be able to borrow one from a family member who works in medicine.

 10. Damp-Heat Kiln

A damp heat kiln is one method for softening wood for carving. The kiln process involves drying wood in a chamber where air circulation, relative humidity, and temperature can be controlled to reduce the moisture content of the wood to the desired level while avoiding drying defects.

Damp heat kilns can be used on small pieces of wood like candle holders or larger sections of lumber such as headboards or other furniture.

Lamp heat kilns are typically available in two styles; one consists of racks within a series of chambers, while the other includes trays placed within trays with no sections.

Both styles must be properly vented before they are turned on so that air can circulate freely through and out of them, but once turned on, no special precautions are required to keep them running efficiently. However, it’s crucial to understand what you’re trying to achieve to best take advantage of how these machines work.

For the fundamentals of kiln drying, check out here.

11. Microwave Treatment

Place the wood in a microwave-safe container and heat it for one minute per inch of thickness. (Microwave is not recommended for resins or plastics.) Then apply a damp cloth to soften it further. Allow cooling before working with it.

Also, check out our new article on the best ways to Season Wood for Carving.

Frequently Asked Questions

What’s the best way to soften wood?

In order to make wood easier to carve, you need a way to soften the wood. There are many different methods that can be used, but the best way is to use the steam from boiling water or a steamer. You can also use an electric pot or put the wood in the oven on low heat. Steaming is a good method since it does not change the shape of the wood and also it is non-toxic.

Will using different chemicals affect how well my carving turns out?

Yes, depending on what type of chemical you’re using. For example, if you’re soaking your wood with acetone or alcohol-based cleaners (e.g., denatured alcohol), this could cause discoloration and make any designs that are drawn on the surface less visible when it dries.

Acetone has been known to dissolve natural dyes in some woods like walnut or mahogany so they might not show up as vividly as before treatment. There are also other alternatives for dissolving finishes such as mineral spirits, turpentine, linseed oil and paint thinner. Make sure to read labels carefully before using them because these substances can react differently based on the type of wood being used