High-Tech Materials

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Rollover fingertip construction, such as on Milwaukee's Jobsite Armor Demolition Work Gloves, keeps seams off of sensitive fingertips.

One of the first things that struck me about the new gloves was fit. Almost without exception every glove in our test fit, well, like a glove. Today's gloves shape to the contours of your hand. Many often are made with materials such as four-way stretch spandex, woven elastic, and neoprene to increase comfort and enable greater dexterity. If a glove fits like a second skin, you can pick up small objects and do more precise work with it on. Where in the past I always had to pull mine off to chalk a line or change a saw blade, with many of these gloves I could do those things and more (like unwrap a stick of gum or use my pocket calculator).

This is quite an accomplishment when you consider the amazing degree of protection most modern gloves provide. By incorporating man-made materials like PVC and Kevlar, synthetic leathers such as Clarino and Amara, specially treated natural leathers, and/or gel-injected palm and finger pads, these gloves provide a level of vibration, impact, abrasion, and puncture resistance never before possible.

If you're like me, all these fancy names don't mean much. Before I could be adequately impressed with the technology, the glove folks had to educate me on their new-fangled materials. Here's a quick rundown, just the highlights, of some of the materials that make these modern marvels so tough yet so easy to wear.

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Ironclad's Ranchworx glove features Kevlar reinforcements on the saddle and thumb.

Kevlar, or poly-paraphenylene terephthalamide, is an aramid fiber best known for its use in police and military body armor. Kevlar fiber is also used to produce an incredibly strong thread used for sewing some gloves together and is laminated with other materials for use as reinforcement fabric for critical areas such as the thumb/index finger saddle, fingertips, and palms. Kevlar is lightweight and flexible, yet ounce-for-ounce, it is five times stronger than steel. Kevlar can withstand temperatures as high as 752 degrees F before breaking down, and its abrasion, puncture, and heat resistance make it an ideal material for work gloves. However, what you see when you look at the Kevlar patches on your gloves isn't the Kevlar. It's a secondary fabric used to shield the Kevlar from sunlight. Despite all of Kevlar's super powers, it is easily damaged by UV rays and is almost never used in an application where it would be exposed to direct sunlight.

You also should probably know that the amount of Kevlar fiber in work glove fabric is only a fraction of what you'd find in body armor. So don't go trying to snatch a bullet out of the air to show off your Kevlar-reinforced gloves. You'll be greatly disappointed by the result.

Dyneema is an ultra-high molecular-weight polyethylene or UHMWPE. According the manufacturer, DSM, Dyneema is the world's strongest fiber. They say it is 15 times stronger than steel and significantly stronger than aramid fibers (such as Kevlar) on a weight-for-weight basis. It floats; is resistant to moisture, UV light, and chemicals; and has a higher abrasion-resistance rating than Kevlar. Its only downside seems to be that it lacks Kevlar's ability to withstand heat. Dyneema is seriously tough on its own, but can be combined with fiberglass or steel fibers to create an amazingly cut-resistant material. Uses for Dyneema include safety gloves, body armor, and spinal implants.

Amara and Clarino are synthetic leathers. These materials are often referred to as "poromerics," a group of breathable leather substitutes made from a plastic coating (usually polyurethane) on a micro fiber base (commonly polyester). The synthetic leathers offer the durability and suppleness of real leather without some of the drawbacks.

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Impact protection on the knuckles of CLC's #145 Tradesman Glove can really help when working in tight spaces.

One big problem with real leather is cows. Cows come in funny shapes, especially if you peel one and lay the hide out flat. It doesn't feed well into a glove cutter. Plus, nature isn't all that consistent; if old Bessie got up into the fence a time or two, the leather is liable to have defects. Synthetic leather, on the other hand, is perfectly consistent. And it comes in any shape you want. Need a mile-long piece of synthetic leather? No problem. But try finding a cow that long. And being a synthetic, it's washable. Just throw it in the washing machine with your jeans and hang it out to dry. It will come out as soft and pliable as the day you bought it. Sorry Mother Nature, the chemists have one-upped you again.

PVC, or polyvinyl chloride, is a thermoplastic polymer. When tradespeople talk about PVC, they're usually referring to the white plumbing pipe you see on practically every residential project in the U.S. I was surprised to learn that some of the gloves I was testing had PVC-reinforced palms. I asked John Mozena at Carhartt to explain how you get a length of that white pipe into the palm of a glove, and why you'd want to. He told me that the PVC glove palm is in fact the same polyvinyl chloride that's used in pipes, wire insulation, and a variety of other products. Carhartt uses a flexible PVC mix bonded to a fabric base that he says provides better durability and wet-grip capability than many of the other common grip materials, such as rubber.

I dug deeper and learned that I've been bumping into PVC all my life and didn't even know it. With the addition of plasticizers, PVC can be used to make vinyl siding, window profiles, upholstery, flexible tubing, and flooring and roofing membranes. Back in the day, PVC was used to make LP records, hence the name "vinyl" as slang for them.