Tool Review: Caulk Gun

By: Mark Clement , Contributing Writer
In: Home Improvement Tips

For something that looks like it should be so easy, running a good clean caulk bead can be a real challenge–and get get you into a real sticky (literally) situation. Am I alone in noticing this?

Laying down a tight, smooth caulk bead–that does what its supposed to, and lasts–is kind of tricky. And as much as I’d like to explain the various moves involved with how to do it well, it’d take forever. I could show you in about five minutes if you were here at the HQ, but that’s another story.

Anyway, what I can share with you is the kind of tool that I’ve found works best for me, whether its for a thick-as-a-clothesline bead sealing up an exterior flashing detail or a so-subtle-you-can’t-see-it bead on a crown molding project.

The shelves of pro paint stores and big box paint departments alike are teeming with 8 dollar-ish throw-away caulk guns. They work, but only kinda’ and they make the hard work of laying down a smooth bead even harder if you ask me.

My rule of thumb for a caulk guns is that it has to have five features on it before I’ll think about buying it: Spout cutter, tube pierce (or “clean-out’), ladder hook, drip-less mechanism, and a rugged fit and finish.

Fit and Finish. In my mind, the reason some caulk guns are so cheap is twofold: First, some people only use it a few times so who cares? Others, however, lose them. Constantly.

Don’t ask me why but I know guys who work on their houses who have a dozen caulk guns because every time they need one they can’t find it and they go buy a new one. And since they know they’re going to lose this one too, they buy the flimsiest piece of junk out there. Which leads me to this: A good caulk bead is important to a successful project and a flimsy caulk gun with low-quality machining, I’ve found, are terribly hard to work with, compounding the already difficult project at hand. And cheap-o tools don’t have enough muscle to withstand drops or to move highly-viscous construction adhesive effectively. So, I look for a nice, rattle-free, durably built tool with a rugged fit and finish.

Drip-less Mechanism. “Drip-less” refers to a tool’s capability of releasing pressure on the back of the caulk tube so that you don’t have to whack the thumb-release every time you’re done dispensing caulk to keep silicone or whatever from oozing out. In my experience, these only sort-of work and you have to release pressure manually anyway. Buuuuut they work better than a tool that doesn’t have it at all.

Ladder Hook. This is nothing more than a hook on the end of the “ram” that drives the caulk forward through the tube. Anything that’s a 3-sided hook (not an ‘L’) usually does the trick: hook it on a ladder rung, work bench, tool pouch. This alone can save hours in frustration and caulk dripped all over where it shouldn’t be.

Clean-Out. If the unit doesn’t have a little piece of steel on there to pierce the top of the caulk tube, it could be a sign. I’ve had quality tools before without a clean-out (I used a scratch-awl to pierce the tube, no big whoop; I carry one anyway) so it’s not a deal-breaker. Still it’s something to look for.

Spout Cutter. Ditto for a spout cutter. I get better cuts cutting the end of the tube with an on-board spout cutter (wider for thick bead, smaller for thin) than with my utility knife almost every time. That said, if everything else is in line, I have a knife with me anyway.

Beyond these main features I look for large, positive handles I can get my hands around. And, no fabric straps of dubious functionality.

As far as a brand goes, I’ve bought several that work–and lots that don’t. Oddly, whatever the brand, the combination of features above seems to trump individual manufacturer and indicate a well-designed too, one that enables me to dispense thick ole urethane adhesive one day or just the right amount of caulk for a trim project another.

Oh, and one more thing, good tools are cheaper if you buy well and buy once. When you’re done with your caulk gun make a place for it in your shop–in a bag or bucket with paint supplies. Or hung on a nail somewhere. Always put it back and it’ll always be there to get you out of a sticky situation.