How to Repair Dents, Dings, Doinks and Gouges in Wood – Tricks from Wood Finish Pros

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It never fails. You spend hours picking out the choice woods at the lumber yard. Sorting through the damaged pieces is always a chore but a necessary step when using wood as the final finish on your project. Even after all of that work, somehow when you bring the piece of wood back to the shop, you find a gouge or dent you hadn’t noticed before. No need to head back to the lumber yard to give the zombie-like teenager stacking the wood a piece of your mind. We’re combining some expertise from the great video The Way to Woodworking: Step by Step to the Perfect Finish, with some project experience of our own to tame wood blemishes for good. Use these tips and tricks for repairing dents, dings and gouges in wood and save yourself the trouble of repeated trips to the lumber yard.

What’s the Difference between a Gouge and a Dent?

Both a dent and a gouge
Both a dent and a gouge – Photos Courtesy of The Way to Woodworking: Step by Step to the Perfect Finish

There’s a big difference between a gouge and a dent when it comes to wood. A dent in wood is one of the easiest to repair and takes just a little bit of water and heat to repair. Dents only compress the wood fibers and with some good old fashioned steam, you can make the wood fibers rise back into place.

A gouge is a bit more complicated and requires that you fill the gouge with wood putty. That’s because a gouge actually rips the wood fibers. Once the fibers are ripped, the only tried and true way to fix the damage is by filling in the gouge with some matching wood putty.

Fixing a Wood Dent

If it's not quite breaking the wood fibers, it can be steamed out.
If it’s not quite breaking the wood fibers, it can usually be steamed out.

In the video from The Woodworker’s Journal and our good sponsors at Rockler titled The Way to Woodworking: Step-by-Step to the Perfect Finish, Michael Dresdner, one of the leading authorities on finishing and staining, demonstrates a simple way to fix a wood dent using a clothes iron.

I am Iron Man!
Bet you never thought you’d use this tool – Using an iron to steam out a dent

First, you’ll need to add a few drops of water to the dent using a small brush or rag. After the water absorbs into the dent, you’ll need to cover the dent with a damp cloth. Using a clothes iron set on its highest setting; place the iron onto the damp rag for a few seconds. Pick up the cloth and check the dent. The crushed wood fibers should have risen back to their original position. If not, add some more water and try again. I like to add a bit of white distilled vinegar to deep dents as the vinegar tends to help really bend the wood fibers back into their original shape.

Fixing a Gouge

An example of a gouge that reminds me of Wile E. Coyote
An example of a gouge that reminds me of when Wile E. Coyote falls off the cliff

Gouges can only be eliminated with wood putty. It really doesn’t fix the gouge, it just hides it. You’ll still be able to see the wood putty until you stain, dye or blend it into the surrounding wood. And sometimes that can be a bit tough to do.

To repair a gouge using wood putty, fill the depression with plenty of the stuff so that it overflows out of the gouge. This way, when the putty shrinks, you won’t have to fill the gouge again. Some putties are more prone to “shrinkage” than others. Let the putty dry overnight before sanding it with a flat sanding block. The reason why need a flat sanding block is so that you don’t get a depression in the wood putty when you’re sanding with your hands. Obviously, you can’t use a flat sanding block on a curved piece of wood. My point is to match the surface of the material with the sanding device so you don’t take out extra putty and reveal the gouge. Once sanded, the gouge should be visible with no additional putty surrounding the damaged wood.

Fill er' up
Fill er’ up with wood filler liberally to avoid shrinkage

Choosing a wood putty that matches the lightest background color of the wood helps to ensure that after finishing, the putty doesn’t stand out like a sore thumb. But even when you choose a putty color that matches the wood, it may still react differently to the stain or finish and show up as a blemish when the final finish is applied. Always be sure to test stain and finish the dried putty on a scrap piece of wood first. This way, you can make sure you’re going to disguise the gouge and not make it the center of attention. We’ll have more details on disguising the putty in a future article, stay tuned!

Some people prefer to use a mix-it-yourself wood putty, so that you can blend various shades together to create a perfect color match. I find that to be really tedious and wood putty doesn’t always stay the same color after it has been stained. My trick is to use saw dust and a bit of wood glue to create my own wood putty on smaller gouges. I save the saw dust from the dust bag on my sander after I’ve sanded the wood. The wood dust is a perfect color match for any gouge repairs and it doesn’t cost me a dime to make. Best of all, the stain will always match perfectly to the surrounding wood because essentially it’s the same stuff. Bye-bye gouges and dents!

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About Eric

Since Eric built his first skateboard ramp in his parents driveway; he’s breathed, slept and eaten DIY construction. As a second generation master carpenter who runs two Florida-based construction firms, Eric’s had the chance to work on everything from Mcmansions to your local mall to the cat lady’s bathroom. So when it comes to dealing with construction s@#t; he’s the man—literally. There isn’t a tool or construction material that Eric hasn’t used and abused, and if there is; it’s rocking in a dark corner nervously waiting for him to show up for work.

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