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