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Duct Tape — Help for Those Times
When Everything Comes Unstuck

By Tamia Nelson

August 1, 2006

There is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother.
    Proverbs 18:24

Admittedly, it's most unlikely that the writer who penned these words had duct tape in mind. But it's a fairly apt description, nonetheless. And duct tape can work miracles, or near enough as makes no difference. Need to mend a split ash rail after a bad day on the water? Duct tape can do it. Want to restore the watertight integrity of a "tin tank" following an unscripted encounter with a can-opener in the shape of a rock? No problem. How about repairing your lacerated dignity when mountain granite has ripped the seat out of your only pair of climbing pants, three weeks into a four-week trip? Relax. Duct tape's got you covered. And those are just a few examples.

Where would paddlers be without duct tape? We'd come unstuck in a hurry, that's where. Duct tape makes hard repairs easy, big jobs small, and quick fixes more or less lasting. No great skill is required, and you don't need any special tools. Duct tape even has history on its side. Like so much modern gear, from the venerable Grumman tin tank itself to the latest in MREs, duct tape was forged in the fires of war. When Uncle Sam needed a way to insure that ammo cans stayed watertight in the steamy heat of the Pacific Theater during World War II, surgical-supply company Johnson & Johnson was the first to find a solution. By sandwiching gauze between a latex adhesive and a waterproof backing they invented a new kind of tape. It was everything the War Department wanted. It was tough. It was flexible. And it kept the water out. Scuttlebutt has it that GIs nicknamed the stuff duck tape, because it shed water just like a duck's back. Be that as it may — pragmatic historians note that the waterproof backing was originally cotton duck — it wasn't long before duck tape was drafted to do a lot of jobs besides sealing ammo cans. And when the GIs came home at war's end, duck tape came with them.

Once it set up shop in civvy street and embarked on a new career as the home handyman's helper, however, duck tape soon became known as duct tape. (If you like the old name better, don't despair. You're in luck. Henkel Consumer Adhesives still markets a trademarked Duck Tape®.) And nowadays you can find it for sale almost everywhere, from big-box retailers and HyperMarts to paddling outfitters and convenience stores. It's had an image makeover, too. You can still buy it in the original olive drab if you look hard enough, but you're more likely to find it in silver or camouflage today. I'm told that there's even a clear version, though I've never seen it myself.

In any case, duct tape is used by canoeists and kayakers everywhere, and it's garnered enthusiastic recommendations from most of the entries in the Who's Who of paddlesport — Eric Dowd, Bill Mason, and William Sanders, to name just a few. Me? I wouldn't go afloat without it. But beware…

Not All Duct Tape is Everything
It's Qwacked Up to Be

A rule of thumb: you mostly get what you pay for. Price often predicts quality, in other words. In my experience, name-brand tape has generally performed well, while cheap no-name tape hasn't. Either the adhesive won't stick to anything at all, or it sticks to itself too tenaciously, pulling away from the tape backing at the first application of shear stress and then collecting in a gooey ball.

On the other hand, good tape is uniform, with neither bald patches nor blobs in the adhesive layer. While it conforms to complex contours, it also has body. It peels off the roll smoothly and evenly, and it can be torn to size without recourse to scissors. (A sharp blade does a much neater job, however.) Color doesn't seem to influence quality, except in the eye of the beholder. A hint: Leave it on the original roll until you need it. Don't try tearing off just enough for a single emergency repair job and wrapping it around some handy object. Not only will you probably need more tape than you thought, but the tape's adhesive qualities always seem to suffer, too. Instead, just buy small rolls for short or easy trips, reserving the large rolls for long or difficult ones. Large roll or small, however, make sure that every boat repair kit has some.

Once you have your tape, you'll always be finding new…

Ways to Use It

Here are only a sampling of the many possibilities:

Patch  Duct tape quickly repairs punctures and tears in wellies, waterproof bags, tents, tarps, and ponchos. You can also use it on bug netting, and on cotton and leather items, as well, but the patch usually won't stay stuck for very long here. It's still worth a try if no other quick fix is available, though. Whatever the material you're working on, back each patch up with a matching patch on the opposite side of the mended article whenever possible. Such duct-tape sandwiches are far more lasting than one-sided repairs.

This versatile stuff also mends boats, particularly when the damage is superficial: scratches in ABS and surface cracks in 'glass, for example. (WARNING! These won't be permanent repairs. Do a proper job as soon as possible.) The one thing duct tape won't do is hold air. It's a mighty poor choice when repairing inflatable boats, float bags, and air mattresses. As before, though, it's worth a try if you don't have anything better. I've used it to keep leaks in float bags down to manageable proportions on day trips — and as a tire boot on amphibious jaunts by bike and boat, when a sharp stone has ruptured the casing of a tire and allowed the inner tube to protrude. It won't substitute for a real patch in repairing a punctured tube, however.

Protection  Duct-tape bang strips (aka grunch pads) were once the badge of the "serious" whitewater boater. Now that many boats' bows and keels are reinforced at the factory, these improvised bang strips are less common, but they haven't disappeared altogether. Duct tape also protects decks from rubbing and chafe caused by deck rigging and other gear.

Padding  I've used multiple layers of duct tape on my touring kayak to protect my knuckles from the hard edge of an outside seam. It isn't elegant, but it works.

Fitting  Tennis-ball bow and stern fenders were another mark of the gonzo whitewater kayaker in the '60s and '70s. And what kept the tennis balls in place? Duct tape, of course. Bows are stronger now than they were in the early days of recreational river-running, but if you make a habit of getting up-close and personal with midriver rocks or concrete seawalls, fenders are still a good idea. Just cut crisscross slits in a pair of tennis balls with a sharp knife and tape them to the ends of your boat. Now you've got fenders that even a tugboat skipper would envy!

Splint  Is your beavertail's blade cracked after a hard knock from a rock? And you don't have any Skotch® fasteners to fix it? Then close the gap with duct tape. Or has a paddle shaft split following a misstep in camp? Duct tape will hold a temporary "fish" (splint) in place, and kinked or broken tent poles can benefit from the same treatment. In both cases, the repair is a bit like splinting a fractured arm: bring the pieces together and straighten out anything that's bent, then put one or more fish — branches, splits of kindling, even pencils — in place, each one long enough to extend well beyond the damaged area. Now bandage with multiple wraps of duct tape. A caution: This is a temporary repair. Don't expect it to last forever, or to withstand anything more than moderate strain.

That's just a start. You'll think of many other applications, I'm sure. Of course, duct tape can't do its job unless you know…

How to Make It Stick

The rules are simple. Keep the tape dry and clean until you're ready to use it. Make sure all surfaces are clean and dry, too. In cool (or cold) weather, prewarm both tape and surface — carefully! Plastic boats can melt, and duct tape burns. Luckily, body heat alone will often do the trick. Neatness also counts. If you have the time, it pays to cut duct tape rather than rip it, minimizing any deformation of the fabric backing. Round off the corners of any patch, into the bargain. A smooth patch with rounded corners holds better and lasts longer. And don't forget to clean up after the job. Scraps of duct tape can hobble or snare wildlife. Good housekeeping won't make your repair any better, of course, but it's a kindness to your hosts.

Is duct tape perfect? No. In fact…

Duct Tape Has a Downside

Every silver lining has a cloud, after all, and duct tape's no exception. The villain in the story is the adhesive. As duct tape ages, it begins to separate — the backing peels away from the adhesive layer. This happens almost instantly with cheap tape, but even good tape will succumb eventually. And that's not all. The adhesive cures, leaving behind either a tenacious plaque or a sticky mess. The plaque can usually be sanded or scraped off, but the goo is (almost) forever.

The moral of the story? Duct tape repairs are temporary. Remove the tape and do a proper job as soon as possible, before the adhesive cures. But what if you've left it too late? What then? WD-40® will clean up any sticky mess on metal and some (but not all!) plastics; cooking oil does the job on other non-porous materials. Corn oil, canola oil, or vegetable oil will all work. (Save the extra-virgin olive oil for cooking.) Just drizzle a bit of oil on a clean rag, rub it into the adhesive goo, and wipe the sticky mess away with a second rag. Repeat as often as necessary, scrubbing with a toothbrush if a more aggressive approach is required. Sooner or later the adhesive will come off. When it does, finish up by washing the area with a detergent solution.

Fabrics are a problem. They won't tolerate vigorous scrubbing, and oil often leaves a permanent stain. Sometimes dish detergent and hot water will make the goo go away. Sometimes they won't. Try 'em and hope for the best. Now you know why professional seamstresses won't touch any garment with a duct-tape repair.

Other caveats? Let common sense be your guide. Don't use duct tape to fix a cooking pot with a pinhole leak. And don't expect it to work well as a patch on a leaky air mattress. It won't fix a cracked engine block, either. No jack can master all trades, right?

Duct tape is one of the venturesome paddler's best friends. It won't really stick closer than a brother, of course, but it's a godsend in all sorts of real-world sticky situations nevertheless. So if you don't fancy having things come unstuck under way, make sure you always have a roll (or two) on hand!

Copyright 2006 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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