How to Use a Tack Cloth When Preparing to Paint or Stain

Using a Tack Cloth on Wood Surface

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A tack cloth is nothing more than loosely woven cheesecloth impregnated with beeswax, but it performs miracles in cleaning the smallest dust particles from wood surfaces to get them ready for painting, staining, or finishing. 

If you have used a shop vacuum or cotton rags to wipe surfaces prior to painting, you know that these take off most of the dust, but not all of it. After a wipe-down with a clean, dry cloth, a finger-swipe across the surface may still show evidence of discoloration or dust. The first time you use a tack cloth, you will be amazed at how thoroughly it can clean.

How a Tack Cloth Works

Using a tack cloth can be likened to wiping down a surface with a damp cloth, but without the harmful effects of water on your porous surface. The loosely woven, gauzy fabric of the cheesecloth is impregnated with natural beeswax, which operates as a magnet for dust but does not penetrate wood surfaces the way water does. 

Tack cloths are packaged in small squares sealed in plastic, and most users cut them into smaller sections for use. Professional painters and woodworkers use it to clean off surfaces like baseboards or trim prior to painting, staining, or top-coating with varnish. After a light wipe-down with a tack cloth, the surface will be entirely smooth and dust-free. 

A tack cloth is a one-use item, meaning it cannot be rinsed out and reused. When it is full of sawdust and particles, you must throw it away.

Uses for a Tack Cloth

Generally, you tack cloths for preparing small areas for paint or finish, not entire walls or floors. It cleans off sawdust, metal shavings, and other dry construction-related particles. Appropriate surfaces and uses for tack cloths include: 

Tack cloths aren't appropriate for every use. Surfaces need to be relatively clean for the tack cloth to do its job removing the finest of dust particles. True dirt—ground soil, for example—will just smear when rubbed with a tack cloth. Tack cloths work well for removing the last remnants of dust, but they clog quickly and shouldn't be used as scrub cloths to perform the main cleaning chores. 

  • Tack cloths do not work well for damp surfaces. Make sure the surfaces are completely dry before wiping with a tack cloth. Water will simply bead off the beeswax in the tack cloth. 
  • Don't use a tack cloth on glass, or ceramic or porcelain tiles, as it may produce streaks. 
  • Avoid using a tack cloth on excessively rough areas. While a tack cloth is meant for porous surfaces, areas that are extremely rough will tear the threads of the tack cloth.
  • Don't use a tack cloth on pliable surfaces, such as leather or cloth.

How To Use a Tack Cloth

While not essential, it is recommended that you wear latex or vinyl gloves when handling a tack cloth. The beeswax may cling to bare skin, and it takes a long time and much scrubbing to remove it.

  1. Prior to using the tack cloth, vacuum off or wipe down the surface with a clean, dry cotton towel or rag. The aim is to get rid of as much dirt and debris as possible before using the tack cloth, but without forcing the dirt into the surface.
  2. Using shop scissors or a utility knife, cut the tack cloth into squares about 5 x 5 inches. A tack cloth tends to gum up scissor blades, so avoid using good fabric scissors to cut a tack cloth. 
  3. Using very light strokes, draw the tack cloth across the surface to be cleaned. Do not exert hard pressure on the cloth, as this will smear the surface with wax rather than removing dust. You can visually test for dust and debris by shining a light across the surface at a low angle with the room lights turned off or down. This will highlight any particles remaining on the surface.
  4. If wiping leaves wax residue on the surface, first try wiping down the surface with a clean dry cotton cloth. If that doesn't work, your only recourse is to lightly sand off the wax with #180 to #100 fine-grit sandpaper.
  1. Dispose of used tack cloths in standard household garbage. Do not burn them.

Making Your Own Tack Cloth

Experienced woodworkers sometimes make their own tack cloths using white cotton dishtowels, turpentine, and varnish. 

  1. Thoroughly launder and dry a white cotton dishtowel, then fold it in half several times to form a pad. Pour several ounces of turpentine onto the towel and work it into the folds. The cloth should be fully moist but not soaked.
  2. Now pour several ounces of varnish onto the dampened cloth and work it into the folds until it is fully distributed. When finished, the cloth should be tacky to the touch but not sopping. 
  3. Keep the cloth in a plastic bag or glass jar until you need it. When necessary, you can renew the tackiness by adding a few additional drops of turpentine and varnish.