How To Fix Nail Or Screw Holes In Reclaimed Wood

Have you ever gotten really excited about a pallet upcycle project, only to realize that there are giant holes in the boards from the nails? Well that totally happened to me!

While working on my own pallet upcycle project (I turned it into a bath shelf!), I realized that some pallets are nicer than others. The pallet I used was really well constructed and made of good solid wood, but after I had taken it apart I realized that the nails had left giant holes in the slats of wood! Bummer.

But my dad came to rescue with an awesome toothpick trick he uses all the time in his woodworking business. So next time you use reclaimed wood, your project won’t be ruined by nasty nail holes before you even start!

How to fix nail or screw holes in wood! {Tutorial from Practically Functional}

You can see from the picture above that all three boards had holes in them from the nails. And in two of the boards, the nails were driven so far in that the heads of the nails left holes as well! Yikes.

How To Fix Holes In Pallet Wood

There are a bunch of ways to fill a hole in a piece of wood, but this way fills the hole completely with real wood instead of glue so that it can be stained later. You can use wood glue to fill a hole, except wood glue won’t hold a stain. So unless you’re planning to paint the wood rather than stain it, that won’t work.

Luckily, toothpicks will do the trick! Here’s what you need:

  • wood glue
  • a skinny piece of wood (toothpicks, skewers, or caramel apple sticks work great)
  • a cheap pencil sharpener
  • a saw
  • a hammer
  • sandpaper
  • a rag to wipe up extra glue

How to fix nail or screw holes in wood! {Tutorial from Practically Functional}

1. Find a skinny piece of wood

You want a skinny piece of wood just slightly bigger around than the hole you are filling. This will help make sure that when you wedge the wood in, it will fill the hole completely. We had a bunch of extra caramel apple sticks from making caramel apples, so those worked perfectly. A toothpick, or bundle of toothpicks will also work. So will wooden skewers. Or take-out chopsticks. Anything wooden and skinny. 🙂

2. File the wood to a point

Use a cheap pencil sharpener to file the wood to a point. Pencil sharpeners aren’t really designed for hard wood, so make sure it’s a cheap one just in case you dull the blade or something.

How to fix nail or screw holes in wood! {Tutorial from Practically Functional}

3. Fill the hole with wood glue, then hammer in the pointy end of the stick

Extra glue will spill out of the hole, but just keep hammering. You want to wedge the stick as far in as possible so that the hole is completely filled up to all edges.

How to fix nail or screw holes in wood! {Tutorial from Practically Functional}

4. Wipe away the excess glue immediately

Since wood glue doesn’t hold a stain you want to wipe up any extra glue immediately. Just use a damp rag and wipe the entire area down. You can see in the photo above the slightly yellow spot around the caramel apple stick; that is just slightly wet wood from where I wiped away the extra glue. If you miss any extra glue you can always sand it down later before you stain or paint, but it’s easiest to wipe it away at this point before it dries.

5. Once the glue is dry, cut the stick off flush

Use a saw to cut the stick off flush with the top of the piece of wood. Don’t worry about cutting it perfectly, you can always sand down any extra stick that remains.

How to fix nail or screw holes in wood! {Tutorial from Practically Functional}

You can see above that I cut a little too close to the board and actually nicked it with my saw blade. But after I took this photo I sanded it down and it ended up okay 🙂 UPDATE: In case you missed it in the comments, my dad says that you can prevent these saw marks by putting down two or more layers of masking tape around the plug before cutting it off. Thanks Dad!

And that’s it; you’re done! Now you have a nice hole-free piece of wood ready for painting or staining or whatever. And if you need the holes filled on both sides, just flip the board over and do the same thing from the other side!

How to fix nail or screw holes in wood! {Tutorial from Practically Functional}

This is also a super useful tip if you strip a hole when you’re screwing something together. If your drill keeps turning and turning but the screw isn’t tightening down, that means you’ve probably stripped the threads of your hole. Just get some wood glue and a toothpick or two and fill the hole the same way. Once the glue is dry you’ll be able to sink a screw into the same spot and the screw will grab the wood of the toothpicks with no trouble!

Do you have any quick tips for fixing up reclaimed wood? I definitely had to glue a bunch of splintered pieces back together as well as fill all these holes. I’ll show you the whole project on Monday, but for now, just know that wood glue is the best!

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Jessi Wohlwend

I believe that anyone can do crafts and DIY projects, regardless of skill or experience. I love sharing simple craft ideas, step by step DIY project tutorials, cleaning hacks, and other tips and tricks all with one goal in mind: giving you the tools you need to “do it yourself”, complete fun projects, and make awesome things!

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Reader Interactions

  1. Ron says

    5 years ago

    Filling the holes is no big deal! It is the iron stained wood around the nail hole that needs most remedying. A solution of oxalic acid, as used for removing rust stains from sailboat sails etc, works well on most iron stains but needs rinsing off afterwards.

  2. Christine says

    9 years ago

    Here’s another toothpick tip: Sometimes pallet wood has staples in it. Those big, ugly, evil staples. Pulling them out still leaves a 1/2″ mark in the wood. I tucked a little glue in the gouges, then laid toothpicks sideways in it to fill the hole. I use a chisel to cut my toothpicks off flush. A little sanding when done!? Perfect. Gotta love toothpicks.

  3. Ian Anderson says

    9 years ago

    Love the pencil sharpener idea! I normally just hack away at a splinter of wood with a pocket knife…

    OK, so the wood grain is the ‘wrong’ way around, but on a pallet wood project this is a practical ‘middle solution with wood filler at the bottom and using a plug cutter/drill set at the top.

    To avoid saw marks, add a cheap Japanese pull saw to your wish list, they are lovely little bendy saws
    with virtually no set and can be held flat against surfaces with out marking, be perfect for this 🙂
    Stay well!

  4. Orlando Roofing says

    11 years ago

    Nice article Jessi! The tips and pictures are really helpful for understanding the process. We’ll share this with others too!

  5. Farsider says

    11 years ago

    You might also want to try at some point a method I have used for years. I save fine saw dust from the belt sander, if I know what color I will be using for a finish, I will mix some into the saw dust and pack any imperfections with it. Stain the rest of the project rubbing the filled area to make sure it has blended in nice. Allow the stain to dry and theb finish with the top coats, sealer, varnish, poly, whatever.

    • Jessi @ Practically Functional says

      11 years ago

      Great tip! My dad does that too sometimes because he always has more than enough sawdust laying around! But for me, the toothpicks work better because I’m not working with wood and sawdust every day. 🙂

  6. Susan C says

    11 years ago

    Another good fill for cracks etc is to always save some sawdust in a bag. Take the wood glue and make a thick paste to fill.

  7. Kay says

    11 years ago

    Ive done this for years. If it’s a large hole you can also use stuff the hole with matches before driving in the toothpicks. I use wire-snips to snip the toothpick(s) off.

  8. Bainide_dubh says

    11 years ago

    i learned this same tip from the new yankee workshop on pbs back when i was a kid 😉

  9. John Fisher says

    11 years ago

    Pretty nifty solution to that problem. Only thing I see that might have some potential adverse effect is if your wood plug swells and cracks the surrounding wood.

    • Jessi says

      11 years ago

      Good point. I’m not worried about it here because the whole thing is finished and waterproof, but you do have to be careful!

  10. Patrick says

    12 years ago

    Another thing you could try if you plan on using a back brace for this project is to use the holes for screws, then cover up the screws with wood putty. The Home Depo or Lows carry it, its a putty that is used to cover up holes in wood, your just apply it, let it dry then sand. I think some also come pre stained.

  11. Garden Benches says

    12 years ago

    Another idea is to cut off a piece of the same excess timber and use a plug cutter which makes perfect size plugs and gives you the benefit of retaining the grain effect and then drill the correct hole size for the plug, apply some glue, tap in the plug and then trim off with chisel and sand to a beautiful smooth finish while still keeping the grain of the wood which gives you an excellent finish. The problem with using dowels for plugs is that they look a slight unprofessional. Just an idea as i have done it numerous times with outstanding results and just thought i would share this with you.
    I really like your tips and keep up the good work.

    • Jessi says

      12 years ago

      Thanks for the tip!

  12. K @ Claiming Our Space says

    12 years ago

    I has never thought of doing this. What great tips. Thanks for sharing on tout It Tuesday! Hope to see you tomorrow.

  13. Charlene@APinchofJoy says

    12 years ago

    My dad was a matchstick user – great idea to use the skewers for bigger holes! And the masking tape is a new trick! Thanks for sharing on Busy Monday!

  14. Rachel says

    12 years ago

    This is a great tip! Thanks for sharing at Terrific Tuesdays.

  15. Danni Baird says

    12 years ago

    Oh that is a wonderful and very useful trick! I’ve been challenged to do a pallet project by Sept. 1st, so this will come in very handy. Now I’m off to see what you made!

  16. Liann Ward says

    12 years ago

    what a great tip thanks, we just started working with reclaimed wood and this will come in handy 🙂

  17. Grace @ sense and simplicity says

    12 years ago

    Great tip. I would never have thought of using chopsticks to fill the holes and I like the sharpening it to a point tip as well. I’m going to have to remember this one. My Dad taught me a similar tip – when you strip a hole so the screw won’t grab, then glue the wooden part of matches (sometimes several are needed) into the hole and the screw will have something to hold onto.

    • Jessi says

      12 years ago

      Yeah, matches would work great too! My dad uses toothpicks, but anything wooden will work 🙂

  18. Daddy says

    12 years ago

    Nice Jess! To prevent saw marks on the wood when you are cutting off the plugs, cover the area around them with masking tape. Two or more layers will offer good protection.

    • Jessi says

      12 years ago

      Ah, brilliant! Thanks Dad. After I cut that one too close I just backed off and cut the sticks further away and then sanded them down, but this would save a lot of extra sanding time 🙂

  19. Prairie Scraps says

    12 years ago

    Great idea! I wouldn’t have thought about filling those pallet holes at all!

  20. Marci says

    12 years ago

    What a great tip! Thank you! -Marci

  21. Jill @ Create.Craft.Love. says

    12 years ago

    OK – your dad is a genius! I would never have thought of that. I would have just used caulk or something and then it would have turned out poorly. That is a great tip! I can’t wait to try it! Thanks for sharing at the Pomp Party! Pinning to our Pomp Party board!

  22. Katie says

    12 years ago

    How clever! Hyphen used that same trick for a stripped screw on our front doorknob, and it worked great.

    We bought a bunch of this special stainable wood-hole-filler stuff at Lowe’s for filling the nail holes in the wood floors we’re refinishing. I’m not sure how well we could saw off the end of some toothpicks when it’s a floor and not a board that you can move around. So. That stuff does exist! But this would be cheaper for a project like yours, and probaly more effective when the nail holes are so big (most of the ones in the floor are pretty small)!

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