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Wood Putty vs. Wood Filler: What’s the Difference?

You can confidently repair holes, cracks, or scratches in your woodwork when you know which product to use for the job. This guide will help you understand what makes wood putty and wood filler different, and when to use each so you can restore damaged trim, molding, or even furniture to its original glory without fear of doing harm.

Wood Putty Wood Filler iStock

When restoring an older home, you’re apt to discover many dings and dents in the woodwork. Even hardwoods like oak or walnut suffer damage over time. In order to make a strong repair that lasts, it’s important to use the appropriate product. The wrong one can easily result in more damage than you currently have.

So the question is: Should you reach for the wood filler or the wood putty to fix that crack in the baseboard? And what about the trim around the basement door? Learn when to use the right one to repair and preserve the beautiful wood in your home.

What is wood filler?

Usually, a wood filler is a mixture of wood fibers, such as sawdust, and a binder that hardens. The binder is either water or petroleum-based. A water-based filler is dry, and you may need to add a bit of water to achieve the desired consistency. A petroleum-based wood filler has a smoother texture, making it easier to work with. However, petroleum-based fillers will require a chemical solvent for clean-up, whereas water-based filler cleans up with soap and water.

What is wood filler used for?

Since wood fillers aren’t tinted and don’t readily adhere to some finishes, they’re recommended for unfinished wood in your home’s interior that you plan to stain or paint. However, if you plan to leave the piece of wood natural and just apply a clear coat, you can tint wood filler with a wood dye to match that natural color. Since wood filler dries hard and doesn’t flex with the expansion and contraction of wood during temperature changes, it isn’t suitable for exterior applications.

Here are a few examples of the best uses for wood filler:

  • Repair dents, gashes, and gouges in unfinished furniture.
  • Fix holes in wood flooring.
  • Cover scratches or cracks in unfinished trim before installing.

The pros and cons of wood filler

Pros

  • Wood filler is sandable.
  • You can paint or stain wood filler.
  • It hardens as it cures.
  • It dries quickly.
  • You can tint it before use.

Cons

  • Wood filler is not suitable for exterior use.
  • Difficult to adhere to stained or painted finishes.

What is wood putty?

Wood putty is an oil-based compound with other natural or plastic ingredients. It remains pliable, making it preferred for woodwork that expands and contracts when subject to humidity, like in a bathroom or basement. However, wood putty won’t receive stain the same way wood does and will dry a different color, making the spot noticeable. That’s why it’s recommended for wood already stained or varnished.

For that reason, you’ll find wood putty in various colors, like walnut, red oak, or cherry, to match the color of your piece. And, if you don’t find the perfect match, you can always mix different colors to achieve the best results. Putty sticks, which resemble fat crayons, make simple repairs on furniture easy. And you can mix them to attain a better color match.

What is wood putty used for?

Knowing when to use wood putty instead of wood filler helps you accomplish a successful restoration project. Here are a few examples of the best uses for wood putty:

  • Repair dents and cracks or fill small holes in finished wood furniture, flooring, or interior trim.
  • Patch cracks and holes in woodwork that may be prone to expand or contract due to exposure to humidity.

The pros and cons of wood putty

Pros

  • It’s more cost-effective than wood filler because it lasts longer. Also, if it dries in the container, a few drops of acetone will soften it and make it usable again.
  • It comes in various colors to easily match the wood’s finish.
  • Because it stays pliable and flexes, it’s ideal for applications where the wood expands and contracts along with changes in the temperature and humidity.

Cons

  • Most paints won’t adhere to it and stains will not color properly.
  • It takes a long time to dry.
  • It’s not sandable.

Questions to help you choose the right product: wood putty or filler

When shopping for the perfect product to fill the holes in your woodwork, you may get overwhelmed by all the options. It’s a good idea to arm yourself with the details of your project beforehand. If you can answer the following questions, you should be able to make the right decision just by reading the product labels.

  • Where is the wood that you wish to repair and will it be exposed to changes in humidity or temperature?
  • Is the wood finished or unfinished?
  • Will you paint or stain the wood after repairing it?
  • Do you want something that cleans up with soap and water?

When restoring an older home, you want the renovations to stand the test of time. Achieve longevity and preserve the original beauty of your woodwork by choosing the correct wood filler or wood putty for the job.