CC Toolbox: Indian Head Gasket Shellac


(Originally published 3 August 2016)

Now here is a very old product, shown here in an ancient bottle from when nothing seemed the matter with using “Chief Permatex” as a spokesman, that is still readily available: Indian Head gasket shellac. Generally, whoever newly discovers Indian Head gasket shellac uses it for its putative purpose as a gasket dressing only until the first time a gasket joint previously thus doped needs to be disassembled—usually quite awhile and thousands of miles and hundreds of Fahrenheit degrees later. Then you’re hosed, brother; the shellac has been thoroughly baked into an almost unbreakable solid. The disassembly and cleanup experience tends to be lengthy, injurious, and costly, and takes place in the realm bounded by frustration and futility: begone, puny gasket scraper, you have no power here.

Of course one immediately stops using Indian Head gasket shellac on gaskets, but the cessation’s effect is greatly retarded by all the many applications made between the time the first junction was shellacked into sealing and the time that first attempted disassembly learned you but good. (There are many other fine gasket gunkums that can be used where indicated without creating time-release hell for oneself or other tinkers or mechanics down the line, of course, but they are outside the scope of today’s symposium.)


There is a proper and perfect application for the hundred-and-ten-year-old formula that is Indian Head gasket shellac, though, and it is pharmaceutical. Every nigh and then, in the middle of repairing whatever you’re repairing, sometimes you lose your mojo. Your focus goes fuzzy; you start to get sidetracked and your mind wanders. Or you lose your cool, get angry and frustrated, and that’s when parts and tools and knuckles are about to break. But you keep a bottle of Indian Head on the garage shelf—upright always, else the lid gets shellacked shut—and at times like those you drop the wrench (gear puller, magnet-on-a-stick, whatever), take down the bottle of Indian Head gasket shellac, open it, take a little whiff, close it and put it up, and proceed on your repair with renewed concentration and back in the right headpsace.


It’s not that Indian Head gasket shellac contains any particularly potent aromatics or other chemicals that get you high, low, or sideways; the bottle contains nought but rosin suspended in ethanol, propanol, and methanol. It’s that nothing else—but nothing else—smells like Indian Head gasket shellac. It smells of carburetors rebuilt and carburettors (mind you) exorcised. It smells of tappet clearances adjusted, slack timing chains renewed and their covers sealed to a fare-thee-well, manifolds exchanged and oil pump pressure relief valves lapped and reset. It smells of moribund lawnmowers yanked back from the brink by their starter ropes. It smells of tractors’ wounds salved. It smells of cantankerous plumbing compression fittings made to quit dripping. All in all, it smells of the victory, however fleeting, of tenacity over entropy.


It is, you see, for when your head gasket leaks.