When you change your CPU cooler or CPU, you first have to remove your thermal paste. After that, of course, you need to reapply thermal paste, otherwise you will have problems with cooling. In this guide, we will explain how to remove and correctly apply thermal paste on CPU.
Removing thermal paste: Quick and clean
Old thermal paste can reduce the cooling performance of your heatsink (for CPU and GPU). And there comes a time when especially your once glorious CPU, starts to bitch. Especially if you’re upgrading your processor, you should think about removing the old thermal paste on your cooler. But even without a CPU upgrade, it makes sense.
Thermal paste can become very hard, depending on how long it has been in use. So if you’ve noticed a temperature rise on your CPU over the years, it’s probably because the paste has dried out.
For the job you only need three things:
- A lint-free cloth (microfiber is perfect, kitchen roll works too)
- An alcohol-based liquid (preferably isopropanol like this one)
- New thermal paste
The choice of cloth is important here, as certain paper products like toilet paper or tempos can leave small fibers that inhibit heat transfer.
Wipe off coarse remnants of the old thermal paste
First, of course, you need to remove your CPU cooler. Once the CPU is exposed, take a dry and lint-free cloth and carefully wipe the surface of the CPU. This will remove the coarse residues of the old thermal paste from the CPU.
The best option for this is microfiber cloth, but coffee filters, a paper towel, or cotton swabs will do in a pinch – these leave much less residue than toilet paper.
Do not leave any residue on the circuit board or other surrounding parts. In particular, you should avoid scratches on the CPU surface at all costs, as this has a negative impact on the thermal conductivity and heat transfer. Therefore, we advise you not to scrape off the old thermal paste with a spatula.
Polish the CPU and remove the thermal paste completely.
Next, we really want to get rid of all residues of the old paste. To do this, take your cloth and put some of your alcohol-based solutions in the middle (rather a little less than too much).
We recommend isopropanol as the cleaning alcohol, as this simply works best and dries the fastest. The higher the concentration, the better. We generally use a 99% solution because it evaporates very quickly, but 70% is also perfectly fine.
Alternatively, the following things also work:
- Acetone-based nail polish remover.
- White spirit
- Methylated spirits
- 40% vodka (yes, it works!)
- Special solutions from manufacturers like example the Arctic Silver cleaning kit
- Note: Do not use any other cleaners or liquids on your CPU or heatsink, as they are often conductive and can leave a residue.
Now carefully wipe the CPU surface with the lightly soaked cloth and remove all residues of the old paste. Be careful not to touch the board or surrounding parts.
You should really wipe off the remaining thermal paste completely – reapply the alcohol as needed. Once you’re done, your CPU should look as shiny as the day you bought it.
Remove the thermal paste from the CPU cooler
As the last step, you should do the same process as in the second step for your CPU cooler. Again, you can first remove any rough residue and then polish the contact area.
After all, traces are removed, repeat this step again to prepare the surface for a new thermal paste application.
Let everything dry
So, hopefully, your CPU and your cooler’s contact surface now look like the picture above.
Banal, but extremely important next step: After removing the thermal paste from your CPU and the cooler, give it some time to dry. Depending on the alcohol you use for cleaning, everything will evaporate faster or slower.
To be on the safe side, let everything dry for about 5 minutes before you continue. You should not apply the new thermal paste directly after cleaning!
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Applying the thermal paste:
There are many ways to apply thermal paste – which is why it can be a tricky subject for some enthusiasts. Everyone has their own way of getting the best results. But in our experience, there’s no real difference in all the “methods” heat-wise.
That’s why we recommend you use only the two most straightforward, most minimalist methods:
- The dot method
- The “spatula method” (which is a quasi result of the blob method)
- put a pea-sized blob of paste in the middle of the CPU
In our opinion, the best method for a clean application of thermal paste is the dot method. As you can see in the picture, you put a pea-sized amount of thermal paste in the middle of the CPU.
If you want to perfect the whole thing, you can now grab a small plastic spatula (often included with pastes) and spread the paste evenly vertically and horizontally on the surface.
If you just use the blob method, you don’t need to pay attention to anything else. A huge advantage of this method of applying thermal paste is the simplicity and safety of the process. Remember, the goal of thermal paste is to close microscopic gaps on the surface of your CPU and heatsink.
However, you should leave a minimal gap between the CPU edge and the paste so that nothing overflows when you put the CPU cooler back on. This is only true if you have used too much paste.
This not only avoids an unnecessary mess. If you happen to use an electrically conductive paste, any contact with the PCB can cause a short circuit and damage the motherboard and other components.
The advantage of the spatula method is that it really covers 100% of the surface and gives you a clean conscience. However, this method is a bit more prone to errors and is more for advanced users.
Mount your CPU cooler
Yes, that’s all you need to do when applying thermal paste. Just make sure everything is in place before mounting your CPU cooler. If you place your cooler on the CPU and then realize you forgot a bracket or backplate, you’ll have to start over. Annoying. Ideally, applying thermal paste is the last step before mounting the heatsink.
Also, you should put your cooler on as straight as possible the first time. If you have to rotate it to align the holes after it’s already been placed, the thermal paste won’t spread properly.
This method will ensure an even distribution of the thermal paste. The blob from the previous step is enough to cover the entire surface without leaking or creating too thick a layer.
Frequently asked questions about thermal paste.
In the following, we have put together a series of questions that we hear again and again on this topic.
Is it possible to apply too much thermal paste?
Yes, definitely. In this case, the paste can ooze out the sides and get on other components. Which can affect the effectiveness of the CPU and the entire system. However, “too much” is better than not enough, as long as the paste is not pushed out the side of the cooler. Nevertheless, using too much is simply a waste.
Is it possible to apply too little thermal paste?
That is also possible. If you use too little thermal paste, you may not cool your CPU correctly. This can lead to system crashes or even damage to components. So keep to our recommendation from above.
Is there THE perfect method and THE perfect amount?
I don’t see it all so narrowly. To quote our colleagues at Gamersnexus: Our tests agree with what many other tests have shown over the years. As long as there is enough paste to cover the surface or at least the part directly above the CPU die. There is a negligible difference between the application methods.” So just apply the pea-sized amount on top, and good to go – the cooler’s contact pressure will do the rest.
Is all this necessary?
Yes, you can’t do without it. If your CPU runs too hot, the thermal paste is a critical aspect of lowering the temperature a bit. This will prevent the CPU from overheating or throttling itself down (to cool itself down).
Which are the best thermal pastes?
We have listed current models in our thermal paste test and picked out the best for you. There you will find everything else you need.
How often should I change thermal paste?
Occasionally you’ll need to remove dried-out paste and put new on to get the best performance. This is not just a one-time thing.
High-quality thermal pastes can last a little longer, perhaps up to four years. If you’re using a very high-end CPU or overclocking it aggressively, it may be wise to replace the paste once a year.
However, it’s not necessary. Just keep an eye on your CPU temperatures.
If you upgrade your CPU or change your CPU cooler, you should do so anyway.
Why is the dot method considered the best to apply?
It is simple, easy, and safe. The problem with other methods such as the cross, spatula, line, or whatever is that the paste is usually distributed unevenly. With spackling, you often have the problem of air bubbles forming as you spread the paste. Since air doesn’t conduct heat nearly as well as thermal paste, the temperatures can suffer (but this was also disproved in many tests – or the spackling of the paste had no influence on the temperatures).
Don’t make your life unnecessarily complex, and stick with the blob. We still recommend the spatula method of application for all the perfectionists out there if you are proficient with it.
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