Heat Shrink Tubing and the Chemistry Behind Its Magic

There’s a lot to be said in favor of getting kids involved in hacking as young as possible, but there is one thing about working in electronics that I believe is best left as a mystery until at least the teenage years — hide the shrink tube. Teach them to breadboard, have them learn resistor color codes and Ohm’s Law, and even teach them to solder. But don’t you dare let them near the heat shrink tubing. Foolishly reveal that magical stuff to kids, and if there’s a heat source anywhere nearby I guarantee they’ll blow through your entire stock of the expensive stuff the minute you turn your back. Ask me how I know.

I jest, but only partly. There really is something fun about applying heat shrink tubing, and there’s no denying how satisfying a termination can be when it’s hermetically sealed inside that little piece of inexplicably expensive tubing. But how does the stuff even work in the first place?

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Soda Bottles Used as Heat-Shrink for Wood Joinery

Nobody is likely to confuse it with the beautiful joinery that makes fine furniture so desirable. But as a practical technique, using plastic bottles as heat-shrink tubing for composite joints is pretty nifty, and the pieces produced are not without their charm.

Undertaken as an art project to show people what can be done with recycled materials, [Micaella Pedros]’ project isn’t a hack per se. She started with bottles collected around London and experimented with ways to use them in furniture. The plastic used in soda and water bottles, polyethylene terephthalate (PET), turns out to shrink quite a bit when heated. Rings cut from bottles act much like large pieces of heat-shrink tubing, but with more longitudinal shrinkage and much more rigidity. That makes for a great structural component, and [Micaella] explored several ways to leverage the material to join wood. Notches and ridges help the plastic grip smoother pieces of wood, and of course the correct size bottle needs to be used. But the joints are remarkably strong – witness the classic leaning-back-in-a-chair test in the video below.

Its aesthetic value aside, this is a good technique to file away for more practical applications. Of course, there are plenty of ways to recycle soda bottles, including turning them into cordage or even using them as light-pipes to brighten a dark room.

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