Touch up refers to techniques used
to repair and disguise damage on
already finished wood—without refinishing.
Whether you’ve rubbed through
a finish, discovered glue spots or putty
patches that stick out, or been faced
with damage to the wood itself, knowing
how to touch them up can save the
day. Read on to discover the tools and
techniques needed to masterfully disguise
dings, dents and other blemishes.
I’d like to tell you that you can just buy
two or three felt-tip pens and a bunch
of spray cans. Sadly, that’s not the case.
To accurately reproduce the wide range
of colors that appear in finished wood,
you’ll have to mix them yourself, like an
To do this you’ll need to accumulate
a variety of touch-up tools (Fig.
A, below) and learn how to use
them. You’ll also need
good lighting. Ideally, you
should perform touch-up
work in the same lighting
direct, indirect, etc.)
under which the piece will
be viewed. The next best
choice is daylight, or artificial,
Repair the damage
If you are touching up a
light sand-through or glue
spot where both background
color and grain are still intact,
you can skip to the section called
“Adjust the Color,” below.
Auto body filler is well suited for use
in wood repairs. It is a catalyzed, highstrength
adhesive that cures fast,
smooths well and takes a finish. Drop it
into the center of the damaged area
with a palette knife and work it out to
the edges to ensure a good bond (Photo
2). Add more to the center until the
patch is over-filled. When the filler has
started to harden, but before it has
completely cured, shave it flat to the
surface with a sharp chisel (Photo 3). If
you notice any voids, simply add more
filler and shave it down. After the filler
has cured, sand it smooth with fine
sandpaper, and you’re ready to begin
the touch-up process.
Wood putty can also be used for
repairs, just be sure it is one or two
shades lighter than the lightest color
you can see in the wood. It’s quite difficult
to hide a darker patch—it always
shows up as a shadow.
Seal first, then color
As a first step, and again in between
each layer of color, seal the touch-up
area with a bit of clear finish. This
shows you the true color of the surface
under a finish so you can match the
touch up correctly. It also provides a
base for each layer of color. I like to use
thin, dewaxed shellac for the sealer,
applied with a small brush, a cotton
cloth formed into a pad, or a spray can.
Let the sealer dry at least 10 minutes
before you continue.
After sealing, check the background
color. If it’s correct, go directly to the
graining step. If the patch is too light,
mix a color one shade lighter than the
lightest background color in the area
around the patch. Use a brush to create
a small puddle of shellac on the mixing
tray. Dip the brush into whichever
pigments you need and add
them to the shellac until you have
a thin but opaque “paint,” thinning
it with alcohol as needed. If
it is too thick it will build up a
“scab” of color. Apply the pigment
and shellac mixture with a
small brush, taking care not to
make the touch up larger than it
needs to be (Photo 4).
Add the grain lines
As before, seal the color coat and
let the shellac dry. Simply put,
adding grain lines is painting a
picture of the wood onto the
patch. Using your finest brush,
mix a dark color to match the
grain of the wood and copy the
missing grain pattern (Photo 5). A
good, red sable brush that comes
to a fine, sharp point allows you
to control the color in thin lines.
Use short, careful strokes. If you
are not comfortable with a brush, most suppliers also sell fine-point felttip
markers specifically for graining.
Work on the graining until you are
satisfied with it. If it starts to get away
from you, “erase” it with some 0000
steel wool and start over. You can do
this because you sealed the previous color coat. When you are satisfied with
them, seal over the grain lines before
continuing. Note: Even though you
have not changed the background color,
adding the grain lines makes the overall
patch appear darker. That’s why you
start with a background a shade lighter.
Adjust the color
Take a careful look at the spot,
stepping back and viewing it from
several angles. If the grain lines
look right, but the patch is still too
light overall, add a thin translucent
layer of color to blend the spot.
When you’re touching up a glue
spot or an area sanded through
that still retains the grain lines and
background color, this will be the
only step you need to take.
Mix a small amount of pigment
into a puddle of shellac—just
enough to tint it but not enough
to make it opaque. Imagine that
this “wash” is a translucent, colored
film that you will lay on top
of the patch. This wash should be
a weak but fairly dark tint, since
you are blending the color
already there. For that reason,
you should be able to add thin
coats over the grain lines as well
without making them lighter or muddier. You can also use touch-up
markers, or even a mixture of
alcohol-soluble dye and shellac
instead of pigment. Take it slow
on this step. It is easy to go too
dark and undo all your fine artistic
When the touch up is virtually
invisible, seal it again with several
coats of shellac. Let the touched-up
area dry overnight if you plan
to add another type of finish.
Make sure you have enough shellac
over the last color coat to
allow you to rub out the area to
match the sheen of the rest of the
piece (Photo 6).
One final comment: The object
of touch up is to fool the eye by
camouflaging the repaired area.
The truth is you will always be
able to spot your own touch up,
no matter how good it is, but
those who don’t know it’s there
will never see it.
Fig. A: Touch-Up Tools
This versatile touch-up
kit includes the usual
tools for patching dings
as well as those for disguising
the patch: shelfstable
a mixing tray;
fresh dewaxed shellac;
one or more very fine,
red sable brushes; graining
pens; and furniture
Click any image to view a larger version.
1. Oh, no! When a finish gets dinged, don’t
panic. Damage like this can be touched up.
2. Fill the hole.
Use a palette knife to drop auto body
or wood filler into the center of the
damaged area, then work it firmly to
3. Pare the patch flush.
A sharp chisel pares the semi-hardened
body filler flush with the surface.
4. Add background color.
Brush a thin, but opaque mix of powdered
pigments and shellac to color the patch.
5. Add grain lines.
Connect the wood’s grain across the
patch with a good, sharp-pointed brush.
Fine-tune the color match, build the
finish and rub out the sheen to match
the surrounding area.