Many homeowners aren’t sure whether to use putty or caulk on various home projects, and you’re bound to need both at one time or another for minor household repairs. Fortunately, it’s pretty straightforward once you remember the purpose of each.

Putty is a doughlike compound used to fill in holes (from nails, for example) and for surface defects or open spaces.

Caulking serves a different purpose. It’s an old shipbuilding technique of filling the seams between the planks to make a vessel watertight. Caulking is still used in the same way today. DIYers use caulking to prevent water damage on long seams, such as around windows, doors, sinks, tubs, and showers. Other uses for caulk include hiding gaps in woodwork and filling long, narrow cracks in ceilings and walls.

Today’s Homeowner Tips

So, if it’s a hole or a scratch, use putty to match —  but if it’s a long, open seam where water can leak, just lay in a bead of waterproof caulk, like silicone.

Keep reading for my top tips on when to use caulking versus putty for your home improvement projects.

When To Use Putty

Putty has a clay-like texture and comes in different varieties for specific uses. Here are some of the most common situations where you’ll want to use a high-quality putty:

  • Putty helps create a smooth, consistent surface. Fill small holes, dents, scratches, or imperfections in wood products with putty before painting or staining. 
  • Drywall putty blends in for seamless repairs. For example, you can patch damaged drywall after removing a nail or anchor with putty. 
  • Putty hides holes for a flawless finish, so fill nail holes with putty after installing trim work and molding. 
  • Cabinet putty matches wood finishes, smoothing scratches and gaps where cabinets meet walls. 
  • Tile putty comes in various colors to match your grout so you can achieve a seamless finish. Use putty to fix chips or cracks in ceramic tile or around bathroom faucets. 
  • Cover popped nail heads in wood flooring. For example, wood filler putty prevents potential snags.

In all these cases, plumbers’ putty proves helpful for minor, localized repairs. It fills in defects and evens out many surfaces, making it a must-have product for homeowners to have on hand. Remember to keep your putty knife clean for the next time you need it.

When To Use Caulk

Unlike putty, caulk has a smoother, more liquid consistency. Some of caulk’s best uses include: 

  • Caulk allows expansion and contraction. Use it to seal gaps between dissimilar materials, like between a bathtub and tile or cabinet and wall. 
  • Caulk is excellent for leak prevention. You can weatherproof outdoor cracks and seams prone to water intrusion, such as around windows, door frames, and siding joints.
  • Caulk prevents water damage by creating watertight seals around sinks, showers, tubs, and plumbing fixtures. 
  • It creates invisible repairs. Fill long joints and seams where two uniform surfaces meet, like crown molding corners or vertical drywall seams, with caulk for a seamless look. 
  • Caulk binds surface materials together for stability and strength. 
  • It smooths out and compensates for uneven surfaces. Use caulk to even out transitions between countertops and backsplashes. 

In short, caulk is ideal for sealing out water and joining components over large surface areas. 

Caulk vs. Putty Comparison

Here’s a quick look at the differences between caulk and putty products:

DIY UsesSealing seams and gaps, especially against waterFilling small holes and defects
ConsistencySmooth, somewhat runnyThick, doughy
Dry TimeOften 24 hours or moreLess than one hour
DurabilityLong-lasting flexibilityCan become brittle over time

Pros and Cons of Caulking and Putty

Still trying to decide whether you should use caulking or putty? The following pros and cons summarize each product’s strengths and weaknesses. 

Waterproof and weatherproof
Allows for expansion and contraction
Flexible over many years
Various formulas for many uses
Slow drying time
Messier to work with
Prone to mold in damp areas
Super fast-drying
Easy sanding and shaping
Stiff consistency won’t sag or drip
Not flexible or waterproof
Shrinks and cracks over time
Doesn’t work well filling long seams
Limited uses

Is Caulk or Putty Better for Your Project?

There’s no clear winner when evaluating caulk versus putty — you just need to determine the right tool for your project. 

For minor repairs like hiding nail holes, fixing chips, or covering popped nails, putty is extremely useful. It dries fast, sands easily, and comes in colors to match your materials. But caulk is the superior option for sealing out water and joining surfaces like windows, showers, sinks, or exterior walls. Quality silicone or latex caulking will also outlast urban putty in wet environments.

Just remember to check the application and product details before making your final decision.

FAQs About Caulking and Putty

What are some caulk formulas I might use?

For most household applications, latex and silicone caulk are most common. Look for 100% silicone caulk for bathrooms and other wet areas. Acrylic latex caulks work well indoors and out.

How do I apply caulk neatly?

Cut the tip at a 45-degree angle for easier application. Smooth the bead with a damp finger or caulk-shaping tool. Slowly apply and keep the nozzle steadily pressed to the seam for even flow.

What's the best way to use putty?

Lightly sand the repair area first for better adhesion. Forcibly press the putty into holes to fill completely. Then, smooth with a putty knife and sand again once it’s dry before painting for an invisible patch.

Can I paint over caulk?

Yes, most latex and acrylic caulks can be painted over. Check the manufacturer’s recommendations and warranty to make sure your selected product is paint-friendly. Then, apply the paint as directed and allow time for the product to cure fully.

Is there caulk designed for roofs and gutters?

Yes, look for elastomeric sealants made for roofing. Elastomeric caulk flexes and stretches more than standard formulas. For gutters, invest in silicone roof caulk, which works well for metal and rubber gutter joints.

Editorial Contributors
avatar for Amy DeYoung

Amy DeYoung


Amy DeYoung has a passion for educating and motivating homeowners to improve their lives through home improvement projects and preventative measures. She is a content writer and editor specializing in pest control, moving, window, and lawn/gardening content for Today’s Homeowner. Amy utilizes her own experience within the pest control and real estate industry to educate readers. She studied business, communications, and writing at Arizona State University.

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Casey Daniel

Casey Daniel is a writer and editor with a passion for empowering readers to improve their homes and their lives. She has written and reviewed content across multiple topics, including home improvement, lawn and garden care, sustainability, and health and wellness. When she’s not reviewing articles, Casey is usually playing board games, repainting her bathroom, or quilting.

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