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Caulking is both the processes and material (also called sealant) to seal joints or seams in various structures and some types of piping. The oldest form of caulking is used to make the seams in wooden boats or ships watertight, by driving fibrous materials into the wedge-shaped seams between boards. A related process was formerly employed to join sections of cast iron sewerage pipe.
Caulking is also the term to describe the process used to make riveted iron or steel ships and boilers watertight or steamtight.
The same term also refers to the application of flexible sealing compounds to close up gaps in buildings and other structures against water, air, dust, insects, or as a component in firestopping. In the tunnelling industry, caulking refers to the sealing of joints in segmental precast concrete tunnels, commonly by using concrete.
Traditional caulking (also spelled calking) on wooden vessels uses fibers of cotton and oakum (hemp fiber soaked in pine tar). These fibers are driven into the wedge-shaped seam between planks, with a caulking mallet and a broad chisel-like tool called a caulking iron. The caulking is then covered over with a putty, in the case of hull seams, or else in deck seams with melted pine pitch, in a process referred to as paying, or "calefaction"
Modern marine sealants are frequently used now in place of the pitch, or even to supplant the oakum and cotton itself.
In riveted steel or iron ship construction, caulking was a process of rendering seams watertight by driving a thick, blunt chisel-like tool into the plating adjacent to the seam. This had the effect of displacing the metal into a close fit with the adjoining piece. Originally done by hand much like wooden vessel caulking, pneumatic tools were later employed. With the advent of electric-arc welding for ship construction, steel ship caulking was rendered obsolete.
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