Hello Everyone! Being that many of my fellow ebayers write to me on a regular basis asking me how to test for BAKELITE plastic, which I have gotten many thank you's for all my helpful responses to you, I thought I'd post my knowledge as a handy guide for everyone.
With all the plastics on the market, I agree it can all be quite confusing. They're all great and special with their own characteristics, and some they share commonly while others are unique to them only. On my ebay listings I do my best to be as accurate as possible with my items, so when you buy from me, you can be assured you are getting what I describe. Here I will help you test for Phenolic (made with Formaldehyde) bakelite. This does not apply to RESIN PLASTIC, which feels solid and weighty and has the feel of bakelite, also frequently has an odor but not always and when it does, it's a different one from the formaldehyde you smell with bakelite. The resin plastics may feel and look similar to bakelite, but will NOT respond to the methods of testing I am about to state.
There are a few basic widely used methods you should use until you get the to the point where you can tell just from LOOKING! Yes there was a time when I thought every single piece of plastic I looked at could be bakelite, which seems funny to me now. Having bought and sold THOUSANDS of bangles by now, I can tell from looking and from touch without testing, USUALLY, but some pieces still fool me or have me puzzled.
METHOD 1: THE 409 METHOD
Get yourself some Formula 409 ALL PURPOSE spray cleaner. I am adding that because someone wrote recently that they bought another kind, which is BLUE and does not work to test bakelite. Once you have the correct formula, dip a Q-Tip swab in it, and rub the inside of the bangle gently. If yellow it's likely to be bakelite, if grey or other colors, it's not. Rinse the piece thoroughly and dry after. I've bought from sellers who said they got a positive response to 409 and all they got a response to was DIRT, not a funny situation if you paid good money for the piece. Even with experience, I've been fooled too many times, so I now ask what color was the swab if I have my doubts on an item being as advertised. The only color it should be is a shade of yellow, some say nicotine yellow, not being a smoker, I imagine the stain to be the color of a used cigarette filter, sometimes it's light yellow. Any yellow is a good sign that it's bakelite. European made bakelite stains darker and more reddish in my experience. They say some blacks and reds don't test, I found that possible in black, my reds have always tested.
METHOD 2: SIMICHROME POLISH
A more expensive method is using Simichrome Metal Polish. You can find it at the hardware store, or on ebay right here. A tube is a good investment, as it will shine up ALL your plastics, including Lucite, French Bakelite, and even hard plastic with seams! To test for bakelite with it, the pinkish color of the polish should turn yellow from rubbing it on the bakelite. Here you don't have to worry about rinsing, just buff and shine after testing and look at your cloth, yellow means bakelite, not yellow, probably not.
METHOD 3: SCRUBBING BUBBLES
I decided to add this method to my guide because someone wrote to ask about it and I thought other people might be wondering. I also want to add that before you buy some, someone wrote me after I included this paragraph to say that they changed the formula, and it no longer will give a positive result, so keeping this in mind, I would actually not recommend this method at all now if that is the case. I personally have not tried to use Dow Scrubbing Bubbles bathroom cleaner as a tester on my bakelite, but I have heard that it also will yield a yellow stain when rubbed on bakelite. If you are going to use this method, proceed with caution, as it it caustic, and will strip the finished shine off your bakelite, leaving it dull and in need of SIMICHROME polishing! If used, use like 409, apply a small amount to a swab and rub gently inside an inconspicuous area, then rinse with soap and water thoroughly and dry. I think this is not the greatest method to test bakelite, but it needs to be mentioned.
TWO BIG EXCEPTIONS TO THE YELLOW REACTION AS POSITIVE, IS BAKELITE WITH AN OVERDYE OR RECENTLY REFINISHED OR REWORKED!
There are old pieces of bakelite that have been overdyed another color over the original color and cut through to make a two tone piece. These pieces are hard to test as the dye comes off when rubbed with the chemicals being used to test, making it impossible to accurately perform the 409 or simichrome test. Experience is the only guide for these pieces, knowing the styles they appeared in.
Secondly, pieces that have been refinished or restored and stripped of their years of aged patina to restore their original color, or reworked artist pieces that have been newly dotted, checkered and otherwise styled from old bakelite , will also not respond to the 409 or Simichrome testing methods, but should still respond to hot water dip smell test or rub USUALLY and you should know what vintage bakelite actually smells like so you'll be sure that is what you are buying. Also make sure you know who the artist is so you are sure of what you're getting. Buy from known recognized artists who are familiar trusted names in the world of Bakelite collecting, to be sure you are indeed buying work that will hold it's value and is indeed made of old Formaldehyde bakelite stock. Remember it is easy to claim material is "reworked" and thus "won't test", but real vintage bakelite stock used by reputable artists, WILL someday form patina again, and respond to the standard chemical testing. There are great modern plastics today such as my newer Resins, which look like re-worked bakelite, but will never test with chemicals, now or in the future, because they don't contain formaldehyde and will not change with time. Of course when you buy a piece and find out it doesn't test as promised years later, it is too late to complain. So, if it is said that the piece still tests positive with smell, you have to make sure the smell is not the smell of a Modern or older Resin plastic, which will also give a smell some but not at all times, but when it does, it is nothing like the smell of vintage bakelite. I collect and sell these wonderful modern pieces which are valuable collectibles in their own right, while representing them accurately, but unfortunately, you can't count on honesty from everyone, so please be an educated consumer. Regarding smell, I have found that many of my vintage bakelite pieces simply do not smell much anyway, although quite authentic!
METHOD 4: THE OLD SNIFFEROO (Hot Water/Friction Rub)
This is the method you should most be wary of claims for positive response, because frankly alot of people imagine they smell something when there is no odor at all, or they're smelling a smell that is not Formaldehyde Bakelite, and they simply don't know the smell. You get your piece to be tested, and run it under warm or hot (but not boiling) water. Dip and smell the piece. If you smell a smell that is medicinal like an old bandaid, medicine chest smell, that is the formaldehyde smell of old authentic bakelite. You can sometimes get the smell by rubbing your finger quickly across the surface and get the smell from the heat of the friction formed too. It won't work on all pieces. Some simply don't smell that much depending on the amount of formaldehyde in the manufacture, however, once you smell that distinct smell, it will be ingrained forever in your nostrils! You will never forget it. Until you familiarize yourself with that smell, don't assume others know what they're smelling. Again, Resin plastic smells many times, but not the smell of vintage bakelite, it has a sweetish chemical smell or other type of chemical smell, but not a formaldehyde odor. This is why you must be aware that can be the smell someone is claiming to be a vintage bakelite smell. If you are interested in a piece that is tested by smell, you might ask the seller if they can 409 or Simichrome test as well for you. If not, be wary of buying it if you are only interested in vintage bakelite.
METHOD 5: THE APPEARANCE & CHARACTERISTICS
The appearance of certain characteristics will quickly count out items as bakelite. The biggest one is SEAMS and MOLD MARKS. These are the hallmarks of HARD PLASTIC. You will not see seams on bakelite, it would be a real rarity. Finishing methods erased any mold lines. This leaves Lucite, also rarely with seams and mold marks but the some of the newer lightweight Lucites have some light seams. I've found that Lucite is slicker to feel, lighter than bakelite, and has no smell at all EVER. It comes in bright colors and patterns you would not see in bakelite, although there are always exceptions to the norm. Bakelite will never be worn out looking in the sense of whitish wear on edges either, again, hard plastic. Worn bakelite develops what is called PATINA which enhances the piece as an all over fine scratching from wear that just gives the piece softness to the look.
METHOD 6: THE SOUND TEST
This is the test that is even more subjective and confusing than the smell test, that's my opinion. I find that alot of my heavy Resin plastic for example, sounds exactly the same as my vintage bakelite. Bakelite is said to make a deeper pitched "clack" while lucite for example is said to make more of a high pitched "click." These sounds we hear are subject to the weight and thickness of the pieces hitting eachother, so I don't use this test much myself. I might use it in the case of the aforementioned overdyed, or reworked piece that doesn't yet test again with 409 or simichrome, but in general, this is probably the least conclusive test for bakelite of all, as the sound you get varies more upon the thickness and weight of a piece, more than the material it is made from. If you think about it logically, how can a thin bakelite spacer, make a lower pitched clack than a big thick heavy lucite bangle? Now you can see why this test usually doesn't make alot of sense, unless all the pieces are the same size.
THE TEST NOT TO PERFORM IS HOT PIN TESTING!!
I decided to add this test to the list as one NOT to do, because someone recently wrote to me with the best of intentions, and told me that they get positive smell test with "THE HOT PIN METHOD". I wrote back imploring them to stop pinning their plastic bangles, explaining that many people will not buy a piece that has been "pinned" because it leaves a nasty melt scar on your bangle, thus ruining the value. Whether it's in an inconspicuous spot or not, no one needs to use this method as there are so many other methods that don't destroy the integrity of the piece in the process. I cannot tell you how many pieces I've gotten here on ebay with pin marks that were unmentioned, and paid the price for an undamaged piece, then when I resold later on, ended up losing money, because I was honest about the pin marks as I am about all condition. All that put aside, it so happens that if you have a piece of celluloid, it's FLAMMABLE if you poke a hot pin into it, and you could get hurt! So PLEASE, do not heat pins and poke your beautiful plastics as a form of testing for bakelite.
I've decided to share some pictures of my prized bakelite pieces I've owned or still own in my collection. Here is a group of classics, two I have recently sold, my Deco Black and Yellow carved through, and my Paprika and cream corn zigzag are being enjoyed by their new owners and only my faceless original rare Pierrot remains with me and you can see these in my group picture here, with many other pieces that decorate my china cabinet with my vintage glassware.
. Then there is a this great Red Bakelite Sunset carved bangle bracelet. I've had this one for years, and this piece is reproduced in Resin today in many fun colors I've offered, but for now I am keeping my original!
Here is a vintage bakelite ZIG ZAG RING, one of two I own, this one is Blue Moon and Orange, and then I also have this one Another beautiful rare vintage Bakelite ZIG ZAG RING in a soft peach juice marbled and green! I think I'll keep these a while longer! I will add more pictures of some of my best pieces to share when I get a chance, I promise!
I hope I've covered everything, I am sure I probably forgot something. If you still have questions, I love to hear from YOU! This is my first guide, but since I've written so many reviews on Amazon, I figured I owe my fellow ebayers and all my wonderful loyal customers at least the same literary efforts. Check back for more guides, I think this may become a new hobby as I love to write, as many already know! To all my loyal customers and friends I've made on ebay, and new ones I meet each week, you're the BEST and I wouldn't be here having so much fun without all of you!
I hope you will vote this guide helpful to you!
Check out all my thrilling items right here on ebay this week: