Homemade Wood Filler

carpenters bench restoration
Carpenters bench after sanding off the black layer on the surface and leveling the top.  There are hundreds of drill holes and places where nails had to be set.

When my father gave me the carpenters bench that his father owned for many years, it was completely black from age and use. There were also a large amount of holes drilled into the top that needed to be filled.  While there are a ton of filler products out there that would have done the job right out of the can, I wanted something more traditional, so I used homemade wood filler.

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I was taking a lot of history off this bench while restoring the piece to what it used to look like.  I saw paint from decades ago, nails driven into the surface, and places with scarring where tools hit the top.  After getting through the grime layer, I started saving the wood dust from the belt sander. This is used to make some traditional wood filler, which would return some of the history I sanded away.

shellac and sawdust filler
A bag of wood flour and a small plastic bin for mixing it with shellac.  Keep the wood flour in a zipper bag to help prevent contamination from other particles in the shop.

Shellac and wood dust has been used for a very long time as an effective wood filler.  Though there are many things that can be mixed with wood dust to make filler, like glue, other finishes, and epoxy, I like the traditional feel of shellac.  It also dries fairly quickly after applying.

Adding history back into the bench was a simple matter of saving the dust that was collected by my handheld belt sander while I was leveling the top.  I found a large plastic zipper bag and dumped the contents of the dust pouch in there every time it became full.

shellac and sawdust filler
Front vise with shellac and wood dust fills on the surface drying.  The vise was removed to make the filling and leveling processes easier.

Mixing the shellac and wood dust is very easy. Find a small container and pour about 1/3 cup of shellac inside. Then, start adding wood dust and stirring until you have a paste that is about the consistency of thick pudding.  It should not drip or look loose, but it should not be like peanut butter either.

Pick up this paste with a thin flexible tool that allows the material to be smeared into the holes.  This can be anything from a flexible furniture repair knife to a metal cake decorating spatula for smoothing frosting.  Even a plastic butter knife will work.  Smear the paste into the holes and overfill them because this mixture likes to sink when it dries.

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Mix your homemade wood filler but don’t make too much at one time.  This filler dries fairly quickly, and it can harden before you get it in place.

carpenters bench restoration
This is the finished carpenters bench after filling with shellac and wood flour, and a light Danish Oil finish.

Once the paste hardens, sand the surface until all the fills are level with the wood, and then finish as normal.  This bench was finished with a light coating of Danish Oil after the fills were leveled.  On a workbench that will see heavy use, finishing with a film like a lacquer or  poly will inevitably lead to heartbreak when scratches and dings appear.  Danish Oil penetrates into the surface and leaves a very subtle sheen that goes well with the rustic look, and doesn’t show defects as easily as film finishes.

Danish oil is also very easy to repair in small sections.  If damage occurs, sand the affected area and apply a little more Danish Oil in that section.  Let it dry and it will blend with the rest of the surface well.

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For more finishing tips, take a look at my 10 Step Guide to Wood Finishing article. This was a big jump from the condition of the bench when I first received it.  You can still see all the fills, but there were a ton of holes (many done by me as a kid) and dozens of nails that had to be set and filled over.  I am very happy with how it looks, and my father was happy to see the bench as well.

Do you have a pet recipe for traditional wood filler?

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