Furniture builders who distress wood have their own sets of tricks. We've seen bike chains, bottlecaps, and even beloved, uniquely-shaped rocks all used to bang antique-looking dents into tabletops and the like. But how about getting accidental dents out of a wood surface? Or even mis-drilled holes? There is a pretty magical way to fix them. Use a steamer.
For a video demonstration of how to do this, we look to woodworking expert and addict Izzy Swan, the maniac who figured out how to turn wooden balls using a circular saw. In the video below, Swan demonstrates how to take an average, $20 steamer and use it to apply steam for a few minutes to screw holes in wood. After steaming, he lets the board dry for about 30 minutes and quite incredibly, the holes are practically non-existent. He also shows how you can remove dents in wood by applying a damp rag to the dent and then running a hot iron over it for only two minutes.
Now, why does this process work?
Well with dents specifically, the wood fibers have been compressed and crushed, by something heavy... often a hammer, or anything hard that has fallen on the wood.
As we've written about in other posts, moisture plays a large role in how wood moves and lasts. Wood cells are filled with mostly water. And although some water can be removed by drying processes water, nonetheless, remains within the cell walls. How much water is lost depends on the surrounding humidity around the wood.
So if the humidity rises, the moisture content of the wood also rises and the wood expands. And steam (which will greatly increase the surrounding humidity) is what helps the compressed fibers of dented wood return to their original shape. The wood fibers swell with moisture. It will not go back exactly to what it was, as there may be some tearing of the fibers. Woodworkers are advised to repeat the iron/steam process until the dent is removed. And in those cases where you're still not satisfied after repeated steaming, then maybe it's time to turn to putty or waxes or other fillers.
Holes are probably more likely to have ripped some of the wood fibers, so in the case of mistakes in drilling there is only so much steam can do. The process does close up the hole significantly but as Swan notes in the video above, you may need to finish it off with a filler. He uses glue, then after it dries, finishes it with a light sanding.
After sanding, you might want to touch it up with a wax or light stain to visually minimize any remnant of dent or hole.
Of course it's important to only try these steaming techniques on untreated wood! Any finish or veneer will be ruined by the steam.