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What is Plumber's Tape?

By John Sunshine
Updated May 16, 2024
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Generally speaking, plumber’s tape is any sort of adhesive or strapping that is used to hold pipes together. In most markets there are two types of products that can go by this name, but they are usually somewhat different from each other. The product that most resembles tape is more accurately called Teflon® tape, and it is a trademarked product used to strengthen pipe joints and patch holes. It isn’t usually sticky at all, but rather resembles a slick cloth. On the other end of the spectrum is metal strapping. Strapping tends to provide roughly the same function, but is made of metal and cinches over pipes to help join them together. It is best for industrial pipes and situations of high heat. Choosing one over the other is often a matter of the type of pipe and the scope of the project.

Basic Properties and Uses

Plumbing involves joining and linking a complex system of pipes in such a way that they can dependably and reliably move a variety of fluids from one place to another. No matter how durable the pipes are, though, there are usually instances in which a plumber may need to reinforce joints or patch leaks. Pipes that must turn sharp corners, that are aging, or that are subjected to intense strain are often the most likely candidates for taping. Plumbers frequently rely on two products known as “tape” to help prevent problems and maintain the integrity of different structures.

Despite their name, most of these products aren’t actually adhesive the way standard craft or packing tape is. They are used similarly, though, which is to say that they bind things together, and they also tend to be easier and more forgiving to use than pipe glue or other sticky agents. Both Teflon® and metal varieties typically come on a roll, and can be measured and cut to fit.

Teflon® Varieties

The plumber's tape that is more properly called Teflon® tape is used primarily to seal pipe threads against leaks. It is a thin, usually white or cream-colored tape that fills in the gaps between the pipe threads and also acts as a lubricant when tightening the fittings together. It’s usually fairly easy to use, but there are a few tips that can make application easier. The plumber should start by wrapping the tape around the threads at the end of the pipe, for instance, and should not wrap tape beyond the end of the pipe to prevent small pieces from breaking free and eventually clogging the system. The plumber should also usually put a couple of loops of tape around the end of the pipe before proceeding to wrap all of the threads, overlapping half the tape's width each time.

Experts usually also recommend that the plumber wrap the tape in the same direction that he will tighten the fitting onto the pipe. If the tape is wound in the opposite direction, it will unwind when the fitting is screwed onto the pipe. The tape should be kept tight as it is wound onto the pipe so that it sinks into the threads. If the plumber changes his mind and unscrews the fitting, the tape should not be reused, but rather removed and a new piece used.

Metal Strapping

The other type of plumber's tape is really more appropriately considered a type of strapping. It is a flexible, metal strip with a regular series of holes running its length; it’s generally used to provide mechanical support for piping. It can also strengthen joins, but isn’t as effective for patching holes or leaks as Teflon®. Plumbers cinch it onto all types of pipes with a series of specialized tools that allow for a tight and customized fit. It is a good choice for most pipe types, but is often best for gas connections and water heater lines that need to withstand very hot temperatures.

Understanding Different Usage Specifications

Both tape varieties can be purchased from any plumbing supply store, though a plumber should be sure to get the type that is best suited for the job at hand. The two can be interchangeable, but depending on the job one may be better than the other. A leak in a regular residential water line is probably best treated with Teflon®, for instance, whereas a strength failure or joint integrity problem may be better served with strapping. Since the two are very different in function and look, confusion should be easily avoided, though both are sometimes called “plumber’s tape” which can create some ambiguity.

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Discussion Comments

By anon335716 — On May 22, 2013

I have been a tradesman for 20 years and never heard someone refer to Teflon tape as plumber's tape. It is always called Teflon tape or thread tape regardless of whether or not it actually contains Teflon. If someone asks for plumber's tape, metal strapping with holes is what is being discussed.

With that being said, I have seen the occasional new kid return from a trip to the truck with Teflon tape when asked for plumbers tape. Always fun to watch.

By anon242189 — On Jan 22, 2012

For your information, PTFE tape is not Teflon. Check with DuPont.

By anon85699 — On May 21, 2010

I have recently heard that there is a regulation governing the number of turns of PTFE tape to be applied when making a pipe joint. My practice has always been to make three to five turns and have been unable to find any advice to the contrary. Can you help please?

By elsewhen — On Feb 03, 2008

FYI... I think its OK to use the teflon tape when your fingers are wet - it doesn't seem to affect the seal that is created. (but it is easier to wrap the tape neatly around the pipethread when your fingers are dry)

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