The softening of wood for carving is as important for carving as the block of the wood itself. Softer wood is always easier to carve on, and it provides more precision and flexibility. In addition, it is more forgiving of common woodworking mistakes.
Attempting to cut through bone-dry wood can be incredibly frustrating and time consuming. In this article we will discuss how to soften wood for carving, in order to made woodworking easier.
How to Soften Wood for Carving: 4 Easy Methods
Here are four main ways to soften wood for carving:
- Soak it in water
- Steam it with water
- Use rubbing alcohol
- Use chemical agents, such as ammonia
Method 1: Soak in Water
This might be the simplest method to make your wood ready and easier for carving. All you have to do is immerse the wood in water and walk away.
Soaking wood in water helps the cells regain their moisture. The optimum level would be the water content of fresh green timber wood. This is because moisture and water content of the wood fibers make them flexible and easy to carve on.
Also, when plant cells absorb water, they become turgid (more resistant). This increases the dimensional stability and longevity of the wood but only when done for the right amount of time.
Most experts suggest you immerse the wood completely in water for an hour or two. You may need to soak it longer to soften it even more. However, be cautious about how long you soak it for. Soaking it too long can damage the wood by weakening it or allowing the formation of black mold.
Method 2: Steam with Water
Softening the wood by water steam is more efficient than soaking in water. Woodworkers normally use it for the bending of wood. It works the same way as water soaking does. Wood fibers take in moisture and become more flexible. This method usually does the job faster, because the wood has to come in contact with water for a shorter time. Steaming wood helps preserve its shape and strength to a greater extent.
Do not steam the wood longer than required, as it may compromise the shape permanently.
Method 3: Use Rubbing Alcohol
Rubbing alcohol refers to isopropyl alcohol or ethanol-based liquids. Rubbing alcohol can do wonders in softening the hardest of the woods. To use rubbing alcohol properly, simple follow these steps.
- Mix water and rubbing alcohol in a 50/50 ratio.
- Fill a clean spray bottle with the prepared mixture.
- Spray the solution on the wood surface.
- Wait 30 seconds for wood to dry before carving
Make sure you don’t overuse the water in the mixture. Otherwise, it will leave spots and stains on the wood surface.
Method 4: Use Chemical Agents
Ammonia is the most common chemical agent used for wood softening (mostly for the purpose of wood bending). Any ammonia-based treatment or simply ammonia gas can do the job. Ammonia is at the top of all softening methods in its efficiency.
If you are using the hardest of woods, such as lignum vitae, no treatment will work other than ammonia.
Additional Tips for Carving Wood
1. Keep your knives as sharp as possible
Most blades will become dull over time after heavy use. It’s important to sharpen your knives every once in a while to make sure they are being utilize to their full extent. If you want to know how to sharpen a knife correctly, check out this beginner’s guide.
2. Be aware of the type of wood you are cutting
This is one of the most common mistakes beginner woodworkers make. If you are going to carve wood, you should know that some types of wood are harder to carve than others. This will inform what type of knife you should use and how much pressure to apply. You also might have to soften it longer depending on how tough it is to cut.
3. Clean your knife after use
Keeping your knife clean is important for long-term preservation. When moisture and dirt build up, it can cause rust, or possible corrosion. Always wash your knife with antibacterial soap and hot water after using. Leave it to air dry or dab gently with fresh paper towels
Woodcarving is a great hobby and way to pass the time. In addition, it can be done at all skill levels. At the beginner level, with a small block of wood, water soaking or water steaming will work out just fine. If you are using hard, resilient wood, rubbing alcohol is a better option. For hardwood planks on a larger scale, get it softened professionally with chemical agents such as ammonia. We hope that you have learned the skills needed to carve wood the right way. Good luck.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the easiest wood to carve?
Here are the top three easiest and beginner-friendly woods for carving:
American Basswood, or simply basswood, can also be found under the name of limewood or American Linden. It is best for hand carving among beginners because it is lightweight and free from knots. Basswood can be easily found on wood shops and DIY craft shops, often sold in the form of pre-cut Basswood carving blocks.
Balsa is the softest among all types of hardwood, which makes it light and perfect for hand carving. Typically it is recommended for hobbyists. That is because it has a shorter life span and durability.
Butternut wood can easily pass for the more expensive Black Walnut Wood. Along with great aesthetics and a silky texture, Butternut works very well with both hand carving and carving tools.
Look for wormholes before buying.
Is wet wood easier to cut?
Yes. Wet wood is easier to cut than dry wood. Dry wood lacks moisture, which causes friction when the blade comes into contact with the wood fibers. With wet wood, the water acts as a natural lubricant.
There are some types of wood that resist carving even when wet. The density and age of wood also make a huge difference.
How long should wood dry before carving?
Six weeks is the minimum drying time for wood; otherwise, it may warp. The optimal temperature for drying is between 55 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit. In winter, you need to store it in an insulated basement or a garage. Otherwise, the moisture will freeze and prevent the wood from drying.
Is wood carving an expensive hobby?
Wood carving is an excellent hobby since it is a great way to boost your creativity and imagination. All you need is a couple of carving tools, such as a chisel or mallet, and a block of wood. The minimum cost of a block of wood set is about $15. You can find one here on Amazon.
To get started, you just need your passion and the internet. Once you get good you can earn from your hobby and maintain it. With such a low investment, you can sell what you create at a high profit and keep the cycle going. Who knows, one day it could become your successful startup.
What tools should you use to carve wood?
Woodcarvers usually have a specific set of tools they like to use. The choice and selection of the tools must be precise so that better results can be achieved. Moreover, the tools must be reliable and safe to use. These include the following:
A fundamental tool for wood carving. Chisel is used with a mallet for carving intricate patterns.
Our pick – GREBSTK Professional Wood Chisel Tool Set
The mallet compliments the chisel. It offers precision when carving into the wood.
Our pick – Wood Is Good WD205 Mallet, 18-Ounce
Gouges are used for scooping out regions of wood. They come in various shapes, such as U-shaped and V-shaped gouges. They are commonly used for shaping and smoothing wooden figurines.
Our pick – BeaverCraft Wood Carving Gouge Chisel
4. Sharpening Stone
This is essential for you to keep going. Sharpening the edges of the chisel makes carving easier and accurate.
Our pick – Complete Knife Sharpening Stone Set
What is the difference between wood carving and whittling?
Wood carving involves more tools and larger blocks of wood, while whittling is done using simply a knife.
You can use whittling to do very basic, raw tasks. Wood carving, which covers every task other than whittling, covers more intricate and complex tasks.
“Cleaning Knives And Cutting Boards.” American Cleaning Institute, accessed May 5, 2021. https://www.cleaninginstitute.org/cleaning-tips/dishes/cleaning-knives-cutting-boards#:~:text=Wash%20your%20knife%20with%20dish,dry%20with%20clean%20paper%20towels.&text=Handle%20kitchen%20knives%20carefully%20by,rack%20them%20with%20handles%20up.