Every now and then you may run across some wood that is just too dry or hard to whittle. Attempting to cut into the wood with a knife causes the wood to splinter and dulls out your knife really fast.
I have seen this happen the most during winter, if the wood has been outside in the sun for too long, or if they have been dried in the kiln for a bit too long.
There are a few great ways to get the wood soft again and make it easier to cut. One is by spraying the wood with a 50/50 mixture of distilled water and rubbing alcohol, and the other is by soaking the wood in water.
Lets go over each method in detail so you can choose what way is best for you.
Soaking the Wood
A method I have used to dehydrate dry, hard wood that has been sitting in the sun for a while is soaking the wood in a bucket or small container. Since I store my pine outside behind the shed here in Florida, they get plenty of sun and can get really hard.
Soaking dry wood will make it easier to carve and will make it easier to carve than kiln dried wood. Your carving experience won’t be the same as carving fresh greenwood, but it will be a more enjoyable experience than when it is hard and dry.
This is by far the easiest way to soften up your wood besides letting it sit outside in the rain and will help prevent your knife from dulling out too fast.
How to Soak the Wood
You will want to make sure the wood has soaked all the way through, and may take longer if it is really hard. I had to do this the other day with a section of pine that was way too hard for my knives to cut through, Here is what I did to re-hydrate the wood:
- Find a large enough container to soak the wood you will be working on.
- Fill with water and place your block of wood with a weight to keep it submerged.
- Allow to sit between 10-30 minutes depending on how hard the wood is. Don’t let it soak for too long or it may start to become pliable and increase chances of checking.
- Remove and start whittling, but keep the water near by if it drys out too quickly.
Downsides to Soaking the Wood
Soaking the wood may make it easier to whittle, but there are some downsides to consider. I haven’t had too many issues with whittling wood that I let soak in water, but knowing about them beforehand will prevent any surprises and allow you to prevent them from happening.
- The wood may bend if too much force is applied while whittling.
- After the wood dries, it may have slightly different proportions than when it was dry.
- Uneven soaking may occur and the center may be completely dry.
- Soaking the wood increases chances of checking (cuts or score lines along the wood grain).
- If you don’t let the wood dry, it could start growing mildew.
I rarely have any serious problems, but it is usually best to let the carving sit outside or in a good place to let it dry naturally for a day or so. I wouldn’t try putting it in the oven or using a hair dryer, this could make it dry too quickly or only dry the outside.
Use a Spray Bottle
If you are working on a smaller whittling project, you don’t need to soak the wood. Instead you could keep a small spray bottle filled with a 50/50 mixture of rubbing alcohol and distilled water available if you start whittling dry and hard wood.
The best way use the spray bottle is to saturate the surface you will be whittling with the 50/50 mixture and let it sit for a few seconds before you start whittling. This will make the wood softer and easier to cut into.
It is recommended that you use the 50/50 mixture of distilled water and rubbing alcohol for several reasons:
- The rubbing alcohol reduces surface tension in the wood and allows the water to easily absorb into the wood.
- The water prevents the rubbing alcohol from evaporating too quickly.
- The rubbing alcohol mixture can help the knife cut a bit smoother.
I recommend using distilled water over regular tap water to help prevent mold from growing inside the bottle, the alcohol will help reduce the problem but if you have tap water like mine the problem is inevitable.
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Keep your Knife Sharp
Keeping your knife sharp goes without saying, but if you aren’t going to prep the dry hard wood with water before hand you will need to pay extra special attention to the knifes cutting edge.
Keep your strop available and be more proactive about sharpening your knife. The last time I tried to whittle without soaking the blade, I had to sharpen every 5-10 minutes just to keep a good cutting edge.
It would be ideal to use other cutting tools like saws and hatchets beforehand to remove large sections of wood before attempting to remove them with your knife. This may save you some headache, time and hand pains along the way.
If You Used Water, Clean Your Knives
Most of the whittling knives I own are made of carbon steel and are more prone to rusting than regular stainless steel. If you used a soaking or spray method to soften your wood, make sure to properly clean your tools afterwards.
When you are done whittling, it is a good idea to wipe off any moisture from the blade and apply a thin layer of protective oil like 3-in-one oil to prevent rust. This is a good practice to do regardless if you soaked your wood or not.
You don’t need very much oil at all, just apply a few drops to a piece of cloth and wipe a very thin layer on the entire knife.