Staining Wood Filler Problems: How To Deal With Them

Whether it’s a piece of furniture, some new baseboard or window trim, or any other woodworking project, in most instances, there are going to be holes.  Nails, screws, and accidents all make holes, and unless they are pocket holes out of sight, they need to be filled in order to give our project a professional touch.

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There are several choices for materials and products to fill those holes, and the most common of them are wood fillers and wood putty.  Each has its place, and each has its highest best use, and it is necessary to understand each of them to know which to use.  If the project is new and the wood is raw, it’s going to be a wood filler; if it’s a repair job on an already-finished piece, it’s likely going to be a wood putty.  

However, there are options, tricks, and hacks that can affect the choice, as well as how we plan out the project.  Let’s see what we can come up with for you today to answer questions about it all.

Read on.

Wood Fillers

Minwax 42853000 Stainable Wood Filler, 16-Ounce

Wood fillers serve the purpose their name implies – they fill holes in wood, no matter the cause of the hole.  Wood fillers contain real wood fibers, usually a wood byproduct, something like sawdust that is suspended in a binder (water or petroleum-based).  Wood fillers dry hard, although they add no structural strength to the wood to which it is added.

Applied to your unfinished (raw) wood, and once they have thoroughly dried, they can be sanded flush with the surface of the surrounding wood, as well as stained or painted.  They are easily applied either with your finger (for small holes) or with a putty knife, pushed into the hole being filled, and smoothed by the blade of the putty knife or your finger.

Types of Wood Fillers

Water-based wood fillers.  They tend to be crumbly in consistency, but because they are water-based (with additives, including a binder and real wood fiber), they can be smoothed with a little water.  They clean up easily, again, because they are water-based and dry quickly.  Some brands will dry in as little as 10 minutes and can be sanded in as little as 20 minutes.  They are an excellent choice for unfinished (raw) woods.

Petroleum-based wood fillers.  They have an inherently smoother consistency than water-based and do not need anything to become more so.  They will be of more protection to wood against moisture and humidity, again because they are petroleum-based.

Homemade wood fillers.  Yes, you can whip up a batch of wood filler yourself using what you already have in your woodworking shop.  A little Elmer’s Glue and some of the sawdust from the project you are working on, mixed well together to a smooth consistency, will suffice.  Use your finger or a putty knife to push it into the hole, wipe it flush with the surface around it, and allow time for it to dry.  The Elmer’s Glue container will tell you how long you should allow for a good drying, and after that, you can sand it smooth and fully flush.  After that, it’s ready for the finish you’ve chosen for the project.

Are Wood Fillers Durable?

You’ll get a durable finish after you’ve allowed the filler to dry fully.  A product like Minwax High-Performance Wood Filler will dry in as little as 10 – 15 minutes and can be sanded about 30 minutes after drying.  That’s quick enough not to hold up the progress of your project but not so short you can’t enjoy a cup of tea while you wait.

Can You Stain Wood Filler After Drying and Sanding?

Yes, you can.  But will you get a good color match with the surrounding wood?  That’s the more important question.  

Wood filler does not take stain well, frankly.  Even though it contains real wood material, usually sawdust, it is not entirely wood, so we would not expect it to stain the color of the surrounding solid wood.  It may turn out darker or lighter than the stained wood around the hold and will stand out. 

Sometimes, depending on the color of the wood stain used, there may also be a more noticeable ring around the hole you filled, with a light spot in the center.  While the coat of stain will give the wood surrounding the hole a great appearance, that hole will stand out and detract from the professional appearance you wanted.  There will be microscopic gaps between the filler and the hole in the wood you’re filling, and stain will collect there to create that darker ring.  

It will drive you crazy, and your eyes will be drawn to that imperfection in the finish.  You’ll reach for sandpaper, thinking you can sand it out, but that will make things worse.  Using a darker stain can reduce this effect, while lighter stains will exacerbate it.  Too dark or a little bit different are the choices for you then, and neither is very good.  Sanding will remove all stains, and you are left with the color of the filler, and you will have achieved nothing.

Wood filler also has no grain.  It’s simply a mixture of wood material and a binder with hardening additives.  If the hole is in the midst of some beautiful grain in the wood surrounding it, even if the stain took well, it will stand out as not matching the wood grain.  The filler will not absorb the stain like the solid wood around the hole and look out of place in the grain.

While stains come in a variety of colors, you’ll have to find a trick or hack to make it blend in with the surrounding stained wood.  Even then, you might not be able to create a uniform appearance on the entire piece of wood.  That means a less-than-professional appearance for your project.

Tinted Wood Fillers

Yes, there are such things, although there are not a lot of choices, maybe 3-6 wood colors. . However, depending on the choice of stain color you have chosen for the project, you might be able to come close. If your choice matches one of those 3-6 wood colors, you’re in luck. You do want the entire piece to look uniform in color.

Wood Filler and Hardwood Floors

Yes, you can use wood filler on hardwood flooring in the event of gaps or holes.  However, you will still have to contend with all of the same issues we’ve been discussing.  The colors may not match well; it won’t match any wood grain in the surrounding area, and it doesn’t expand and contract like hardwood floors do as the environment and season may change.  But all is not lost, and we’ll get to that shortly.

Dealing With Wood Filler Problems

We’ve mentioned tricks and hacks, and work-around solutions, and it’s time to mention a few of them.

Stainable Wood Fillers

Elmer’s E-890 Stainable Wood Filler.  There are wood fillers that are specifically made to take stain well.  and Elmer’s E-890 Stainable Wood Filler is one of them.  It hardens very well, is easily sandable, and can be stained with some success in matching the appearance of the surrounding solid wood.  

Minwax Stainable Wood Filler.  This one is another, and it is formulated for both interior and exterior use.  It dries quickly, is easy to work with, and is sandable.  It’s durable, is not susceptible to a lot of shrinkage due to changing environmental conditions, and accepts both stain and paint well.

Goodfilla Wood and Grain Filler.  This third option offers several colors to choose from and tries to match well with your chosen stain.  It’s durable, can be used on hardwood flooring, and has a long shelf life – it’s water-based, and a little water can reconstitute it if it has dried a bit in the container.

Minwax 42853000 Stainable Wood Filler, 16-Ounce
  • Ideal for repairing cracks, small gouges, nail holes, knot holes and other defects in all types of…
  • Stainable Wood Filler is specially formulated to accept Minwax penetrating wood stains
  • It is designed for use with oil-based and water-based wood stains
  • Wood filler

Wood Filler Hacks

We’ve written of stains in past articles, including transparent and semi-transparent stains, when to apply a second coat, and whether wood stain goes bad.  In each of those articles, we mentioned it is common for the pigment to settle to the bottom of the can, making it necessary to stir stains frequently when using them. 

If you are using a dark stain, you can scoop up a little of the settled pigment from the bottom of the can and apply it to the wood filler after it has dried and been sanded.  Stain the piece of wood first, including over the wood filler; allow it to dry; and then, use a q-tip to apply a little of the settled pigment directly onto the wood filler.  Smooth it out, and then simply let it dry.

Wood Putty

This is an entirely different animal than wood filler, even though it is also used to fill holes in wood.  It is a manufactured product that contains plastic-based and petroleum-based compounds and is soft in consistency.

It should not be used on raw wood, though, because of those compounds, as they can damage the wood.  It’s a product designed to work best on already-finished woods.  It comes with tint and color, unlike wood filler, which is usually white.  Match the color of the wood putty to the color of the stain of the surrounding wood, and it will blend in nicely for you.  Then re-apply the top coat to match the piece of wood.

We suppose another solution to work around wood filler stain problems is to stain your project without filling the nail or screw holes and apply your chosen top coat.  Then, you could return to those holes and use a matching color wood putty to fill them.  Apply your top coat over the wood putty, and you have your finished project with a bit less effort than dealing with wood putty that didn’t take stain well.

Video Demonstration of The Best Wood Fillers

This video presents 7 different wood filler options, including a couple we did not mention, including plastic wood.  It’s worth watching, as there are some products you might not be familiar with yet.

Yes, wood fillers do present problems if your project is to be stained.  Of course, paint is a different matter, and wood fillers are a good choice to fill those holes if the finish will be painted.  Paint should not be used with wood putty, but it’s a great choice to cover wood fillers, as you will see in the video.

Last update on 2023-09-27 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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