Plumbers Putty vs Silicone

When you are looking for a material to make a watertight seal, caulk is one of the more popular products on the market. But in certain situations, there are other products that may work even better. When it comes to plumbing, one of the most common alternatives to caulk is the Plumber’s Putty.

Plumber using putty to fix drain

What is Plumber’s Putty?

As the name suggests, Plumber’s putty is a sealing compound used to create a watertight seal around areas that are subject to moisture. The putty itself is soft and pliable, so you can push it against the surface and create a seal.

You can think of Plumber’s putty as clay-like in its application. You can shape it like the kid’s playdough. Often carried in tubes or jars that allow for easy application and storage.

Man applying Oatey Plumber's Putty

Plumber’s putty has been around for quite some time. But since its use as a sealant is rather limited, it is not as commonly used compared to caulk. This is mostly due to caulk being widely used in construction work, where it provides a seal or bond between materials of different types.

Plumber’s putty is more specialized and thus is not as commonly used in construction. However, for plumbing jobs, it is used quite often, hence the name.

Plumber’s Putty Uses

For the most part, the plumber’s putty is used to provide a watertight seal around drains, faucets, and other plumber parts and materials.

Applying Plumbers putty on drain
In essence, the putty is used around pipe connections and surfaces where a watertight seal is desirable. Because of the consistency of the putty, it can be used in most situations involving faucets, drains, and the like. The putty is best used for situations in which the seal will not be easily accessible. Such instances include a drain fitting that is designed to be removable.

The putty creates a watertight seal but is still soft and flexible enough to be pulled away rather easily.

Its versatility is one big reason why it is so popular, but what are the differences between caulk and plumber’s putty?

Difference Between Plumber’s Putty and Caulk

Despite being quite similar in many regards, including the use of similar materials and purpose, there are some stark differences between plumber’s putty and caulk. Understanding the differences will help you choose the best one to use for a specific project.

1. Material

The major difference between plumber’s putty and caulk is the material itself. Caulk is applied in a soft gel-like state but hardens quickly. While plumber’s putty is applied in a soft, pliable state and remains that way for many years.

To put it another way, plumbing putty is a soft-sealing material, while the caulk is a hard-sealing material. Both materials do a similar job, but differently.

2. Durability

Because plumber’s putty remains soft and pliable, it tends to last far longer compared to caulk in most situations. It is this continued softness that helps keep the sealant putty in place. While caulk will harden and tend to become more fragile over time.

You can expect plumber’s putty to last a good 15 to 20 years, maybe longer. Conversely, silicone caulk may last 7 to 10 years, although high-quality modern sealants can last much longer.

3. Ease of Use

Both plumber’s putty and caulk are relatively easy to use.

For Plumber’s putty, you apply it with your hands, much like clay. You shape the putty around the area that needs to be sealed. Tighten the fastener joint and remove the excess around the joint.
How to Use Plumbers Putty
Caulk is normally applied with a caulking gun. You pull the trigger, and the caulk is applied to the area in a soft state, which hardens rather quickly. You will need to smooth the caulk immediately, or else it will look messy.

4. Adhesive Property

Caulk sticks to most building materials well except wood and hence can work as an adhesive.

Conversely, the Plumber’s putty has almost very little adhesive properties and should be applied between two rigid surfaces. It may be tough to apply areas where it can fall apart due to gravity, and you certainly cannot use it to cover high-pressure water supply areas.

5. Drying Time

The approximate tooling time (the time with which you can shape or manipulate the sealant) for caulk is 2 to 8 minutes. After that, it starts solidifying. However, it takes up to 24 hours for the caulk to cure.

You need to wait at least 12 hours before you can expose silicone sealant to water. There are special-purpose sealants, such as the GE Silicone 2® sealant, that allow you to use your sink after 30 minutes.

Plumber’s putty requires almost no dry time. You can start using your kitchen sink as soon as the plumbing work is done. This is one of the main reasons why plumbers and handymen use the plumber’s putty for their work.

6. Storage

Unopened caulk can up to 2 years inside the tube. But once you open the tube, caulk tends to solidify inside the tube. To avoid this, you need to cover the nozzle opening well with a cap or plastic wrapping and store it at room temperature.

If you push out too much of silicone sealant from the tube, you will have to get rid of the excess since it cannot be reused.

Plumber’s putty comes in containers. You can put the unused putty back into the container and use it for your next application. But avoid reusing/mixing the contaminated putty as it will affect the quality of the seal.

7. Cost

Both plumber’s putty and caulk are relatively cheap, costing only a few dollars for an ample supply. Plumbing putty may be cheaper in the sense that you do not need any special equipment to apply the substance to the area in question.

Caulk will need a caulking gun to apply the product. And while mechanical caulking guns are also relatively cheap, the combination of the caulk and caulking gun does make it more expensive compared to plumbers putty.

Usage: When to Use Plumber’s Putty vs. Caulk?

While plumber’s putty does have its advantages, both products tend to have separate uses. In other words, the crossover between plumber’s putty and caulk is rather small. What follows are the basic uses for both products.

  • Plumber’s Putty: For the most part, you use plumber’s putty to seal faucets, drains, and other features in the sink. You’ll see it applied to the underside of sink strainers and pop-up drain applications for tubs and sinks. The putty is applied to the underside of such fittings and then put into place to create a watertight seal. This is one of the advantages of plumbing putty in that you can press it into place and still lift it up rather easily when needed. Unlike caulk which, once it is sealed, gaining access to it can be difficult when hidden under sinks or tub fittings.
  • Caulk: You’ll mostly find caulk applied to non-drain and pipe areas such as window and door frames, tile, baseboards, and other areas of the home, building, or structure. Caulk comes in silicone and acrylic types which makes it highly versatile. Acrylic-Latex caulk is often used to create a seal for areas not exposed to excess moisture or ultraviolet light. It’s most often used in indoor construction when the material will be painted over.
    Silicone caulk is more often used in areas that have moisture presence, such as the bathroom or kitchen. It cannot be painted over like acrylic-latex, but it can provide a waterproof seal that lasts for several years.

When Not to Use

Do not use plumber’s putty or caulk on threads. It will be very difficult to loosen the thread when you want to repair it later.
Instead, use Teflon tape on threads to create a waterproof joint.

Do not use the regular plumber’s putty porous stones such as granite, marble, quartz, etc. The compound will stain your stone countertop unless you get a non-staining putty.

Silicone sealant and plumbers putty are also not ABS and PVC plastic fittings. Use polyurethane caulk for plastic pipe fittings.

Conclusion: Which One Should You Use?

While plumber’s putty has its advantages, its uses are rather limited to areas around the drain, faucets, sinks, and tubs. It is because plumbing putty remains soft and pliable which helps with longevity and durability but is not suitable for the many jobs that caulk can perform.

Put simply, if you need access to the faucet, drain, and drain fittings, the plumber’s putty is the choice since it can be easily removed. Otherwise, if you are looking for a seal where access is not required, caulk may be the better option.