The Ultimate Guide To Thermal Paste Application: Maximize Your Machine


By having a proper understanding and application of thermal paste, one can guarantee maximum output from their CPU. The use of thermal paste application material is essential for any cooling setup. Specifically in the context of building a PC, installing a CPU cooler is the most common application of thermal paste. On the other hand, graphics cards come with an integrated thermal solution and do not require separate installation unless you opt for custom liquid cooling. The installation of a CPU cooler, however, is left to the user’s discretion as they have the option to choose the cooler of their choice.

Thermal paste application can be a controversial subject among enthusiasts due to the numerous methods available. However, from personal experience, the most efficient way to achieve optimal temperatures is through the minimalist approach of applying just one dot. This method, also known as the “grain of rice” method, has been proven to be effective.

While some larger CPUs may need more paste to cover their wider surface area or reach specific hotspots, the basic principle remains the same. A minimal amount of thermal paste will suffice in ensuring proper heat transfer. It’s important to note that using too much paste can actually hinder performance, so it’s best to stick to a minimal amount.

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Key Terminology to Know Before Thermal Paste Application:

Central Processing Unit (CPU)

Central Processing Unit (CPU) – The information processing center of a PC. It generates heat while executing operations, and needs cooling to operate efficiently.

Integrated Heat Spreader (IHS) – The metal “lid” on the CPU that serves as a heat sink and protects the processor. It’s the surface to which thermal paste is applied.

CPU Cooler – Keeps the CPU running at optimal temperatures, using air or liquid to relocate heat.

Base-Plate – The metal base of an air-cooler that attaches to the IHS to transfer heat through convection to the fins of the heat sink.

Waterblock – Attaches to the IHS for use with liquid cooling, transferring heat from IHS to heat transfer fluid.

Thermal Paste – Silvery-gray substance applied to the processor before installing a cooling solution. Allows for efficient transfer of heat from the IHS to the cooling device.

Why Thermal Paste Application is Important:

The micro-imperfections in the CPU cooler’s metal base and the CPU’s IHS can cause poor heat transfer. The thermal paste helps to fill in these gaps and provide a better heat transfer by compensating for imperfections and ensuring full contact between the two surfaces. As a result, the CPU cooler can function optimally, leading to reduced performance issues like throttling.

Line Method of Applying Thermal Paste: Pros and Cons

Before discussing my preferred method, it’s important to understand the limitations of other methods. One widely used method is called the “line method.” This involves applying a thin line of thermal paste directly on the center of the IHS (Integrated Heat Spreader), and letting the pressure of the CPU cooler spread the paste as you attach it.

The method of applying a thin line of thermal paste directly down the center of the IHS and then allowing the pressure of the CPU cooler to spread the paste is a common one, but it is not without its drawbacks. Poor spreading of the paste and the likelihood of applying too much paste can negatively impact performance by impeding efficient heat transfer.

However, if you leave enough of a gap between the edge of the CPU and the endpoints on your line, the paste will not squeeze out of the sides when you secure the cooler. On the other hand, if the gap is not wide enough, the paste can spill out, making a mess and potentially causing a short circuit if it comes into contact with the PCB.

It is important to keep in mind that the purpose of thermal paste is to fill in microscopic gaps between the CPU and the heatsink, not to be used as an excessive layer on the processor.

It’s challenging to achieve an even spread of thermal paste. Some individuals recommend (incorrectly) that thermal paste should be manually spread over the CPU using a flat hard surface such as a credit card. Although this approach delivers visually pleasing initial results and makes it easier to control the amount of thermal paste used, it has a significant flaw that can greatly affect performance: manually spreading the thermal paste creates tiny air bubbles. Air conducts heat significantly less effectively than thermal paste, leading to high temperatures.

Adopting the Dot Technique: A Guide to Proper Thermal Paste Application:

Arctic MX-4 Thermal Paste

Effective and efficient thermal paste application is guaranteed with the simplicity of this method, provided that the CPU cooler is installed correctly. Before starting the process, it’s essential to clean both the CPU and the cooler surface with a non-linting towel and isopropyl alcohol.

A small amount of thermal paste, no larger than a grain of rice or two, should be placed in the center of the CPU, creating a small dot a few millimeters in diameter. Overuse of thermal paste can compromise performance, so be mindful of the amount applied.

Before mounting the heatsink, all required hardware should be in place. If any components are missed, the process will have to start from the beginning, including wiping down the surfaces. The ideal timing for applying thermal paste is just before installing the cooler.

To ensure proper thermal paste spread, the cooler should be placed as straight as possible on the first attempt. Any adjustments made after the initial placement can negatively impact the spread of thermal paste.

When dealing with larger processors, such as Intel’s 12th Gen Alder Lake CPUs or AMD’s Threadripper chips, it is important to use more thermal paste than a single dot. As these processors are no longer square, relying on one application of thermal paste will not result in an even spread across the surface of the heat-spreader. It is recommended to use two small dots of thermal paste at either end of the processor, and for Threadripper, possibly three.

It is crucial for the thermal paste to spread across the entire breadth of the chip, especially for chiplet-based Ryzen processors which have three discrete chips that require effective cooling. A bald spot on the CPU can lead to overheating and negatively impact performance, so ensuring proper thermal paste coverage is essential.

The mentioned method of applying thermal paste ensures a consistent spread without hindering heat transfer. It highlights the importance of using the right amount of thermal paste for optimal performance. This demonstrates that in the case of thermal paste, using less is more effective.

The Installation of CPU Cooler:

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Mounting a CPU cooler

The next step is the careful installation of a CPU cooler, which also plays a vital role in the application of thermal paste to keep the temperatures of the CPU at a decent level.

The Installation of CPU Cooler:

  • Lightly apply top-down pressure onto the CPU while placing the base-plate or waterblock of the cooler.
  • Attach the cooler to the mounting mechanism while maintaining the pressure to evenly distribute the thermal paste.
  • Avoid excessive force that could bow the motherboard or damage the CPU.
  • Secure the screws in a diagonal pattern, forming an “X.” Do not fully tighten the screws until all four have been attached, and then turn each a few times for even pressure distribution.

Inspection After Installation:

  • Check that the base-plate or waterblock of the CPU cooler is firmly attached.
  • Ensure that there is no thermal paste spilling over the edges of the CPU or anywhere on the motherboard.
  • Clean up any excess paste with alcohol if present and repeat the process if necessary.
  • Congratulations if everything appears clean and the cooler doesn’t move when touched!


The installation and inspection of the CPU cooler is a critical step in ensuring proper performance and stability. It is important to follow the steps precisely and use proper techniques to prevent any damage to the components.

How Often Should You Replace Thermal Paste?

Typically, reapplying thermal paste is not necessary more than once every couple of years. However, if you need to remove your cooler for any reason, it’s advisable to replace the thermal paste. It’s also important to monitor your CPU temperatures, as if they are consistently rising, reapplying thermal paste might be necessary to keep your CPU running at optimal performance. In such cases, it’s advisable to follow the instructions and recommendations provided by the thermal paste manufacturer.

Final Remarks:

In conclusion, thermal paste is a crucial component in ensuring the optimal performance of your CPU. By properly applying thermal paste, you can ensure that your CPU stays cool and runs efficiently. While reapplying may not be necessary more than once every few years, it is important to replace the thermal paste if you remove your cooler or if you notice an increase in CPU temperatures. By following the recommended guidelines and instructions from the thermal paste manufacturer, you can ensure that your CPU stays cool and runs smoothly.

Thermal paste is an integral component in ensuring the optimal functioning of hardware components such as the CPU or GPU. Despite not being a popular topic, it is crucial for maximum performance. By having a proper understanding and application of thermal paste, one can guarantee maximum output from their CPU.

Frequently Asked Questions:

  1. What is thermal paste?
    • Thermal paste is a type of thermal interface material that is used to improve the transfer of heat between a CPU or GPU and its cooler.
  2. Why do I need thermal paste?
    • Thermal paste is essential for cooling your CPU or GPU. It helps to fill the microscopic imperfections on the surfaces of the CPU and cooler, which results in improved heat transfer.
  3. How often should I replace thermal paste?
    • It is recommended to replace thermal paste every few years or if you remove your cooler for any reason. If you notice that your CPU temperatures are climbing, it may also be a good idea to reapply thermal paste.
  4. What happens if I don’t use thermal paste?
    • Without thermal paste, your CPU or GPU will not transfer heat effectively to the cooler, which can result in overheating and decreased performance.
  5. Is it difficult to apply thermal paste?
    • No, applying thermal paste is not difficult. It just requires a bit of care and attention to make sure that you spread it evenly across the surface of the CPU. You can follow step-by-step instructions to make sure that you apply the paste correctly.

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