Tinting and Staining Wood Filler

Furniture makers discuss how to make wood filler match wood, and debate wood filler's proper role in the shop. December 1, 2005

What type of filler do most of you use? I do most of my work in red oak. I currently use a product called Wunderfil. Problem is that it does not stain up quite that well with darker stains.

Forum Responses
(Furniture Making Forum)
From contributor T:
I tint my filler to match before applying it and keep some in an airtight container. Any waterbased filler/spackle will tint with dyes, stain or universal tints. Any overfill/smears need to be sanded off the surrounding area. For tiny holes, use matching wax crayons after finishing.

From contributor M:
Water based Famowood tints and sands real well. For economy, I use inexpensive artist's water colors, doing samples to get a match if I'm working with an unfamiliar stain color. Another art supply/craft store item that really helps with oak and other open grain woods is a good palette knife. For putting filler right where you want it, they can't be beat. Smearing the stuff with a putty knife always leaves residue in the surrounding area, calling attention to the fill.

From contributor J:
I'm surprised that any of you use filler of any kind. I've never used filler and don't know anyone that does. Why use it? Where do you use it? To cover up mistakes? What do you guys know that I don't?

From the original questioner:
I don't know of anyone that does not occasionally use filler. I'll use it in between glued up panels, or filling a brad hole that may have been needed because of the inability to clamp, or on the inside of doors over a brad hole that holds rail and stile tight until the glue dries. There is nothing wrong with anyone's work if they use some filler. Even the master craftsmen will use it. Anyone else have comments on this?

From contributor J:
When you talk about a brad that holds a door stile and rail together while the glue dries, what size brad? Why not let the clamp hold it while the glue sets? I'm sure there is other work to be done while glue dries - and no hole! On smaller doors, I've used 23 gauge brads that will hold a stile/rail with no hole to be seen after finish is put on. When you say you use it in between glued up panels, are you jointing your wood? If you have gaps, something is not right in your milling process. I'll bet you can eliminate filler in your workshop!

From contributor D:
"Furniture" means no exposed nails to no nails at all on our work. "Cabinets" means nails can be used but not overused. Many/most of our furniture pieces have no nails at all (it is called joinery). We don't have a stapler in the building. We use Famowood to fill nail holes on our cabinets - glass stops mostly, and colored epoxy to consolidate knots in the knotty work.

Defensiveness on this issue indicates a broad spectrum defining acceptable work in different shops. However, I don't think most definitions of "Master Craftsmen" would include much in the way of nail filler, despite the marketing of Norm Abrams and other self-appointed "Masters."

From the original questioner:
Okay, some of you may not use filler, so you say. Here is a question for you. You just got finished with a project and one of your employees bumped into it and put a noticeable gouge into it. What do you do? Rip it apart and start over? I don't think so. What I do is repair it. If it involves filler and color matching, then that is what I do. I'm curious to what you non-filler types would do.

From contributor C:
Shellac stick works pretty well. You usually use it after the finish is applied. You melt it and let it drip into the hole and level it after it gets hard.

From contributor A:
I use latex filler for holes in trim or applied molding. It seems to be more porous than solvent based fillers, so it more readily accepts the stain. It does, however, shrink quite a bit more.

From contributor S:
In my shop, it works like this: the customer drives the construction method. Can I make furniture without nails? Yes, I can. But let's face the facts. It takes a lot more labor to produce something like a sliding dovetail than a nailed and glued butt joint. Cost is always an issue with my clients. On a job where cost isn't an object, I will use high end joinery. But the fact of the matter is that not everyone can pay for it. Nail holes are a fact of life in a woodshop, at least in a professional woodshop. I would like to add that I have seen many pieces of authentic Stickley, Shaker, etc. and most of them have filled nail holes in one place or another. I'm not saying I am a master craftsman, but I am a professional whose work is well regarded in my area. I use putty whenever I feel the need and see no problems with it.

For most applications, I use out-of-the-can Elmers fillers. They come in a variety of colors. For the more exotic colorings, I have found that alcohol soluble aniline dyes can be mixed with the lighter colored Elmers fillers. The only drawback to the Elmers products is that I wish they would sand down a little better, but shrinkage is negligible, so in my view this compensates for the sanding issue.

From contributor I:
It's what the customer wants, if you are a business. If you use furniture joinery and it takes you twice as long to make, then charge accordingly. It's all in your bid. But as a note in general, here is how every cabinet shop I have worked at does it: paint grade (poplar, maple, etc.) = Famowood filler on the stiles and rails. Clamping table for our doors that are tongue and grooved on the shaper with no nails needed. Glueups are joined and butt jointed on the clamping table, so no biscuits needed.

When a stain grade job comes in, the customer is given the joinery options and almost always, they say it comes down to money. What can they get for the cheapest price? In that case, I do use brads and shoot, with the grain (very important!), the face frames to the box. After I stain and seal the piece/cabinet, I fill the holes with Old Masters painters putty in the appropriate color - mix it if I have to - never any problems. If the customer wants mortise and tenon joinery, they pay for it. If the finish is required to be very intense and time consuming with multiple steps, then I outsource it to the finishing shop down the road.

From contributor Y:
On our cheaper cabinets for the builder, all natural oak, I use Dap plastic wood. For natural oak, I use their golden oak color. I do this if filling before varnish and it blends in pretty good. If I have to fill a small hole or dent after applying the finish, I use color putty, and then blend in a little varnish over it so it does not leave a dull finish on the area that is easily noticeable. On standard work, mid - high end, if I must use a filler anywhere on the piece, I take some of the sanding dust I made sanding the piece, mix in a little yellow glue to make a paste, and if the piece is going to be stained, I mix in a little stain color and overfill the void with the mixture, then when I sand and stain the piece, you usually can't tell that there was a hole or mistake. This method is the best I've found for a close to perfect match, however it is a little time consuming, because you have to make it yourself and then let it dry, sometimes overnight. However, I haven't found anything that works better for me than the homemade stuff.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor B:
There is a new type of wood filler out there called Timbermate that has not been mentioned. It is a water-based filler that does not sink, shrink, crack or fall out. It takes stain wet or dry, and can be mixed with anything to get custom colors although it comes in 14 ready mixed colors. It can be reconstituted if it dries out, and can be coated with anything.