How Does Wood Putty Work? A Complete Guide to Using This Versatile Filler

Wood putty, also known as wood filler, is a versatile material used for filling holes, cracks, and imperfections in wood. With the right techniques, wood putty can make damaged wood look brand new again. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about how wood putty works and how to use it effectively.

What is Wood Putty?

Wood putty is a thick, doughy substance used to fill holes, cracks, nail holes, and other imperfections in wood. It is sometimes also called plastic wood, wood filler, or wood repair compound. The main purpose of wood putty is to repair and conceal blemishes in wood pieces to create a smooth, seamless look.

There are several types of wood putty available, but most fall into one of these categories:

  • Oil-based wood putty – Made from linseed oil and other natural ingredients. Best for filling holes in exterior wood.
  • Water-based wood putty – Made from vinyl and PVA. Best for interior holes and can be stained or painted.
  • Epoxy wood putty – A two-part putty that cures very hard. Ideal for repairing wood rot and holes in flooring.
  • Lacquer wood putty – Made for minor surface repairs and filling nail holes prior to applying lacquer.
  • Wax wood putty – Designed to fill minor blemishes and be covered by wax finishes.

Key Properties of Wood Putty

The best wood putties have properties that make them easy to work with and provide a durable repair. Here are some key features:

  • Smooth consistency – The putty should be thick but spreadable. Too thin and it won’t fill properly. Too thick and it’s hard to apply.
  • Good adhesion – The putty needs to bond firmly to the wood for a lasting repair. Oil-based putties have the best adhesion.
  • Sandability – Once dried, the putty should sand smoothly so you can achieve a flush finish.
  • Stainability – For areas that will be stained, look for wood putty that accepts stains. Most oil and water-based putties can be stained.
  • Paintability – For painted surfaces, the putty should accept paint fully. Oil and water-based putties work for paint.
  • Non-shrinking – As it dries, the putty should not shrink or crack away from the edges of the hole.

How Does Wood Putty Work?

Wood putty works in several stages:

1. Filling the Void

Wood putty is designed to be pressed into holes, cracks, or imperfections in a wood piece, filling the void completely. The smooth, thick consistency allows it to conform to varied shapes and depths. Press the putty firmly into the space using a putty knife or your fingers.

2. Drying

Once applied, wood putty cures through a chemical drying process. Oil-based putties dry by a reaction with oxygen in the air, while water-based putties dry by evaporation. Drying times range from 20 minutes to overnight, depending on the putty type. During this stage the putty will harden and form a solid fill.

3. Sanding

After the putty has fully cured, it can be sanded smooth and flush with the surrounding wood. Use progressive grit sandpaper, starting with about 150 grit and working up to 220 grit. Be careful not to sand too aggressively and grind away the wood around the repair.

4. Staining/Painting

For putty repairs that will be stained or painted to blend with the wood, apply your chosen finish once sanding is complete. The right putty will accept stains or paints. Follow all directions for proper curing times between coats.

5. Polishing/Topcoating

If desired, a surface finish like polyurethane or lacquer can be applied over the repaired area for added protection and sheen. This helps the putty blend seamlessly into the wood.

So in summary, wood putty works by:

  • Filling voids completely with its creamy, moldable texture
  • Hardening during its dry time to form a cured fill
  • Sanding smooth for a flush finish
  • Accepting stains and paints like wood
  • Blending invisibly when polished and topcoated

With this process, wood putty can transform even severely damaged wood into a smooth, flawless surface.

How to Use Wood Putty

Using wood putty properly is the key to achieving repairs that are invisible once finished. Here are some tips for success when using wood filler:

Choose the Right Putty Type

Oil-based putties have superior adhesion and work for most applications, both interior and exterior. Water-based putties also work well indoors. Be sure to match putty and finish – oil putties under oil/varnish finishes, water putty with water-based poly, and so on.

Prepare the Damaged Area

Cleaning out debris and roughening the surface around the hole will help the putty adhere properly. Use a putty knife or chisel to undercut raised edges. Brush or blow away dust.

Force Putty into the Damage

Really work the putty into cracks and voids to avoid air pockets. Overfill slightly because it will shrink back as it dries. Strike smooth with a putty knife.

Let the Putty Dry Thoroughly

Follow manufacturer directions, but expect at least overnight. Insufficient drying leads to crumbling or shrinkage. Drying times may be longer in thick applications.

Sand and Finish Gradually

Work up through finer grits like 150, 180, 220. Avoid heavy pressure which can scratch the wood or form depressions. Finish sanding marks must be removed before staining or painting.

Apply Finish to Blend the Repair

Use enough coats to cover the area fully. The finish helps the putty disappear into the surrounding wood. Avoid gel stains which may not penetrate putty evenly.

With practice and these tips, even large holes can be filled seamlessly. Take your time and don’t rush the drying, sanding, and finishing steps.

Common Mistakes When Using Wood Putty

Wood putty repairs may not blend in as desired if some common mistakes are made. Here are some pitfalls to avoid:

  • Using the wrong putty type for the job – interior vs. exterior uses, finish compatibility, etc.
  • Failing to thoroughly undercut raised edges – this prevents good adhesion.
  • Not fully filling holes and cracks – this leaves hidden voids.
  • Rushing through drying times – leads to crumbling, shrinkage, poor sanding.
  • Over-sanding too aggressively – can damage surrounding good wood.
  • Applying finish before sanding properly – putty repairs must be fully smoothed first.
  • Using too few finish coats – it takes several to fully blend the repair.
  • Using gel stains on putty – thicker consistency may not penetrate and stain evenly.

With attention to detail on wood type, prep work, proper drying, gradual sanding, and blended finishing, even novice DIYers can achieve seamless wood putty repairs.

Tips for Using Wood Putty in Special Cases

There are a few instances that call for additional care when using wood filler:

Filling Large Holes

For holes wider than 2 inches it’s best to fill from the bottom up in layers. Press in 1/4″ layers, drying in between, until flush with surface. This prevents sagging and cracking as it dries.

Filling Outdoor Wood

Outdoors, always use an oil-based putty which resists moisture better. Soak exterior holes with a wood sealer first for added water protection.

Repairing Furniture Joints

Work putty into joints carefully to fill all crevices, clamping pieces together temporarily. Let fully cure before stressing joints. Reinforce for strength with glue or fasteners.

Filling Over Painted Surfaces

Lightly sand painted wood before patching to roughen the surface. Use only water-based putty for the repair. Make sure new paint coat covers fully.

Spreading on Vertical Surfaces

Opt for a putty with a thicker consistency so it won’t sag on vertical repairs. Press into holes firmly and build up in layers to fill. Allow each layer to dry before adding more.

Experiment on test pieces to get a feel for how the putty handles in each case. With a little experience, you can adapt your technique to tackle any wood repair scenario.

Types of Wood Putty and Their Uses

With so many wood putty products on the market, it can be tricky choosing the right one. Here is an overview of common types and their ideal uses:

  • Oil-based putty – Best all-purpose choice for interior/exterior, staining, pre-finished and bare wood.
  • Water-based putty – Works for interior holes to be painted. More limited uses than oil.
  • Epoxy putty – Extremely durable filler for damaged wood and seals outdoor holes. Long dry time.
  • Lacquer putty – Made to fill small blemishes and nail holes before lacquer finishing.
  • Wax stick putty – For small scratches and dents in fine wood pieces to be waxed.
  • Colored putty – For filling blemishes in stained wood matching a specific color already in place.
  • Grain filler putty – Fills open wood grain before finishing to create ultra smooth surface.
  • Synthetic wood filler – Lightweight filler saves weight on large filled areas. Difficult to stain and finish.

Always check that your chosen wood putty is approved for the intended use. Follow any special application instructions to achieve the best results.

Frequently Asked Questions About Wood Putty

What’s the difference between wood putty and wood filler?

These terms are used interchangeably. Both refer to compounds used to fill imperfections in wood.

Does wood putty dry out in the container?

Yes, oil and water-based wood putties will slowly dry over time as the container is opened repeatedly. Wrapping tightly between uses helps prolong lifespan. Discard if dried out.

What tools do I need to apply wood putty?

A good putty knife is essential for pressing putty into holes and smoothing the surface. Sandpaper and safety gear for sanding are also needed.

How long does wood putty take to dry?

Drying times range from 20 minutes for quick-dry water putty, up to overnight or longer for thick applications of oil putty. Follow manufacturer guidelines for full curing.

Can I stain over wood putty?

Most oil and water-based wood putties can be stained with careful sanding first. The putty color should blend with the stain relatively well.

What’s the best wood putty for filling large holes?

An oil-based putty is best for large repairs. Work in thin layers, allowing each to dry fully. Epoxy putties are also suitable for big holes.

Does wood putty sink over time after filling a hole?

Yes, slight shrinkage as it cures is normal. Filling generously initially prevents low spots. Allow the putty to fully harden before sanding flush.


Knowing how to work with wood putty is an essential skill for any woodworking or repair project. With the right techniques, wood putty can conceal imperfections in both finished wood pieces and unfinished lumber flawlessly. Follow the preparation, application, sanding, and finishing steps outlined here, and even glaring flaws can disappear.

Understanding factors like putty adhesion properties, sandability, shrinkage, and finish compatibility allows you to select the best putty for each job. With a little practice working the putty and achieving a smooth flush finish, you can take on virtually any wood repair with confidence.

So don’t discard that damaged wood item just yet. With the transforming powers of wood putty, you likely have everything you need to restore it to an imperfection-free state!

Laura Kassovic

Laura Kassovic, a former engineer at Intel SOC, now dedicates her efforts to mentoring startups in the realms of Wearables and AI. As a co-founder of New Tech Brake, she spearheads a wireless sensing solution enterprise catering to diverse applications including product development, research, location tracking, and people monitoring, as well as asset and cargo supervision. The platform empowers developers to craft an array of innovations such as fitness trackers, temperature-monitored cargo systems, medical trial tools, smart running garments, or even straightforward transmission of unprocessed accelerometer data to cloud-based repositories.

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