11 Things You Don’t Know About Duct Tape

It doesn’t work on ducts; it’s also called “duck” tape; there’s a Duck Tape Festival and a Duct Tape Island; and it saved the Apollo 13 mission. Plus five more surprising facts about duct tape

Of course you already know that duct tape repairs car windows and holds on side-view mirrors. You’re probably aware that it also protects blisters and makes a fantastic firestarter and is easily twisted into rope for use in bow drills and clothes lines. Depending on your background or whether you are reading this from prison, you may know that criminals are said to prefer it to rope for tying people up. It can add traction to shoes, too.

But did you know that with enough duct tape, you can make a dandy canoe? Or that you can wrap a stuck jar lid with the stuff so that it has a tag end, which gives you the leverage to get the lid spinning. Or that in the right hands, duct tape can be fashioned into a fetching prom dress? No? Well, then here are 10 other things you probably didn’t know about this quintessentially American product.

1. Before there was duct tape there was duck tape.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest mention of “duck tape,” dated 1899, refers not to the stuff we know but to a decorative trim on a garment. That’s because “tape,” historically at least, refers simply to a strip of cloth. In 1902, during the construction of the Williamsburg Bridge, 100,000 yards of cotton duck tape was used to wrap the wire cables of the bridge, according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

2. Duct tape was originally made to seal ammunition boxes.

A vintage ammo box. Amazon

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Like aviator’s sunglasses, microwave ovens, and synthetic rubber tires, duct tape arose to fill a military need. During World War II a factory worker named Vesta Stout—which is totally the name I would invent if I were making this up but happens to be her real name—was making ammunition boxes when she had the idea of replacing the cumbersome wax sealant used on them with a strong, cloth-based, waterproof tape that could be removed quickly. She wrote a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt. Two weeks later, Johnson & Johnson set about making the tape, which was originally issued in army green. Soldiers began calling the stuff “duck” tape because of its water- resistance. Or possibly because the cotton cloth in the tape was originally referred to as “duck” cotton. Nobody really knows. Anyway, soldiers quickly discovered the tape could fix Jeep seats, tents, and equipment. It was even used as bandages. After the war, returning soldiers introduced the tape to the public, and it quickly became popular across the U.S.

3. Is it “duct” tape or “duck” tape? Yes!

A roll of Duck Brand Duck Tape.
A roll of Duck Brand Duck Tape. Duck Brand

Duct tape historians have debated this for so long that the two names are interchangeable. Ask for either at the hardware store and they’ll give you the same stuff. And as if to prove the point, The Original Duck Tape, sold by Duck Brands, is described on the packaging as an “all-purpose duct tape.”

4. You can wear duct tape to the prom.

The winning tux and dress from Duck Brand's 2020 Stuck a Prom scholarship contest.
The winning tux and dress from Duck Brand’s 2020 Stuck at Prom scholarship contest. Duck Brand

Duck Brands organizes a Duck Tape Festival annually in Avon, OH, where it awards a $10,000 scholarship for the high school student who makes the best duct-tape prom dress and tux. I even went one year. And yes, the entries are amazing. Last year’s contest was conducted remotely because of COVID, which only inspired the applicants to add masks to their winning outfits.

5. Duct Tape works on everything—except ducts.

One of the few things that modern duct tape is not good for is wrapping ducts, even though it was used for that purpose for decades and is why most duct tape is grey rather than army green. What’s more, taping ducts with duct tape is illegal in virtually all commercial applications. “Of all the things we tested, only duct tape failed,” says Max Sherman, one of the researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which tested various adhesive tapes on ductwork. “It failed reliably and often quite catastrophically.” This is apparently because ductwork can get hot and break down the rubber-based adhesive in duct tape.

6. Mythbusters Went to “Duct Tape Island”

In 2012, the TV show Mythbusters sent hosts Adam and Jamie to a desert island with nothing more than an entire pallet of duct tape for an episode named “Duct Tape Island.” They used the stuff to make clothing, shelter, a drinking vessel, hammocks, and a boat on which they escaped the island, only to navigate for six hours until they found land, which turned out to be the island they were already on. Mythbusters has repeatedly tested duct tape, successfully using it to build a suspension bridge across a 50-foot-deep chasm, hold together a completely disassembled car which was then driven through an obstacle course at 60 mph, and build a functioning blackpowder cannon.

7. Duct tape could stretch to the moon and back.

The amount of duct tape sold annually could stretch to the moon and back. Mythbusters hasn’t tried to verify this yet. Then again, they haven’t verified that the moon actually exists, either.

8. Stubborn duct tape can be removed by WD-40.

A person using WD-40 to remove duct tape from a suitcase.
Duct tape sticks; WD-40 unsticks. WD-40

Okay, I’m including this fact mainly to get you to click on and read my WD-40 story. But also because it seems more than a little remarkable that the first two products that Americans reach for to fix just about everything should have a sort of symbiotic relationship. If something needs to be stuck, you use duct tape; if something needs to be unstuck, you use WD-40—including on duct tape.

9. Duct tape adhesive comes from rubber trees.

Duct tape is a three-layered deal, which is what makes it strong. The top is a thin layer of polyethylene plastic to make it water resistant. The middle layer of duct tape is a web of cotton fabric, or scrim. It makes the tape durable. The bottom is a rubber-based adhesive. The tape’s rubber adhesive comes from rubber trees, arriving at the factory as large bales. A machine mixes the raw rubber with several sticky resins until it reaches the consistency of pizza dough. Then it’s heated to a bit over 200 degrees Fahrenheit. After that, it’s placed between the scrim and the shiny gray polyethylene surface layer. The tape comes out in one jumbo roll that weighs over a ton. Each giant roll can produce over 30,000 small rolls. To get it to a smaller size, the roll is sliced into strips. Then, the smaller tape strips are put into cores and rerolled. Finally, the tapes are placed in their final packaging, sent down the conveyor belt, and boxed for shipment.

10. Duct tape saved the Apollo 13 mission.

A group of people standing around the Apollo 13.
The Apollo 13 landing module, after touching down safely. WikiImages from Pixabay

The ultimate duct tape hack was the Apollo 13 mission back in 1970. An explosion in one of the service module’s oxygen tanks caused damage to the spacecraft. The mission to get to the moon instead became a mission to return to Earth safely. The three astronauts had to pile into the Lunar Module to conserve power in the Command Module. But the Lunar Module was only designed to accommodate two, and carbon monoxide from the astronauts’ breath was reaching dangerous levels. The lithium hydroxide filters in the Lunar Module simply couldn’t handle the job. There were more filters in the Command Module, but they weren’t interchangeable. Meanwhile, back on the ground, mission control got busy trying to find a way to adapt the Command Module’s filters for use on the Lunar Module. The solution they came up with involved a plastic bag, paper, a spacesuit hose, and duct tape. The astronauts were able to replicate these results into something they called “the mailbox” and return to Earth safely.

11. Then it saved the Apollo 17 mission two years later.

The final mission to the moon was launched on December 7, 1972, but hit a major snag when astronaut Gene Cernan outside the ship on the lunar rover groaned, “Oh, there goes a fender. Oh shoot.” This was more of a hazard than it might sound like because lunar dust—more abrasive than Earth dust because the sand grains are not worn down and because the moon’s gravity is just ⅙ that of Earth’s there’s just a lot more dust. The loss of a fender caused massive rooster tails of dust that would coat the rover’s delicate instruments and the astronauts’ space suits. If the dark dust were allowed to stay on the instruments, the heat of the sun could cause them to get too hot and fail. While the astronauts slept, engineers back on Earth came up with a solution. They instructed the astronauts to attach four of their 28 lunar maps with what Cernan would later call, “good old-fashioned American gray tape,” carried on board. The maps and tape were configured in a way to resemble the fender extension and affixed to the fender with two clamps from the optical alignment telescope. The mission was back on track, saved, once again, by duct tape.