Gaffer Tape vs Duct Tape vs Painters Tape

Gaffer tape is a heavy-duty cloth pressure-sensitive tape that is widely used in film, television, photography, theater, and stage work. It can appear to be similar to heavy-duty duct tape, but there are important differences.

Gaffer tape was invented by Ross Lowell in 1959. He used the same adhesive that was used in duct tape but instead applied it to a piece of fabric.

By using a cloth backing, instead of vinyl or plastics, the tape is pressure-sensitive and much more heat resistant. This is especially important for use on movies, television, and stage productions where the heat for lighting can weaken adhesives.

The name comes from the use of a gaff (a pole with a curved hook on the end) to adjust tungsten lights for motion pictures. Tungsten lights are not safe to touch as they get extremely hot.

That’s why the people in charge of rigging lights are referred to as “Gaffers,” and why their favorite tape is named after them.

Modern gaffer tape uses adhesives that are designed not to leave a residue behind when the tape is removed. This is similar to painters tape, but the adhesive is stronger and it will pull paint off of surfaces.

The tape can also be referred to as gaffers tape, gaff tape, or when thin enough, spike tape.

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Gaffer tape is a specialty tape. Unless you have a photography store or gear rental company near you, you will have trouble finding gaffer’s tape in stores.

What’s nice about buying online is that you’ll have access to the entire range of sizes and colors that are available.

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The biggest difference between gaffer tape and duct tape is the backing material that is used. Gaffer tape has a cloth backing material while duct tape can be vinyl or another type of plastic with or without reinforcing fibers.

Vinyl is not heat resistant. This is the main reason why an alternative to duct tape was invented for use in theater, photography, videography, and cinematography.

An advantage that duct tape has is that it is far more resistant to water. The cotton cloth in gaffer’s tape will absorb and hold water which will cause the adhesive to weaken. None of the materials used to make duct tape hold water so it is more water resistant.

The second difference is the adhesive that is used. Gaffer’s tape is designed not to leave an adhesive tape residue behind when removed. This is very important when working on location as the owner/management is not going to be happy if there is tape residue left behind.

In fact, many places with specialty floors such as the dance floors or stages in banquet centers, gymnasiums, dance studios, studio rentals, etc, will only allow gaffer tape to be used.

Duct tape adhesive will also vary more between brands. Duct tape can be made with natural rubber based adhesive, synthetic adhesive, polyethylene resin, or other strong adhesive.

Finally, gaff tape can easily be torn in both directions. Tearing a wide piece of gaff tape into a thinner strip is quite easy. With duct tapes, I have never found that to be the case and always had to resort to cutting the tapes.

Duct tape is widely available in a variety of stores. Hardware stores and buying online is a better option as they have a wider selection to choose from.

Name brand duct tapes made by 3M, Duck, Gorilla, or Scotch are made with higher quality adhesives and will be stronger than generic tapes.

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The differences between painters tape and gaffer tape include:

  • Paper backing material vs cloth.
  • The strength of the adhesive.
  • The thickness of the tape.
  • Cost.
  • Tensile strength.

Painters or masking tape has a paper backing and is designed for short term use. The adhesive is not very strong as the tape is designed to stick to painted surfaces and to not damage the surface when it is removed.

The paper backing makes tapes cheaper to produce, but that also means that painters tape is not very strong. That’s for good reason, as it is also referred to as masking tape because it is ideal for masking off areas from paint.

Out of the three types of tape, painters tape is likely the most widely available. In addition to hardware stores, paint and art stores will also have a wide selection.

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Originally designed for use with lighting in motion pictures. It can be found used in photography, theatre, movies, television, and stage productions.

As previously noted, gaffer’s tape can be used to secure lights or to secure light modifiers to or near the light. The cloth backing is significantly more heat resistant than the vinyl used in duct tape.

High powered LED lights still produce a significant amount of heat, especially when used for hours at a time. Heat can also be an issue with flash photography is modeling lights are being used on studio strobes.

Lighting needs to be powered, and having loose cables all over the place is dangerous.

Gaffer tape is designed to not leave residue behind on the surface it is adhered to. This makes it useful for taping power cables to light stands so they are not hanging freely where equipment or people could get snagged causing a light to fall over.

Along those same lines, gaff tape works well for taping cables to the floor where people need to walk over them. Preventing tripping hazards keep people and equipment safe.

Gaffer tape can be purchased in a wide variety of colors. The most popular is matte black because it reflects the least amount of light.

This means black gaff tape can be freely used without needing to worry about causing problems with a lighting setup that reflective or brightly colored tape would.

Additionally, anything causing an unwanted reflection or distraction can be covered with gaff tape. Things like metallic fixtures, door knobs, hinges, etc.

With television productions you may have seen logos covered with tape instead of relying on blurring them out in post. Any time this was done, you can be sure that gaff tape was used.

Gaff tape can be used to set marks for actors or models. When the tape gets down to 1/4" thickness, it is often referred to as spike tape. However, that does not necessarily mean that spike tape is gaff tape.

You can find 1/4" spike tape that uses a cloth backing, but you can also find it made out of vinyl. Cloth backed tape is going to be easier to remove from the floor, but it is also thicker.

This style is more likely to be used in a variety of neon colors and can be reflective tape. The bright colors make them easy to see for a model or actor. Using multiple colors makes it easy to set marks for multiple people.