For the (Sincere) Love of a Muscle-bound, Skintight Wrestler

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When I teach beginning woodworkers, there are three comforting things I want to tell them.

1. All woodworkers have bad days. I’ve seen the uber-awesome magazine-cover superstars fumble to adjust a plane, I’ve seen them split a mortise, cut their dovetails the wrong way, you name it. I won’t name names because it is everyone.

2. My second dovetail teacher said the following thing to me in 1996. Remember this:  Woodworkers have been hiding gaps in dovetails from rich people for hundreds of years. Here’s how I do it….

3. In my shop, putty is not a bad word, especially with painted works.

Ever since I’ve been woodworking I’ve been using Durham’s Rock Hard Water Putty for many things in the craft. It puts all of the lame-o putties in tubes to shame — all pre-mixed putties dry out, crack, shrink (in my experience) and generally are a waste of material.

Durham’s is a white powder, a lot like plaster of Paris. You mix it with water (and other things) to make a small or large amount of material, depending on the job. A 16 oz. can will last for more than a decade, unless you really suck eggs as a woodworker.

When you mix it with water, it makes a yellowish putty that is perfect for pine or maple. It dries quickly and, as advertised, rock hard. No cracks. You can make the putty any consistency you like – thin to wick into cracks. Thick to repair a large knot.

Mix it with Titebond II or Titebond III, and you can make a water-resistant or waterproof putty. No lie.

Add some dye (even food color) and you can tone the putty to whatever color you like.

When do I use it? Mostly with painted work. If a piece get banged up in the shop, and I cannot steam out the dents, Durham’s is an excellent solution. I’ll use it to fill voids from knots. And – very important – it is a great glazier’s putty for securing glass in a divided-light door in an authentic way (thanks to Glen Huey for showing me this).

But despite my love for Rocky – the muscle-bound character on the label – I don’t use Durham’s to hide gaps in dovetails. That’s because I haven’t ever had a gap in a dovetail (a bald-face lie). Instead, I use different strategies. Next time I dovetail a carcase together, I’ll shoot some photos. I have a toolbox to build in a couple weeks.

In the meantime, get yourself a can of Durham’s Rock Hard Water Putty – it’s a shop staple.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Chris Schwarz

Publisher of woodworking books and DVDs specializing in hand tool techniques.
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22 Responses to For the (Sincere) Love of a Muscle-bound, Skintight Wrestler

  1. Jerry says:

    Thanks always wondrred about that stuff…

  2. billlattpa says:

    I have to ask: Are you the muscle bound guy on the cover of the can?

  3. Amen, been using the stuff since 1983, when my furniture making mentor turned me onto it, with perhaps not the exact words, but the similar jest of what Chris says. There’s a time and a place for it, but it excels at its purpose, and it’s quick, easy to manipulate, and inexpensive.

  4. SteveR says:

    More difficult to find outside the US than you could imagine!

  5. Graham Burbank says:

    cut your baseline a hair deep, and assemble your dovetails using a domed face hammer and a block. After they are seated fully, tap the slightly proud pins with the hammer to spread the end grain a little if you have a gap. Don’t try it on the ends of the tails, as the short grain will split. Seriously defective cuts can be re-kerfed after the glue is dry and a sliver of veneer glued in place. I tend to cut them over-tight, and occasionally split a side at the base of the tail, for which the only remedy is the burn pile.

    • Graham Burbank says:

      By the way, the old yarn about mixing glue and sawdust is a holdover from when everyone used hide glue, which accepts stain more readily than any yellow-glue/sawdust mixture. Funny how long these things persist. That said, I still use ebony dust and C.A. to infill on inlay/marquetry. For shame! (oh, the guilt is killin’ me…)

  6. Crack spackle, good for woodworks and plumbers alike!!!

  7. Chris, thanks for the words of encouragement for us mere mortals.
    Al
    http://www.woodworkingwithajo.com

  8. John Switzer says:

    I feel so much better now. I wonder if you can that stuff in a 55 gallon drum ;)

    • lostartpress says:

      John,

      I’ve seen your work. I doubt you need it.

      • John Switzer says:

        Hmm. I wonder if there is another John switzer working wood? I’ve never used water putty on my iron work. But most certianly have on my wood work. I started blacksmithing to make woodworking tools but got stuck in the forge and out of the wood shop for many years. I am only just now getting (more or less) serious about woodworking. Thanks to your wondeful works and finding that Roy really hasn’t been off the air all these years (just not available around here). Keep up the good work, you are very insperational.

  9. Brent J. says:

    Proud product of Des Moines. The plant was flooded in ’93.

    http://waterputty.com/about_water-putty/testimonials/

  10. mike siemsen says:

    Rocky comes in 1 pound, 4 pound and 25 pound containers.

  11. sablebadger says:

    Durhams is great stuff, I’ve used it for making molds to vacuform masks over. I built a base out of scraps of wood, and added layers of Durhams over the frame to add the details and smooth out the edges. Worked great!

  12. Robert W. Foedisch AKA Bob says:

    Thanks for the heads up. You say you can tint it? I recently putzed a walnut book case, if can tint this stuff maybe my problens are solved. What is the best finish to use with it?
    Thanks again

  13. Ron Dennis says:

    John –

    Given my experience, I’ve been using a one pound can for my mistakes . . . for over forty years. Forget the drum, besides it occupies too much space in the shop.

  14. Harlan Janes says:

    Way back when, Constantines (NYC) had a product called “powdered wood compound” they sold by the pound. Sounds like it might have been this product re-packaged. Chris is too young to recall this firm. Now I know what to get. Thanks.

  15. Now that you have disclosed this I now feel comfortable saying I too use putty. Thanks!

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