How to Choose and Use Painter’s Tape

Updated: Dec. 18, 2023

Apply painter's tape faster and more effectively so you can start painting sooner and make fewer mistakes.

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Choose the Right Painter’s Tape for the Job

There are times when a cheaper product will do the job as well as the expensive product. But cheap painter’s tape is no bargain. If you’re going to all the trouble of taping, you want tape that will seal tightly to the surface and come off easily. Unfortunately,  there’s no single type of painter’s tape that will work in every circumstance.

For general taping, use ScotchBlue No. 2090. There are two versions: one for standard taping, and one with less adhesion for taping over delicate surfaces. You can leave these on for up to 14 days. You can also use the blue tape on window glass. The adhesive will withstand ultraviolet light without baking onto the glass.

Scotch No. 2060 is extra sticky and works well for textured surfaces like stucco and brick. If you’re only going to buy one width, get 1-1/2-in.-wide painter’s tape. It works well for most tasks.

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What’s the Difference Between Masking and Painter’s Tape?

While they might seem identical at first glance, painter’s tape and masking tape are not interchangeable.

Painter’s tapes are usually made with materials durable enough to deflect paint drops, while masking tapes are often more flimsy and vulnerable to paint seeping through. Masking tape is also much more likely to splinter randomly when torn, which makes it harder to accurately and reliably cover surfaces.

And once the job is done and the paint is dry, quality painter’s tapes are designed to be removed cleanly and easily without leaving behind residual adhesive and bits of tape. The same cannot be said for masking tape.

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Clean Moldings Before Applying Painter’s Tape

Even the stickiest painter’s tape won’t stay put if you apply it to a dusty, dirty surface. You’ll save yourself a lot of time and frustration if you start every painting prep job by cleaning the moldings or the wall to which you’re applying the tape.

Usually a thorough dusting with a damp rag is all that’s required. But if the surface is greasy, wash it with a detergent solution. TSP-PF (phosphate free), available at home centers and paint stores, is the go-to detergent for most painters. Wait for the surface to dry completely before taping.

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Speed Up Painting Prep with a Painter’s Tape Applicator

If you really want to speed up and simplify your taping job, buy a tape applicator. Shown above is the ScotchBlue Painter’s Tape Applicator from 3M. It’s designed to help you mask precisely using the adjacent surface as a guide. You simply roll it along the molding, wall or ceiling to apply the tape, then use the built-in cutter to slice the tape at the end of the run.

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Press Down Painter’s Tape to Ensure a Good Bond

After you apply painter’s tape, make sure to press down the edge to seal it. Otherwise paint is sure to seep under the edge of the tape. A flexible putty knife works great. Start at one end of your tape run and pull the blade along the tape while applying downward pressure. Tilt the putty knife blade slightly so you’re applying pressure right along the edge of the tape.

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How to Protect Walls When Painting a Ceiling

If you’re painting a ceiling, draping lightweight plastic sheeting is the best way to protect your walls.

Here’s a quick and easy way to hang the plastic. Use 1-1/2 in.-wide painter’s tape with medium to high holding strength. Press the top edge down, but leave the bottom loose. It should curl up slightly to expose the sticky underside. Stick the edge of the lightweight plastic sheeting to the tape and let it hang to the floor. You don’t need to tuck the plastic underneath the tape. Just curl the tape back onto itself and stick the plastic to the exposed adhesive.

Always test first in an inconspicuous area to make sure the tape doesn’t pull paint from the wall. Super-thin “painter’s plastic” sheeting is a good choice for this type of taping because it’s inexpensive and lightweight, and it produces less waste. Overlap the plastic at doorways to create an opening.

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How to Apply Painter’s Tape in a Corner

It’s easy to get a perfect fit on inside corners with this simple technique. To prep for painting corners, start by running the first piece of tape up the wall, making it a little long. Press the tape down into the corner with a putty knife. Then cut along the crease with a sharp utility knife and remove the cutoff piece. Now you won’t have to be so careful with the next piece.

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Apply Kraft Paper Border to Protect Floors when Painting

Here’s a tip to save you time when you’re moving drop cloths. Start out by applying a kraft paper border around the room, making sure to carefully mask the edge closest to the base trim. You can buy rolls of six-inch-wide masking paper at home centers and paint stores. Shown is a hand-masking tool that speeds up the job.

With the border in place, you can move tarps along as you paint, and you won’t have to waste time keeping them perfectly tight to the baseboard. As long as the edge of the tarp is covering the paper, you’re good to go. And this tip works equally well on hard surfaces and carpet.

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Apply Painter’s Tape Without a Special Tool

To apply painter’s tape quickly and precisely, without any special tools, stick a few inches of tape to the molding and unroll about six more inches. While you hold the roll of tape tight against the wall, rotate it down to stick this section of tape and repeat the process. It takes practice, but mastering this technique will dramatically increase your taping speed and accuracy.

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Score Painter’s Tape Before Pulling It Off

Ideally you would remove painter’s tape right away, while the paint is still wet. But in reality this isn’t practical. In the first place, most water-based paint dries pretty fast. By the time you’re through painting a room, the paint where you started is already starting to dry. And if you have to apply a second coat of paint, you certainly don’t want to remove the tape and then have to reapply it.

The solution is to let the paint dry completely and then score the edge of the tape with a putty knife before you pull it off. This will break any bond that has formed with the paint and ensure that the painter’s tape will come off cleanly without damaging your paint job.

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Painting Inside Corners

When you’re changing wall colors at an inside corner, it can be hard to get a nice straight line, especially if the corner is rounded or has built-up layers of paint. The trick is to paint around the corner with the first color. Then when the paint dries, mask off the painted side using a top-quality edge-sealing painter’s tape.

But don’t try to tape right down the corner. Instead, move the tape about 1/8-in. from the corner where it will be easier to get a perfectly straight line. Nobody will ever notice that one paint color extends slightly past the corner, and you’ll end up with a straight, crisp color change.

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Painting Prep: Foolproof Window Taping

When painting windows, unless you have a super-steady hand, it’s faster and easier to simply mask off window glass, especially if you use this super-quick method:

Apply strips of painter’s tape to the sides, leaving the ends long. Then press the ends of the tape into the corner with a flexible putty knife. Use a utility knife to cut off the excess tape. Now it’s easy to fill in between the side pieces, and you don’t have to worry about getting the tape the perfect length.

If you’re spray-painting instead of brushing, start by cutting a piece of paper about an inch smaller than the glass and putting it under the first piece of tape you apply.

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Paper Flaps Protect Trim from Paint Roller Spatter

Extending the painter’s tape with a piece of three-inch masking paper is all that’s needed to protect the woodwork from most paint roller spatter and drips. Three-inch paper is ideal because it will stand straight out. Wider paper may seem like a better idea, but it will sag and won’t provide as much protection. And since the three-inch paper doesn’t sag, you can still close doors without the paper getting in the way.

Apply three-inch paper along the top trim of windows and doors and along the baseboard. Don’t bother to fit the paper tight into corners along the baseboard; you don’t need much spatter protection there.