Various fillers for painting and decorating
“Polyfilla” powder fillers are a firm favourite with trade and DIY decorators – economical, generic and all-purpose, sold by the box or sachet. There are other less well-known specialist fillers like 2-pack Polyfilla Deep Hole and Zinsser Ready Patch. They are hi-tech heavy duty fillers that won’t fail where will Polyfillas will. And for finer finishing, there are ready-mixed lightweight fine surface fillers like Red Devil, and more obscure still, Spachtel and Swedish putty. I have used all these types of fillers and this is what I have found.
Please note, that whilst everything that follows is still correct, I have since converted to products from French filling company, Toupret, whose high performance decorating fillers meet most of my filling needs.
In terms of wall filling, their spray fillers and surfacers have taken potential finish quality to a new level, and the strength of their “TX110 polyfiller” is on a par with 2 pack fillers – yet they are easy to sand dead smooth. Apart from Murex exterior filler on timber, flashing is not a consideration, and the sheen on front doors is a wonder to behold if you surface fill first with Toupret oil-based Gras a Lacquer.
Polyfilla powder types
Ignoring the home brand rubbish sold in DIY superstores, the most economical filler is Halls Beeline, followed by Gypsum Easifill, with Polycell Trade Filler the most expensive. In my experience, they all perform roughly the same.
You add water to the powder to make a paste. You can mix it to a consistency that suits your filling requirements – stiffer for holes, smoother for cracks and small dents. Mixed up filler is usable for 20-30 minutes.
Tips If a sachet of powder has been left opened for a day or two, it will dry out more quickly when mixed, (sometimes it hardens instantly!) so I seal opened filler bags with masking tape. I mix filler in a plastic kettle, whereas a friend of mine uses half a plastic football which he can turn inside out for a quick clean. Rather than mess up a clean sink, I fill a bucket with cold water and use that water for mixing up filler where I am working.
Under normal circumstances, powder fillers dry hard within two to a few hours and sand down smooth, ready for over-painting, papering and even drilling. If you want filler to dry rock hard, mix it with emulsion rather than water. Deep holes can be “bodged” by mixing up wet newspaper with polyfilla for a plaster of paris type fill.
Powder fillers have some disadvantages though.
- On all but the shallowest dents, the powder fillers tend to sink and usually you need at least a couple of passes for an acceptable job.
- They take a couple of hours before being dry and hard enough to sand. In cold conditions, or with any sort of depth of filler, they can take all day to dry off.
- The sanded powder is very fine, which for most decorators means the creation of dust clouds. (Vacuum sanders are a good solution to fine sanding issues. I use Mirka Abranet abrasives attached to a Henry and it seems to cut down dust to a minimum.)
- If you fill walls with polyfillas and “size” them with diluted paste or PVA, before hanging wallpaper, you can get in trouble! (I know I did!) The paste can soften the filler and as it dries out, the filler may come away from the wall, taking the wallpaper with it. This seems to be the main cause of curling edges on painted lining paper. One solution is to use a special “size” like Beeline Primer Sealer, Gypsum Drywall sealer or Zinsser Gardz. These clever water-based products prevent paste from soaking into the filler, while providing a strong key for paste to stick to.
Zinsser Ready Patch
This is a ready-mixed spackle – a casein resin emulsion from the US to be precise – with a distinctive “spirit” smell. It will stick to grainy absorbent plaster surfaces, as well as metal and anything in between. And when it dries – within 30 minutes – it is easy to sand and doesn’t create clouds of fine dust. So if you are faced with filling over poorly adhering plaster, complicated troublesome surfaces, or you have nail holes and dents in woodwork, and you want to get a move on, this is a great product.
There are a couple of issues to watch out for, though.
If you leave it overnight, sanding Zinsser filler is quite a bit tougher than normal filler. 80 grade Abranet makes this task more user friendly however.
Ready Patch has a shiny finish, which means it is great for over-painting with oil paints – one undercoat and gloss, or two coats of satinwood will obliterate the filler. However, if you are applying an emulsion finish, you have to spot prime the filler with Zinsser Bullseye 123, then paint the whole wall with Bullseye before emulsioning. The Bullseye dries in 30 minutes, but if you don’t do those stages, the filler will flash through the paint.
Another downside is that unlike the advertising claims, Zinsser Ready Patch does sink like powder filler, so two fills are still required for a top job.
And it is a lot pricier than polyfilla. But Ready Patch is the sort of filler you can keep “on the van” for cracks / holes or difficult surfaces where polyfilla isn’t strong enough, plus it is a convenient fine surface filler for painted woodwork, .
Polyfilla 2-pack Deep Hole
Some decorators use “Bondo” 2-pack bodywork filler for that bombproof filling job. This is all well and good, except when to comes to grinding it down. Life is hard enough as it is. Bondo also has a distinctive smell.
If you can get over the shock of £14 for a 1kg tub, plaster-based Polyfilla Deep Hole is a very good 2-pack alternative to bondo. I had to deal with some severe cracks around a door frame plus small (6 x 2″ x 1/2″ deep) areas where plaster had blown. Normal filler would crack before I left the job. Zinsser Ready Patch needs more painting than I prefer. So, 2-pack it is.
This 2-part filler mixes easily and stays workable for about 15 minutes, it filled the deep cracks and missing lumps of plaster in two attempts, smooths out beautifully, and sands nicely as well with 80 grade Abranet. And its main advantage over Zinsser Ready Patch is – it doesn’t flash through paint i.e. touch in with diluted emulsion to seal it, then paint as normal.
Surprisingly, it goes a long way too, and I have half a tub still, which will stay useful indefinitely – or at least till I mix it up.
Ready-mixed fine surface filler
I find that the convenience of Red Devil – it is ready mixed – is outweighed by its poor performance. It is too easy to squeeze the moisture out of it, so half of it ends up crumbled on the floor, useless. Also, considering it is a fine surface filler, it has poor adhesion over modern high sheen undercoats and after a light sanding, you can end up with less filler than when you started. There are better fine surface fillers available. (As a childish joke on site, we’d throw a full tub of Red Devil across to a bricky and tell them to catch it. No one expects it to be so light!)
Sikkens do a fine surface Kodrin Spachtel which is oil-based and sands beautifully. Spec is:
prime bare timber, fine surface fill, dry sand 12 hours later, 2 x oil based top coat 24 hours later
Polycell Fine Surface Filler – I won’t use this after some horrendous experiences where, by the time I had finished sanding it smooth, I was back down to bare wood. Maybe they have since changed the formula but I haven’t been back, so to speak.
Tetrion is another high quality fine filler, which works – as long as you don’t want to emulsion paint over it. A friend of mine found out the hard way that it is cement based. After 3 coats and no end to patches flashing through, a Dulux rep told him the only way to get a good finish is to oil primer seal the walls first. Not exactly practical.
Sanding putty – When I was painting wooden boats, I used an impressive fine surface sanding putty over the top of undercoat. It was traditional linseed oil based, became very dry as it is spread and “squeezed”, but it filled the grain and sanded beautifully. As usual in corporate America, a competitor bought out the company and discontinued it.
The “alternative” is called Swedish putty, which is a brilliant white linseed oil-based filler. It is dear as poison, but to be fair it works amazingly well, probably the ultimate filling product for achieving high class woodwork. I do wonder though what was wrong with the cheap as chips old-fashioned filler?
Now I carry 3 types of filler:
Halls Beeline, Zinsser Ready Patch Toupret TX110 “polyfilla” powder, and Polyfilla 2-pack. I think between those I have most issues covered – or filled. Do you have any suggestions for alternatives?
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