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The story of TF2 with Teflon®

The No.1 worldwide best selling Teflon® based lubricant spray in a 400ml aerosol spray.

The original TF2 spray lube

In the 1990’s I found myself working as a product designer for a manufacturer of mountain bike accessories and maintenance products. I hadn’t worked with consumer product design before but I had plenty of experience of manufacturing, sourcing and packaging, and I got the job.

Out of hours I would work on EPE Magazine's Teach-In 93 and Teach-In 98 tutorial series, Circuit Surgery, Ingenuity Unlimited or the EPE website. It often meant an 80-100 hour week in total and the 'net was only just emerging in the mid 90's, so there was lots to learn.

Back at the day job: apart from our own brand we also produced for big names like Halfords, Woolworths and many others. The firm had a small workforce and produced a modest range of adhesives, puncture repair products (3 million kits a year!), lubes, bearings, paints and cleaning products but the range quickly grew and I helped steer many new products to market.  Business boomed during a recession as people repair and maintain things, and the new “mountain bike” or MTB was boosting interest in cycle sales. It was a good time to be in the industry.

Apart from bog-standard cycle oils we had a good range of lube greases based on white Lithium grease (used in the auto industry – the white colour allowed car mechanics to see where they were putting it, when working underneath a car). I found that Weldtite’s Lithium grease was incredibly water-resistant and would easily withstand e.g. a pressure washer (‘cos I tested blobs of it on my car’s alloy wheels – it wouldn’t shift). The firm churned out bottles of oil and grease tubes and pots of all sizes, everything from a tiny tube up to workshop-size cans of the stuff. Thanks to our London factory, no-one could really match our production capacity.

One thing we didn’t have was an aerosol lube spray and our market research said that we could do with one.  Everyone recognised that WD-40 was a market leader, being a general-purpose lube, cleaner and Water Dispersant (hence its name), and the blue & yellow can was familiar to all.  Three-in-One oil was also a rival brand, though I don’t think they had an aerosol at that time. The main rival was probably GT-85 which had been on sale for some years already, and there were some other small specialist players in the market as well. Finish Line produced some very groovy-looking sprays and lubes too that impressed me a lot, but were more upmarket and expensive than the bread & butter high-volume products that we manufactured.

Developing a new aerosol lubricant would be quite a challenge. We already marketed aerosol paint and our new eye-catching designs co-ordinated our entire range with a new ‘graffiti’  W logo. A big problem lay in trying to get the volume that would make us competitively priced. Raw material prices depend on quantity: making one batch of product might imply having a year’s supply of stuff stuck in the warehouse. The ubiquitous WD-40 sells in huge volumes which attract the economies of scale that we could only envy, and GT85 was pretty well known too, so it was with some hesitation that I set to work on procuring our first ever batch of aerosol lubricant.

We didn’t have the serious bits of industrial kit needed to produce aerosols, but several specialist aerosol manufacturers designed some formulations to meet our spec.

I started work on the outline chemical specification for the new product. A lube spray is basically a propellant (butane/ propane) into which the lubricants dissolve, a bit like “watering down” the oil to make it sprayable, but it’s pressurised such that it atomises the oil into an “aerosol” when the button’s pressed. The propellants then evaporate or “flash off” leaving an oily film behind.  The propellant works in two ways, to thin the product to help make it sprayable, and to physically push it through the nozzle under pressure.

Other types of spray use CO2 instead, a bit like “pushing” the lube out from behind. Unlike a butane/ propane mix, CO2 doesn’t mix in with the lube and the result is a coarser, wetter spray. These would often use very expensive aluminium one-piece containers, which is why you don’t see cheap product in large aluminium cans.

Shapes and sizes

Anyway. We chose a spraycan size for the new lube (it had to be 400ml, standard 57mm diameter) and I started work on a physical mock-up to show the team. In fact I went into a local car spares shop and asked to buy any spray that they had, as long as it’s 57mm diameter with a green cap. Due to our new green “Lubes” packaging I needed the right colour plastic cap to get the mock-up’s look and feel right.

Work started on the artwork too, which had to be the correct size for printing on the steel cans. I chose the nozzle (different spray-cone angles were available) and we got the nearest green colour cap available. It also needed a straw for the nozzle.

It soon became apparent that the product’s performance, as well as its marketing appeal, could be enhanced with a branded PTFE to aid lubricity, given that a key rival already did that. There was no better brand to have than Du Pont’s Teflon®. ICI actually had its own PTFE brand called Fluon® but we reckoned the consumer had probably never heard of it – it was obvious that Du Pont Teflon® was the name to have because everyone associated it with non-stick pans.

We worked on various formulations with an aerosol manufacturer and eventually one formula stood out as having great all-round performance in some empirical tests (I famously called it “Muppet laboratories” at the time – lab equipment was sparce but I did my best, and I had a workshop at home too.). I travelled to the aerosol factory and saw how aerosols were filled (sometimes with a mixer ball added or two), gassed, sealed and tested for leaks, and then in the labs we set to work on how the new product should smell.

The lab technician showed me a drawer full of tiny little bottles of super-concentrated fragrances, each carefully labelled, and a number of different samples were specially blended and made up for me. I got the job of sniffing the aerosols (!), which I did at home in the garage that weekend. Spraying them into the air and sniffing the cloud of oily lube was not much fun.  I wanted something that would be pleasant to use, wasn’t too engineering-like or off-putting, as it would be used at home by consumers. (I learned later that some bike workshops used it as air freshener.)  Seriously, the new spray nearly ended up smelling of vanilla or fruit! Eventually a distinctive fragrance was chosen from a shortlist of samples in my workshop. I still remember the day that I chose the smell, every time I service my own bike in the same workshop 15+ years on.

Finally the steel aerosol can size (a standard 57mm 3-part unit), the blend of lubricants, Teflon® PTFE, green cap, nozzle type, fragrance and propellants were firmed up and we were fast approaching the time when the first batch could be ordered from the plant.

One major issue still concerned us. (‘Us’ being the MD, Sales Director and me: it was a small hands-on crew at the time.) What to call our new prodigy? That was a big problem as we couldn’t make up our minds. Between us we bounced all sorts of ideas around the office. The name had to be catchy and trip off the tongue, have a ring about it, be identifiable and distinctive and of course it had to be unique. Ideally it would reflect the Teflon® brand if possible (or as far as we dare push it).  In a typical hastily convened meeting, I recall someone mused about calling it “WD-41” or “Tef”.

Du Pont’s guidelines ruled out, quite rightly, using anything that might infringe or devalue their own trademarks, which is why I argued we couldn’t use “Tef”.  Nor could we say “Teflon Spray” but there was nothing stopping us saying “Spray with Teflon”. We parked the name for a short time while I went to see our marketing agency, who were still working on the product’s artwork. I explained the problem we had in choosing a name, and floated it by them while they finished the artwork. (The Hazard labelling and statutory warnings were more headaches that I had to resolve.)

What's in a name?

Soon a shortlist of suggestions came back, including the name TF2 with Teflon®. We all chose it on the spot.  Today, I would maybe do it slightly differently, including a rigorous trademark search, but at the time (1995-ish) no-one had heard of TF2 anywhere else, so we grabbed the name for ourselves and ran with it.

After much hard work, every design aspect was finalised and we reckoned we had a Teflon®-based lube spray that ticked every box: it was highly competitive on price, packaging and performance despite having much smaller production volumes that were typical of the cycle market. Everything looked fantastically good and product no. 03015 was born!

Over at the factory, I signed the first ever purchase order for TF2 with Teflon®, for precisely 10,000 cans. We reckoned it would probably last us a year, but thanks to the firm’s tireless sales efforts and distribution channels I think it sold out much sooner than that.  My heart sank when the first batch of cans arrived though, because they had been badly scratched due to a problem at the can maker’s plant. We couldn’t simply reject them this late in the day and reluctantly they were released for sale.

Cycle magazine reviews and feedback started to drift in saying that apart from its good lubrication, TF2 had great water-repellency properties that outshone the rivals – encouraging news that made me quite proud (TF2 was designed to have extreme water repellency for the MTB user.) It started to sell overseas as well.

A long while later, Du Pont reviewed their own trademark rules and they demanded that the use of the Teflon® trademark would have to be formally licensed. We faced the prospect of losing the name. I recall phoning Du Pont’s product managers in Geneva to explain how we had committed heavily to the product and were going to great lengths to ensure that their trademark IP was observed at all times. The upshot was – fantastic news! – that Du Pont were impressed enough to let us use the Teflon® trademark on TF2 for the cycle maintenance sector. I believe the only other approved supplier is Finish Line. Du Point also has/ had its own-branded Teflon®  Multi-Use spray lubes in the USA.

Since then, TF2 with Teflon® has gone from strength to strength, undergoing some packaging restyling to bring it up to date. A decade later, well over ¼ million cans a year of TF2 were flying off the shelves – quite an achievement, compared with my first order for just 10,000 units. Imagine my pride when, 15 years later I picked up a cycle magazine at a GP surgery, and the first thing I saw was an advert for TF2, now claimed to be the world’s No. 1 bike lube spray (400ml, anyway). I told the doctor’s receptionist that they had the madcap inventor of TF2 in their midst.

Aerosol snippets:

Standard 3-part steel aerosols have a concave bottom, which bows out if they become overpressurised (if you’re lucky). I've yet to see it happen.

They are made in standard diameters, including 52mm and 57mm.

Aluminium cans are much more expensive and are made in one piece; some use CO2 propellants.

 Typical EU aerosol markings   A number printed on the can within a box (EU), shows the ‘brimful capacity' of the container, or how much product it can physically hold. E.g. [335 ml]

Aerosols can never be totally full of product, as it would be very dangerous to do so, so a headspace allows for expansion.

Another figure shows the aerosol’s contents (e.g. 250ml), which includes the propellant as well! That’s why trigger sprays offer better value, as they’re 100% product.

The 'e' mark confirms (in this context) compliance with 'minimum fill' legislation. It's a way of showing that on average, the package contains the amount of product stated.  Wikipedia.

An inverted epsilon '3' symbol shows compliance with the Aerosol Dispensers Directive (EU). Marvel at the legal and linguistic morass that is European law.

Aerosol paint plastic caps are flame-treated before spraying them with the colour of the paint that they represent. Otherwise the colour paint would flake straight off the plastic.

This Youtube video shows why you don't mess with aerosols (strong language).


Reader Comments (2)

Thanks for sharing the story! I have not been able to find TF2 easily in the US. In your opinion, which Dupont aerosol lubricant is the closest in formulation and for my intended application, bicycle drivechain maintenance? Thanks in advance.

July 1, 2016 at 17:31 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Belin

Du Pont sells a whole range of own-brand aerosols that aren't available over here in Europe,

I would start with Du Pont Dry Film Lube or Multi Use Lubricant

Note that Du Pont Chain Saver lube is designed for motor cycle chain.

Tri Flow is another one to look at but they don't sell in the UK and I know nothing about their products.

I will ask the UK factory if TF2 has a USA distributor and get back to you.

Alan W

July 2, 2016 at 0:27 | Registered CommenterAlan W

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