Sunday, October 5, 2014

Ode to Gaffer Tape


I have used plenty of rolls of gaffer tape over the years for various live sound projects, because I have found it to be less destructive and a lot less work than duct tape. But it costs five times more than a similar roll of duct tape, and I always wondered why. Plus, what exactly is a gaffer?

Gaffer tape is cotton cloth tape that comes in rolls with widths that range from 1-inch to 6-feet (I buy the 2-inch rolls). It is more flexible than duct tape so it can mold around cable easily, and though it comes in most any color imaginable, the most popular color is flat black. Like duct tape, it is easily torn by hand, and wider pieces can be torn into narrower strips as needed.

The biggest difference is that it made with a synthetic petroleum-based adhesive rather than a natural rubber adhesive. This means that there is no residue left when it is removed. That means no sticky cables, and no mess on the walls of the rental hall, church or stage. For some reason people get pretty cheesed when their walls have sticky smudges on them. Also, the cotton cloth tears more cleanly than the plastic stuff they use for duct tape.

Because gaffer tape uses a different cloth and adhesive than other tapes and there is not as much demand for this specialized tape, it is made in smaller quantities and by fewer manufacturers. So, it is going to cost more – the law of supply and demand, baby!

I have seen different colors of gaffer tape used for stage blocking, and the black and yellow-striped tape to mark stage edges and other hazards. Sound guys sometimes use white gaffer tape to mark the channels on their mixing boards, and I hear that indoor climbers use it to mark their routes on climbing walls.

I hide my gaffer tape when I go to gigs and bring along a roll of regular duct tape of masking tape, because somebody always wants to borrow tape, and gaffer tape is not what they are looking for. It is terrible for holding up signs in windy situations, and it just doesn’t look as nice. Besides it is ungodly expensive and I hate seeing someone wander off with my $20 roll of tape and wondering if I will ever see it again.

So, what is a gaffer?

The gaffer is the chief lighting technician on a film crew. They got this name in the old days for the long hook (gaff) that they would use to adjust the overhead lights on the sets. By the way, the gaffer’s assistant is called the best boy, in case you have seen the name in movie credits and wondered what that meant.


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