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.
Sand your wood in alternate directions if you need to sand it for carving. You will reduce splintering, and your carving surface will be smooth and splinter-free.
Start at one end of your block of wood and sand lightly until you reach about two-thirds of the way down. Then flip the board over and sand the new side with increasing pressure until you reach the same halfway point.
Continue to flip your board until all sides are smooth. To put it another way, if you’re working with a 12-inch piece of lumber, make four passes from bottom to top before flipping and heading back down.
After each pass, rotate until all four sides have been sanded—and always start with a soft touch! When utilizing an electric sander or orbital buffer, you won’t gouge or remove wood chunks by accident.
Sanding is more about abrasion than rubbing. Rather than sanding the wood away, consider running your paper across it. (It’s even better if you do it by hand!) It may take some time, but don’t rush; authentic carvers understand that the time it takes does not diminish the value of their work (especially since carving takes practice anyway).
2. 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 added to it. 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. Steam-boiling will produce good results using green or seasoned wood with little time or work invested.
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 your piece of 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.
You can also apply pine pitch or boiled linseed oil to hardwoods that are too hard to carve without first softening them. Keep in mind that linseed oil takes at least 24 hours before you can start carving with it. In addition, depending on your woodcarving style, using linseed oil may create an unsightly finish on your finished piece. This finish isn’t permanent and will only affect the surface of your wood, but some carvers consider a rough texture a design element worth preserving.
Do note that pine pitch is best applied to softwoods like cedar. The resin acts as both a sealant and a lubricant, which helps soften wood during carving by reducing friction between your tools and the wood itself. It works exceptionally well when combined with steam heating techniques for the same hardwood species like ebony or teak.
There are many different steaming methods available—and not all use a tool designed explicitly for steaming wood. If you have a rice cooker at home, you can improvise a small steam box by placing 2-3 handfuls of uncooked rice in your cooker and adding enough water barely to cover it. Then bring it up to pressure and turn off your heat source.
4 Soaking in Water
This method is not the best out there, but it is worth a shot. All you have to do with this technique is completely immerse your dry wood in water. Ensure that both edges of the wood are entirely immersed in water for adequate water absorption. Allow the wood to soak in water for about two days to soften.
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.
5 Soaking in Salt Water
If you want to soften the wood, salt water is one of your best options. 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 colours, soaking too long can do just 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.
6. 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 to not 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.
7 . 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! 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.
8. Fuming or Ozonizing
The two most popular ways to soften wood for carving are fuming and ozonizing. 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 previously painted or stained, you may want to seek out 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.
9. 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.
Typically, damp heat kilns are available in two different 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, to best take advantage of how these machines work, it’s crucial to understand what you’re trying to achieve.
For the fundamentals of kiln drying, check out here.
10. 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.