Masking Tape How-To Tips

Whether wrapping a gift, preparing to paint or adhering a broken taillight to your car, you can find a tape for the job — and the various types are not interchangeable. The same is true of masking tapes: Among the rainbow of varieties, each has a talent for certain tasks — and inabilities in others. Here's how to find the masking tape with the right characteristics for any sticky situation.

Tape traits
When shopping for masking tape, you see a range of colors, widths and prices. These clues help to distinguish tapes' less obvious features, which are the most important considerations in choosing the best tape for your project.

Paper backing — General-use tan tapes (as well as some painter's tapes) are made with crepe, a tissue paper with wrinkles. The wrinkles give the tape its flex to help it conform to textured surfaces. The finer-caliper painter's tapes typically are manufactured on a base of washi paper, making them ideal for creating sharp paint lines on smooth surfaces. All masking tape papers are treated with polymer or sizing to make them durable yet tearable.

Both of these rolls of FrogTape contain 60 yards of tape and have the same size core, but the Delicate Surface (yellow) roll is smaller because it is made of washi paper, a thinner-caliper backing.

Use thin-caliper painter's tape along both sides of a corner to control caulk flow. Smooth the caulk and immediately remove the tape. (A thicker tape would leave ridge lines along the edges of the bead.)

Adhesive — Rubber-base adhesives give tan masking tape sticking power for applications on rough surfaces such as brick, stucco, concrete and siding or for narrow spaces such as the top edges of baseboards. Acrylic-base adhesives used on painter's tapes make some of the easy-release formulas practically powerless on rough, hard-to-stick areas but very effective on smooth, delicate surfaces such as unpainted wallboard, wallpaper or fresh paint.

To apply tape, first smooth it by hand; then press the edges by burnishing them with a five-in-one tool or putty knife. If you're planning to paint along just one side of the tape, burnish only that edge of the tape so it's easier to remove.

Bleed preventers — To stop paint from seeping under the edges of masking tape, manufacturers such as ShurTech Brands LLC, 3M and IPG offer products (FrogTape, ScotchBlue With Edge-Lock and Bloc-it Painters Tape, respectively) made with various edge treatments. These are typically thinner-caliper tapes designed to yield sharp paint lines and are especially effective for applying faux finishes or for creating stripe patterns with paint.

When you're applying paint along a masked edge, do not stroke into the tape with a loaded brush. Rather, pull the (lightly dipped) brush over the tape and toward the surface you're painting. This prevents bleed-through and a heavy film buildup.

Temperature and chemical tolerances — Auto-care tapes (sold at autoparts stores) are specially formulated to handle the extreme temperatures of bake cycles, which general masking tapes would not survive. You also need to consider the finishes that you're applying. Lacquer, for example, requires a solvent-resistant tape.

Tape tips
Manufacturers offer instructions, guidelines, tricks and ideas to help in your masking endeavors. Visit their Web sites, read the packaging (including the inside of the core, where you'll find recommended removal periods), ask the paint retailer for guidance and follow these tips:

  • Buy a tape that is recommended for the surface and the conditions where you're working. Consider surface vulnerability, and always use tape with the lowest adhesion on delicate wall surfaces.
  • For textured surfaces, conformability is important; choose a tape that sticks and bends to the topography of the surface.
  • The "ripples" of crepe paper allow you to more easily mask a curved edge. A tape made with washi paper does not flex laterally, but it offers better control in creating a straight line.
  • To mask a tight curve, use narrow tape and shorter pieces.
  • Temperatures affect adhesives. The ideal storage conditions to preserve tape are 70 degrees, 50 percent humidity and shade. If tape is cold, bring it to room temperature (or at least 50 degrees) before you apply it.
  • Even under the best circumstances, tape has a shelf life. After 12 to 18 months, the tape may lose its effectiveness and may even become difficult to unwind. Don't use an old roll you found around the house, especially if it has been stored in a garage or shed.
  • To mask the narrow edges of wood trim, use a higher-adhesion tape and plan for a short working time. For a good seal, always clean surfaces before applying tape. (Do not use the tape to do your dusting.)
  • Apply tape in the sequence that you'll follow as you paint. The extra tacking time allows the tape to cling better to surface contours.
  • Unroll the tape in short sections as you gently lay the strip on the surface. Never stretch the tape as you work with it; when it relaxes, it can span surface depressions.
  • Although water-base paints dry fast, they need a month to fully cure. Before applying tape over new paint, wait at least 24 hours after painting and use a delicate-surface painter's tape; immediately (but slowly) remove the tape when you're done.
  • When to remove painter's tape is a point of debate. I prefer to remove the tape while the paint is still wet. If you choose to wait until the paint dries, lightly score the edge with a utility knife before you slowly pull off the tape.

Tape ins and outs
Although most masking tapes can be used indoors and outdoors, the ideal choice of tape depends on sun exposure. Tan masking tapes adhere best to the textured surfaces often found on home exteriors, but their rubber-base adhesive has less UV stability than painter's tapes' acrylic-base adhesive. The more UV exposure, the less time you will have for clean removal.

Some professional painters find that a general-use tan tape can work in various applications as long as they tweak the timing: They'll use it in sunny conditions only if they plan to remove it within a few hours of application. If they're working outdoors in a dry, shaded area, they can leave the tape in place for a day or two. When used inside, away from sun and extreme temperatures, tape will remove cleanly after four or five days. If your project requires more than four days, stick with painter's tape and follow guidelines printed on the roll's core.

Tape economics
Everyone has encountered tape that sticks to itself or tears off the roll in pieces. The tape might be poor quality, or age and climate conditions may have taken their toll. You're investing time, effort and money in a painting project, so it makes sense to pay a few dollars more for a fresh roll of the proper tape. "For $7 instead of $4, you gain extra working time and better removability," says Jeff Malmer, masking tape specialist for 3M. "It's worth spending a few extra dollars to help achieve professional results on your painting project."

Applying a strip of masking tape to a board (before marking your cut line) helps to protect the wood from chipping during a crosscut.

Tape Evolution

Masking tape started out as a monotone tan material, invented to help create two-tone patterns on automobiles. In 1925, 3M inventor Richard Drew applied adhesive to paper so it that would stick and release without absorbing paints and finishes. His idea worked, and for more than 60 years, masking tape was a tan and terrifically tacky coated crepe paper.

In 1988, 3M introduced a safe-release painter's tape and colored it blue to distinguish it from the super-sticky masking tapes. The tape's new acrylic-base adhesive allowed it to be left in place for up to 14 days yet still remove cleanly. This was great for DIYers and busy painters seeking flexibility in timing their work. And it was the beginning of a colorful era of specialty tapes made to accommodate various needs and conditions. Besides paint projects, masking tapes are used for labeling, bundling, wrapping, shipping, crafting and numerous other tasks. To keep up, tape manufacturers consult consumers and work with painting contractors to explore ideas and improve their backing papers and adhesives. Even evolving paint technologies and environmental expectations keep today's tape makers on their toes.