Many years ago, in Berkeley, I met a plumber newly arrived to the U.S. from Israel. Over our brown bag lunches the topic of packing mediums arose. Full Service plumbers “need to pack it”. My favorite, from R&D steam vehicle plumbing days in the mid-1970’s was graphite foil ribbon. (Photo 1 is Grafftech’s version, named Ribbon Pack™. This type of stuff is very pricey and never traded in plumbing supply outlets or hardware stores. (See: AmericanSealandPacking.com) This material lays flat on valve stems and one could get it into tight spaces and it crushed well and easily under packing nut pressure forming superior seals.
The ubiquitous round Teflon (PTFE) packing (Photos 2 & 3) works in some cases where it can be compressed in place (a cuticle tool or small screwdriver). This stuff though is just not marketed in small enough diameters (3/32” and 5/32” being most common). It is quite dense and difficult to compress into tight recesses.
One thing that PtP has done often (keeps your wrists, hands and fingers limber) is braid strands of Teflon (PTFE) tape. By increasing the number of strands you can achieve a desired bulk for your purpose (gap size around valve stem and inside of packing nut). (Photo 4)
Braided Teflon tape will lay flat on stems allowing you to poke it down in tight places. It is not quick to produce but it’s easily accomplished while parked in a comfortable chair, watching TV, preparing for a future need. The only trick is to use quality full thickness/density (See Teflon Story blog post) USA manufactured tape. If you don’t and try to use the cheap imported stuff, you’ll break down the tape before you can complete a braided, inferior performing length.
Looking through a general plumbing supply brochure recently I saw what I have used a lot of over the years which performed well in most circumstances: coils of graphite cotton/flax string/cord which can be stripped of individual strings resulting in just the right thickness to fit in tight spaces. (Photo 5)
At the end of the day the Israeli plumber handed me a ball of flax string (un-graphited). He said it was the most popular packing choice in his home country. It was about the thickness of kite string. PtP tried it and in many instances it was just what the doctor ordered. Eventually the ball was all used up and my plumber acquaintance had moved on. Pete the Plumber found a facsimile of this flax string at a local weaver’s supply. You might do the same. Yours truly thinks it would be wise to have a ball stashed somewhere on your truck for contingencies.
LASCO Company’s graphite yarn packing (Photo 6) can also be stripped for individual strings for tight places, or used full thickness where it applies. Black Swan also sells the round Teflon (PTFE) in the 3/32” and 5/32” diameters as does Danco Faucet Parts & Repair (Photo 7) sold through Home Depot. You should be ‘packing’ an assortment if you are “full service.”
Time to ‘pack it in”…
Peter Hemp is a San Francisco East Bay residential plumber and plumbing author and former R & D steam vehicle plumber. His hobbies are ocean kayaking and touring the Left Coast by bicycle.
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