Friday, October 30th, 2009

Duct Tape: What’s So Funny About Polyethylene, Cloth and Adhesive?

My family and I just finished decorating the outside of our house for Halloween and we used two rolls of black duct tape to secure a variety of skeletons, bats and  ghoulish creatures – as well as a polystyrene foam ”R.I.P.” gravestone that refused to stand up to the wind.  Not only is it useful in decorating, but duct tape is also a source of inspiration for costumes like this one and especially this one.

Duct tape has assumed a certain comic place in popular culture with frequent mentions in TV sit-coms, comedian stand-up routines and email joke traffic. Most of the humor stems from duct tape’s versatility – it seemingly is the essential failsafe solution to an infinite number of problems.

 Besides devoting an entire web site (and their identity) to duct tape, the Duct Tape Guys promote a fun annual scholarship contest called “Stuck at Prom” that features kids wearing gowns and tuedos made entirely from the sticky strips.

An SPI staffer told me her nephew used to make wallets out of duct tape. Sure enough, here’s a video showing how to do it, as well as some step-by-step instructions.  

Many web-based reports claim that NASA mandates that rolls of duct tape be carried on every space shuttle mission. This Wikipedia entry describes three particular instances where NASA has employed duct tape – including its use in averting disaster on Apollo 13. The  Associated Press reports that NASA  has detailed procedures for dealing with a psychotic astronaut in space that includes crewmates binding their colleague’s wrists and ankles with duct tape.

In 2003, amid growing fears of terrorism, duct tape sales in the Washington D.C. area skyrocketed and stores sold out of the stuff when  U.S. Fire Administrator David Paulison included duct tape in his list of useful items households should have on hand after a biological, chemical or radiological attack.

Johnson & Johnson originated duct tape in 1942 for use in World War II as a way to seal off ammunition cases from moisture. Legend has it these water-resistant properties is the reason many still refer to the tape as “duck tape.” 

Constructed in three layers, duct tapes consist of a polyethylene plastic backing for waterproofing, a cloth middle layer for strength, and a rubber-based sticky adhesive.  Duct tapes differ according to how powerful their adhesive qualities are, the thread count of the cloth layer for strength and the thickness of the polyethylene backing for durability.  High-end tapes also often contain additives that provide resistance to sunlight and severe weather conditions.

Certainly, duct tape remains big business. Just this week, the 3M Co. announced the debut of six varieties of  “Scotch Tough Duct Tapes” that stick to difficult surfaces like brick and stucco and better withstand outdoor weather.  

In September, Berry Plastics Corporation announced in a press release that they were spending $200 million in capital improvements to replace antiquated machinery at its Kentucky plant that manufactures duct tapes.

Finally, in an effort to answer the ultimate question – “Can duct tape fix anything?” – Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters show devoted a whole episode to duct tape. Enjoy the outtakes of video they didn’t use in the episode.

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