101 Guide: All About Adhesives

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The True Glue for You!
A Bonding Guide to Finding the Perfect Adhesive for Any Job

It happens all the time--something breaks, you reach for the nearest glue and moments later, end up with a gooey, still-broken, mess. But glue is a glue, right? Well, actually, no. In order to successfully glue two components together, you need to take into account what you're gluing, where you're sticking it, and how much strength it will need to do once it dries.

What Makes Stuff Stick?

As early as 6,000 years ago, people used plant resins (you know resins as the goo that sticks to your windshield right after you visit the car wash) as adhesives for pottery. As civilization progressed, people began using animal by-products, such as buffalo hooves, animal hide and even fish scales for glue. Today, modern adhesives are made of a mixture of chemicals and synthetics that optimize drying time, bonding power and elasticity.

The components of what makes things stick are determined on a molecular level. Glue basically works in three ways. Either molecules on the surface change and fuse together; or the glue fills the tiny spaces or pores between the surfaces to be joined; or, in some cases, glue forms actual chemical bonds between the surfaces.

So, here's a foolproof guide to what sticks to what and when...

All-Purpose Glue

"All-purpose" is a funny category because each all-purpose glue has different components and different things at which it excels. Elmer's Ultimate Glue, a popular name on the market, will actually bond anything to anything, according to the manufacturer, and provides a permanent and waterproof bond. It can be sanded, painted or stained. Before it cures, it can be dissolved with acetone. After curing, it can be sanded off if necessary.

Rhino Glue is another adhesive that claims to be all-purpose. Its base is cyanoacrylate, the same adhesive in super glue, but it has been distilled and modified for use on porous and non-porous surfaces, and in extreme weather and humidity. According to the manufacturer, Rhino Glue is dishwasher, microwave and food safe. It can be kept in the refrigerator to extend the life of the glue but should be used at room temperature for best results.

Best uses for all-purpose glue: broken china or porcelain, indoor or outdoor wooden or plastic furniture and other household uses.

Contact Cement

Contact cement creates a strong, instant, permanent and water-resistant bond on many surfaces. It is effective in all weather, stands up to household chemicals such as solvents and cleaning supplies, and the bonds become stronger as they age. The downside is that most contact cement is extremely flammable and toxic, and must be used in a well-ventilated, spark- and flame-free area. Store contact cement in a cool, dry place in an airtight container.

Best uses: Bonding plastic laminates, wood and plastic veneers, paneling, carpet, leather, fabrics, rubber, paper, polyurethane foam and many other surfacing materials to wood, particle board, metal and similar surfaces. Contact Cement is also great for flooring, Formica counters and fixing small tears in upholstery.


Epoxy is used to bond hard, non-porous surfaces such as metal, china, rubber, wood, most plastics, pottery, aluminum, jewelry and ceramics. Epoxy comes in two parts--a catalyst and a hardener. The two must be combined evenly to work properly. Purchase epoxy based on desired strength and drying time, which can vary from five minutes to one hour. Epoxy is strong and waterproof, the heaviest bonds are resistant to heat, water, oil and gasoline. However, you must be extremely careful when applying, as most epoxies have no solvents, and bonds cannot be broken once they have completely cured.

Best uses: work on boats and home electronics, fixing trophies and statues, broken or chipped jewelry and decorative pottery or china that will not be used for food.

Jane Tip: When gluing metal to metal, clean surfaces first with steel wool or sandpaper to avoid rusting.

Hot Glue

Hot glue comes in packets of glue sticks designed for various sizes of glue guns. Place the stick into the glue gun chamber and plug in to an electrical outlet. As the glue melts, squeeze it onto the surface through the gun tip to form a fast-setting bond. All-purpose glue sticks are for use on porous materials only. Hot glue is an excellent adhesive for crafts and household repairs. To dissolve a bond, hot glue can either be picked off or reheated with the tip of the glue gun or a hot hair dryer.

Best uses: crafts involving porous materials such as twigs and other objects found in nature, silk flowers and fabrics.

Jane Tip: Due to the heat involved, melted glue and gun nozzle area can result in severe burns. Keep a finger bowl of cold water nearby when using in case of accidental contact.

Polyurethane or Multipurpose Glue

Polyurethane glue is used for woodworking, since it fills gaps as it cures (dries). It can foam during application, joints require clamping, it can take up to 24 hours to set, but the result is a strong, waterproof bond. The excess can be sanded off and then painted or stained. The most recognizable brand on the market is Gorilla Glue, which, while reliable, can get expensive and has been known to foam excessively.

Best uses: filling cracks in indoor wooden objects, making wooden toys or repairing indoor or outdoor wooden furniture--it's completely waterproof and very strong.

Jane Tip: Many glues need pressure and/or time to set, and clamping can make all the difference in creating a successful bond. To avoid adhering the clamp to your surfaces, first cover the items with wax paper. Depending on the size and bulk of the objects to be clamped together, you can weigh them down, use duct tape, bicycle tubes or elastic bands.

Rubber Cement

Remember this stuff from grade school? Rubber cement is great for artwork, photos and school work, it sticks paper together quickly without wrinkling. Paper can be pulled apart and repositioned for added precision. Another bonus for the kid in all of us is that dried excess rubber cement can be peel off and it's fun to bounce, stretch and play with.

Best uses: art projects involving paper and cardboard, scrap booking, and mounting framed pictures.

Spray Adhesives

Spray adhesive comes in aerosol cans, and will not bleed through, stain, or wrinkle most materials. It adheres in seconds, yet has an extra long tack range that allows you to lift and reposition materials for some time after spraying.

Best uses: long-term bonding of lightweight materials such as cloth, paper, cardboard, carpeting, foams, felt, acetate, foil, and plastic sheeting. Not recommended for photos, posters and large prints, as the components will react poorly with those surfaces over time.

Super Glue

Super glue's technical name is Cyanoacrylate and it's extra strong. It creates a clear, permanent bond in seconds on non-porous surfaces such as metal, glass, ceramics and most plastics. It bonds in seconds, and adheres to skin almost instantly. When using, keep acetone-based nail polish remover on hand because chances are you'll need to remove it from either your skin or some other surface.

Best uses: adhering objects to mirrors or magnets, fixing small plastic toys, and bonding small objects to each other.

White Glue

Alternately known as Poly Vinyl Acetate, PVA, or plain old Elmer's Glue, white glue is what you used as a kid for art projects. It adheres to porous materials and is great for filling wood joints, adhering thin wooden boards or slats, or entertaining your favorite crafty preschooler.

White glue is water soluble, which has its good and bad points. You can wet and re-bond improperly placed parts, but the end result isn't waterproof.
Best uses: filling cracks in wood where it won't be exposed to the elements, gluing wooden paneling in place, creating wooden game boards or making collages and school projects.

Wood Glue

Wood glue, also known as yellow glue, is used to bond soft and hard wood surfaces. It is super strong, expands as it dries to fill gaps, and sands and scrapes like wood. Wood glue leaves a natural stainable or paintable surface and, depending on the brand, takes from five minutes to one hour to set. It is water-soluble until fully cured or set, and is then waterproof. Most wood glues of this type are non-toxic, and have been approved for outdoor use.

Best uses: wooden items such as cutting boards, picnic tables and bird feeders.

A Matter of Chemistry

Bonding with a new friend is different from meeting the love of your life and far different than making a connection with your child. That's chemistry, and that's why they call it bonding. Bonding is serious business, and you need to think about the connection you're making. The same is true for non-human bonding--each time you reach for an adhesive, keep in mind what type of bond you want to create and you'll never be stuck for glue again.

Jane Tip: Print out this guide and spray adhesive it to your glue bin so you'll never end up with a gooey, still-broken mess again.

Related links:
Shoo, Goo! How to Remove Sticky Stuff from Surfaces

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Please have someone proof this article. Much of it is repeated.