Wood Putty vs Wood Filler: Which to Use & Why

Wood putty and wood filler are both used to repair wood but are not the same. I’ll break down the differences so you can pick the right one for the job.

wood putty vs wood filler

Wood putty and wood filler sound like the same thing, but there are key differences between these two products. Understanding those differences will save you time, money, and frustration.

Which is better for exterior repairs? Which one can be stained? Which is better for unfinished projects?

I’ll compare and contrast wood putty and wood filler, the advantages of each, and their primary uses. Then you’ll know which is the best one for your project.

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What is the Difference Between Wood Putty and Wood Filler?

Wood putty and wood filler are both useful for filling holes, repairing damage, and hiding defects in wood, but they are not interchangeable. Knowing the differences between putty and filler will help you do the job right the first time.

Ingredients

Wood putty is oil-based. It’s made from a mixture of plastic and oil-based solvents like boiled linseed oil. It may also include calcium carbonate.

Wood filler is usually water-based. It’s made from a mixture of wood fibers or sawdust and a binding agent.

Consistency

Wood filler has a paste-like consistency similar to mashed potatoes, which makes it easy to spread.

Wood putty has a thick, clay-like texture. Because of this thick consistency, it’s difficult to apply without using a putty knife.

Color

Wood putty does not absorb wood stains. Instead, putty is available in a variety of colors. You’ll match the color of the putty to the stain on your project when making a repair.

Wood filler is generally available in one neutral color, although some brands, like Goodfilla, offer fillers in a variety of wood tones.

Holding an open container of wood filler

Some wood fillers are intended to be finished with a coat of paint, while others are labeled as stainable. However, not all stainable wood fillers are good at absorbing stain. I tested seven stainable wood fillers in this side-by-side comparison to see which ones perform the best.

Related: Does Stainable Wood Filler Work? (Here’s the Answer)

Hard vs Pliable

Wood filler dries quickly, usually in an hour or two, and hardens as it dries. Wood putty, on the other hand, dries slowly and does not harden. Instead, when wood putty remains pliable when it’s completely dry.

The long drying times of wood putty can be a problem because it allows dust and dirt to accumulate while it dries.

Interior vs Exterior

Wood putty can be used indoors or outdoors, but it’s excellent for exterior projects because it remains pliable. Wood shrinks and swells in response to changes in temperature and humidity. Wood putty remains flexible, so it expands and contracts along with the wood. Plus, wood putty acts as a sealer and is weatherproof. It’s resistant to the effects of the sun and rain.

Related: Mistakes with Wood Can Cause Your DIY Furniture to Crack

Wood filler is not a good choice for outdoor projects because it dries hard, so it won’t expand and contract along with the movement of the wood. Instead, it could crack or break. Plus, wood filler isn’t weatherproof. Sunlight can cause it to shrink and fall out.

Wood filler works better in controlled settings, such as repairs on indoor projects.

Finished vs Unfinished

Wood putty contains chemicals that can damage raw wood, so it’s best suited for repairing imperfections that occur after your project has been stained and a finish like polyurethane has been applied.

Related: Polycrylic vs Polyurethane: Are They The Same?

Wood filler is best for repairs on unfinished wood before you’ve applied a stain or finish. The filler is applied, sanded, and then stained along with the wood.

Related: Best Sanders for Furniture: Which to Buy and Why

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What is Wood Putty?

Wood putty, sometimes called “plastic wood” is a clay-like substance used to repair holes and gaps in wood. It contains chemicals that can damage raw wood, so it’s best suited for finished projects. It doesn’t harden as it dries. Instead, it remains soft and pliable.

Putty can be used for repairs on indoor and outdoor projects. It’s an excellent choice for exterior projects because it remains pliable and can flex when the wood moves due to seasonal changes.

Wood putty usually comes in a stick which is good for use on small holes. Other putties require mixing with a hardener. Most putties are available in different colors, like mahogany, walnut, maple, and oak which you can match to the stain color of your project to create a flawless look.

Hand removing a wood putty stick from  a plastic container
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When to Use Wood Putty

Wood putty is a versatile product that can be used in both indoor and outdoor projects. One of the most common uses for wood putty is to hide imperfections after the finish has been applied to furniture, molding, and even flooring.

The putty can be used to fill in minor blemishes like nicks, scratches, gouges, and gaps between joints. It’s fantastic for touch-ups like hiding nail holes that you missed during your prep work or even where wood filler has fallen out.

Using a wood putty stick to hide a blemish in a wood paper towel holder

Wood putty is also used for major repairs like cracks in deck boards. For larger repairs like this, you may need to use a two-part hardening putty. These types of putties bond with the wood and prevent the crack from spreading.

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How to Use Wood Putty

This quick video shows how easy it is to use wood putty.

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What is Wood Filler?

Wood filler is a paste-like material that bonds with wood fibers to fill holes and cracks in wood. It usually dries in less than an hour, and it hardens as it dries. 

Wood filler is applied so that it is slightly raised and then sanded to create a smooth surface. Because it requires sanding, wood filler is best suited for repairs on raw wood and unfinished projects.

Applying wood filler with a putty knife
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Types of Wood Filler

The two most common types of filler are water-based and solvent-based. Water-based fillers are best suited for indoor uses. Solvent-based fillers like polyurethane and epoxy are more durable and can be used outdoors.

Latex Wood Filler

Latex or water-based fillers work best for interior repairs. Wood filler is not recommended for exterior projects because it dries hard. Wood movement due to seasonal changes could cause the hardened filler to crack.

Fillers can be painted or stained. Stainable wood fillers are porous, which means wood stains can penetrate the filler, and the repair will blend in with the surrounding wood. Wood fillers can also be mixed with sawdust to better match the color of your project.

Related: Clever Uses for Sawdust: 11 Ideas That Will Inspire You

Woodworkers often use water-based fillers to make repairs on interior furniture projects. Some popular brands include Minwax Stainable Wood Filler and DAP Plastic Wood.

DIY Wood Filler

If you plan to stain your project, DIY wood filler is an excellent choice. You’ll use sanding dust to make the filler, which will be a good match since the dust is also from the same species of wood as your project.

To make this wood filler, I collect wood dust from my random orbital sander and mix it with enough dewaxed shellac to make a paste-like consistency.

Related: How to Make a DIY Wood Filler

Pouring sanding dust onto a plate to make a homemade wood filler

Wood Grain Filler

Open grain woods, such as oak, have large pores. Wood grain filler is made specifically for filling the pores of open-grained woods to produce a smooth finish.

Epoxy Wood Filler

Epoxy is used to repair rotted wood and restore its original strength and structure. It’s typically used in the renovation and restoration of older homes. Epoxy bonds to the existing wood and prevents further rot and decay. 

Epoxy wood filler is either a liquid or paste-like filler. However, you may find that many projects will require the use of both types.

Minwax High-Performance Wood Filler is a well-known two-part filler.

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When to Use Wood Filler

Wood filler is frequently used to conceal flaws in raw or unfinished interior projects, like do-it-yourself furniture before applying paint or stain. Epoxy fillers, on the other hand, are durable enough to withstand outdoor use.

Filler will hide nail holes, small scratches, nicks, and gouges. It also works well for filling large damage like cracks.

Showing a piece of wood after it has been filled with wood filler
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How to Use Wood Filler

This video shows how to use a variety of wood fillers.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Can you stain wood putty?

No, wood putty cannot be stained because it’s not porous like wood filler, so the stain will not penetrate it. The best option is to use a pre-tinted putty that matches the color of your stain.


Final Thoughts

When you’re ready to tackle a home improvement project, it’s important to know the difference between wood putty and wood filler. The two materials are similar in some ways but distinctly different in others.

By understanding how each of them works, when you should use them, and what their limitations are, your next DIY project will go smoothly without any surprises along the way!

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2 Comments

  1. Good column! What I am curious about is DIY filler. By this I mean taking saw dust from your project and combining it with wood glue for filler? Doesn’t that also make it stainable?

    1. Hi Guy – Thank you for the compliments. I tested seven stainable wood fillers, including sawdust mixed with glue, and shared the results in this article. Spoiler alert: glue mixed with sawdust was one of my least favorite options.

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