How to Use Painter’s Tape

A couple applying painter's tape

If your boring white walls are begging for some color or the ugly pea-green basement is finally ready for an update, you’ll need to read this. Prepping for your DIY paint job is critical, and knowing how to use painter’s tape to achieve neat, straight lines is essential to a professional-looking finish.

Here, we’ll explain what painter’s tape is, the different types and uses, and application and removal techniques.

What is Painter’s Tape?

Isn’t painter’s tape just masking tape with a higher price tag? Not exactly. Painter’s tape is a type of masking tape, but plain old masking tape isn’t painter’s tape.

Painter’s tape has a water-repellent surface that prevents it from crinkling when it comes into contact with liquids. Plain masking tapes do not have this special surface. Additionally, some painter’s tapes have an additional coating on the edges to keep paint from bleeding, which can be especially useful when creating stripes or intricate designs.

Painter’s tape is also less sticky than masking tape, which means it won’t leave behind any residue on your freshly painted walls.

Masking tape, on the other hand, is too sticky, so not only will it leave a residue, but it will also take the paint off when you remove it. It’s not water-repellent, so it doesn’t prevent paint bleeding, and the material is not as strong, so it will tear off in tiny pieces, leaving you with a sticky, jagged-edged mess. 

Types of Painter’s Tapes

A paint tray, paint can, two paint brushes, and rolls of painter's tape
Photo Credit: Anete Lusina / Pexels / License
  • Delicate surface (low adhesion) tape: This tape is perfect for interior painting on freshly painted surfaces, varnished wood, wallpaper, and drywall.
  • Textured or rough surface (high adhesion) tape: Use this for painting brick, concrete, stucco, stone, and wood.
  • Exterior surface (high adhesion) tape: This tape is weatherproof, so it will stick to the surface through wind, rain, and humidity, and it is also UV resistant, so the adhesion won’t break down.
  • Multi-surface (medium adhesion) tape: This is your typical blue painter’s tape. Use this for all your general DIY jobs, like for painted walls and trim, finished wood, glass, and metal.

Also, consider how wide you’ll need your tape to be. For smaller areas, like windows, trim, molding, and door frames, use a tape that is around 1.5 inches wide. For larger areas, like where you’re hanging plastic to protect floors, you’ll need a wider tape –– 2.5 inches or more. 

Clean the Surfaces

The most important step in the painting process is to clean your surface first. Wipe your walls, baseboards, trim, and any other surfaces where you need to apply tape with a damp cloth. If the area is particularly dirty or greasy, use soap and water. Be sure to let the surface dry completely before applying the tape.

Painting the outside of your house? The same rule applies. You should pressure wash the house before painting for the best results.

How to Apply the Tape

  1. Apply the tape along the edges of surfaces you want to protect –– trim, baseboards, door frames, window frames, crown moldings, mirrors, hardware, floors, and countertops.
  2. Gently pull the tape off in short strips –– 12-18 inches –– and carefully lay it on the surface. Short strips are easier to apply precisely. Also, be sure to not stretch it. Stretching the tape keeps it from sticking as well to the surface and could cause bleeding.
  3. As you apply, press it down firmly with your fingers to ensure it’s sticking. Be very careful here to ensure the edge of the tape is in a straight line.
  4. Overlap your short strips for easy removal when you’re done.
  5. Press down on the tape with a flexible putty knife or credit card to smooth out any creases and remove air bubbles. 
  6. If you are painting stripes on the wall, you may want to invest in a laser level when applying your tape. The last thing you want is crooked lines, even if they are crisp.
  7. Wait 30-60 minutes before you begin painting so the tape can fully adhere to the surface. 

Note: If you’re taping over freshly painted surfaces, be sure the paint is cured –– not just dry –– before you apply the tape. 

How to Remove the Tape

Person peeling painter's tape off of a baseboard
Photo Credit: RightFramePhotoVideo / Adobe Stock / License

This is tricky. Some people prefer to remove tape while the paint is still wet, but if you’re not careful, the paint could splatter or you could leave marks on the wet paint. If it’s completely dry, you risk the paint chipping and having a jagged edge.

So, our recommendation is to let the paint dry almost all the way, so it’s just tacky. This way, the paint and tape won’t fully bond, but you also won’t risk paint dripping or splattering onto areas you want to keep paint-free. Peeling the tape off at just the right time will give you the perfect, clean lines you want.

If you do decide to wait for the paint to dry completely, score the edge of the tape with a utility knife to break off any dried paint on top of the tape. This will prevent the dreaded jagged edges. 

Check your tape’s label for recommendations about when to remove it as well as the maximum amount of time the paint can stay on the surface. Some are safe to leave on for several days or weeks, which is helpful when you have a very large or time-consuming job.

Whether you choose to remove the tape when the paint is still wet or wait till it’s dry, always peel off by pulling it at a 45-degree angle. If you used the overlapping method mentioned above, start peeling at the end of where you started, so the tape will come off in one long strip. 

Other Uses for Painter’s Tape

When you’ve completed your painting project and have a few rolls of painter’s tape left over, don’t let it go to waste. Here are a few hacks to use up that extra tape.

  • Since it won’t damage your walls, you can use tape to hang temporary party decorations (and since painter’s tape comes in so many different colors, you can probably match it to the color scheme).
  • Place painter’s tape on the wall where you want to hang art or frames. Mark your spots, and then drill or hammer in the nail through the tape. When you peel it off, you won’t have pencil marks on your walls.
  • Use painter’s tape anywhere in your house where repairs need to be made. Have a dent in the wall or a chip in your tile? Painter’s tape easily marks the spot and won’t further damage the surface.
  • If you’re tackling another DIY project and need to cut thin wood that easily splinters, apply painter’s tape first. Cut your material along the tape and you’ll have a smooth, straight edge.
  • Painter’s tape also works great for labels, sticky notes, and keeping cords together. 

FAQ About Painter’s Tape

How much tape do I need for my project?

On average, you’ll need one roll of tape per room. However, if your room is larger, like a basement or living room, or it has a lot of areas that need to be taped, like cabinets or built-in shelves, you will need more.

Why isn’t the tape sticking?

The most common reason your tape isn’t sticking is that the surface is too dirty or greasy, or if you just cleaned it, it may still be wet. Another possibility is that you’re using the wrong type of tape. A delicate, low-adhesion tape won’t work well on a rough surface, for example. 

I waited too long to remove the tape, and now there’s residue. What do I do?

Wet a cloth with hot water and a little dish soap, and gently rub the area where the residue is. If the adhesive has hardened and hot water and dish soap isn’t working, you can also try a residue remover, like Goo Gone, and/or a razor blade or putty knife to scrape it off. 

How long do I have to wait before taping off a freshly painted area?

You’ve painted the walls, and now you’re ready to give the trim a fresh coat of paint. Not so fast. Be sure the paint is completely cured –– not just dry to the touch –– before applying tape to it. Check out our paint drying guide to learn about the nuances of drying and curing for several paint types.

Painting: DIY or Hire a Pro?

Painting a room or two in your house is a great way to change things up, let your creativity flow, and update your decor. It’s fairly easy to move furniture out of the way and lay down a few drop cloths to cover the floors. But when it comes to painting the whole house, including the 18-foot walls with the vaulted ceilings in the living room, you may be a bit out of your league.

Aside from getting your own scaffolding and using a paint sprayer like the pros do, your other option to get the perfect paint job is to call in the pros. They’ve got the tools and the expertise to make the painting process painless for you. 

Photo Credit: Blue Bird / Pexels / License

Alissa Cassidy