People have been sticking things together for millennia. Fifty thousand years ago, Neanderthals applied a birch-tar adhesive to tools. Around 2000 B.C., Egyptians utilized liquid glues in wooden sculptures. By the 18th and 19th centuries, animal- and plant-based glues were in use around the globe. Most glues are now synthetic or derived from plants.
Whether you’re joining metal, paper, or fabric, it’s important to know which glue to use. This overview of popular glues includes recommendations from artists. Always read adhesive labels on toxicity, applications, drying times, and cleanup, and be sure to test them on a practice surface.
White glue is typically used to join lightweight materials like paper, cardboard, and cloth, often during craft-making. It is usually made of polyvinyl acetate (PVA), as are many air-drying glues (as opposed to reactive adhesives). It takes about one hour to set and a day to cure. White glue can be cleaned up with soap and water—it’s generally not water resistant. “School glue” is a type of white glue that bonds porous materials only and is usually nontoxic.
Tacky white glues are thick, quick-drying PVAs popular in mixed-media crafting, while thinner, brushable PVAs are often used to Mod Podge is an example of a thin, brushable white PVA glue, often used to seal and finish collages and foam creations.
Mixed-media and animatronic sculptor Karl Heinz Jeron says he relies on “white crafting glue in the bottle, like the ones [made by] Pritt.” Marco Gallotta, an artist who employs paper cutting, printmaking, and other techniques, says his current preference is a white glue called Lineco White Neutral Ph Adhesive. “I like working with it because it holds well and it stays clear.”
Wood glue, another PVA, is often yellow, though some brands are white and dry clear. Wood glue, also called carpenter’s glue, becomes tacky more quickly than most white crafting glue, and it is rigid and sandable when dry. Glued surfaces should be clamped for about 30 minutes, and wood glue generally cures in 12 to 18 hours. Some wood adhesives are intended only for indoor applications, while others are waterproof and designed for either exterior or interior use.
Artist Pamela Blotner, who sculpts wood, usually uses “yellow carpenter’s glue—Elmer’s or Titebond.” She says, “I was trained that these adhesives are far better for the wood and make a more thorough bond as they are soaked up into the grain, rather than just lying on top of it.” Renowned luthier and musical consultant Galeazzo Frudua also uses Titebond, among other adhesives. He says this type of glue is good for guitar making “because it resists high temperatures and is sandable” when dry.
Spray-on glues can be permanent, repositionable, acid-free and photo-safe, and/or water-resistant. These adhesives are often used to bond materials like paper, fabric, and foam board, and extra-strength formulations can join heavier materials. Use these glues in a well-ventilated space.
Fabric adhesives come in many forms, including spray, liquid, tape, or iron-on. When choosing a fabric glue, be sure to consider the weight of your fabric and whether the bond needs to be water soluble or heat resistant. A subcategory of fabric adhesives are sealants that prevent cloth and thread work from fraying. Mixed-media artist Bonnie Peterson uses Fray Chek for this purpose.
Hot glue relies on the melting and cooling of polymers to create bonds. It typically comes in the form of a glue stick and is applied with a glue gun. It can be used on porous and nonporous materials, and because it has a high viscosity (resistance to flow), it is excellent at filling in gaps between objects. Hot glues come in low- and high-melting-point options; those that melt at higher temperatures can bond heavier materials. Hot glue dries and sets quickly but is not reliably stable in high-temperature environments. Because of the heat involved, this glue introduces unique safety concerns, especially for young users.
This adhesive occupies the intersection of hot glue and fabric glue; it’s a thermoplastic polymer resin sheet that is melted with an iron to seal fabric layers. Fiber artist Alice Beasley employs fusible webbing in her quilts and other fabric pieces; she uses the brand Mistyfuse.
Although Super Glue is a registered trade name, it is also the generic name (lowercased) for cyanoacrylate adhesives (CA). These quick- and clear-drying waterproof glues bond wood, ceramic, leather, metal, glass, and some plastics; generally, they are not appropriate for foam plastics unless specifically labeled as such. Super glue withstands pulling forces but is not impervious to impact or twisting.
CA glue is often used in repairs, to make models, and to develop or fix props in the entertainment industry. In his book Every Tool’s a Hammer, fabricator and MythBusters TV host Adam Savage describes CA glue as “the soul of the special effects industry.” He warns users to avoid letting these quick-adhering glues bond to your fingers or drip—they require a deft and steady hand.
To avoid inadvertent sealings, try super glues in gel form and with precision nozzles. Peterson says she uses a super glue gel from Gorilla Glue in her artworks. “It dries fast but [takes] long enough for me to swab the extra away with a Q-tip.”
Epoxy adhesives typically require activation by combining two parts (a binder and a hardener) shortly before application. Epoxy creates a water- and solvent-resistant bond between wood, metal, ceramic, glass, and other materials. Different kinds of epoxy require different amounts of time to set, ranging from minutes to hours. Epoxy can be poured into a mold as a casting resin, and it also comes in a claylike putty form that’s sometimes used to seal pipe leaks. Most epoxy should be used in well-ventilated areas—be sure to check the specific product label.
Blotner has used epoxy “to create mixed-media sculptures with uneven surfaces to join.” She recently used Tap Plastics’ general-purpose epoxy, which “worked well and dried overnight.”
Contact adhesives (also called contact cements) require a unique adherence procedure: They are applied to both surfaces and allowed to dry before bonding occurs. After the two coated surfaces air dry for 15–20 minutes, this cement forms an instant bond on contact with itself. These adhesives are effective with porous, nonporous, and dissimilar materials and are used commercially to make counters, furniture, shoes, and more.
“My favorite contact cement is from Barge,” writes Savage. “However, the cheap generic contact cement you get from your local mom-and-pop hardware store has rarely failed me either.” He uses a blow-dryer to speed up the initial drying time of contact cements.
Many other adhesives are used in art, crafts, and DIY projects. For example, mosaic makers utilize grout and cement to affix their creations. Street artist Jim Bachor, who fills in potholes with mosaics, relies on Quikrete mix. “For years I used Quikrete 5000,” he says. “However, I ran out during one installation earlier this year, and the nearest hardware store only stocked the fast-setting version of Quikrete. I’m never switching back.”
Weldbond is another popular adhesive for mosaic making, and, as a multi-surface PVA, it also appeals to the DIY and woodworking crowd. Bob Clagett, DIY instructor and founder of the website I Like to Make Stuff, says, “Right now, I’m really liking Weldbond glue. It sticks to a lot of different materials and dries clear.”
And many traditional, nature-based adhesives have stood the test of time. In addition to white glue, paper artist Gallotta uses melted beeswax to fuse cut-out sheets of paper. “Besides making the layers of paper adhere, the wax acts as a natural protection for the artwork, and it creates a nice texture,” he says.
Wheat paste, made from wheat flour and water, is another old-school glue, similar to diluted white glue. It has long been implemented in collage, papier-maché, and bookmaking and to adhere advertisements and street art to walls. Rabbit skin glue has been in use since the Renaissance as a bookmaking adhesive and sizing (a material that seals canvas or wood before painting). While the skin is a by-product of other industries (rabbits are not killed specifically to make art adhesives), some artists still prefer to avoid animal-derived primers.
Glues continue to evolve. In the medical realm, an innovative bio-glue can close bleeding wounds in seconds. In nanorobotics, naphthalene gas is used to seal layers of ultrathin silica. Geckskin is a strong, removable adhesive inspired by the sticky properties of gecko feet. Researchers are exploring how to use spider silk and human blood to bind moon and Mars dust in order to make space glue and concrete.
For specific advice on how to bond one thing to another, visit one of our favorite websites, This to That.