Is painter’s tape really necessary?

Let's just say, the experts have a preference

Published July 13, 2022 1:30PM (EDT)

 (Bobbi Lin / Food52)
(Bobbi Lin / Food52)

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I repaint the walls in my apartment so frequently that people often make the mistake of thinking I like to paint. Let me clarify: I do not like to paint. I find it to be among the more tedious home improvement tasks because it requires tons of prep, specific tools, and for the furniture to be in a state of disarray until it's done. What I truly like is easily changing up the vibe in my home, and painting, while annoying, is still one of the easiest (and cost-efficient!) ways to do that.

Everyone has their painting preferences, though, and lots of people will swear up and down that you need to tape off every last bit of your home while others say that tape is a complete waste of time.

So, which one is it? The answer: it depends.

Taping everything up before you paint requires a lot of work on the front-end of a project, but many would argue that it's worth it to get the exact result you want. The other main method for achieving a crisp line is "cutting in," which uses an angled brush loaded with paint to carefully carve out a straight edge. This is the go-to for professional painters, because once you get it down, the process is much quicker than using tape.

Personally, I have found that tape doesn't always work the way I want. I've been burned too many times where the darker color bleeds through onto the original white walls, so I usually use a hybrid of tape and cutting in.

Pros of tape

  • You can get a super straight line if you're painting a mural or half a wall.
  • Surfaces you don't want to get paint on are mostly protected.
  • The oddly-satisfying experience of peeling the tape off to reveal a clean line.

Cons of tape

  • Taping everything off in the beginning takes a long time and needs to be exact.
  • If you use a less-than tape brand, it's likely your paint will bleed through.
  • Even if you're using the best painter's tape in the world, there will likely be a few blemishes.

Pros of cutting in

  • No real prep involved — just load up the brush with paint and go.
  • You can get into all the random nooks and crannies that a paint roller can't.
  • It's meditative once you get the hang of it.

Cons of cutting in

  • Requires a bit of practice and patience.
  • In the beginning, you might find that your hand isn't steady enough for a super clean line, but practice will help.

How to tape before painting 

There are some places in your home where you'll want to use tape, especially if you're a beginner. I personally always tape corners where two walls meet if I'm only painting one of those walls, over cabinets and appliances that butt up against the wall, and sometimes on door trim when there's a particularly small nook between the trim and wall.

highly recommend investing in Frog Tape, which is a personal and industry favorite over every other brand — it's famous for how crisp you can get lines. But even Frog Tape could use a little insurance (because walls are bumpy and paint tends to bleed) which is where your original color comes in handy. Once you've taped everything off, paint a line of the original paint color over the tape. This acts as a seal between the new paint color and old, so anything that would bleed under the tape is actually just the original color. Oh, and always peel tape off at a 90-degree angle while paint is still wet.

How to cut in

For ceilings, most trims, and around outlets, I cut in with a paint brush. There's certainly nothing wrong with using tape around those areas, so if you're not confident in your cutting in abilities, by all means, take the extra time to tape.

Cutting in is a simple process, but requires practice to really nail it, as well as a high-quality angled paint brush that's comfortable to hold. The good news is that great paint brushes don't have to break the bank — my favorite brush is this little Wooster one that's grippy and fits perfectly in my hand. I also love using a paint cup with a handle for loading and off-loading paint; this one comes with a super-handy magnet to hold your brush in place when not in use.

I'd recommend watching a few YouTube videos on how to cut in, like this one or this one, and practicing in an area you're either going to repaint or don't mind messing up. The basic idea is this: load your paint brush up with paint, offload the excess, and then press the angled brush as you go to sort of push the paint into a straight line, against trim, or into a corner. Start a few inches away from the edge and slowly work your way closer for a crisp line, reloading the brush frequently to keep the paint rolling smoothly. Some painters will also wet the brush with water first to protect the bristles and thin paint a bit for a smoother brushstroke.

A couple more options

There's a hack for everything, including painting, so it should come as no surprise that there are tools to paint straight lines or around trim without having to tape orcut in. I haven't tried these methods myself, but they look pretty darn cool. For walls around appliances or trim, this paint guide acts as a barrier with the added bonus of revealing a straight line when you're done, though I imagine this is best for small areas.

For window trim, there's a very cool product called Mask & Peel that you apply over the trim and window where they overlap, let it dry, then paint over it with no effort to make straight lines. Then, once the paint is dry, use a razor to score where the window and trim meet, and peel the product off to reveal perfectly clean lines.

By Caroline Mullen

MORE FROM Caroline Mullen

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