How to Use Wood Filler (a Simple 7-Step Guide)

Restore your old lumber to its former glory in under three hours

Ben Kissam
Written by Ben Kissam
Updated June 3, 2022
A woman repairs a wooden chair
Photo: sturti / E+ / Getty Images
Difficulty

Easy

You've got this!

Time to complete

3 hours

Including dry time.

Cost

Under $20

Keep it wallet-friendly.

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What you'll need:

TOOLS

  • Putty knife
  • Towels or rags
  • Paintbrush

SUPPLIES

  • Fine sandpaper or electric sander
  • Wood filler
  • Wood stain

If you like tackling home improvement projects, you've probably seen all sorts of imperfections on wood. Nail holes, cracks, chips, you name it—and it can be a little disheartening to find any of these marks on expensive furniture or even wood you'd like to repurpose.

Fortunately, using wood filler is a very simple and effective strategy to salvage or restore imperfect lumber. Learn how to use wood filler properly in this short, seven-step guide.

Prepping to Use Wood Filler

You can purchase a tub of wood filler for under $15, although you might need to pay a little extra if you need a certain color or finish.

Wood filling products are often designed to match popular stains and paint colors to make any repairs simple. If you kept the stain you used initially, look for a product that matches that color.

Take time to assess the wood you're trying to fix. Does it seem like wood filler will be enough to salvage it? If you're unsure, ask a local carpenter, especially if you're planning to use it on something like your floors. Depending on the job, a handyperson near you or a local furniture refinishing company might also be great resources.

  1. Choose the Right Wood Filler

    Solvent-based and water-based wood fillers are both stainable. However, keep in mind that there are other types of wood fillers that you can choose from, such as indoor wood and outdoor wood fillers. 

    Be sure to match the wood filler you need to the item or section of your home you're fixing.

  2. Sand Down the Parts You'll Be Repairing

    If the wood you'll be working with is rough, splintered, or just not in the best shape, take some sandpaper to smooth out the areas that need wood filler.

    This step will help make the second half of the job easier, and sanding down rough edges is the best way to prepare the wood before you stain it.

  3. Apply Wood Filler to the Holes or Cracks

    A view of wood filler being applied
    Photo: ImagESine / Adobe Stock

    Using a putty knife, apply wood filler to each crack or hole you intend to fill. Add more wood filler to each hole than it appears can reasonably be added; you will brush away much of it later.

    Really work the wood filler in with a putty knife. Your goal is to jam as much wood filler into the crack or hole as possible to fill it up.

  4. Rub the Wood Down Lightly With a Rag

    Rub any excess wood filler away from the edges or surface with a cloth. It's okay if you don't get it all—it's just easier to remove while it’s wet.

  5. Let the Wood Filler Dry

    Always read labels, but wait at least two hours for your wood filler to bind and dry.

    Deeper holes or cracks (more than 2 inches) may need additional time or several applications. You may need to use wood filler in sections on holes larger than an inch—for example, half an inch at a time.

  6. Sand Down the Edges

    A man sands wood
    Photo: Guido Mieth / Stone / Getty Images

    Use sandpaper to clear off any excess wood filler around the edges of the crack or hole.

    Having both regular and extra fine sandpaper may be a good idea here. You can really smooth out the edges and help your wood look brand new again.

  7. Stain or Mix and Match Wood Filler, If Needed

    Once it's dry and sanded, use stain or paint to make everything one uniform color.

    If you accidentally use the wrong wood filler or plan to stain it once it's done, you might buy a wood filler crayon ($5 to $7 at hardware stores) that's slightly darker or lighter to help bring the colors together.

    Note: When painting furniture, it's important to always do so in a well-ventilated area.

Using Wood Filler: DIY Vs. Hiring a Pro

Using wood filler for most basic home improvement projects is simple and generally something many homeowners can tackle without a problem. 

However, there are a few instances where hiring a furniture specialist might make sense:

  • Wood is cracked or chipped significantly

  • You can't find a stain or paint to match the wood

  • You're afraid you might damage expensive furniture further 

Consulting a handyperson or someone with wood repair knowledge can also help you avoid any costly mistakes.

Additional Questions

What is wood filler?

Wood filler is used to fix imperfections or damaged interior sections of wood on items like cabinets, door frames, and even laminate floors or countertops. It contains wood byproducts like sawdust mixed with water or solvent, which helps bind to wood and dry pretty quickly.

What is the difference between wood putty and wood filler?

When browsing the hardware store, you may wonder about wood putty versus wood filler. Wood putty is made with plastic adhesive, whereas wood filler is made from sawdust or wood products. 

The main difference is that people use wood filler to fix the interior portions of wood. Wood putty contains chemicals that could damage the inside of wood, so it's best for exterior sections. If the crack or hole goes into the middle of the lumber, it's the right product for the job.

Does wood filler harden?

The raw materials inside wood filler work as a binding agent that, once dry, stays hard and helps reinforce wood. It's a great way to help older lumber maintain its integrity and strength if you're looking to, say, build a new piece of furniture from old or repurposed wood.

How long does wood filler take to dry?

It takes 30 to 60 minutes for most products, but always read labels to ensure you're following instructions. If it's a water-based wood filler, it could take up to four hours for larger sections or gaps of wood.

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