How to Caulk: A Primer

Using caulk is a messy process if you’re not familiar with the process. Here’s how to ace your caulking experience.

By Tina Jepson


Caulk. When you own a home, you use a lot of this stuff. But what is caulk? How does it work? How do you use it? And how do you tell when caulk is dry? These are all questions you’re probably asking if you’ve never used caulk before.


My first experience using caulk was an absolute disaster. Little did I know there was an art to preparing the caulk, applying it, and then smoothing it out. By the end of my foray into the world of caulking, my hands were caked, the caulking tool was jammed, and I had essentially just wasted my time. Over the years, caulking has become easy, but that’s because I researched best practices and then worked out the kinks with hands-on experience.


Yes, caulk is a tricky substance, but when you use it properly, it’s the most effective way to keep moisture, leaks, and drafts contained. Here’s how to do it right, the first time.


Caulk vs. Sealant

Before you start caulking, it’s important to understand what type of caulk you need. In most cases, the term “caulk” is used to describe any number of sealants. However, there’s actually a difference between caulk and silicone sealant, which are the two most common forms of “caulk” you’ll use.





Caulk is often made of acrylic or a latex blend and gets firm when dried. It’s easy to apply, is paintable, and washable (before it dries, of course). However, caulk lacks elasticity, meaning it can’t expand or contract with fluctuations in weather or moisture exposure. If left for a long time (years), caulk may crumble. The caulk colors available on the market are plentiful and include pure white, ivory, brown, and even blue.


There are different variations of caulk, depending on your needs. These include:

  • Acrylic and latex caulk
  • Latex caulk
  • Silicone and latex caulk



Silicone is the main ingredient in sealant. Sealant is ideal for locations where you require elasticity, such as around a bathtub, windows, and faucets. Unfortunately, you can’t paint over a silicone sealant and clean up isn’t easy if you make a mistake during application.


When comparing acrylic caulk vs. silicone sealant, consider how much the application joint may expand or contract and whether you not you want a uniform color and then choose appropriately.


Caulk Accessories

When using either caulk or sealant, you’ll benefit from having the following tools:

  • A tube (or more) of caulk or sealant (around $2-$4)
  • A caulk gun ($5-$100+ depending on model)
  • A caulk plug ($2)
  • A sponge ($1-$2)
  • Optional: Caulk finishing tools, such as a caulk smoothing tool or a caulk remover tool ($10)


Caulking: Step-by-Step

1. After you’ve gathered your materials, prepare your space by removing any old, dry, or dirty caulk. This is sometimes difficult, depending on where it’s located and how dry it’s. Sometimes, just lightly prying the end of a caulking strip up and then carefully pulling the entire strip. If removal is difficult, try using a solvent-based caulk remover and a caulk remover tool.


2. Clean the area you want to caulk. If you’re working in a bathroom or another moisture-prone area, consider using a cleaner made with bleach. Otherwise, a solution of white vinegar and water should do the trick.




3. Prepare your caulk bottle. Start by clipping the very top of your caulk gun at a 45-degree angle using a utility knife or the hole located near the trigger portion of the caulking gun. Then, use the thin metal rod located on the caulk gun and poke it through the caulk bottle nozzle. This clears the way for the caulk to move through the tub.




4. Pull the caulk gun plunger out so that it’s fully extended and insert the bottle in so that the bottom of the caulk bottle is nestled in the rounded end and the nozzle sticks through the top.


5. Place the nozzle where you want the caulk to go and slowly pull the trigger to get the flow of caulk moving through the tube.




6. Using consistent pressure on the trigger, move across the joint to apply the caulk.




7. Once you finish your caulk bead (this is the line of caulk you just made), wet your caulk sponge or your finger and carefully run it over the bead. This helps smooth the surface and improves the overall aesthetic.




8. Finally, remove the caulk bottle from the gun, cap it and store it away until your next caulking experience.


9. Don’t disturb the caulk bead until it’s cured. How do you tell when caulk is dry? In most cases, it takes a full 24 hours for caulk to dry completely.


When applied correctly, caulk and sealant are an effective way to seal multiple surfaces around a home, from windows and door jambs to kitchen and bath fixtures. If you notice your old caulk looking a little cruddy, go ahead and try caulking it yourself. You’ll improve the look and effectiveness of the seal in a manner of minutes!


Images used with permission, courtesy of Tina Jepson

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