How to Caulk: The Ultimate Step-by-Step Guide to Applying Caulk Like a Pro

Mariel Loveland
Written by Mariel Loveland
Reviewed by Robert Tschudi
Updated August 17, 2022
A worker applying silicone seal
Photo: AndreyPopov / iStock / Getty Images Plus / Getty Images

This simple application method will have you feeling as smooth as your caulk job

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You might be familiar with caulking around your bathroom sink, but you can also use caulk to seal up almost any crack or crevice in and around your home. Caulk can fix cracked grout, fill holes in tile, seal your baseboards, and seal your windows to shut out drafts. For many homeowners, the caulking process seems daunting because it requires a steady hand and a little know-how—but this complete guide will show you how to caulk like a total pro.

Why Do I Have to Caulk Around My Home?

Caulk is a highly-effective sealant to fill cracks and crevices around your home. You’ll mainly find it used along gaps around windows, doors, plumbing, pipes, air ducts, and bathroom or kitchen appliances. The main purpose is to lock out water, drafts, and pests—all of which can cause damage or mess with your home’s energy efficiency over time. 

Is it a necessity? Only in some cases. For example, caulking around your sink or bathtub will stop water from seeping into areas that harbor mold or may be susceptible to water damage. Even if you don’t need to caulk, you still might want to. It’s a relatively simple way to fix certain home issues and stave off expensive repairs. For example, you may be able to caulk minor cracks in tile rather than replacing and re-grouting the tile.

How Much Does Caulking Cost?  

The cost of caulking is relatively affordable compared to other home repairs. If you DIY, you’ll spend around $0.05 to $0.20 per linear foot. A pro will charge somewhere between $1.25 to $4 per linear foot. Expect to spend as little as $50 to caulk around a window or as much as $500 to caulk your home perimeter.

How to Prep for Caulking

Before you start your caulking project, there are a few things to keep in mind. Your materials matter; think about what works best for your project.

1. Choose the Right Type of Caulk

Although all-purpose caulk may be tempting for any project, it’s not always the best idea. There are a few different types of caulk, and they do different things. Some offer a waterproof seal, while others hold up to extreme temperatures. Here are the different types:

  • Acrylic latex caulk: It’s an all-purpose type you can paint over and clean up with soap and water. It’s suitable for indoor projects, like sealing baseboards.

  • Butyl rubber caulk: It’s usually used outdoors for gutters, roof repairs, and other outdoor projects. 

  • Latex silicone caulk: It’s like a standard acrylic caulk with a bit of kick from the silicone, making it even more water-resistant. You can use this caulk indoors and outdoors and easily clean it with soap and water.

  • Masonry repair caulk: It works well on brickwork, concrete, stucco, and other essential outdoor materials.

  • Pure silicone caulk: This is what you’ll want to use for your bathroom jobs involving tubs and showers. This type of caulk is also the best caulk for sealing windows. It’s highly moisture-resistant and typically the costliest of all the different caulk types.

  • Refractory caulk: This type of caulk works in high-temperature areas, like around fireplaces. 

2. Choose Your Caulk Dispenser

Once you choose your caulk, you’ll need to figure out how to apply it. You won’t need a caulk gun to apply caulk that comes in a squeeze tube or a pressurized can. Most of the time, though, caulk comes in a tube you insert into a caulk gun before applying it. Here are your options:

  • Standard Caulk Tube: Most caulk comes in a standard plastic tube with a cylindrical shape that holds about 10 ounces of caulking.

  • Caulk Gun: A caulk gun makes it easier to get clean, uniform lines—especially if you use a solid-shaft caulk gun. This is ideal for most jobs. Just make sure you purchase a high-quality caulk gun made of heavy-duty metal.

  • Squeezable Tube: A caulk gun isn't always necessary if you’re working on a small interior job. Instead, you can apply your caulk straight from a squeeze tube. Make sure you squeeze with steady pressure, or your application will look messy.

  • Pressurized Can: A pressurized can works best when applying caulk overhead, though you can also use it when you need to caulk with one hand. Cans are typically only for small jobs since they come in 7-ounce cans.

3. Gather the Rest of Your Materials

To finish your caulking project, you’ll also need other tools and supplies. These include:

  • Putty knife, scraper, or razor blade

  • Vacuum

  • Rags or cloths

  • Scrub brush

  • Scissors or utility knife

  • A long screw or wire hanger

  • Caulk finishing tool or plastic spoon

  • Painter’s tape

  • Rubbing alcohol or household cleaner

  • Popsicle stick (or another straightedge)

How to Caulk

Caulking is simple once you get the hang of it. The hardest part is getting a straight, even line, so proceed slowly and carefully with the following steps.

1. Remove Old Caulk

A worker removing old silicone
Photo: Jale Ibrak / Adobe Stock

If you’re re-caulking an area, you’ll need to remove the old caulk first. You can use your utility knife, putty knife, razor blade, or scraper to cut out the existing caulk. Take care not to injure yourself or damage or scratch the area you’re working on, like your bathtub or window sill. 

If the old caulk is silicone, once you get a little up, you should be able to pull off the whole strip like a Band-Aid. Caulk hardens over time, so it may be difficult to remove. You can try softening the caulk before removal by:

  • Soaking it with a towel filled with hot water (best for water-based caulk)

  • Soaking it with a towel filled with white vinegar, rubbing alcohol, acetone, or mineral spirits (best for silicone-based caulk)

  • Using a caulk remover product (keep in mind that it can damage plastic) 

2. Clean the Area

Once you’ve pulled up the caulk, vacuum the caulk residue. Caulk can only bond to a clean surface free of dirt, mold, moisture, and rust. You can wipe down the surface with rubbing alcohol, or if there’s caked-on grime, use a household cleaner and scrub brush.

3. Do Some Touch-Ups

If you’re working on something like baseboards, you may notice that removing the caulk has chipped a little of the paint. Do your touch-ups, and let them dry if needed before you lay down the new caulk.

4. Apply Painter’s Tape

Taping is crucial to make sure your caulk job looks neat. Using your painter’s tape, tape along both sides of the line where you want the caulk to go on—just as you would if you were painting a surface. Then take your popsicle stick and slide it along the tape to ensure it’s fully stuck onto the surface. You don’t want any caulk seeping under the tape and ruining your finish.

5. Cut Off the Tip of the Caulk Tube

If you’re using a spray caulk, you can skip this step. Otherwise, you’ll need to cut the tip off your caulk tube—and size matters. Cutting a hole farther down the nozzle will result in a thicker line of caulk when you apply it. For a typical interior caulk job, you don’t want to cut off too much of the tip. 

Depending on your project, you may only need a tiny hole of about 1/16 inches in diameter at the end of the tip. An exterior job or a large imperfection may require a larger tip. You can use two different tubes if you need thick and thin lines of caulk.

Some caulk guns come with a built-in nozzle cutter that you can use to cut the tip of the tube and a seal puncher to puncture the inner seal inside the tube. Otherwise, use your utility knife or scissors to cut the tip at a 45-degree angle for a smoother finish. To puncture the inner seal, use a long screw or straighten out a wire hanger; insert either into the nozzle on the tube and press until you puncture the inner seal. Then load the tube into your caulk gun if you’re using one.

6. Apply the Caulk

A worker applying silicone sealant
Photo: yuriygolub / Adobe Stock

Slow and steady wins the race here. Place the nozzle of your applicator against the seam at a 45-degree angle. Slowly apply pressure to the trigger on the caulk gun or the squeezable tube. Move slowly and evenly along the seam to apply a smooth line of caulk, also known as a bead. Make sure you’re pressing hard enough so the caulk fills the seam.

7. Smooth the Seam

You may have done a smooth application, but it’s still necessary to go over the seam or joint with a caulk finishing tool or the end of a plastic spoon. If you don’t have a caulk finishing tool, you can use your finger by following these steps:

  1. Dip your finger in water (for latex caulk) or rubbing alcohol (for silicone caulk). 

  2. Brush your finger along the caulk using light pressure to smooth it along the seam

  3. Make sure your finger remains wet. As caulk builds up on your finger, wipe it off and re-wet your finger. 

At this point, if you see gaps in the caulk, apply a little more to that area and smooth with your tool or finger.

8. Remove the Painter’s Tape

Before the caulk sets, remove your tape from both edges. Pull gently and slowly at an angle away from the joint, ensuring excess caulk doesn’t drip from the tape. If you see any excess on the surrounding area, wipe it away immediately with a damp cloth before it sets.

9. Let the Caulk Set

How long it takes caulk to dry depends on the type you use. It may take anywhere from 30 minutes up to several days to fully dry and cure. Wait until the caulk has set fully before you paint it or get it wet. This is particularly important to keep in mind if you’re caulking your shower, tub, or an outdoor area.

Tips for Applying Caulk

If you’re a beginner, caulking can be deceptively easy. It’s often a lot more difficult than it looks, but don’t let it discourage you. You just need to know the right technique. These caulking tips and tricks will help you apply a smooth, uniform job.

Do a Practice Run

If you’ve never caulked something before, do a practice run. It’s a bit like icing a cake. You need to know the nuances of the caulk tube—like how much pressure to apply and how fast to move to get a clean line. Use a piece of cardboard as a practice surface.

Apply Light Pressure

There are a few different techniques out there. Some say push the caulk away from you, while others say pull it toward you. Either way, you’ll want to apply pressure rather than just dragging your caulk gun lightly across the surface. 

Pressure is important because it helps you fill as much of the gap as possible, so the caulk adheres firmly to both surfaces. Sometimes, pushing can help get the caulk in deeper, but it will be easier to get a clean line if you pull. If both surfaces are flush, you can use a lighter hand.

Use Your Arms or Legs, Not Your Wrists

The key to a good caulk job is a steady hand, so avoid using your wrists if possible. You’ll get a straighter line if you keep your wrists firm and only move your arms or legs.

Don’t Meet in the Middle

When you’re caulking, sometimes there’s a smooth surface on one side and an uneven surface on the other. Pointing your caulk gun directly in the middle is tempting, but resist the urge. Always drag your gun along the smooth surface, and you’ll get a much smoother line. Caulking the rough surface can exaggerate every lump and bump you’re caulking over.

DIY vs. Hire a Pro

Caulking is a skill any homeowner can learn with a little practice. Doing the job DIY can save you hundreds of dollars, and most homeowners prefer to do small jobs, like filling in minor cracks, on their own. That said, some things can go wrong. 

Caulk is unforgiving and can show minor imperfections, but there can be more than cosmetic issues once you start caulking around areas that need sealing to prevent water damage and mold. Some people prefer to skip the hassle and hire a handyperson. They’ll get the job done correctly the first time, and the typical project costs less than $500—much less than mold remediation costs and water damage repair costs.


How do you caulk as a beginner?

The key to caulking as a beginner is practice. You want to apply light pressure, so the caulk adheres to both surfaces, and use your arms and legs to move the caulk gun rather than your wrists. You’ll get a more even line with this method. Practice first on a piece of cardboard before you attempt the real thing.

Can you smooth caulk with your finger?

Yes, you can smooth the caulk with your finger. Just make sure your finger is wet. Use water for latex caulk and rubbing alcohol for silicone caulk. 

How do I get a smooth finish with caulk?

Smoothing is a crucial step to caulking. You can smooth caulk after you apply it using a caulking finishing tool, wet finger, or plastic spoon. The wetness will give you that ultra-smooth finish, but it will take longer to set. To smooth the caulk, press at the start of the bead and pull your tool or finger across the seam or joint until the whole bead is smooth.

How do I make caulking look perfect?

Painter’s tape does wonders to get an even caulk job. That way, you just have to focus on applying a smooth, even line. If there are imperfections, fix them before the caulk sets.

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