Essentials: What Tapes to Use for Art and Conservation (2023)

Tape is a household staple that is easy to take for granted, but its versatility is truly astounding. Since the surgeon Horace Day created the first pressure-sensitive tape in 1845, these adhesive strips have expanded widely in variety and are now used in everything from fine art to airplane construction. Tape makes notable appearances in numerous collages, sculptures, and interdisciplinary works, as well as in street art around the globe.

Tape’s most basic components are layers of adhesive and a backing or carrier that may be made of paper, fabric, foil, cellophane, or other flexible materials. Many tapes applied in arts and crafts, bookmaking, and conservation are pressure sensitive—you need only press on them to make them stick—but some require water or heat. Tapes come in clear, colorful, waterproof, and acid-free varieties. With most tapes, it’s best to work with clean, dry surfaces.

Note that the below is not intended as a definitive guide to tape, but an introduction to some of the tapes artists and conservators use in their work. Always check out specific tape instructions for guidance on traits like strength, heat sensitivity, whether it can be repositioned or removed, and, if removable, whether it leaves a residue.

Clear Tape

In 1930, 3M engineer Richard Drew invented the first version of the handy clear fixative now known as Scotch tape. The obvious advantage of clear tape is that it is practically invisible on many surfaces. This tape—usually strips of cellophane with an acrylic adhesive—comes in many sizes and strengths. Both thin invisible tape and heavy-duty mailing tape are popular sculpture materials. Sculptor and public artist Mark Jenkins is known for creating figural works from packing tape and plastic wrap and has served as a judge for Scotch’s “Off the Roll” public tape sculpture contest.

The Numen creative collective uses layers of clear tape to build immersive installations, some of which visitors can crawl inside. “We use existing architectural structures like columns to mount our web, so the installation is a kind of parasite,” Christoph Katzler of Numen says. Numen also uses Monta biodegradable and Eco-Logical’s Klebio compostable tapes.

Artist Mark Khaisman layers tape to re-create iconic movie stills and produce other images. He uses Scotch clear packaging tape and translucent brown packaging tape from Shurtape. “Tape is universally understood; anybody can relate to it; it’s familiar,” he says. “I like tape’s immediacy and expediency.”

Along with affixing and repairing materials and creating works of art, some clear tape is used during the creative process to secure painting surfaces and create crisp borders. Watercolor washout tape is a contemporary spin on gummed paper tape traditionally used to stretch and hold watercolor paper during painting. It can be removed without harming an artwork, and some versions, like this one from Specialty Tapes, are UV resistant and designed not to discolor over time.

Clear tape that is labeled “acid free” is often selected for longer-term applications when surface and color preservation are concerns. An acid free or “acid neutral” label on paper, tape, or other materials denotes a pH of 7 or higher (on a scale of 0 to 14, with 0 being most acidic and 14 most alkaline). These products generally last longer, since acidity contributes to deterioration over time. Many conservationists actually choose to use special acid-free papers and natural pastes instead of pressure-sensitive tapes.

Artist and Drafting Tape

Artist and drafting tapes are usually backed with crepe paper, coated with a low- to moderate-tack rubber-based adhesive, and designed to be removed without leaving sticky residue or damaging surfaces. Artists often use these tapes to create straight marks or secure works to drawing boards or other surfaces. The terms artist tape and drafting tape are used interchangeably, and the latter also refers specifically to thin, removable strips used by designers, engineers, and others to ensure precise lines and affix delicate materials like blueprints and tracing paper. In addition to his works made from packing tapes, Khaisman also makes painted-tape collages; for these, he uses ProTape’s white artist tape or brown masking tape from Intertape.

Masking and Washi Tape

General-purpose masking tape also usually consists of crepe paper lined with a rubber-based adhesive. It is employed in some of the same ways as artist tape and is more affordable. Masking tape can also be more problematic—it is more likely to leave residue or tear a surface if it’s removed. Masking tape comes in colorful varieties that are used for diverse crafts, decorations, and labeling. Blue masking tape, aka painter’s tape, can be used to temporarily mark off areas for painting on walls or furniture but can still damage or leave gunk on a paper surface.

Hamilton Glass, who creates paintings, murals, and other works, says he uses tape to “mimic the straight technical lines in architectural drafting for my artwork. The sharp, crisp lines against the fuzzy, loose medium of aerosol spray paint is something I enjoy.” Glass uses a painter’s tape called Frogtape, which comes in green, yellow, and other colors, because it is “really easy to pull off the wall once a layer of paint is down.”

Artist Camilo Restrepo says he uses masking tape and other types to join multiple sheets of paper into large, foldable drawings. He also uses it “to repair the drawings as I damage them [intentionally] using different techniques depending on the concepts of the different series.” He mars his works with water and saliva, friction, crumpling, knife-scratching, and other processes. He sometimes uses ProTape acid-free masking and artist tape and Lineco linen hinging tape.

“I got inspired by the aesthetic look and feel of tape; it’s very graphic and abstract,” says Robert König, who creates under the name ROB and is one of the founders of Tape Over, an “an international tape art crew” rooted in street and urban art. He says Tape Over members create graphics, artworks, installations, and visual campaigns, among other projects. ROB also uses Intertape masking tape, as well as tapes from CRE8 and Tesa.

Any discussion of tape in the arts must include washi tape, a decorous member of the masking tape family that originated in Japan, though versions are now produced around the world. Washi tape bears an expansive selection of patterns and imagery, is usually backed by natural fibers including rice and mulberry, and is repositionable. It is generally acid-free and is popular in scrapbooking. ROB sometimes uses mt, generally regarded as the original washi tape.

Gum/Water Tape

Gum or gummed tape, also known as water or water-activated tape, is sometimes used to attach art paper to boards, to reinforce books, and to seal packages. It needs to be moistened in order to stick, and some versions can be rewet and repositioned. One popular use of brown paper–backed gummed tape is to stretch and hold down wet watercolor paper on a board, preventing it from warping as it dries.

Lineco makes a gummed linen-backed book repair tape that is acid free and semipermanent—removable with mineral spirits. Book repair experts we spoke to recommend caution with applying tape to books, as we detail below.

Duct, Gaffer, and Other Colorful Tapes

Duct tape typically consists of a rubber-based adhesive and a backing of polyethylene resin over cloth. It’s known for its versatility, flexibility, and strength and can be used to repair and bond a multitude of materials, as well as to create fashion or art pieces.

Tirtzah Bassel, a painter by training, uses duct tape in a variety of creations, including installations. When a colleague challenged her to translate one of her existing images into a new, untried medium, Bassel experimented with tape. “As soon as I did, I just absolutely loved it,” she says. She applies pieces of tape in a painterly fashion and appreciates its potential for dimensionality, as well as the “different options for opacity and transparency.” She also says the limited tape palette, in contrast to oil paint, “really pushed me to get more precise and creative in my use of color.” Bassel also uses brown packing tape and gaffer tape (her husband is a cinematographer).

Gaffer tape is another strong and flexible tape, named for the chief lighting technician on a film crew and useful in a variety of creative and industrial settings. Gaffer tape is also cloth-backed but differs from duct tape in that it features a more heat-resistant adhesive and usually won’t leave a residue when removed. Some gaffer tapes are repositionable. This tape is sometimes employed in bookbinding or, like many other tapes, to secure artworks on paper to a flat surface. Artist Donald Robertson uses gaffer tape in many of his pieces.

Both gaffer and duct tapes come in multiple widths and colors. Other colorful tapes include reflective and fluorescent varieties; dancer and choreographer Lucky Lartey includes both of these in some of his performances, animations, and installations. He also uses black and white electrical tape, which typically consists of stretchy vinyl plastic and a rubber adhesive, as well as double-sided tape. He says he employs tape because it is “flexible and mobile.”

Removable and Double-Sided Tape

Many tapes are designed to be moved and repositioned by hand, including most artist and drafting tape and blue painter’s tape. Scotch is a leader in clear removabletape; anyone who has used Post-it Notes is familiar with this handy technology. According to Scotch, its Wall-Safe Tape cleanly removes from walls (but not from fragile surfaces like paper) within 30 days. Tapes that are applied with water or heat can generally be removed with these elements as well, and some adhesives are reversible with solvents. But over time, many tapes labeled “removable” are actually difficult to unstick without altering an object, something to keep in mind when it comes to conservation, repair, and archival uses.

Double-sided tape is a popular solution for mounting photos, posters, frames, and other materials in place. When affixing artworks or scrapbooking precious materials, acid-free tapes are the safest choices. A removable double-sided tape is ideal for temporary arrangements. “Permanent” double-sided tapes can be used to secure heavier items and even come in weather-, solvent-, and temperature-resistant varieties. Foam tapes are a quick and strong mounting option.

Archival and Bookbinding Tapes and Papers

Archival tapes are generally acid-free and designed to not change color or degrade over the long term. They are also intended to be reversible and harmless to a document, artwork, or book surface. The first archival tapes were developed in the 1970s as the framing, conservation, and library communities expressed concerns over existing tapes’ long-term stability and effects. The first pressure-sensitive tapes designed for archiving were Hans Neschen International’s Filmoplast P and P90 and Ademco’s Archival Aids Document Repair Tape. Versions of these adhesive solutions are still on the market.

But what do the pros use today? Most conservators avoid using tape altogether on important materials, even those labeled “archival.” Instead, many use natural papers and adhesives. “Conservators like to know exactly what they are working with, and the chemical formulations of commercial tape adhesives are usually proprietary,” says Renée Wolcott, book conservator and assistant head of conservation at the American Philosophical Society (APS). She adds that “there’s no legal definition” for the term archival.”

Chief of the Conservation Division at the Library of Congress Elmer Eusman says neither the library nor “the conservation profession” uses tape for repair. “For the repair of paper in particular, we usually use Japanese or Korean paper made from mulberry bark, and wheat starch paste.”

“When I was a conservator at LACMA, we had a magnet on the door that read, ‘Tape Is Evil,’ ” says Erin K. Jue, a paper conservator with Los Angeles Art Conservation. She says rubber-based, acrylic, and even water-based linen tapes can result in discolorations or impressions over time. Jue mentions Filmoplast as one “recognized” archival pressure-sensitive acrylic tape. But she adds, “I almost never use [it], as some of the older formulations are difficult to remove from objects.” Instead, for many repairs, Jue uses Japanese papers like Tengujo or Usu Mino, which are usually handmade. “They are cut to size and adhered to objects with wheat starch paste, a reversible adhesive that does not discolor.”

Wolcott of the APS also uses “Asian papers.” To mend book bindings, she prepares mending strips from these papers toned with diluted acrylic paints until the desired color is reached. “The Golden paint company has a long history of working closely with conservators,” Wolcott notes. She applies the strips with “an acrylic adhesive that is reversible in alcohol” called Lascaux 498 HV.

Tony Vela, a bookbinder in Texas, also discourages tape use. He uses acid-free tissues, including Japanese papers, a German paper called Hahnemuhle Ingres, and Filmoplast R, which consists primarily of Japanese paper and a heat-activated adhesive, reversible with acetone or careful reheating. Vela does say that if a person has a “very simple binding, mass produced, no monetary or sentimental value at all, and you simply want to keep the spine on or reattach the cover,” products like Lineco’s spine repair tape and Demco’s Economy Book Tape “would likely help someone.”

At the Northeast Document Conservation Center, Director of Book Conservation Bexx Caswell-Olson says, “The only time we use tape is when assembling frame packages, custom enclosures, or mounts for exhibition . . . and never directly to books, documents, or artworks.” She recommends the American Institute for Conservation’s Materials Testing Database as a “great resource,” specifically the page related to adhesives and tapes. Bookbinding tape can be used to create lightweight books and other leafed materials. According to the art-supply retailer Blick, “Tape binding is a low-cost way to effectively bind single-use publications such as manuals and training documents.”

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