How To Soften Wood: 9 Easy Ways!

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When we are making furniture in our woodworking shop, we think about a hard and durable wood that will be strong enough to support the weight (chairs and tables, for instance) and last a long time.

But, not all woodworking projects call for hard woods.  Wood carving, for instance, prefers soft woods that are easier to shape and form.  Softening wood before carving makes the task so much easier.

Key Points:

  • Moisture will soften wood, and the methods of softening wood with moisture include soaking in water, steaming (especially for bending wood), and using a water/alcohol mixture to wet wood being carved. You’re making the wood wet, but you also want to let it dry after softening.
  • Chemical treatments can also soften wood, although you must be careful working with chemicals for this purpose; you might prefer other methods.
  • Tools can also be used to soften wood, especially when wanting to bend wood to create an arc or to build an arch; saw, chisel, or router are options.

This answers the question, “Why would you want to soften wood?” of course, although carving is not the only reason.  Sometimes a project calls for wood bending, wood that can be shaped into an arc or arch.  Softening the wood for carving and bending are good reasons to want to soften wood.  

How do you go about softening wood, though?  Well, there are more than a handful of ways to soften wood, some better than others.  We turned to carvers for some of the better ways, as well as a carpenter friend who regularly bends wood to form arcs in his detailed interior work on houses.

Why Would You Want To Soften Wood?

Curved Wood Panels

As we mentioned, we can think of at least a couple, although there are more.  Carving and bending are at the top of the list.  We must admit we’re not really carvers, but we have had occasions when it was necessary to bend wood.

One of the current reasons, a project about to begin, is to create a moon gate for entry into a Chinese Garden in the backyard.  The round opening of the moon gate invites attention inside the garden, and we’re excited to begin.

There are other reasons, though, too:

  • To make it easier to carve. When wood is dry, it can be very hard to carve. Soaking the wood in water or applying a moisture-based product can make it softer and easier to carve.
  • To bend the wood. If you want to bend wood into a specific shape, you can soften it by steaming it or soaking it in water. Once the wood is soft, you can bend it into the desired shape and then allow it to dry.
  • To prevent cracking. When wood dries out, it can crack. Soaking the wood in water or applying a moisture-based product can help to prevent cracking.
  • To improve the finish. Applying a moisture-based product to wood can help to improve the finish by making it smoother and more even.

It is important to note that softening wood can affect its strength and durability. So, it is important to use the right method and to be careful not to oversoften the wood.

Here are some tips for softening wood:

  • Use the right method for the type of wood you are working with. Some woods are more difficult to soften than others.
  • Do not oversoften the wood. Oversoftening the wood can make it weak and prone to cracking.
  • Allow the wood to dry completely before using it. If the wood is not completely dry, it can be more likely to crack or warp.

What Are The Best Woods For Softening?

There are many different types of wood that can be softened, but some are better suited for this purpose than others. Here are some of the best woods for softening:

  • Balsa: Balsa is the softest wood available, and it is often used for model making and other applications where a lightweight, easy-to-carve wood is needed.
  • Basswood: Basswood is another softwood that is easy to carve and work with. It is often used for carving projects, such as figurines and sculptures.
  • Poplar: Poplar is a strong yet soft wood that is easy to work with. It is often used for furniture, cabinetry, and other woodworking projects.
  • Maple: Maple is a hardwood, but it can be softened by soaking or steaming. It is often used for carving projects, such as bowls and utensils.
  • Cherry: Cherry is a hardwood that can be softened by soaking or steaming. It is often used for furniture, cabinetry, and other woodworking projects.

When choosing a wood to soften, it is important to consider the desired results. If you are looking for a very soft wood that is easy to carve, then balsa or basswood are good choices. If you are looking for a stronger wood that can be softened for bending or other purposes, then poplar, maple, or cherry are good choices.

It is also important to consider the size and shape of the wood you are working with. Softer woods are more easily bent or carved, but they may not be strong enough for larger projects. Harder woods are stronger, but they may be more difficult to work with.

Once you have chosen the right wood, you can soften it using one of the methods described below. Soaking, steaming, or applying a moisture-based product will all work to soften the wood. The amount of time needed to soften the wood will vary depending on the type of wood and the method used.

Once the wood is soft, you can use it for your desired project. Be sure to allow the wood to dry completely before using it.

9 Ways To Soften Wood

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We assume the wood you are wanting to soften is dry wood, and these 9 ways to soften wood start with dry wood.  

  1. Soaking: Soaking the wood in hot water for a few hours or overnight can help to soften it. The longer the wood is soaked, the softer it will become as its moisture content rises.
  2. Steaming: Steaming the wood for a few minutes can also help to soften it. To steam the wood, place it in a pot or bucket and cover it with water. Bring the water to a boil and then reduce the heat to low. Allow the wood to steam for 5-10 minutes.
  3. Applying a moisture-based product: There are a number of moisture-based products that you can apply to wood to soften it. These products include mineral oil, wood conditioner, and wood finish. Apply the product to the wood with a cloth or brush. Allow the product to soak into the wood for 15-30 minutes.  Even something as simple as a 50/50 alcohol-water solution (denatured alcohol) from a clean spray bottle will soften wood.  Keeping the spray bottle of prepared alcohol-water mixture handy and spraying only the wood surface you are about to carve will make your carving work easier.
  4. Using a heat gun: A heat gun can be used to soften wood. Hold the heat gun about 6 inches away from the wood and move it back and forth. Be careful not to overheat the wood, as this can cause it to warp or crack.
  5. Using a hair dryer: A hairdryer can also be used to soften wood. Hold the hair dryer on the wood for 10-15 seconds at a time. Be careful not to overheat the wood this way, too, as this can cause it to warp or crack.
  6. Using a router: A router can be used to soften wood. Use a router bit with a curved edge to create a groove in the wood. This will help to soften the wood and make it easier to bend.
  7. Using a chisel: A chisel can be used to soften wood. Use a chisel to shave off small amounts of wood until the wood is soft enough to work with.
  8. Using a sanding block: A sanding block can be used to soften wood. Sand the wood with medium-grit sandpaper until it is smooth. Then, sand the wood with fine-grit sandpaper to create a smooth finish.  This method is not so much for carving or bending as it is to soften the surface fibers to absorb more of your chosen finish.
  9. Using a wood softener chemical: There are a number of wood softener chemicals available that can be used to soften wood. These chemicals are typically applied to the wood with a brush. Allow the chemical to soak into the wood for 15-30 minutes.

It is important to note that softening wood can affect its strength and durability. So, it is important to use the right method and to be careful not to oversoften the wood.

Here are some tips for softening wood:

  • Use the right method for the type of wood you are working with. Some woods are more difficult to soften than others.
  • Do not oversoften the wood. Oversoftening the wood can make it weak and prone to cracking.
  • Allow the wood to dry completely before using it. If the wood is not completely dry, it can be more likely to crack or warp.

Can You Boil Wood In Water To Soften It?

Yes, you can boil wood in water to soften it. This is a somewhat common method used by woodworkers to soften wood for bending or carving. When wood is boiled, the water molecules penetrate the wood fibers and swell them, making the wood softer and more pliable.

To boil wood, you will need a pot or bucket large enough to hold the wood, enough water to cover the wood, and a heat source. Fill the pot or bucket with water and bring it to a boil. Place the wood in the boiling water and cook it for 15-30 minutes or until it is soft enough to bend or carve.

Once the wood is soft, remove it from the boiling water and allow it to cool. The wood will harden as it cools.

It is important to note that boiling wood can affect its strength and durability. So, it is important to use the right method and to be careful not to oversoften the wood.

Here are some tips for boiling wood:

  • Use the right type of wood. Not all woods are created equal. Some woods are more resistant to boiling than others. Softwoods, such as pine and fir, are generally easier to boil than hardwoods, such as oak and maple.
  • Do not overboil the wood. Overboiling the wood can make it weak and prone to cracking.
  • Allow the wood to cool completely before using it. If the wood is not completely dry, it can be more likely to crack or warp.

The carvers we approached (since we are not carvers) tend not to boil their wood for carving.  Besides the fact you are working with boiling water, boiling wood for carving in water will change the color of the wood.  

What Chemical Treatments Will Soften Wood?

There are a number of chemical treatments that can soften wood. These treatments work by breaking down the lignin and hemicellulose in the wood, which are the two main components that make wood hard.

Some of the most common chemical treatments for softening wood include:

  • Ammonia: Ammonia is a strong alkaline that can be used to soften wood. To use ammonia, mix 1 part ammonia with 10 parts water. Apply the ammonia-based treatment to the wood with a brush. Allow the solution to soak into the wood for 15-30 minutes.
  • Borax: Borax is a mild alkaline that can be used to soften wood. To use borax, mix 1 part borax with 10 parts water. Apply the solution to the wood with a brush. Allow the solution to soak into the wood for 15-30 minutes.
  • Hydrogen peroxide: Hydrogen peroxide is a mild oxidizer that can be used to soften wood. To use hydrogen peroxide, mix 1 part hydrogen peroxide with 10 parts water. Apply the solution to the wood with a brush. Allow the solution to soak into the wood for 15-30 minutes.
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It is important to note that chemical treatments can be harmful to the environment. It is important to wear gloves and eye protection when using chemical treatments and to dispose of the solution properly.  Also, do this in a well-ventilated area.

It is also important to note that chemical treatments can affect the color and finish of the wood. It is important to test the chemical treatment on an inconspicuous area of the wood before using it on the entire piece.

Here are some tips for using chemical treatments to soften wood:

  • Use the right treatment for the type of wood you are working with. Some woods are more resistant to chemical treatments than others.
  • Do not over-treat the wood. Over-treating the wood can make it weak and prone to cracking.
  • Allow the wood to dry completely before using it. If the wood is not completely dry, it can be more likely to crack or warp.

Is Green Wood Soft?

Yes, green wood is soft. This is because green wood contains a lot of moisture, which makes it pliable and easy to work with. As the wood dries, the moisture evaporates, and the wood becomes harder and more brittle.

Green wood is often used for carving and other woodworking projects where a soft, easy-to-work-with wood is desired. However, it is important to note that green wood is not as strong as dry wood and is more likely to warp or crack.

Working with green wood, whether for carving or bending, obviates the need to soften it.  We just thought we’d mention wood that is already soft and doesn’t need to be further softened.

Which brings us to…

What Are The Best Woods For Carving?

Carving Wood

There are many different types of wood that are good for carving, but some are better suited for this purpose than others. Here are some of the best woods for carving:

  • Basswood: Basswood is a softwood that is easy to carve and has a smooth, even grain. It is a good choice for beginners because it is easy to work with and does not require a lot of sharpening.
  • Butternut: Butternut is another softwood that is easy to carve and has a beautiful, rich grain. It is a good choice for more experienced carvers who want to create detailed carvings.
  • Poplar: Poplar is a hardwood that is easy to carve and has a straight grain. It is a good choice for carvers who want to create large carvings or carvings that will be used for functional purposes.
  • Maple: Maple is a hardwood that is hard to carve but has a beautiful, straight wood grain. It is a good choice for carvers who want to create detailed carvings that will last for many years.
  • Oak: Oak is a hardwood that is very hard to carve but has a beautiful, straight grain. It is a good choice for carvers who want to create very detailed carvings or carvings that will be used for functional purposes.  We recently wrote about oak wood for carving, and you should read it if you are interested in carving a piece of wood that will last a very long time and are an experienced carver.

Lesser Ways To Soften Wood

Beyond the 9 ways listed above, which are the most common ways to soften wood, there are lesser ways, too.  

Air-drying wood over months or years will produce a softer version of the wood than a rapid kiln-dried wood. Air-dried wood will be easier to carve than kiln-dried wood, and you can always check with your sourcing place to find out if the wood you want to purchase is air-dried wood; if not, air-dry your green wood yourself for a ready supply for carving.

Mineral oil or baby oil can also be used to soften wood; rubbed into the area about to be carved and allowing it to be absorbed will produce a softer wood for your carving tools.  WD40, for instance, is mostly mineral oil, and a spray of that on the wood surface allowed to dry (it dries quickly) will give you a softer wood for carving.

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Kerosene can soften wood, also, if you can stand the odor.  If you use kerosene, be sure it’s in a well-ventilated area.  

Humid room storage will also soften wood.  If you have the space, a room dedicated to a 70% – 80% humidity level (with a humidifier) will keep the wood soft for carving.

Even if you are not a wood carver now, you may be someday, so keep this article handy.  If not a carver, you may have a project someday that calls for bending wood, another reason to keep this piece in your files.  A little steaming, or a little soaking, or a little spraying, and your wood is soft enough for either task.

Last update on 2024-02-27 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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