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[Updated - see pictures below]

I treat joinery in the UK for rot by drilling 10mm holes, injecting fungicide gel, and hammering home a tapered cross-grain oak plug to seal the hole. I've been using exterior-grade PVA smeared on the inside of the hole to fix the plug. After hammering home, I immediately plane the plug flat, while the joint should still be open. After 24 hours, I apply a conventional exterior paint finish.

Revisiting a property I treated 6 years ago, I see that about 25% of the oak plugs have moved enough to crack the paint finish. Not one plug has come loose, but some have moved enough to crack the paint, and that is unsightly, and will let in water. I'd like to fix the plugs more reliably to avoid this. The glue has to work in the UK, which can be hot, wet or freezing.

I asked Loctite if they could recommend anything. They said they weren't sure anything they had would be better than PVA. I need an easy-to-use glue, since I insert thousands of these plugs, often working at height outdoors on old buildings. It's hard to experiment, since all the plugs look great for a long time after the painting. I'd prefer to have just one visit for glue-and-plane-flat, without having to wait for the glue to cure.

What glue can I use? Or what better plugging process can I use?

Update two days later, following great suggestions from answer and comments:

Here is a close-up picture of paint cracking at oak plugs in 2016. These are oak plugs hammered into an oak frame and glued with with pva in 2010. The frame was made about 1939. Actually what species of oak was used for plugs or frame is not known. The paint is Dulux weathershield Exterior high gloss over Dulux weathershield undercoat (I think this was just after the shift from old-style high-VOC paint to low-VOC paint, and before the takeover by AzkoNobel, but I may be mistaken).

enter image description here

Looking closely, I can't see any evidence there that the plugs have moved out of the holes. It is, as others have suggested, paint cracking at the boundary between the woods, despite the fact that the grain is aligned and the woods are vaguely the same. So my plea for better glue is not useful.

I found it hard to take photos of plugs that haven't cracked because they're so hard to see! Here's just one:

enter image description here

I have a suspicion that the reason that did not crack is there may be a smear of epoxy over it. That plug is oak in softwood. The softwood had major rot, and I filled a big hole nearby with Repair Care Dry Fix and Dry Flex 4-pack epoxy. That sticks very strongly to wood and flexes with it, and a smear might well stop the cracking.

@bowlturner suggested that different woods might be to blame. I did start off long ago trying to match plug wood to frame wood, despite having to custom-make all the plugs. But I gave up because the softwood plugs tended to break up as they were hammered in. They need to be pretty strong to stand up to the insertion process, especially halfway up a building in a gale. It may well be true that oak in softwood tends to crack paint more than oak in oak. But oak in oak does crack too.

@Graphus suggests filler. The only filler I have found that does not crack with time (and I hope that means decades) is the Repair Care 4-pack system. That would probably work, but the setting time is such that the fungicide gel will probably leak out before I can get the hole filled. I would have to plug the hole and leave a gap at the surface to fill - I will think about that.

Much thanks to everyone for the ideas! Keep them coming if anyone has anything more. Meanwhile, I will tick the answer from Graphus because it contains much wisdom.

  • Do you have a picture of one of the plugs that popped out? It's hard for me to say if this is glue failure or just the result of relative expansion/contraction of two differing woods coming into play. Is it possible that the gel you're using is fouling the glue surface? – grfrazee Apr 26 '16 at 20:12
  • I have pictures, but not until tomorrow UK time. – emrys57 Apr 26 '16 at 20:14
  • If 1/4 of the plugs are popping out a bit, why are the remainder staying in place? – Ast Pace Apr 27 '16 at 20:01
  • Thank you everyone for the ideas here. My plea for a better glue looks rather naive! I have taken some detailed macro photos of plugs both good and bad, and will post them, but not today. Those photos may shed much more light. Maybe. – emrys57 Apr 27 '16 at 21:06
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    It could be something as simple as the difference in woods. If you are putting an oak plug in an ash board or worse a pine board, they will tend to swell and contract at different rates through season changes. – bowlturner Apr 28 '16 at 13:15
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I don't think there's anything you can do to completely prevent this on the wood front.

I'm tempted to recommend something like Cascamite or Aerolite as alternative adhesives, but I'm not at all certain these extremely strong and reliable glues would prevent the problem entirely. I don't believe it's about the glue, I suspect it's to do with a minor difference in movement in the wooden members and the plugs, the shallowness of the plug making it more prone to swelling and shrinkage than the surrounding thicker wood.

If this is the case thicker plugs might help resolve the issue, assuming it would be possible to create them.

I'd prefer to have just one visit for glue-and-plane-flat, without having to wait for the glue to cure.

I'm only theorising here but I think you should leave room for the possibility that this could be partly to blame and that you'd get better results using the glue you're currently using if you waited for it to set before planing flush.

Or what better plugging process can I use?

Obviously filler is an option since you're painting but this is still a tricky one as some people report great results with certain fillers (e.g. epoxy wood compounds or Swedish putty) while others say no matter what they used the filling can eventually show itself. I've read this in the context of exterior woodworking, doors and such, as well as on interior applications in MDF.

Perhaps the paint itself is the thing to look at? A six-year service life before cracking defects show up seems short to me, but realistically that's close to the ~10 years you can expect from most exterior coatings. There are certainly higher-performance paints or 'coating systems' but they do tend to cost a bit more, read: they cost an arm and a leg!

  • I think you're on to something with the service life of the paint. I'm also in the UK and on the flat, exterior paint lasts really well but at any join in wood it will crack after a few years. It may have something to do with the huge variations in humidity we have, especially as on a repair job you don't have access to the back of the wood which may have had minimal treatment and not be anything like sealed. – Chris H Apr 27 '16 at 18:54
  • Thanks very much for the ideas! I updated with more info above. – emrys57 Apr 30 '16 at 6:27
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My thinking is that there may be a combination of things going on here:

First, I would agree with @bowlturner that the different wood species used could be contributing. Given that cedar takes up moisture and expands twice as much as maple or oak.

Second, the reality that there is nearby rot so moisture is being taken up even more in nearby wood and then hyrdospopically wicking over to a larger degree to the area where the plugs are installed.

Third, freeze-thaw activity may be exacerbated by there being higher moisture in the area given the huge 9% expansion of water into ice.

Your #7 example with no cracking so close to all that extra rot would contraindicatre my second point and the reality that some but not all are cracking is also something that remains condfusing.

So one final idea here is that the mold is involved.

Depending upon how and where the mold spores landed and were spread during the installation process could have an effect on future mold growth. Even slight growth around areas such as the edge of the plugs could have caused a different outcome for glue sticking and later moisture take up.

Tests done with molds and bateria show that they act like sticky paint that we cannot readily see and so it can be spread around in ways that we cannot see and dont really know we are doing - and they do not spread consistently from one area to another. Based on how the drilling, tool cleaning and overall installation process went hole to hole could have introduced inconsistent effects later on.

  • "Given that cedar takes up moisture and expands twice as much as maple or oak." That's not correct, check out the table tacked on the bottom of this Answer. – Graphus Oct 2 '16 at 7:35
  • I like your idea that freeze-thaw or differential expansion might be the problem. If I was really keen, I'd make an experiment with a macro speeded-up movie of a variety of plugs and paint over a year, or simulating a year somehow. But that is pretty hard to do! – emrys57 Oct 2 '16 at 10:48

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