Painting Without Tape: How Cutting-In Can Save Taping

Woman cutting in paint on a wall

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Easy-to-remove painter's tape has become the paint edging device of choice for most do-it-yourselfers because of its predictability and low-stick qualities. By contrast, painting without tape might seem difficult, unnecessary, and even a bit quaint. Painting alongside an edge without a protective border can indeed be a nerve-wracking experience. Yet painting wall, ceiling, and trim edges without tape is more than just an artistic flourish. It is a common practice, particularly among time-starved professional painters. Do-it-yourselfers, too, can enjoy many of the benefits that cutting-in paint can offer.

Which method takes longer to do and which one produces the best results? Is it possible to learn how to freehand your paint edges, avoiding tape altogether, even if you think you are not a born artist?

Painting With Tape vs. Painting Without Tape

Painting With Tape

With this method, a special painter's tape ranging from 1-inch to 3 inches wide is applied to one side of two adjacent areas, where one side will be painted and the other side will not. The tape is applied to the non-painted area. Low-tack painter's tape removes with no sticky residue and is the only kind of tape you should use. Paint lightly against the tape. Let this first coat dry, then paint a second coat. Remove the tape after the paint has thoroughly dried.

Pros

  • Best for amateur painters and others unsure of their painting abilities
  • Creates sharp lines

Cons

  • Paint can bleed through under the tape
  • Difficult to apply on uneven surfaces

Painting Without Tape (Cutting-In or Freehand)

Favored by professional painters, the cut-in method is pure freehand painting. No tape is used. Metal masking guards are not used, either. Using an angled sash brush and a special cut bucket (a small paint can without a lip), draw wide sweeps of paint close to but not touching the excluded area. 

Pros

  • Removes an additional step from the painting process, saving time
  • Less expensive, as painter's tape can be fairly pricey

Cons

  • Requires a steady hand
  • No protection if you should slop over on the other side

Should You Paint Without Tape or Not?

Generally, most do-it-yourselfers can expect to see the cleanest results by using painter's masking tape rather than cutting-in the paint. While the painter's tape method loads you up with more work on the front end, it delivers less aggravation and mess on the back end. 

As an added benefit to the masking method, when you use 2-inch wide or greater painter's tape, you protect excluded areas from paint rollers. Two inches is approximately the width of the zone where the side of your paint roller cover might accidentally touch.

Using painter's tape, though, is not a guarantee that you will end up with perfect, razor-sharp paint lines. A few things can go wrong. Paint bleed-through is, by far, the most common reason why your masked paint lines are blurry or drippy. Make sure that when you apply the tape, you press firmly down with your fingernail to prevent paint seepage. The bleed-through problem is exacerbated when the tape is applied to surfaces that are not flat, such as stipple, cottage cheese, orange peel, or knock-down textures.

Often, wall-to-wall or wall-to-ceiling angles are not perfectly 90 degrees. For problem areas like these, the best solution is often to step back the line by 1/8-inch or so. The ceiling white may extend 1/8-inch down the wall or, conversely, the wall color may extend slightly into the ceiling white area.

Tips for Using the Cut-In Method

  • Short touch-ups of less than 4 inches or so can be cut in relatively cleanly, even by amateur painters.
  • If the excluded area is glossy and will not stain from the paint pigment, you can accidentally slop over into that area and still wipe it relatively clean. 
  • Smaller brushes are easier to control than large ones.
  • Use a good quality angled brush.
  • Have a cotton cloth in your pocket so you can quickly mop up drips.

Areas to Exclude From Painting

Always Remove These Items Before Painting

It is always best to remove items rather than masking them off or cutting around them.

  • Sconce lights
  • Thermostat boxes
  • Mini-blinds and curtain fixtures
  • Light switch plates
  • Outlet plates
  • Door hinges alone
  • Ceiling light fixtures

Sometimes Remove Before Painting

Some items can be removed with moderate ease. Removal depends on your personal inclination and how much time you want to put into the project.

  • Doors off of hinges
  • Trim around interior doors
  • Trim around interior windows
  • Baseboards

Never Remove Before Painting

Some items or room elements are too difficult to warrant removal or they cannot be removed at all.

  • Crown molding
  • Ceiling medallions
  • Adjacent walls or support beams
  • Built-in furniture such as bookcases