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What Is Tack Cloth and Why Do I Need It?

When you’re refinishing or re-coating furniture or painting the trim in your rooms, even tiny specks of dust can leave visible imperfections in the final job. Enter tack cloth, also known as tack rag. This gauze-like, lint-free cloth is coated with a sticky substance and used to remove dust and debris from a wood surface before the coating is applied. 

While vacuuming and dusting with a microfiber cloth will remove most of the dust generated during sanding, both of these options will end up kicking up some particles into the air, which will then land back on the wood surface.

tack cloth

What Is it Made Of?

Tack cloth is typically made of cheesecloth or cotton gauze impregnated with beeswax or another tacky substance derived from petroleum. The cloths come in large sheets sealed in plastic. Users typically cut the cloth into more manageable sizes.

Tack cloth acts as a magnet for dust. Running the cloth along baseboards, windowsills, wood furniture, and other surfaces removes all specks of dust in preparation for painting, staining, or coating with varnish. Tack cloth is more effective than any other cleaning tool, including damp cloths, electrostatic cloths, and microfiber cloths, which can leave small particles behind. Damp-cleaning these surfaces can allow moisture into the pores of the surface, preventing finishes from sticking.

A tack cloth can be used until it’s full of debris and loses its tackiness. It can’t be rinsed out with water or otherwise re-used. 

Typical Uses – and Where Not to Use

Tack cloths are used on a variety of surfaces, most commonly baseboards, door and window trim, drawer fronts, cabinet faces, and unfinished furniture that’s about to be refinished. 

Before using tack cloth, it’s important to clean the surface to remove heavy soil and larger particles. Tack cloths can clog quickly, and using one on a very dirty surface will simply smear the dirt around. However, once the surface is initially cleaned, the tack cloth removes the finest particles that are left behind.

Tack cloths shouldn’t be used on glass or metal, ceramic or porcelain, cloth or leather, or damp or rough surfaces. It’s also not appropriate for cleaning hardwood floors that are raw and unfinished, since it can leave a residue on the floor that may prevent the finishing coat from bonding. Instead, for hardwood floor cleaning, wrap a dry, lint-free towel around a push broom, and walk the floor. Change out the towel, and walk the floor again. Repeat until the towel is clean at the end of the walk, then coat the hardwood floor according to the coating manufacturer’s directions. After laying down the first coat and sanding it, you can choose to use a tack cloth to remove dust between subsequent coats. You may initially use a tack cloth if you’re re-coating your hardwood floor rather than refinishing it from a raw state.

How to Use Tack Cloth

Wiping down surfaces with tack cloth isn’t difficult, and it’s a fast job. Wear latex or vinyl gloves when handling tack cloth, since the tacky material will stick to your hands and remain sticky for a couple of days.

Before using the tack cloth, vacuum the surface or wipe it down with a clean, dry cotton towel. Using sharp scissors, cut the large tack cloth sheet into roughly 5-inch squares. After cutting the cloth, you’ll need to clean the sticky residue off your scissor blades. 

Working in small areas, lightly wipe the surface as if you’re dusting. Don’t apply pressure when using the tack cloth. Doing so may embed the tacky substance into the surface you’re cleaning. After using the tack cloth, turn the room lights down, and check for dust by shining a bright light over the surface to highlight remaining particles.

Once you’re done with the tack cloth, toss it in the garbage. Tack cloth can’t be burned or recycled. 

How to Make Your Own Tack Cloth

While tack cloth is inexpensive and easy to find at your local home improvement center, you can make your own using a clean, white cotton towel, turpentine, and varnish. 

Fold the towel in half to create a pad. Pour turpentine over the pad, and work it in so the whole pad is moistened but not soaked. Don’t use mineral spirits or paint thinner, which won’t work as well and could damage the surface.

Once the cloth is moist with turpentine, pour a little varnish on the cloth, and work it into the pad until it’s evenly distributed. Again, the pad should be moist, but not sopping wet.

Store the cloth in an airtight container until it’s used. If it loses its tackiness, you can add a little more turpentine and varnish to renew it.

How to Remove Tack Cloth Residue

Tack cloths that are extremely wet or sticky can leave behind residue that can ruin your refinishing job. If this occurs, simply dampen a clean cotton cloth with rubbing alcohol or mineral spirits, and wipe away the residue. It’s a good idea to test the tack cloth on a scrap piece of wood or hidden area of the object you’re finishing to ensure it won’t leave residue behind.

Environmentally Friendly Alternatives

Modern tack cloths you find at your local home improvement center may be treated with anti-static agents, fire retardants, or dyes. Water-based tack cloths are more environmentally friendly than solvent-based tack cloths, which contain VOCs and can chemically interfere with coatings. Water-based tack cloths are water-soluble, which means that it’s easy to remove residue from your skin and from the surface you’re cleaning. Water-based tack cloths are best used with water-based finishes. 

Tack cloth makes quick work of removing dust particles from surfaces before refinishing, but it’s important to test them out and use them properly to avoid leaving residue behind. Whether you make your own or buy it ready-made, tack cloth is a tool that can help you get the smoothest, cleanest results possible for your refinishing project.

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