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

wood filler applied on wood

If you’re repairing furniture or building wooden products from scratch, you will likely find yourself needing to refill holes. These may be knicks and cracks from wear-and-tear or the holes made by nails. Either way, you’re going to want to choose either wood putty or wood filler to cover up these defects.

These two terms are often used interchangeably by experts and newbies alike. However, they are somewhat different and each needs to be utilized in specific circumstances. They both do similar things, but using one when you should use the other can spell disaster for your project.

Still, the nuances between these two products can be difficult to understand. To help you out, we’ve written this complete guide on wood putty vs. wood filler. You’ll find an overview of each as well as a discussion of their differences below.

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Overview of Wood Putty

Wood putty is often referred to as “plastic wood.” It is one of the most popular wood filling compounds in many workplaces and seems to be the default option whenever you need to fill a hole or fix a defect. However, this substance isn’t the best for every situation.

close up photo of person applying wood putty
Image Credit: Mabeline72, Shutterstock

How it is Used

Wood putty is used after you stain or varnish your workpiece. For this reason, it is great for workpieces that have already been finished that need a touch-up. If you’re repairing furniture, wood putty may be your best option because of this.

Wood putty should not be used on raw wood because it often contains chemicals that can be potentially damaging. It feels like soft clay and can often be quite stiff. Because of this, you will usually need a putty knife to apply it. It is not the easiest filler to use because of this. It reminds us of plastic resin.

Once you’ve applied it, you have to let it dry for an extended period. Despite some wood putties being advertised as “fast-drying,” all of these products take a long time to harden. Sometimes, you have to mix the putty with hardening chemicals to get it all the way dry. However, other brands harden by themselves. It just depends on what you purchase.

This long drying time can seriously affect the color of your final results. Most lighter colors darken when they are dry, so you often need to purchase a color that is lighter than you think you need. The putty can also accumulate dust and debris while drying, which is another problem of its own.

Options Available

Because wood putty is so popular, there are a lot of options currently available on the market. You can find tons of different brands and many different colors. We expect that you can find a matching putty for even the wackiest-colored products.

Ingredients

Wood putty is made a variety of different ways depending on the brand. All wood putty is oil-based, but the exact oil varies widely. The most common oil used is boiled linseed oil, but others can be found on the market too.

Wood putty also contains a colorant, which gives it it’s wood-like color. Most contain calcium carbonate as well. If you need to add a chemical hardener to your chosen wood putty, you have to take those chemicals into mind as well.

Cost

Wood putty doesn’t cost very much, and it lasts forever. You do not have to worry about this product coming off or decaying any time soon. This makes it an excellent choice for outdoor furniture, which is typically sitting out in the elements.

Pros
  • Cost-effective
  • Can also be used as an adhesive
  • Many colors available
  • Extremely durable
Cons
  • Takes forever to dry

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Overview of Wood Filler

Wood filler is a bit different from wood putty and designed for very different circumstances. They are not interchangeable in the least.

close up of wood filler applied
Image Credit: Miriam Doerr Martin Frommherz, Shutterstock

How it is Used

Wood filler is applied before your finish or stain. It will not damage raw wood like wood putty will. It is much more of a putty-like compound, which can make it very easy to use. It spreads nicely and stays put easily.

Wood filler also dries very quickly. In most cases, even a large glob of wood filler will start drying in as little as ten minutes. All types of wood filler will be dry in less than 24 hours, though many types dry long before that. “Fast-drying” options are available if time is of the essence.

Options Available

Most wood fillers come in a neutral color. This means that you may need to color them to match your wood. However, you do apply them before your stain, so this is less of an issue. It is highly recommended to mix the filler with sawdust from the wood you’re using, as this will make it look more natural.

You can also add dyes and tints if the filler does not look like your wood.

Ingredients

Wood filler is made with various products, including epoxy, lacquer, and clay. Latex is one of the most common types, as it is water-based for easy cleanups. This type also mixes well with dyes, allowing you to use it for larger holes without making the wood piece look two-toned.

Epoxy and polyurethane may also be handy to have in your workspace. However, they require a bit more sanding. You should sand them before you add a finish.

Cost

Wood filler costs about the same as wood putty. However, it is not as durable, meaning you have to do more repairs over time. It is not suitable for outdoor furniture because it will not expand and contract with the wooden furniture. Instead, you’ll end up with cracks.

Sunlight can also make this material crack and dry-out, which may lead to more repairs. These repairs can add up and cost you more money in the long run.

Furthermore, this material is usually used for large cracks, so you’ll probably use more.

Pros
  • Dries quickly
  • Many different types available
  • Versatile
Cons
  • Does not expand

When to Use Which?

Both wood putty and wood filler are useful in different situations. There is not one that is always going to be better than the other. Below, you’ll find some common uses for both of these materials. If you have a specific project or problem in mind, check below to see if it is covered.

Filling Nail Holes

You should use wood putty for filling nail holes. It is designed to be used in small amounts, which is exactly what wood holes call for. You should use it after you stain the piece, however.

Repairing Damaged Furniture

If it is a small amount of damage, like a small dent, use wood putty. This can be used after you have finished the furniture, which makes it perfect for repairing furniture that has already been sitting around for a while.

If you used wood filler, you would have to refinish the wood. This typically isn’t something you want to do with a small amount of damage. However, for large breaks, you may have to use wood filler and then refinish the whole piece. Wood putty isn’t made for large cracks and that sort of thing.

Other Small Imperfections

In most cases, you’re going to use wood putty for all small imperfections. They even make patching pencils made of wood putty for this exact reason.

Outdoor Furniture

Wood filler is unusable for outdoor furniture. It will crack and break because it cannot expand and contract like wood.

However, wood putty can do this, which is exactly why it is best for this purpose. Use it on all outdoor furniture.

Patching Unfinished Wood

If you need to patch an unfinished project, use wood filler. You can use sawdust to make it look more natural and use it across a large area. However, you may want to consider using a prestained filler for areas that are going to be visible. Wood filler will not stain the same as wood, even if you mix it with sawdust. Choosing a wood filler with cellulose can help it stain a bit better.

The Cost Factor

Many people will point out that wood putty often costs more than wood filler. However, this isn’t really the case. Wood putty might look like it costs more upfront, but you use it way less than wood filler. When you use wood filler, you’re probably using it on a large surface. With wood putty, you should just be using a tiny bit on a small imperfection.

In the end, you’re going to be spending the same amount of money on either option. Because of this, we do not recommend that you consider costs very heavily in your decision. Choose which one will work best for your project – not which one has the lower price tag.

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Quick Look: Our Top Choices

Image Product Details
Our Favorite Wood Putty QuikWood 471050-24 Putty Stick QuikWood 471050-24 Putty Stick
  • Easy-to-use stick form
  • Will not shrink or crack
  • Perfect for small holes
  • Our Favorite Wood Filler Minwax 42853000 Stainable Wood Filler Minwax 42853000 Stainable Wood Filler
  • Stainable
  • Fast drying
  • Sands very quickly
  • Our Favorite Wood Putty: QuikWood 471050-24 Putty Stick

    QuikWood 471050-24 Putty Stick

    The QuikWood 471050-24 Putty Stick comes in an easy-to-use stick form, making it perfect for small holes. It has a cured hardness and density that is similar to wood and will not shrink or crack. Plus, this brand makes many different colors, so you can choose one that matches your workpiece the best.

    Our Favorite Wood Filler: Minwax 42853000 Stainable Wood Filler

    Minwax 42853000 Stainable Wood Filler

    The Minwax 42853000 Stainable Wood Filler is perfect for cracks and small gorges. It is stainable, so it will resemble the surrounding wood after you complete your project. It is also fast drying and sands very quickly.

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    Conclusion

    Though they are both used for similar purposes, wood filler and wood putty are very different. You should use wood putty for small imperfections, like nail holes. Wood filler should be used for larger imperfections and before you stain your workpiece.

    Choosing which one is best for your project is vital to success.


    Featured Image Credit: Mabeline72, Shutterstock

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