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When Painting, The Wrong Tarp
Can Be Worse Than No Tarp!

I know what a tarp is, darn it!!

Okay, skip down a paragraph or two, smarty!!

Tarp is shorthand for "tarpaulin", a piece of flexible fabric, paper or plastic used to protect an object from liquids, dirt or dust.  Tarps are used outdoors to keep firewood dry, to protect cars and boats or to build makeshift tents or canopies.  Ever see an 18-wheeler with covered cargo?  The cover could be a reinforced plastic or canvas tarp!

Inside the home, tarps are often called "drop cloths" (though they are often made from plastics, not cloth).  They perform a similar protective function... with paint protection being their "Numero Uno" use!

But not just any tarp will do.  The correct tarp does more than protects your floors and furniture from paint drips.  It may also speed your job by minimizing "mishaps", protect valuables from dust and make your work area safer!

Tarps… a clean workspace is a happy workspace!

I'm not a snob when it comes to creativity in home repair. There is rarely a single solution to any problem. But most of us do develop preferences.  Over the years I have seen the most creative "tarping" (my shorthand for "putting down a tarp"), such as old bedsheets, towels, cut-open plastic bags, old throw rugs, worn clothing and the more traditional canvas and plastic sheet tarps.

Between me, you and the wall, some of my best (and most stylish) tarps have been old draperies and blankets!

Realistically, tarping before painting is not supposed to be an exercise in creativity...

 No, it's not!  It's supposed to simply protect your valuables. Tarping correctly does just that. Tarping incorrectly can not only lead to property damage but can actually cause personal injury… especially when used underfoot.

For this article, we are most concerned with the common painting tarps... canvas and plastic.  Further along we'll touch on other types of tarps currently available.

Money, money, money... the "cost factor"...

Per square foot, so-called disposable plastic tarps are much less expensive than canvas tarps, so much so that most novices don't even consider canvas tarps for their first paint job. A 9x12 2 mil. plastic tarp costs under $4.00. A 9x12 medium weight canvas tarp can cost over $25.00… heavy weight tarps nearly double that! So it's easy to see how the non-professional would avoid canvas tarps. But is this really a smart decision?

For long-term use, buy quality tarps.  For really dirty work, buy cheaply!!

In the end, it depends on just how much painting you think you will be doing… not just today but over the years to come. Canvas is the material from which the highest quality, heavy-duty tents are made.  One canvas tarp can be used hundreds of times inside and outside, bringing the cost per use to less than $.25. A plastic tarp can generally be used only once, so the cost of using plastic tarps over a period of years can be surprisingly high!  Canvas tarps can have other uses, such as cushioning or covering stuff packed into your minivan or even as emergency blankets during those road trips that unexpectedly become overnighters!

Also, a home handyman doesn't need to purchase ten tarps, only two. One 9 x 12 medium weight canvas tarp and one 9x12 cut unto two 4 © x 12 strips for wall painting, stair or furniture covers. Any additional furniture covering can be accomplished with throwaway plastic tarps!

Effectiveness on the floor... the "slippery factor"!

In most interior situations, canvas tarps offer superior protection and safety to plastic tarps. Canvas tarps stay put, especially on carpets and over furniture. Plastic tarps tend to slide and don't conform well to curved surfaces. For effective floor coverage (especially along the wall-floor seam) plastic tarps need to be taped in place, adding to the setup time.

Another potential problem with plastic tarps is the "slippery factor". Plastic tarps can be quite slippery underfoot. Using them on steps and some carpets can be risky!

Not that canvas tarps are perfect. Canvas tarps on a waxed wood floor can be quite slippery, so it pays to be cautious till you are sure of your footing.

Effectiveness on the floor... the "neatness factor"

Medium weight canvas tarps are thick enough that paint drips will not soak through to the other side. The fact that they are absorbent is a good thing for two reasons… the paint drips do not transfer as much to your feet so you are less likely to track paint should you leave the tarped area.  An absorbent tarp acts somewhat like a floor mat, cleaning paint from your feet as you walk!

Plastic tarps are non-absorbent. Even a spilt gallon of paint will not penetrate them. The downside is that paint drips are more easily picked up on your shoes and thus produce a sloppier work area.

Where plastic tarps shine... on walls and for yucky work!

When doing really messy work such as ceiling texturing or repairs, plastic tarps are indispensable! Though dripping paint on canvas does no damage (and even adds a little character to it), a few hundred flecks of rough texture can destroy a canvas tarp by making the surface rough and damaging to delicate surfaces.  Plus the tarp will shed bits of drywall compound or texture when used, adding to the cleanup... one of painting's most time consuming chores!

Plastic tarps are cheap enough to throw away but strong enough (2 mil thickness) to not easily puncture. However, I have learned to never trust plastic tarps completely. I always lay a canvas tarp first, then lay the plastic tarp over it.

As mentioned earlier, if you must walk on messy plastic tarps be sure to have something available to wipe your feet on or you will really be in the dog house! That's if the dog trusts you no to mess it up, that is!

Save time when painting ceilings… cover your wall hangings!

Time is money, even if you are working on your own home! Whenever I can find a way to save a few minutes, I savor the opportunity.

When painting ceilings, it isn't always necessary to remove all your wall hangings. Semi-permanent hangings such as bookshelves, large mirrors or really heavy artwork are sometimes best left in place. To protect them, use a self-adhesive plastic tarp (graphic left), holding down the edges as needed with low-tack painter's tape.  Available in a couple of sizes, self-adhesive tarps can cover small areas or entire walls!

If you prefer to go "old school", simply cut a piece of lightweight plastic tarp (l mil) and tape it to the wall above the hanging with low-tack painter's tape so that it completely covers the hanging.  Either way will save you time while keeping your valuable wall hangings safe from spillage!

Note:  Painter's tape will stick well to most surfaces without damaging them, even some wallpapers. However, be careful and always test the tape in an inconspicuous spot first.  I've had painter's tape strip off paint even after being thoroughly dried!  Ouch!!

Also, don't ever remove painter's tape in a direction that will pull a wallpaper seam… always pull the tape towards the seam so you don't pull it loose.

For easier removal, leave a "dog-eared" or folded end so you can easily remove the tape!

Special duty tarps...

Reinforced plastic tarps are very popular for exterior work where light plastic tarps won't cut it.  Reinforced tarps are tear resistant, waterproof, resist mildew well and can last for years.  I've used the same tarps over many years with noting more than minor tears. 

Many reinforced tarps also have grommets for tying them down.  Common uses are for make-shift swimming pool covers, boat and car covers, protecting woodpiles and for construction/roofing applications.  They can also be used for painting, but they do tend to shed dried paint chips... especially oil paints... so they are best reused outside!

Specifically for painting, there are a number of non-canvas tarping products...

Americover has a 3-mil plastic tarp with a self-adhesive back for heavy-duty short-term carpet protection (Honestly, I don't know how cat-resistant it is!)  Once in place, this tarp can stand heavy foot traffic, construction abuse, pet droppings (take that, Tabby!!) and painting drips (a.k.a. painter droppings).

As previously mentioned, there are also pre-taped lightweight plastic tarps of varying widths that can be used to mask entire walls for ceiling painting or spray texturing.

A composite paper/plastic drop cloth by Kimberly Clarke called Gotcha Covered offers the best of both worlds... the paper side absorbs drips to keep paint tracking to a minimum while the polyethylene barrier offers additional strength and protects against paint penetration.  I like the weight underfoot better than plain plastic, especially on soft surfaces such as carpet.

This is just a smattering of the variety of tarps available.  Visit your local paint store, home store or one of the many online hardware sources to check out these seemingly endless tarping options.

It's up to you...

Perhaps I seem to be a little obsessive about tarping.  I have learned from experience that correct tarping practices are the only thing to protect you from Murphy's Law… if anything can go wrong, it will!  Though I am not proud to admit it, I have dropped my share of rollers, paint brushes, and kicked over one more paint can than I want to admit… or care to remember!

So please realize that it is easier to protect your stuff than it is to repair, clean or replace it. And cheaper, too!

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