Applying thermal paste on CPU

How to Apply Thermal Paste To Achieve the Perfect Coating

As inconsequential as it may seem, thermal paste is right at the core of protecting your processor. This compound fills the air gaps between coolers or heartsinks and the CPU. It’s responsible for keeping your CPU and graphics card chill.

Hence, if you want your PC to function optimally, you need to reapply thermal paste often.  Why it’s essential to use the best thermal paste, knowing how to use it is also crucial.

So, how do you apply thermal paste or thermal interface material (TIM) correctly? Don’t worry; we’ve got you covered. It’s actually pretty straightforward once you know the basics.

After reading this guide, you’ll spread that thermal compound like a pro and be ready to power up your rig.

Why Do You Need Thermal Pastes?

Simply put, to efficiently transfer heat from your CPU to the heatsink. Without thermal paste, tiny air gaps between the two surfaces act as insulators and reduce heat transfer.

This compound fills those tiny air gaps, improving contact between the CPU and heatsink so heat can flow freely. The better the contact, the better the heat transfer. More heat transfer means lower CPU temperatures, which is always good.

There are a few types of thermal paste to choose from:

  • Silicone-Based Thermal Paste
  • Metal-Based Thermal Paste
  • Ceramic-Based Thermal Paste
  • Carbon-Based Thermal Paste
  • Graphite-Based Thermal Paste
  • Liquid Metal Thermal Paste

No matter which types you choose, applying the proper amount of thermal paste is key. Too little won’t make good contact; too much is messy and reduces efficiency. A small rice-sized dot in the center of your CPU is perfect.

And that’s the secret to achieving the perfect thermal paste application and keeping your CPU cool as a cucumber.

When You Need To Apply Thermal Paste

So your CPU is running hot and loud, huh? Or, just before you host your board game night remotely, you notice your PC is overheating.

Then, it’s probably time for a fresh application of thermal paste. The thermal paste helps transfer heat from your CPU to the cooler; over time, it can dry out and lose effectiveness.

When do you need to reapply the thermal paste? There are a few signs it’s time:

  1. Higher than average CPU temperatures: If your CPU is running 10°C or hotter under load, the thermal paste likely needs replacing.
  2. Loud fan noise: As the thermal paste dries out, your fans must work harder to cool the CPU, causing them to run at high speeds and make more noise.
  3. It’s been 3+ years: Thermal paste typically lasts 2-5 years before drying out, so it’s best to reapply if it’s been a while.
  4. You just installed a new CPU cooler: Whenever people install new CPU coolers, they must apply a fresh coat of thermal paste for the best heat transfer.

Applying thermal compound is actually pretty easy; it just takes some patience. Clean off the old paste from the CPU and cooler with rubbing alcohol and cotton swabs. Apply a small dot of new paste to the center of the CPU, about the size of a pea. Mount the CPU cooler, and you’re done!

With fresh, properly applied thermal paste, your CPU temperatures will drop back to normal ranges, and your fans will quiet down again. Your computer will thank you for it! Now that’s only a summary of how to apply it; we’ll go into details below.

How to Apply Thermal Paste

someone applying thermal paste

Gathering the Necessary Tools

To apply thermal paste correctly, you’ll need to gather a few essential tools.

Thermal Paste

The star of the show is a high-quality thermal paste designed for use between a CPU and a cooling unit. Look for a paste with high thermal conductivity, like Arctic Silver 5 or Thermal Grizzly Kryonaut. For the best performance, the paste should be non-electrically conductive if any drips onto the motherboard.

Isopropyl Alcohol

Use 99% isopropyl alcohol and cotton swabs or wipes to thoroughly clean the CPU and cooler surfaces before applying the new paste. Any dirt, grease, or old thermal paste left behind will reduce the effectiveness of the new application.


A small flathead screwdriver, old credit card, or purpose-made thermal paste spreader will help you achieve an even coat. Apply firm pressure to spread the paste smoothly without creating air bubbles.


Have tissues, paper towels, or wipes on hand to quickly wipe away any excess paste that squeezes out between the CPU and cooler.

You may also want:

  • Disposable gloves to keep your hands clean
  • A small brush for wiping away loose debris
  • An additional light source like a desk lamp for better visibility

Cleaning and Preparing the Surfaces

Before applying your thermal paste, you must clean and prepare the surfaces properly. This step ensures maximum heat transfer between the CPU and the cooler.

Cleaning the CPU

Use a cotton swab dipped in isopropyl alcohol to gently remove any existing CPU thermal paste. Be very careful not to damage the tiny components surrounding the CPU. Allow all alcohol to fully evaporate before proceeding to the next step.

Preparing the cooler

If reusing an existing cooler, thoroughly clean off any old thermal paste. For a new cooler, inspect to ensure the base is clean and smooth. Lightly sand down any rough spots with a fine-grit sandpaper. Wipe away dust with a microfiber cloth.

  • Apply a small drop of isopropyl alcohol to the center of the cooler base and spread evenly with a lint-free cloth.
  • Allow to air dry completely. This will remove any oils or residues left over from the manufacturing process.

Applying Thermal Pads (If Needed)

For some CPU and cooler combinations, small thermal pads may be required to contact surrounding components like VRMs or chipset heatsinks properly.

Cut pads to size and place them on components according to the instructions. Remove the backing and stick it in place.

Final inspection

Give the CPU and more relaxed base a final check to ensure all surfaces are clean and ready to mate. Any debris left behind can affect cooling performance.

Once prepped, you’re prepared to apply your thermal paste and install the cooler. Cleaning and preparing the surfaces properly helps you achieve optimal heat transfer for stable system temperatures.

Applying the Thermal Paste

Now comes the tricky part—applying the thermal paste. The goal is to get full coverage over the CPU without creating air bubbles. Follow these tips:

  • Use the applicator with the thermal paste or a small flathead screwdriver. Spread the paste evenly over the Integrated Heat Spreader of the CPU.
  • Apply in a thin, even layer. Too much paste won’t improve cooling and will make a mess. A pea-sized dot in the center of the CPU is typically enough.
  • Avoid air bubbles at all costs. Gently spread the paste outward from the center with small circular motions. Work slowly and check for full coverage.
  • Don’t spread the paste onto the motherboard socket or other components. Mask off surrounding areas with painter’s tape for easy cleanup.
  • Once applied, place the CPU heat sink on top and lock it into place.

Check Your Work

After securing the cooler, boot up your computer to ensure it’s working correctly, and check the temperature readings to confirm good heat transfer from the CPU.

If temperatures seem higher than expected, you may need to reapply the thermal paste. It can take a few applications to achieve the perfect Goldilocks layer—not too much or too little, but just right.

With some patience, you’ll become a pro at applying thermal paste in no time!

FAQ: Common Questions About Applying Thermal Paste

How Much Thermal Paste Should I Apply?

A little dab will do. You only need a small amount, about the size of a pea. Too much thermal paste won’t improve cooling and can act as an insulator, trapping heat.

It’s best to start with less and add more if needed. You can always reapply, but it’s harder to remove excess.

Should I Spread the Thermal Paste Or Just Drop It On?

For the best coverage, spread the paste evenly over the CPU surface using a small spatula or similar tool.

Make sure it’s distributed in an even, paper-thin layer. Dropping a blob in the center can result in air pockets that reduce cooling.

Some pastes come with a spreader, or you can use a plastic card like an old credit card. Gently spread with light, even pressure.

Do I Need to Replace Thermal Paste?

Over time, the thermal paste can dry out and become less effective. It’s a good idea to replace your thermal paste every 2-5 years, depending on usage and environmental factors.

If you notice higher CPU temperatures, sudden fan activity, or system instability, it may indicate the thermal paste needs replacement.

Fresh, high-quality thermal paste boosts optimal heat transfer and cooling.

What’s the Best Way to Remove Old Thermal Paste?

To remove the old thermal paste from a CPU and heatsink, use a solvent like an isopropyl alcohol and cotton swabs or soft cloth.

Gently wipe away the old paste using small circular motions, rinsing the swabs in alcohol as needed. Be very careful not to get any liquid on other components.

Let all parts dry completely before applying new thermal paste and reassembling your system. Rubbing alcohol evaporates quickly and leaves no residue.

In A Nutshell

Take your time, be meticulous, and don’t rush the process. Remember, less is more when it comes to the thermal paste.

Apply a thin, even layer to achieve optimal heat transfer between your CPU and cooler. Your patience will pay off with lower temperatures and better performance.

Once you’ve secured your cooler in place, power up your system and check those temps—you’ll likely see a nice decrease from your previous application. It’s that simple!

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