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Polystyrene glue!

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Blog entry by Mark Edmondson posted 02-03-2010 01:53 AM 18294 reads 14 times favorited 21 comments Add to Favorites Watch

Fortunately for us wood workers and tinkerers, one of mankind’s most
indestructible substances — polystyrene — is easy to repurpose into glue.

And since several people have commented on my end grain end table project asking for the secret recipe to my homemade glue, I’m here to provide. However, I’m going to force you to read this entire thing before I get to the point, so bear with me.

I work a lot with polystyrene, partly because it can be found everywhere, but mainly because it is nearly indestructible by natural processes.

But before I get into the glue making (which is painfully easy and can be summed up in one line) I’ll tell you how to identify polystyrene.

1. Expanded polystyrene, also known as Styrofoam, can be found everywhere. If you need some, take a walk by a river or an unmaintained beach. It’s used as packing material for all that stuff that’s now falling apart, so it’s kind of like a repair kit included with your coffee pot.

2. Regular polystyrene is usually labeled with a “6” in that little recycle symbol that’s stamped into most plastics. Most of those plastics are clear food containers and the lids from fast food cups. If there is no number on the plastic, look for the letters PS. My experience suggests that glue made from solid polystyrene makes a stronger glue than the stuff made from foam.

So, to make glue, as promised, in one line:

Add polystyrene to acetone. The resulting goo is glue.

Now, the details:

Acetone is a naturalish chemical that can be found in paint stores and in fingernail polish remover. According to Wikipedia, it’s mostly harmless to both the environment and to people.

However, it’s super flammable, so don’t be a dumbass. But it does evaporate quickly, so it serves our purpose well.

Also, the bubbles coming off the polystyrene are air, nitrogen or whatever was used to inflate the foam. Still, this is a project probably best suited for the back porch.

Since acetone is used for most chemical processes, it will always be produced in significant amounts. A quart, which will make about a gallon of glue, will cost you about $10. Sorry about that. But this dissolved polystyrene is pretty cool stuff, and I think you’ll get a lot of use from it.

Secret formula:

There is no real formula or mixing ratio for the glue. Once polystyrene dissolves in the acetone, it condenses at the bottom as a slimy awesomeness of sticky. It’s this stuff that works as glue.

Usage:

Add glue wherever glue needs to be added. Clamp and let dry overnight. The glue will harden back into polystyrene, but embedded in the wood. The result is glue stronger than the wood it is holding together.

Don’t rule this out as a wood filler, either. It’s tough and can be dyed and painted. I think it could also be used as a finish, but I have never tried it and take no responsibility for ruining the hand carved velociraptor you’ve been working on. Also, please post the raptor photos.


Storage:

Acetone will not dissolve:

1. Glass
2. PET bottles
3. HDPE
4. ???

However, plastics such as soda bottles are designed to use as little material as possible. So they tend to be susceptible to about anything. Really, you’re best using a glass jar with an airtight lid. I also think a plastic glue bottle would work, but I have never tried it. (EDIT 2-27-11: Yep… old glue bottles work perfectly!)

You’ll want to keep the glue in the acetone solution, as it will harden back into plastic if you allow it to dry. You can use a stick to dig out the goo and smear it on whatever you’re gluing (a light smear will suffice) or squeeze it out of the bottle like you would with regular woodworking glue. It is a bit thicker, so you may still have to smear it around some.

And that’s it. Thanks for reading!

EDIT 6/21/11: I finally had a chance to do some actual shear testing in the lab. The glue does fail before traditional carpenter’s glue, but has a holding force of about 750 PSI. The wood does not fail before the glue, unlike other glues. Maybe this would be a good material for temporary fastening, or something that would work for non-structural gluing. Your call. Thank you to everyone who read this!



21 comments so far

View a1Jim's profile

a1Jim

112070 posts in 2228 days


#1 posted 02-03-2010 02:09 AM

That’s pretty amazing Mark
You can’t guess at a ratio of acetone to polystyrene? Thanks for sharing this great tip.

-- http://artisticwoodstudio.com Custom furniture

View MarkwithaK's profile

MarkwithaK

370 posts in 1829 days


#2 posted 02-03-2010 02:17 AM

From how I interpreted this, the goo will accumulate at the bottom of the container and the acetone can be poured off. That’s how it read to me, not sure if it’s actual or not.

-- If at first you don't succeed then maybe skydiving isn't for you.

View jockmike2's profile

jockmike2

10635 posts in 2897 days


#3 posted 02-03-2010 02:23 AM

cool!

-- (You just have to please the man in the Mirror) Mike from Michigan -

View Mark Edmondson's profile

Mark Edmondson

39 posts in 1854 days


#4 posted 02-03-2010 02:30 AM

Mark, Jim,

That’s correct. The polystyrene will sink to the bottom of the container in goo form. Some acetone will remain in the goo, but you can’t really stir it up to dilute it.

View Jeison's profile

Jeison

947 posts in 1758 days


#5 posted 02-03-2010 02:50 AM

sweeeeeet, great way to get rid of that excess packing material we all accumulate when we buy shiny new tools lol!

-- - Jei, Rockford IL - When in doubt, spray it with WD-40 and wrap it with duct tape. The details will attend to themselves.

View cliffton's profile

cliffton

117 posts in 1732 days


#6 posted 02-03-2010 03:31 AM

This is cool man, I will definitly be trying this on something (not sure what but something)

View Jordan's profile

Jordan

1358 posts in 1775 days


#7 posted 02-03-2010 09:47 PM

Would this be similar to Gorilla glue which when applied against a damp surface the water acts as a catalyst and basically expands the glue to a foamy substance which later hardens like plastic? Can be sanded stained etc. In my molding backfills I have used a two part expanding foam that comes in various solidities from styrofoam to very dense – the most dense is similar to the Gorilla glue outcome. Believe me, the wood will break before the glue gives!

-- http://www.jordanstraker.com

View stefang's profile

stefang

13017 posts in 1985 days


#8 posted 02-03-2010 11:52 PM

Thanks for this recipe Mark. I’m a little worried about the fumes though. You mentioned using it outdoors, but do you know if the fumes are harmful if breathed in? Due to the cold winter a lot of folks might be trying this indoors like me. It seems like this glue would be waterproof and therefore ideal for outdoor use.

-- Mike, an American living in Norway.

View stefang's profile

stefang

13017 posts in 1985 days


#9 posted 02-03-2010 11:52 PM

1

-- Mike, an American living in Norway.

View Mark Edmondson's profile

Mark Edmondson

39 posts in 1854 days


#10 posted 02-04-2010 12:10 AM

Hi, Stefang,

The fumes are acetone vapors, which, if inhaled in heavy doses for an extended period of time, will ruin your day. I don’t see this as a problem if the space is well ventilated, however I would recommend you look at the MSDS sheet for it and make your own determination about the safety. Here is a link about the health effects of Acetone: http://ccohs.ca/oshanswers/chemicals/chem_profiles/acetone/health_ace.html which says it’s mostly harmless. I think the biggest risk involves fire.

Jordan,

No, this stuff doesn’t expand. But it does dry hard and sandable.

Thanks everyone!

View stefang's profile

stefang

13017 posts in 1985 days


#11 posted 02-04-2010 01:31 AM

Thanks Mark.

-- Mike, an American living in Norway.

View sandhill's profile

sandhill

2122 posts in 2575 days


#12 posted 02-11-2010 12:18 AM

That is a good way to help the environment and I commend you for that, but why mess with something that is potentially dangerous when you can buy a formulated White, Yellow or even PVA glue that does a better job for about the same cost that is LEEDS compliant?

-- Bob Egbert AKA Sandhill http://www.sandhillwoodworks.com/

View Mark Edmondson's profile

Mark Edmondson

39 posts in 1854 days


#13 posted 02-11-2010 12:36 AM

Sandhill,

Thank you for the comment. You raise a good point.

I respectfully counter with a question:
Why do you risk your health and safety around saw blades and sawdust when you can just go out and buy a perfectly good wooden, plastic or metal chair for the same cost that is LEED compliant?

I do it because I like to recycle something essentially useless—like a dead tree—into something useful. I guess I feel the same way about the glue.

View Jeison's profile

Jeison

947 posts in 1758 days


#14 posted 02-11-2010 12:42 AM

sandhill – because we CAN and its COOL thats why lol hehe \o/

-- - Jei, Rockford IL - When in doubt, spray it with WD-40 and wrap it with duct tape. The details will attend to themselves.

View sandhill's profile

sandhill

2122 posts in 2575 days


#15 posted 02-12-2010 05:57 AM

Good reason Mark, I was just wondering. I disagree about buying a chair for the same cost as making one or a better one, or any other piece of furniture for that matter. I just question the quality of home made glue. I really don’t know if its going to hold up the same. I just would not want something I spent weeks or months building falling apart? But I see your point and yes its a cool thing to do.

-- Bob Egbert AKA Sandhill http://www.sandhillwoodworks.com/

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