How To Apply Thermal Paste To A GPU Or CPU

Applying thermal paste is a vital skill for any would-be PC builder. If this is your first time doing this, it’s very probable that you’ve heard all kinds of horrifying stories about fiery hardware destruction.

Thermal paste tends to get confused for thermal adhesive because of its ‘gluey’ look and feel, but they are very different things. Thermal adhesive is used to essentially bond heatsink with an integrated circuit. Thermal paste in turn doesn’t have adhesive capabilities and is in charge of conducting heat from the chip to the heatsink.

There are two reasons why you might need to apply thermal paste. Either you’ve bought a new chip or you’re replacing your old thermal paste. There are also several different methods of applying thermal paste and they all work pretty well.

Let’s look into how to do this for both the GPU and the CPU.

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Applying The Thermal Paste To A New CPU Or GPU

Applying Thermal Paste To A CPU
The Arctic Cooling MX-4 thermal compound paste is a very popular choice when it comes to thermal pastes

It might be a bit demoralizing for a newbie to get a high-performing CPU and then realize they have to perform something that they don’t know how to do and that can potentially mess up their hardware. Further confusion is added due to the various possible ways of applying thermal paste.

It would be misleading to say that there is no unsafe way to apply thermal paste. There is – it’s just that a little common sense or experience can easily enable you to apply just the right amount in just the right way.

The important thing to note here is that some CPUs come with a pre-applied thermal paste, but if that’s not the case for you, then you’re going to have to do it manually.

Step 0 – Getting The Right Paste

Before kicking off the process, it’s important to acquire the best possible paste.

The usual conventional wisdom is applicable here – the more expensive the thermal paste, the better it will be. As usual, there are caveats here and there, but most of the time this approach will do just fine. Usually, you want to have a higher quality thermal paste to better conduct heat from your CPU to the heatsink, although a cheaper one will do the job as well.

CPU Cooler with Dual Heatsink
This Noctua CPU cooler features two heatsinks

Seeing how thermal paste isn’t expensive, you might do better by spending a few extra bucks, for your own peace of mind at least. Another cool tidbit is that the thermal paste tends to come with its own container that looks a bit like medical syringes, and this enables you to distribute the paste slowly.

Basically, the only way you can apply too much paste is if you intentionally squeeze it out too much. Actually, you’re far more likely to apply too little.

Step 1 – Installing The Chip

Just in case, let’s get the obvious out of the way. You’re only supposed to apply the thermal paste after you’ve installed the chip on the motherboard and secured it. The paste goes on top to conduct heat to the heatsink and it has absolutely no relation with the connectors.

Assuming you’re installing a new CPU to the old motherboard, you’re going to detach the latch (retention arm) or unscrew the screws, or both, depending on your motherboard. Either way, you should consult a manual for your specific motherboard model.

After you’ve done this, hold the chip gingerly by its sides to avoid damaging the pins. There is usually an indicator on both the CPU and the motherboard that shows you where to put each side.

Step 2 – Applying The Paste

After the chip is secure be it via the latches or the screws, it’s time to add the heatsink to the combination. Of course, it won’t be held together via thermal paste which, as we mentioned earlier, has no adhesive properties.

Before plopping the heatsink on to the chip, we need to apply the thermal paste.

There are several different methods, but the most commonly used ones are the ‘dot’ method and the ‘cross’ method.

With the first one, you apply a dot the size of a grain of rice to the middle of the CPU and try to lower the heatsink with a firm but overall equal force. Of course, you shouldn’t slam it down or apply your body’s full force when it’s down. You simply put it down and try to make it equal on all sides.

Thermal Paste Dot Method
The dot method is a good method of applying thermal paste to your CPU or GPU

A good rule of thumb for this method is to look at the capacitors around the CPU and try to keep the paste around that size. This way of applying thermal paste is the most commonly used one and it’s quite safe in general. 

This method is pretty reliable and won’t cause any extra spillage.

If you want to be on the safe side, you can use another method. The ‘cross’ method is just what it sounds like. You draw a straight line from one corner to the other. Then repeat the process and connect the other two corners, with the two lines intersecting in the middle, roughly in the right angle.

Applying thermal paste properly The cross method
The cross method is also a reliable method of applying thermal paste to your CPU or GPU

Important note: don’t draw the lines all the way to the edge; you should try to remain inside the CPU borders as much as possible instead.

The lowering of the heatsink is pretty much universal – equal distribution of force.

There are plenty more ‘drawing’ methods, but they all generally yield the same results. You can use the ‘line’ method or the ‘spiral’ method and they are precisely what they sound like. You can even draw a smiley face, although that hasn’t really been tested.

Things To Look Out For

There are two more ways of applying the thermal paste and they’re not specifically pattern-type solutions like the previously mentioned ones.

If you apply too little thermal paste, there’s a strong chance that there won’t be enough of it to properly conduct heat and you might have overheating problems with your CPU.

If you apply too much thermal paste, then you have a different problem.

Of course, the heat will pass through properly, but too much paste may cause it to spill on the side when the heatsink pressure is applied. This may lead to short-circuiting your board and that’s probably the biggest concern you had when starting the process in the first place.

too much thermal paste
Do not add too much thermal paste under any circumstances

We’ve talked about the CPU, but the process is pretty much identical for the GPU.

You need to open your graphics card to expose the chip. If you’re not sure how to do that, here’s a nice guide below:

Changing The Thermal Paste

There are plenty of good reasons to change the thermal paste on either the GPU or the CPU.

If you notice that either is overheating, you should probably first see if you need to clean the dust or if the fans are working properly. If you do all this and the heat problem persists, probably the time has come to change the thermal paste.

Related:Best GPU Temperature For Gaming

To do this, you’re first going to need the new thermal paste. When you unhook the heatsink from your chip, you’ll be able to see firsthand how well your previous application of the thermal paste worked.

If you used the ‘dot’ method and things weren’t spread out evenly, then you might try the ‘cross’ method this time.

Before proceeding, you should first remove both the heatsink and the chip from the board as the next part of the process may inadvertently damage it.

Removing a CPU from the motherboard
Remove the component from the motherboard first and remove the thermal paste somewhere else

There are two different opinions on how to remove the residual paste and while both do work, the best method is probably the combination of the two. For the largest part of the paste, you may use a microfiber cloth or, if you don’t have one, a paper towel.

When holding the chip, you want to hold it by the sides, otherwise you may damage the pins and render it useless.

Holding a CPU properly
Hold your CPU by its sides to prevent accidental damage

You’ll want to use rubbing alcohol with a percentage of isopropyl alcohol as high as possible and dampen the cloth before gently rubbing the paste off. The best advice is to start gently in order to get a feel of the brittleness of the chip. Not to say that it’ll fall apart in your hands, but just so you remember not to apply too much force from the start.

After you’ve rubbed off the majority of the remaining paste, you may notice some nooks and crannies that are still dirty. Even if you don’t notice this, it’s recommended you do this next step.

You’ll want to use a cotton swab with alcohol and get to those tight spots. Only then will you be able to guarantee the cleanliness of the GPU or CPU.

After you’ve thoroughly cleaned the old paste, you may proceed with the application of the new one. The instructions are the same as when applying them to a new CPU, so we won’t repeat ourselves.

One thing to note is that if you notice an uneven spreading of the paste in the way it was previously applied or if your paste quickly stopped conducting heat properly, you might want to change your method.

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Aleksandar Cosic
Aleksandar Cosic

Alex is a Computer Science student and a former game designer. That has enabled him to develop skills in critical thinking and fair analysis. As a CS student, Aleksandar has very in-depth technical knowledge about computers, and he also likes to stay current with new technologies.