Plumber's tape and Dr. Plunkett

Aug. 3, 2012
John Mesenbrink, editor-at-large for Contractor magazine, recently jogged my memory banks about innovations and resistance to change within our trades.

John Mesenbrink, editor-at-large for Contractor magazine, recently jogged my memory banks about innovations and resistance to change within our trades. In 1972, I was an apprentice plumber here at F. W. Behler Inc. and on a jobsite assisting Paul Strayer, journeyman plumber. I was assembling chrome lavatory drains. We did not have tapered nylon slip-joint washers and not all chromed trap goods came with friction-rings to allow compressing the rubber slip-joint washers without twisting them out of alignment: a thinly applied bit of pipe-dope (top surface of the rubber only) provided sufficient lubrication to compress the rubber washers so that no leaks would develop and no slippage would occur between tubular components over time.

I had applied pipe dope to the fine-threaded tailpieces and hand-cranked them as tightly as possible into their pop-up assemblies. The final test/practice then, as it remains today, was to lift the pop-up rod and fill the bowl with hot water until it drained into the overflow – to test the overflow and ensure it drained freely through the bypass slots built into the chrome pop-up assembly. The next step: fully depress the pop-up rod to dump the bowl’s contents rapidly. Any leaks indicated more work was needed! The fine threaded tailpieces wept stubborn tears. Paul produced a Ridgid strap wrench and applied rosin-powder to its cloth strap. He took the time to show me how to roll the heavy iron handle over the cloth strap to pinch it tightly onto the chrome tailpiece and to back-hold the pop-up with his custom pliers (teeth ground off and rubber glued on each face) he’d engineered to grip chrome without scratching or marring the surface with teeth-marks.

Paul was as strong as an ox. We once were installing a new cast iron skirted tub in a row home with a stairway that incorporated a 90-degree bend at the base of its landing – no way to turn both the tub and hand-truck while strapped together. We were forming our plan of attack for the heavy cast-iron tub when Paul said, “We used to walk them in using a turtle carry.”

I said I’d need to see that to believe it!

He backed himself into the tub and asked me to tilt it over onto his shoulders. With a grunt, he squared himself under that tub and pinch-gripped its sides with his well-weathered hands. He carried that tub to the second floor by himself! So, when Paul took over on the strap wrench that day, I assumed those two weeping threaded chrome joints didn’t stand a chance. Hot water is thinner than cold: stubborn tears welled up to drip onto the vanity cabinet’s base.

New product emerges

Back at the shop my boss announced, “We have a new product at the shop that will work — Teflon tape.”

While a DuPont scientist, Dr. Plunkett, had discovered polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), which was trademarked as Teflon in 1946, it was not until 1969 that PTFE powder was utilized for plumber's tape (

You’d have thought the stuff was made out of gold given the fact that the three rolls were kept secured in the office and had to be assigned if you needed or wanted any! Same shape and size as today’s PTFE tape with plastic snap-together protective housing, but in 1972 the containers were made of metal.

After we disassembled and cleaned the pipe dope off of the threaded tailpieces, Paul showed me the proper way to apply the tape: holding tailpiece with threads exposed in your left hand while trapping the leading edge of the tape under your left thumb and the roll of tape in your right hand to wrap it clockwise so that the tape doesn’t bunch up or unravel while tightening the tailpiece into the pop-up. Three wraps and pull it until it tears while trapping the tape-tear under the side of your index finger. Done correctly, no strings of tape will be left hanging over the top threads and after assembly, trim away the excess below the pop-up with your pocket knife.

After tightening the threaded tailpieces, the only tears that could have been shed would have been tears of joy! Why, I wondered, was the tape kept under lock and key in the office? From my perspective it cost the company far more in lost time/effort to attempt sealing those threaded joints with pipe dope when we could have done it right the first time.

I knew going in that, as the apprentice in our shop, my suggestion would be viewed with skepticism. I needed to present this in a way that would prevent my bosses from saying no. I elicited my father’s advice (certified public accountant) who told me to multiply our wages by 2.5 to determine an average labor cost that would cover overhead. Paul and I had wasted, at a minimum, an hour’s time each dealing with the two tailpiece leaks (including the disassembly and cleanup the next day) and it was painfully obvious to this apprentice that I had a solid case for getting Teflon tape on every one of our service trucks.

I bided my time until both bosses were present and appeared to be in a good mood. Teflon tape was on every truck within days. Today, we can use that type of rock-solid financial logic to convince customers it’s in their own best interest to invest in the higher-efficiency more-expensive products available.

All Dave Yates material in print and on Contractor's Web site is protected by Copyright 2012. Any reuse of this material (print or electronic) must first have the expressed written permission of Dave Yates and Contractor magazine. Please contact via email at: [email protected].

About the Author

Dave Yates

Dave Yates material in print and on Contractor’s Website is protected by Copyright 2017. Any reuse of this material (print or electronic) must first have the expressed written permission of Dave Yates and Contractor magazine.

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Contractor, create an account today!

Sponsored Recommendations