How to Use a Tack Cloth to Clean a Surface

Using a Tack Cloth on Wood Surface

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Dust is one of the biggest enemies of a flawless paint job. At a glance, your painting material may look clean and ready to go. But when you wipe a finger or shirt sleeve across it, you get an entirely different story: a gray or even black haze of dust coating the entire surface.

If you have used a shop vacuum or cotton rags to wipe surfaces before painting, you might know that these tools take off much of the dust, but not all of it. The first time you use a tack cloth, you will be amazed at how thoroughly it removes the smallest dust particles from surfaces in preparation for painting, staining, or finishing. 

What Is a Tack Cloth?

A tack cloth is a large sheet of loosely woven cheesecloth impregnated with beeswax. Cheesecloth is any loosely woven fabric, much like medical-grade gauze.

The tack cloth sheet can be cut into smaller sizes. Since beeswax is tacky, dust and other light particles cling to it. A tack cloth is used until it is loaded with too much debris to be effective any longer, then it is discarded.

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 like a magnet for dust but does not penetrate the pores the way that water does. 

Tack cloths are packaged as large sheets that are tightly sealed in plastic. Most users cut them into smaller sections for use. Professional painters and woodworkers use tack cloths to clean off surfaces like baseboards or trim before 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.

Where to Use a Tack Cloth

Use a tack cloth for cleaning small interior areas or items for paint or finish as it excels at picking up sawdust, metal shavings, and other dry construction-related particles. Appropriate surfaces and uses for tack cloths include: 

Where to Avoid Using a Tack Cloth

Tack cloths are not appropriate for every use. Surfaces need to be relatively clean for the tack cloth to do its job of removing the finest of dust particles. Soil in large quantities will just smear when rubbed with a tack cloth. Tack cloths work well for removing the last remnants of dust, but they do clog quickly and should not be used as scrub cloths to perform the main cleaning chores. Avoid or be careful when using a tack cloth for:

  • Damp surfaces
  • Glass
  • Metal
  • Ceramic or porcelain
  • Rough areas
  • Leather or cloth

How to Use a Tack Cloth

A tack cloth is simple to use. A work surface with a 4 square foot area can be wiped down with tack cloth in less than a couple of minutes. While not essential, it is recommended that you wear latex or vinyl gloves when handling a tack cloth. Beeswax is not noxious or toxic but it can be annoying since your hands remain tacky for a day or two.

Using shop scissors or a utility knife, cut the tack cloth into roughly 5-inch by 5-inch squares. A tack cloth tends to gum up scissor blades, so avoid using good fabric scissors to cut a tack cloth. 

Caution

Do not exert hard pressure on the tack cloth, as this will embed the surface with wax rather than removing dust. This has a retrograde effect of gumming up the pores of the surface (if wood) with wax residue, which now must be removed by sanding with #180 to #100 fine-grit sandpaper. After sanding, you would need to use tack cloth once again and only lightly, to remove the dust created by the sandpaper.

Clean the Surface First

Before using the tack cloth, vacuum off or wipe down the surface with a clean, dry cotton towel or rag. The aim is to remove as much dirt and debris as possible before using the tack cloth, but without forcing the dirt into the surface.

Clean With the Tack Cloth

With very light strokes, draw the tack cloth across the surface to be cleaned. Lighter pressure is always better.

Check Your Progress

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. It also helps to have a clean white cloth on hand to draw across the surface to check for remaining debris.

Dispose of the Cloth

Dispose of used tack cloths in standard household garbage. Do not burn them. Tack cloth is generally not recyclable and it cannot be washed out.

How to Make Your Tack Cloth

Tack cloth is inexpensive and is available at most home centers, hardware stores, and dedicated paint stores. So, the cost is rarely a motivator for making your tack cloth. However, if you find yourself in a pinch, you can create your own the way that experienced woodworkers do, with white cotton dishtowels, turpentine, and varnish. 

Begin in a well-ventilated area, wearing latex or latex-substitute gloves.

  1. Thoroughly launder and dry a white cotton dishtowel, then fold it in half several times to form a pad.
  2. Pour several ounces of turpentine (not mineral spirits or paint thinner) onto the towel and work it into the folds. The cloth should be fully moist but not soaked.
  3. 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-wet. 
  4. Keep the cloth in an airtight 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.