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Why I Love Hot Glue, a Must Have for Artists, Designers, Stagecraft, and Burning Man

Updated on April 15, 2018
Joel Diffendarfer profile image

Joel's most recent projects include Denver fashion shows, Colorado Hemp Expo, and Burning Man 2017. He smiles when he talks about BM 2018.

From glow-in-the dark to unlimited colors, glue stick options are endless.
From glow-in-the dark to unlimited colors, glue stick options are endless. | Source

How glue sticks saved the world!

What started out as a simple and fun article about hot glue and its many uses and abuses, has now turned into something quite different. What I discovered, was just how much of an impact this tool has made. The invention of the hot glue gun and glue sticks is one of those “things” that changed the world. From the earliest concept in 1940’s to the introduction of a home version presented by Popular Mechanics magazine in 1963, and even up to now with the emergence of the 3D printer. The development and use of hot glue guns and the wide variety of glue sticks continue to push both the art and industrial worlds to new levels.

Meet George Shultz "a" inventor of glue guns

Some credit George Schultz as the inventor of the glue gun, however, while it is true, he did invent "a" hot glue gun, he was only one of several who took different approaches through the early development years. On the other hand, the unique thing I discovered, about George Shultz wasn’t so much what he invented, but more about the why. This is where my study on hot glue changed.

In 1940, George Shultz saw a problem and fixed it.
In 1940, George Shultz saw a problem and fixed it. | Source

Solve the problem!

George Schultz, in my opinion, is an excellent example of a humanitarian inventor. Back in the forties, George's father-in-law owned a shoe factory. While there, George observed that many of the shoe craftsmen, mainly women, had burns and bandages on their fingers from working with glue heated up in scalding glue pots. George knew he could solve the issue and so, he took it to task and invented a glue gun that saved on the burns and gave a better result. The really cool thing is that he didn’t stop there. He also observed troubling physical conditions among the shoe factory workers. Many of them were hunched over from performing a difficult task repeatedly. Back then, most people generally accepted it as a direct job condition but George did not accept that. He developed new pneumatic approaches to the shoemaking industry machinery and reduced long-term injuries by inventing easing repetitive work. As time went on, he ended up creating a company solely dedicated to making even better equipment. The 3M company was so impressed that they bought his business, including his glue gun for almost 4 million dollars. I think he deserved every penny of it.

"Quit wasting so much hot glue!" my dad told me.

I love hot glue!

Way back in the 70’s, at the age of fourteen, I was using hot glue. It was certainly not well developed and there weren’t a lot of options available. My first project was to build a large hovercraft from a set I plans I bought mail order through an advertisement in Boy’s Life Magazine. My dad left me use his new glue gun to use to help with the construction. I went through so many glue sticks through that project and spent hours alone with the glue gun. I was addicted. Besides burning myself a lot, I learned that this little tool could do so much more than hold things together, I learned I could create much-unappreciated art...My dad chided me, "quit wasting so much glue!"

Later, as the years rolled on, I found myself in charge of a large scenery shop where I “wasted” pallets of hot glue successfully as did my crew of 40 artists. In the process of building large-scale sets, scenery, and props, an average show builds we would use over 10,000 ten-inch glue sticks. We used them through every part of the process starting with the modeling, design and then into the actual build, costuming, properties, and art departments. After the show was on stage, a constant top of the repair and maintenance toolbox, the hot glue gun was the number one tool.

50 years later, hot glue has continued to be my go-to tool as I designed for paper fashion shows, and the latest project, a commissioned scale art installation for Burning Man 2017. We invited artists from the Front Range in Colorado from Denver to Ft Collins to build thirty art sculptures that dangled from our main sculpture. Lots of hot glue was used including glow-in-the-dark. Even the 1000’s of electronic lights were attached using hot glue. Our biggest concern was the heat of the desert. The daytime temperature in the Black Rock Desert could reach 122 degrees and the average melting temperature is about 250 degrees. We weren’t sure if the sculpture would begin to soften enough to lose adhesion. After three weeks of extremely abusive conditions, much of our sculpture was heavily damaged by dust storms and violent winds but, the hot glue never gave up. And yes, my next Burning Man adventure will definitely be seeing its share of hot glue. This time, however, I believe I will make my own hot melt concoctions. I am working on a breakthrough approach by finding a way to make hot glue conductible...can you imagine if you could lay a bead of hot glue down and attach a little LED or SFX gizmo to the end of it…???

Hot glue held up just fine in the 120 degree acrid desert Burning Man Project.  (And, we used a lot of it!)
Hot glue held up just fine in the 120 degree acrid desert Burning Man Project. (And, we used a lot of it!) | Source

The hot glue we used in the Black Rock Desert held up just fine!

I used lots  hot glue for assembly and special effects on this design for a Denver Fashion Show.  Hot glue makes everything feasible when it comes to costuming and cosplay
I used lots hot glue for assembly and special effects on this design for a Denver Fashion Show. Hot glue makes everything feasible when it comes to costuming and cosplay | Source

Hot glue stick basics

There are basically, three sizes of glue sticks, “Mini Sticks” measure 5/16" diameter by 4" long, “Standard Sticks” measure 7/16” in diameter by either 4” or 10” long, and Higher Volume Sticks” measure ⅝” diameter glue sticks and are available in different lengths.

I usually use 7/16” long multi-purpose sticks and buy them by the case from Amazon or Home Depot.

Most mini sticks are considered low temperature and safer to use but the bond won’t be as strong. High-temperature sticks will give you a better bond depending on the materials you are bonding. For instance, if you are gluing softer plastics, wires, paper, soft wood, etc. you will want to use a lower temp glue. For stronger and larger projects a high temp glue will work better for metals and hardwoods. Some glue sticks will work well for both temperature ranges.

The biggest advantage I find with high temp glues is that my “set” time is longer giving me more time to work with it before it sets which is helpful when I am working with trim and precise joint applications.

I use both dollar store and expensive guns for different reasons.
I use both dollar store and expensive guns for different reasons. | Source

I love hot glue guns too!

I use both dollar store glue guns and very expensive glue guns. For me, each has its own purpose and, just like choosing the “right screwdriver”, I use different glue guns for different reasons. I use cheap/disposable guns for prototyping, model building. I use the more expensive guns where I need good bonds or the glue itself is part of the art and I need to regulate flow and setting times. With the more expensive guns, you can switch temperatures and precise nozzle options are available. When I work with attaching wiring and LED and other SFX strips, I use a long nozzle and low temp sticks.

What do you use hot glue for the most?

See results

Some more cool things to do with hot glue.

I am always amazed by the new generation of hot glue users and the applications in art and design that they come up with. The glue gun and glue sticks truly are a modern paintbrush. I am so excited to see what develops even further.

Here are some cool uses, you might not yet have thought of yet:

  • Instead of nails or tacks, hot glue your holiday light strings in much easier and still easy to remove.
  • Remove the paper from crayons and, you guessed it, stick them in your mini-gun for wild crayon painting and decorating
  • Artistically, add details to empty bottles or glasses and then paint over it for cool effects and a cheap upcycling project
  • Put designs on blocks of wood or large diameter dowels to make great stamps for clay or unique faux finishes

Do you have some good ideas? Feel free to share in the comments below!


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