Mastering the Art of Filling Cracks in Wood Before Painting: Your Comprehensive Guide

Bob Thomas


 I'm Bob Thomas, a seasoned painter and decorator with years of hands-on experience under my belt.

Today, we're going to address a common concern many DIY enthusiasts face: how to fill cracks in wood before painting.

I've seen this issue pop up countless times in my career, and I promise you, it's not as daunting as it might seem.

Let's break it down into simple, manageable steps that even a beginner can follow with ease.

Quick Summary

For those in a hurry, here's a brief rundown: To fill cracks in wood before painting, you'll need to 1) Assess the damage and choose the right filler, 2) Prepare the wood surface and apply the filler, 3) Sand the filled area to achieve a smooth finish, 4) Clean the surface, and 5) Prime and paint the wood. By following these steps meticulously, you can restore the look of your wooden items and give them a fresh coat of paint. Keep reading for a detailed walkthrough.

Understanding the Damage and Choosing the Right Filler

First things first, we need to understand the extent of the damage and choose the right filler.

Not all fillers are created equal, and picking the wrong one could lead to more harm than good.

Type of Cracks and Suitable Fillers

Type of Crack
Suitable Filler

Minor cracks, scratches, and nicks

Wood filler or putty

Major cracks and holes

Epoxy filler

Pro Tip: For outdoor projects, consider using a flexible, weather-resistant filler to withstand the elements.

Preparing the Wood Surface and Applying the Filler

Once you've chosen the appropriate filler, it's time to prepare the surface.

  1. Clean the surface: Start by using a soft brush to remove dust and debris from the crack. If necessary, use a vacuum cleaner for a more thorough cleanup.
  2. Apply the filler: Using a putty knife, apply your chosen filler into the crack. Press it firmly to ensure the filler gets into all the nooks and crannies. Remember, it's better to overfill the crack slightly, as the filler tends to shrink when it dries.
  3. Let it dry: Allow the filler to dry completely. The drying time can vary depending on the type and brand of the filler, so it's best to check the manufacturer's instructions.

Last summer, I was restoring an old wooden bench in my garden with a rather large crack on the seat.

Using a two-part epoxy filler worked wonders for that project.

Not only did it fill the crack perfectly, but it also held up beautifully against the weather.

Sanding the Filled Area

Sanding is a crucial step to ensure a smooth surface before painting.

After the filler is completely dry, sand the area with a medium-grit sandpaper, such as 120-grit, to level the filler with the wood surface.

Then, switch to a fine-grit sandpaper, like 220-grit, for a smoother finish.

Remember to always sand in the direction of the wood grain to avoid scratching the surface.

And don’t forget to wipe away the dust before moving onto the next step.

Pro Tip: For an even smoother finish, use a sanding block. It provides better control and uniform pressure, resulting in a more consistent finish.

Cleaning the Surface

After sanding, clean the surface again to remove any remaining dust.

A tack cloth works well for this purpose, as it's specifically designed to pick up and hold dust particles.

Priming and Painting the Wood

Now, onto the final step - priming and painting.

  1. Priming: Applying a primer before painting is crucial, as it helps the paint adhere to the surface better and provides a more uniform appearance. Choose a high-quality primer compatible with both your wood and paint. Apply the primer evenly, following the direction of the wood grain. Allow it to dry thoroughly as per the manufacturer's instructions.
  2. Painting: Once the primer is completely dry, you're ready to paint. Choose a good quality paint that suits your wood and the environment in which it will be placed. Apply the paint using a suitable brush, roller, or spray, depending on the size and complexity of the project. It's generally best to apply two coats of paint for a more vibrant and durable finish. Allow the first coat to dry completely before applying the second.

Pro Tip: For a flawless paint job, sand lightly between coats using a fine-grit sandpaper. This removes any brush strokes and particles stuck in the paint, resulting in a smoother finish.

Safety, Risks, and Considerations

When dealing with wood repair and painting, there are a few safety considerations and potential risks to keep in mind.

Here are some important points to remember:

  1. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): Always wear appropriate safety gear, including safety glasses, gloves, and a mask. These will protect you from dust and fumes when sanding, applying filler, or painting.
  2. Ventilation: Work in a well-ventilated area, especially when using filler or paint, as these often emit strong fumes that can be harmful if inhaled in large quantities.
  3. Safe storage: Store all materials (fillers, primers, paints) in a safe, cool, and dry location, out of the reach of children and pets.
  4. Fire safety: Some products used in this process are flammable. Avoid open flames or high heat sources when using them.
  5. Disposal: Dispose of any waste material responsibly. Check your local regulations for disposal of items like used sandpaper, leftover filler, paint cans, etc.
  6. Handling tools: Use tools such as putty knives, sanding blocks, and brushes carefully to avoid injury.
  7. Health Risks: Long-term exposure to dust and chemicals can lead to health issues. If you frequently engage in such DIY projects, consider investing in a high-quality respirator and always work in well-ventilated areas.

Lastly, always follow the manufacturer's instructions and safety precautions on the packaging of any product you're using.

These are designed to ensure your safety while using the product effectively.


  1. Filling cracks but they reappear after drying: This could be because the filler has shrunk as it dried, or the wood has continued to move. Be sure to slightly overfill the crack, and then sand it down to level with the wood surface once it's dry. If the wood continues to move, you may need to address moisture issues in the wood or environment.
  2. Filling is visible after painting: To avoid this, make sure to use a filler that is stainable or paintable. After filling and allowing it to dry, sand it down to make it level with the wood surface before applying paint or stain.
  3. Filling falls out over time: This may occur if the filler hasn't bonded properly with the wood. Ensure you're using the correct type of filler for your wood and that the wood and filler are both at appropriate temperatures during application.
  4. Filling dries too quickly and becomes difficult to work with: Different types of fillers have different drying times. Make sure to read the manufacturer's instructions and work in manageable sections if you're dealing with a fast-drying product.
  5. Crack reappears in the same place after a while: This could be a sign of a structural issue with the wood, such as ongoing movement or stress at that location. In such cases, it might be necessary to consult a professional.

Frequently Asked Questions Section (FAQs)

Q. What types of fillers can I use to fill cracks in wood before painting?

  A: There are several types of fillers you can use, including water-based wood filler, epoxy fillers, and vinyl spackling compound.

Each of these fillers has their own pros and cons.

Water-based wood fillers are easy to use and dry quickly, but they may not be as durable as other types. 

Epoxy fillers are very durable and can fill large cracks, but they can be more difficult to work with.

Vinyl spackling compound is easy to sand and paint over, making it a good choice for small cracks.

Q. How long should I let the filler dry before painting?

  A: The drying time can vary depending on the type of filler you use and the size of the crack.

As a general rule, you should let the filler dry for at least 24 hours before painting.

Always check the manufacturer's instructions for specific drying times.

Q. How can I ensure a smooth finish after filling the crack?

  A: After the filler has completely dried, you can use sandpaper to smooth out the surface.

Start with a coarse-grit sandpaper to level the filler with the surface of the wood, and then switch to a finer-grit sandpaper to achieve a smooth finish.

Wipe away any dust with a damp cloth before painting.

Q. Can I use wood glue to fill small cracks in wood?

  A: While wood glue can be used in conjunction with sawdust to fill very small cracks, it is generally not recommended for larger cracks.

Wood glue is not designed to be a filler and may not adhere properly to the sides of the crack or dry in a way that's conducive to painting.

Q. Can I fill cracks in painted wood?

  A: Yes, but you will need to carefully prepare the area first.

You'll need to scrape away any loose paint, clean the area, and then sand it lightly to help the filler adhere.

After filling the crack, you can sand the area smooth and repaint it.

Q. What should I do if the filler isn't hardening?

  A: If the filler isn't hardening, it could be due to a number of reasons such as not mixing the components properly (in case of two-part fillers), old or expired product, or very humid or cold conditions.

In such cases, you may need to remove the filler and apply a fresh layer.

Always ensure you're working in suitable conditions and that the product is within its usable date.

Q. Can I use caulk to fill cracks in wood?

  A: Caulk can be used to fill small, shallow cracks in wood, especially in areas where flexibility is needed, like around window frames.

However, for deeper or larger cracks, a dedicated wood filler would provide a better and more durable result.

Caulk might also not take paint in the same way as the surrounding wood, leading to noticeable differences in texture or color.


And there you have it!

With a bit of patience and the right techniques, you can easily fill cracks in wood before painting, extending the life and enhancing the appearance of your wooden items.

Whether you're restoring an old piece of furniture or working on a new DIY project, these steps should guide you to a successful outcome.

Suggested Products:

Water-Based Wood Filler: Elmer's E855 Carpenter's Wood Filler - Elmer's E855 Carpenter's Wood Filler is a highly popular water-based filler. This easy-to-use product is perfect for filling small cracks in wood before painting, as it dries quickly, sands smoothly, and accepts paint easily, ensuring a seamless finish.

Epoxy Filler: PC-Woody Wood Repair Epoxy Paste - PC-Woody Wood Repair Epoxy Paste is a reliable two-part epoxy filler that's great for filling larger cracks and voids in wood. With its superior strength and durability, it can help restore the structural integrity of the wood before painting, while also providing a smooth surface for painting.

Vinyl Spackling Compound: DAP DryDex Spackling - DAP DryDex Spackling is a vinyl-based compound that works well for filling small cracks and holes in wood. Its lightweight formula is easy to apply and sand, providing a smooth surface for painting. The pink-to-white indicator ensures you know when it's dry and ready for sanding.

Wood Glue (for very small cracks): Titebond III Ultimate Wood Glue - Titebond III Ultimate Wood Glue can be used in conjunction with sawdust to fill very small cracks in wood. This waterproof and durable adhesive is known for its strong bond, helping to stabilize the crack and create a paint-ready surface.

About the author 

Bob Thomas

A fully certified interior decorator and house painter , Bob Thomas brings immense expertise and knowledge amassed from many years of hands-on experience with residential, commercial and specialty painting and decorating projects of all sizes and scopes.

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