There are many, many different types of automotive tape, along with grades for each. While we would not attempt to discuss all the many glorious flavors of tape in the world, we can break down the most commonly use tapes found in the automotive world, and we bet there are a couple that you didn’t even know were a thing.
The most common automotive tape is electrical tape. This PVC-backed tape is pressure-sensitive, meaning you have to press it down to make it stick, is designed to protect electrical connections from the outside world. Not all electrical tapes are created equally, as substandard tapes can leave you on the side of the road, or worse.
While most people are familiar with black electrical tape, there is actually an entire system of color codes used for voltage and phase markings. While this is not pertinent to automotive use, it is interesting stuff. One key point for any electrical tape is the UL (Underwriters Laboratories) label. If there is not a UL label, it does not meet the standards for electrical use.
One of the most popular electrical tapes on the market is 3M Super 33+. It is the rated for all electrical service. With a 15 pound tensile strength and voltage protection up to 600 volts, this stuff is fantastic.
Duct or Duck?
Everyone’s favorite tape, duct or duck tape was actually made for shoes. Contrary to popular belief, duct tape was not designed for HVAC ducting, but rather for making shoes stronger and for decorating clothing. So all those kids that thought they were being “inventive” by making clothes and wallets out of duck tape were actually just using it as it was designed.
The original duck (it is actually Duck, not duct) tape was made from duck cloth in 1902, which is a heavy canvas, and one of the first industrial uses was for wrapping bridge cables. Flash forward to 1943, a factory worker named Vesta Stoudt was worried that the ammo box seals would take too much time to open. She tested stripes of fabric tape to seal the boxes, and wrote a letter to President Roosevelt, who forwarded the letter to the War Production Board, who put Johnson & Johnson to work on creating a mass produced version.
This new version of duck tape was lined with adhesive and could be ripped by hand, no scissors required. it used thin cotton duck coated in polyethylene. It was quickly adapted by soldiers to repair equipment, even weapons, and the soldiers simply called it “duck tape”. After the war, the Melvin A Anderson Company bought the rights to Duck tape and began marketing it towards HVAC installers for sealing ducts, and the slow creep into American culture begins. The basic construction of modern duck tape is a pressure-sensitive adhesive over a cloth backing coated with polyethylene. There are hundreds of colors and styles of duck tape, and the uses are nearly unlimited.
Masking tape is designed to cover and protect surfaces during painting and repair. It is not designed to make repairs or as a permanent covering. In fact, if you leave masking tape on too long, it will be very difficult to remove. It was originally designed for automotive refinishing in the 1920s as a solution that did not remove freshly applied paint. Masking tape should stick well but release clean when pulled. It is rated in 1, 3, 7, 14, 30, and 60-day terms, meaning it pulls off clean if removed within the day rating. The longer the rating, the less sticky the tape is. Most commonly used masking tapes are 7 and 14 day.
If you are painting a vehicle and you need crisp, clean lines for your paint, a good quality 7 day tape is what you want. This tape will keep the paint from creeping under the lines, and it removes clean. If you do get any residue left on the body, you can remove it with WD40 or other lubricant spray.
There are many uses for double-sided tape including attaching emblems and accessories. There are many flavors of double-sided tape, from the cloth lined (very thin) to the 3M foam-lined tape, which comes in varying thicknesses. Most factory vehicles use the foam-lined tape for emblems, trim, and even securing body panels.
A unique type of tape, self-vulcanizing or self-amalgamating tape does not use adhesive at all, but rather bonds to itself when stretched. Made from silicone rubber, this insulating wrap protects and seals the substrate. When left long enough, the tape forms a solid coating, as it has completely bonded to itself. This stuff is great for sealing electrical wiring and plumbing. If you have a leaky hose, you can wrap it tightly with this tape and get home or to a repair shop. It is a good idea to keep a roll in your emergency tool box.
Some tapes can be used for permanent repairs, while others are temporary. Make sure that any time you use tape, you use the right one for the job at hand.
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A life-long gearhead, Jefferson Bryant spends more time in the shop than anywhere else. His career began in the car audio industry as a shop manager, eventually working his way into a position at Rockford Fosgate as a product designer. In 2003, he began writing tech articles for magazines, and has been working as an automotive journalist ever since. His work has been featured in Car Craft, Hot Rod, Rod & Custom, Truckin’, Mopar Muscle, and many more. Jefferson has also written 4 books and produced countless videos. Jefferson operates Red Dirt Rodz, his personal garage studio, where all of his magazine articles and tech videos are produced.