How to soften a stiff, bendy electronic cable?
September 26, 2011 7:03 AM   Subscribe

Pet peeve: hardened, twisted electronic cables that come with brand new products. How can you soften them?

Every electronic product you buy today comes with cables - headphones, USB connectors and the like, and they normally come tightly tied in the packaging. Once you take them out of the packaging they tend to retain the shape they were tied in, and don't normally hang and dangle as you expect cables to do, but rather stay stiff with crazy bends and shapes. After months or years of usage, some cables soften, but it takes time. My attempts to accelerate that process come with varied success depending on the cable, and I always fear I'll damage the cable by bending it "against the grain" a thousand times to soften it.

Is there a better way to do this?
posted by falameufilho to Technology (8 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It's time to admit that you're a cable nerd.

There's only one fix: upgrade your cables to the expenive ones. Not only do the kinks dissapear but they come in cool colors.
posted by Murray M at 7:08 AM on September 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Warm water to ease out the kinks and then just let them do what they're going to do.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:10 AM on September 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Heat the cable with a hairdryer and it should be pliable enough to return to it's original shape.
posted by Static Vagabond at 7:30 AM on September 26, 2011

Keep in mind what it is you're trying to soften. a lot of these cables - for sure headphones and USB - use a twisted pair of copper wires. Copper is already pliable. What you're complaining about is likely the stiffness of the actual outer insulation, or (even more likely) multiple layers of insulation.

I'm not sure if you have any optical equipment (very high end audio equipment use optical fibres) but if you do bending these wires will not only damage the cable but also runs the risk of having very small shards of fibre glass penetrating your skin, entering your blood stream, and tearing up your blood vessels. Fun!

So that being said, it should be possible to use a hairdryer / warm water to warm the insulation and anneal it in some fashion to become more pliable. Of course if the inner insulation wears away and you end up with cables touching each other the best case scenario is that your cable won't work. Worst case scenario - well, just make sure your fuses work, that you've put a new battery in the smoke alarm, and that the appliances you're modifying, if they have a metallic body, have the body grounded in some independent manner.

The alternative is just to strip away the outer insulation, and then wrap it in a new layer of electrical tape! What's the worst that could happen?

Good luck!
posted by asymptotic at 8:02 AM on September 26, 2011

(oh, where I suggested a single twisted pair clearly other cables use more than one twisted pair, for example CAT-5 cables).
posted by asymptotic at 8:03 AM on September 26, 2011

Best answer: Admiral Haddock & Static Vagabond have your answers.

The plastic in the cords has "memory" - if it is bent beyond its elastic limits, it behaves as though the bend (minus a certain elastic lag back towards the original shape - straight, in this case) is its "correct" or "natural" shape.

When the plastics are heated sufficiently, they will loosen, and "redecide" on a new "natural" shape. Once they cool (let them lie straight on the floor until then), this shape will be locked in.

Heat won't hurt the important metal wires & contacts; as long as you don't stress the end connectors in any way, it's very unlikely to deform those parts. So, start with tap hot water, and if that's not hot enough, move up to a hair dryer or heat gun (being careful not to burn the plastic with the latter!).
posted by IAmBroom at 8:05 AM on September 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've found that just leaving them out in the sun is enough low-level heat to relax most of the cables I've had. It takes longer than a hair dryer, but is safer.
posted by klangklangston at 12:16 PM on September 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

I like a little coil remaining where it can dangle not too low past my belly (talking earphones here). What I need is to know how to bend some memory into the length that can go around the back of my ears, up from the earphone/tips themselves. There's usually one side or the other that needs constant tucking back behind my pretty normally shaped ears.
posted by noelpratt2nd at 12:32 PM on June 2, 2012

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