How to Make Realistic Worm Holes in Wood

If you want to make something look older, just add some worm holes. Sounds simple enough, but there is a major difference between just poking holes in the wood and making the holes look authentic. Now that the all natural, rustic wood look is in style, even new, or at least not very old wood often benefits from more character, and I am here to show you how to really do it.

First off, let me assure you that I have a lot of experience in this field. I often build pieces that need to be “wormed up” in some regard, either to make new wood look old or to make old wood look even older. Especially on projects like beams and mantels, worm holes help add a lot of age to a piece.

Much of the wood that I use already has worm holes in it because I let the logs sit awhile outside before I mill them into lumber (sometimes even on purpose), so I have a head start, but there will still often be spots without bug holes where the wood needs a little extra love, like in the following video:

To get things started, it helps to first look at truly worm-eaten wood. There are consistencies even in what looks to be very inconsistent patterns. Here are a few principles that hold up in most wormy wood:

1.) Hole sizes vary: Even similar-sized holes are not the same. Your method for creating holes should easily produce random results.

2.) Worms tend to focus their efforts: Holes will usually have an area of focus, with more holes in the center of an infected area fading out to fewer holes.

3.) Not all holes are perpendicular to the surface:  While most holes are just that – holes, many are oblong and some are more like trails.

4.) The bugs that make the worm holes often enter around defects in the wood: Soft or punky wood, spalted wood, cracks, and sapwood are all areas that will focus worm activity. Good, strong, solid heartwood is the last area to be bug infested.

5.) Small holes outnumber the big ones: Older wood that has been attacked by multiple insects will have lots of tiny holes (1/16′ diameter), some medium-sized holes (1/8″ diameter), and just a few big holes (up to 1/4″ diameter).

Here are some photos of authentic worm holes. If you can copy any these patterns you will be off to a good start.

This section of pine shows a nice array of hole sizes from large to small. Notice how the long holes follow the grain.

This section of pine shows a nice array of hole sizes from large to small. Notice how the long holes follow the grain.

This section of hickory has holes that make short lines. They are also very dark and almost seem stained.

This section of hickory has holes that make short lines. They are also very dark and almost seem stained.

This section of maple shows a mix of holes and short trails.

This section of maple shows a mix of holes and short trails.

The holes in this white oak are larger and have stains around them where the wood has started to decay.

The holes in this white oak are larger and have stains around them where the wood has started to decay.

 

Here are some of my tricks for achieving realistic results:

  1. A scratch awl, normally used for marking projects, is the perfect tool for making small to medium-sized holes, after being sharpened to a long, tapered point.

    A scratch awl, normally used for marking projects, is the perfect tool for making small to medium-sized holes, after being sharpened to a long, tapered point.

    Small holes. You’ll be tempted to use a drill bit for the smallest holes, but it isn’t the best choice. Tiny drill bits break easy and the size is too consistent. Plus, they pull out wood fibers that make the edge of the holes fuzzy. Instead use a nail or a scratch awl sharpened to a long fine point. A scratch awl is the best choice because it can be used without a hammer and produces speedy results. The long point will make different sized holes depending on how deep it is pushed into the wood. Push the scratch awl in the wood at different angles and different depths.

  2. Large holes. Use a twist drill bit for the larger holes. Be sure to drill deep enough that you can’t see the bottom of the holes and to vary the drill angle. Put the bigger holes in the softer wood. Sapwood, punky wood and areas around defects are a good place to start. Mix up the sizes in the 1/8-3/16″ range for a more natural look.
  3. Oblong holes. Some of the larger holes tend look like small jelly beans. Drill in fairly deep and then use the side of the drill bit to cut a short trail. The result is similar to two holes drilled right next to each other.
  4. Trails. Trails are often left just under the bark in bug infested logs and sometimes inside the log. Use a twist drill bit about 1/8-3/16″ in diameter and drag the bit in different lengths of crooked lines. Be sure to make some of the areas have more depth. Think of the trail as a river with shallow areas and deeper pools. Trails can have one, both or none of the ends finishing in a hole. Mix it up and have a few ends disappear into holes made with the same drill bit.

One of the most important things to remember when making worm holes or using any other techniques to age wood is to really go for it. You won’t destroy a piece of furniture by adding a few more holes or dents, and you can only miss by doing too little to the surface.

I often see furniture, especially mass-produced furniture, that will have some sort of distressing that looks like it was just phoned in. Usually, someone quickly takes a chain to the surface or pokes a few holes and calls it a day. Don’t do that. Pay attention to Mother Nature’s work and try to duplicate it. And, most importantly, have fun doing it.

 

 

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About wunderwoods

Hi! My name is Scott Wunder and I am the owner of WunderWoods Custom Woodworking. We build wine cellars, built-ins and furniture from local woods, here in St. Louis, MO. Recently, I finished a three-year term as the President of the St. Louis Woodworkers Guild, which had me writing a monthly article for our newsletter. I love to write, especially about wood, and found that I still had more to say. Every day I run into something wood related that I realize some of my customers don't know and this seems like a great forum for sharing what I have learned (instead of telling the same story to each person). The main thing to remember is that I try to keep it light and as my wife always reminds people that have just met me, "He is joking."

8 responses to “How to Make Realistic Worm Holes in Wood”

  1. marjaosh says :

    Hi! My name is Maria, and I’m just beginning my journey into wood and woodworking (I’ve been making small things like hair forks and pendants for a bit over a year now), and I’m also new to WordPress. I was looking around for interesting woodworking blogs to follow, and I found yours, and I think it’s really great and informative. Nice to meet you. =)
    M.

  2. crussell says :

    So worm holes are a good thing? We have a log bed that has these holes in it and I thought it was a bad thing. We can sell it without feeling guilty? When does the wood get these worms – when it’s still in tree form, or after the bed has been made? When my husband got the bed, those holes were already in it and just looking at the holes kind of made my skin crawl.
    Knots, cracks and worm holes in a log headboard and footboard are fine? I’m trying to sell our king size headboard and footboard, but then decided against it after seeing those holes, thinking it’s better off going into a bonfire.

    • wunderwoods says :

      Bug holes in wood are a part of life. Many happen in log form, but some do show up in finished furniture (though much less common). Your log furniture probably had the bugs in it when it was a log. After a tree dies or is cut down (and dies) it doesn’t take long for the bugs to move in. If your log furniture came from salvaged wood in any way there is a good chance that the tree was standing dead, bugs moved in, and then the log was milled. Kiln-drying kills all of the bugs.

  3. valerie says :

    Hi, My name is Valerie and I have just acquired a barn full of aged “wormwood” panels. I am trying to figure out the best projects to make with it. Its beautiful and I am just picturing it with some stain and a little sanding. Any ideas and should I treat it with bleach first?

    • wunderwoods says :

      You can use the wood for any project, just that it now has more character. How much sanding or staining is up to you. I assume that you are asking about bleach for killing bugs in the wood. Often times the bugs/worms just live a life cycle in the wood and move on, so there is a good chance that no live insects are present. They are much more of a problem with wet wood, like old logs, than they are with dry lumber. With that said, sometimes there are bugs in the lumber and you would probably feel better if they were dead. You can kill them with a treatment of insecticide if you see indications of live ones in the wood, which is fresh holes with small piles of sawdust.

      • valerie says :

        Thank you so much for your reply. I’ll send you a couple of pics if I ever get done with my projects in this millennium! Have a great week.

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