Painter’s Putty vs Spackle: What Is The Difference?

Painter's Putty vs Spackle What Is The Difference

Putty in your hands a phrase that has nothing to do with painting, although it illustrates one of the common aspects of painter’s putty – soft and pliable.

Spackle is not sparkly, but it, too, is soft and pliable.  Some consider them to be interchangeable and used for the same purposes, although that is not technically true.

There are differences beyond the name and their compositions, and each has its own best purpose.  Still, it’s good to have each handy in your home workshop, especially if you are engaged in DIY home improvement projects, not just woodworking or furniture making.  Each will leave holes of one kind or another – nail holes, dings, accidents that leave marks. 

What is Painter’s Putty?

DAP 12242 Painters Putty Pt Raw Building Material, Pint, White

For filling nail holes in wood, whether in the furniture piece you are making or in the door/window/baseboard trim you just finished installing, painter’s putty is the perfect product.  Its composition is some form of a linseed oil product, although usually raw linseed and ground chalk.  

Some painter’s putty products will add silicone or other chemical compounds to add some elasticity to them.  After all, we want to be able to stretch and push into the nail or screw holes as we smooth over the surface to be flush with the surface of the wood.

Grayish-yellow in color, soft and pliable in texture, it can be pushed into that hole and wiped flush with the wood’s surface with your thumb or finger.  Following the drying time recommendation on the container, it comes in; when allowed to surface dry, it can then be primed (an oil-based primer is a good choice) and prepared for painting with latex paint.  

After being properly applied to that hole and smoothed, it becomes hard to detect unless your face is right on top of it and allows a professional finish to that furniture piece or trim.  As you can tell, it’s a handy and favored product of professional painters for that reason.

Do you remember Silly Putty from your childhood days?  I remember using it with the color comics in the newspapers – pressing it onto the funny papers to lift the face of Archie or Dick Tracy and then stretching it out to distort or enlarge his face.  

That is the same consistency of painter’s putty – soft and pliable, stretchable to an extent as it is pushed into the nail or screw hole in wood.  Its application can be by hand and finger for smaller holes and with a putty knife for larger holes (although not too large). 

We’ve written about the better and best ways to fill larger holes and cracks, and you can find them here for filling larger holes and here in answer to the question whether you can use wood filler on drywall.  

DAP is a brand name in painter’s putty, and Painter’s Putty 53 is a good product.  It requires 24-48 hours to surface dry, depending on the environment in which it is used and the size of the hole it is filling, to make it ready to take that primer and first coat of paint.  If you use 2 coats of putty, you’ll want to allow it to dry overnight.

Painter’s putty will shrink over time, although the drier it is at the time of application, the less it will shrink.  Its shrinkage is also less than other caulking materials.  Right around the same time, a new coat of paint will help refresh the wood, and the painter’s putty will need to be reapplied, so there is that convenience – renew the putty, renew the paint.

What is Spackle?

Dap 12140 Fast N Final Interior Exterior Spackle, 1/2-Pint

Spackle is another product that will fill nail and screw holes, as well as dings, dents, cracks,  and other defects and mars in walls – drywall, plaster, and even wood.  It’s a different animal than painter’s putty, though.

Its composition is gypsum dust (hydrated calcium sulphate) and glue.  In fact, there is a gypsum quarry just down the road from where these words are being typed right now.  Plaster is also made from gypsum dust.  Driving by the quarry is to drive through the white dust that floats from the grinding house where the quarried gypsum is processed.

Drywall mud, also called joint compound, is also made from gypsum but differs from spackle.  It smooths out corners and joints in drywall as it is hung in new buildings and homes and dries much more slowly than spackle.  

In fact, spackle will dry in about 30 minutes and be ready for sanding and smoothing flush with the wall where the hole or crack is being filled.  On the other hand, the joint compound will take up to 24 hours to dry for either the next coat of joint compound or for sanding and readying for painting or hanging wallpaper.

Spackle comes in different versions, some even for use outdoors.  But for the purposes of this piece, we are talking about distinguishing between the two products when used indoors.  

Spackle for indoor use is a good choice for filling holes in drywall because it resists shrinkage and is intended for use in filling smaller holes.  For larger holes, sealing joints, or smoothing corners in drywall installations, joint compound is a better choice.  A plaster trowel is a better choice of tool to apply than a putty knife, which has been designed for use with – you guessed it – putty.

Differences and Distinctions Between Painter’s Putty and Spackle

We’ve described both the composition and the uses of each, but to be more specific about the differences and distinctions between the two, we thought we’d list a few more directly for you.

  • Delivery and price.  Painter’s putty containers will be of smaller quantity, and this makes sense for you.  Made to fill small holes, i.e., nail holes, a small container will go a long way and fill a lot of holes.  On the other hand, Spackle is made to fill holes large and small in drywall and applied with a trowel, or a large spatula will come in handy for the larger tasks for which spackle is intended.  

A half-pint container of painter’s putty will run you around $6 – $7 at your local hardware store and a little less at one of the big DIY stores.  

Although you can purchase a half-pint of spackle for around the same price, you’re more likely to purchase a 3.5 qt container for $10 and up, depending on the brand name, as it will store well if the lid is kept tight.  Again, spackle is made to fill larger holes and cracks in drywall.

  • Use and application.  Painter’s putty is much easier to use, frankly.  You can fill those nail holes quickly with your fingers and thumb, while spackle is better applied with a trowel or larger spatula.  It’s also easier to shape to fit in an unusual hole in wood.  So, the putty has the edge in the application.

Spackle requires a more attentive application and spread with whatever tool you choose to work with.  The larger the hole or crack to fill, the more work to make sure it has a sure fill.  The fill does not need to be smooth at the time of application, as spackle will sand well when fully dry.  

However, spackle is not made to take paint as well as painter’s putty, as you might have guessed from the name.  On wood and primed, painter’s putty will always take a coat or two of paint better than spackle.

Spackle will also experience shrinkage more so than painter’s putty, thus requiring additional application(s) before a larger hole or crack has been filled and sanded to a smooth surface.

While each has their strength, we conclude the obvious.  Painter’s putty, the friend of painters, is best used to fill holes in wood that will then be primed and painted; spackle is best used to fill cracks, holes, dents, and dings in drywall.

That is not to say that, in some instances, their use is interchangeable.  We just believe it best to play to their respective strengths.  The cost difference between them is minimal, so it just comes down to their highest, best use.

A couple of videos will help illustrate our analysis and conclusions for this piece.  The first compares painter’s putty, spackle, and joint compound.

The second one breaks down even further the difference between spackle and drywall mud (joint compound).

The right tool for the right job now includes the right product for the right job.  Since each has its part in DIY home improvement projects, keep a container of each handy in your shop for just those occasions.