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BAKELITE TESTING & A BIT OF HISTORY

bakelite-itch
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TESTING FOR BAKELITE;
SOME Thermo Plastic Bakelite tests easily / Some does not, but they are still what we consider Bakelite today.
 
The MOST conclusive test of what WE call Bakelite TODAY is to Cut it with a saw or a high speed drill and see if the fumes burn your eyes and nose and if the residue from that cutting powdered like fine saw dust OR if it gums up or bursts into flames on the saw or drill.
WE DO NOT WANT TO DO THAT TODAY!
 
WE are Testing today with Simichrome Polish, which in it's formula has a chemical that just incidentally happens to give an indication that the item we are using it on may be an early polymeric plastic made from the combination of other basics (generally wood fiber flour or Asbestos) combined with phenol and formaldehyde under pressure at a high temperature.
 
Assuming that the piece you are testing has already been simply cleaned with dishpan soapy rag or rubbing alcohol Removing any old hand creams, perfumes or nicotine build-up is essential to a good test... Many people just apply the simichrome, get a yellow stain and yell WHOOOOOIE when all they really have on their test Q is old rancid hand cream or Nicotine...
(don't use alcohol on things YOU KNOW already are just plastic, it melts  OR may alter the finish).
 
Put a tiny dab of Simichrome on a cotton Q tip swab or soft white rag and rub it on the piece you wish to test (the back is best place to start) The rubbing spot should emit a stain color on the Q-tip (tea brown to Amber or light Urine yellow) if it is classic Bakelite or other early polymeric plastic.
 
IF you get NO stain... HAVE HEART... It may have been polished with Simichrome or something else previously that left a protective shield. (Back in the 1980/90's my Mom & her friends all used Lemon Pledge Furniture Polish to polish their Bakelite and plastic jewelry.) This old wax has to be removed for a proper test. Hot soapy water soaking will usually do it.
 
IF you are sure there are no waxes... but you still feel convinced by purchase location or time data that the item is GREAT...  Most likely your piece may still be a vintage thermoplastic but made with a different formula than one using classic  phenol and formaldehyde with  wood fiber flour or Asbestos.
AS LONG AS THERE ARE NO VISIBLE SEAMS OR CASTING FONTS. Inspect Carefully for those.
 
TESTING FURTHER;
I discourage use of 409, Tilex or other porcelain intended cleaning products that can cause surface damage ruin the PATINA and need buffing out or waxing later.
 
Rubbing Test;
Some folks have fabulous noses and they can rub the piece hard with their thumbs and can smell the phenol and formaldehyde  (Sickly sweet like a Graveyard on a HOT sunny day). MY NOSE IS NOT THAT GOOD!
 
Hot Water Test;
Some people use super hot tap water to test BY SMELL.
They hold a portion of the piece under the hottest Tap water possible and can smell the phenol and formaldehyde  (Sickly sweet like a Graveyard on a HOT sunny day). MY NOSE IS NOT THAT GOOD!
 
NOTE: I discourage testing with Boiling water (Otherwise Intended & GREAT for cooking eggs, vegetables or Noodles for later human consumption) BUT for Bakelite testing it can cause surface damage or meltdown to OTHERWISE Wonderful plastics, (like celluloid) ruin the PATINA and will need buffing out, waxing OR even trashing later.
 
Acetone Test;
Acetone is a powerful paint remover and though I do find it useful for cleaning excessive grime off *KNOWN* Bakelite, chrome metals and many other things concerning re-finishing vintage plastics... it can be a dangerous approach for an initial product test.
IF you feel you MUST use Acetone for a test... use a tiny drop or a thin swath with a fine paint brush in an inconspicuous spot then touch the spot with a toothpick to see if it clouded, gummed up OR remained as before. The later is what you are hoping for.
 
Last Ditch Effort;
IF I DO not get a good test with ANY OTHER METHOD and my years of experience still tell me the item is a possibly Rare or extremely Valuable piece of Bakelite I take this next step...
 
Heat Testing:
(NOT recommended if you don't know what you are doing or are not spry and quick). Have a small fire extinguisher handy... do you test over the kitchen sink!
 
I use the tip of a red hot needle just slightly touched in an inconspicuous place, (down a bead hole or deep in a carved spot ... the edge of a smooth bracelet where the test spot is easily buffer removable later if it wasn't Bakelite) ... Get the needle tip red hot (I lay it on the electric stove burner and pick it up with a small nosed pliers) and then lightly touch the piece QUICK then pull it away!
 
Bakelite will smell Grave-yardy as stated above, the fumes may even burn your nose and eyes a bit.
Check the result with a Magnifying glass if necessary.
However the Test results are as Follows;
 
Bakelite / Poly-Thermoplastic just leaves a brown FRECKLE nothing else!
 
Plastic or Lucite will bubble and goo.
 
Celluloid will melt, bubble, catch fire turn black, spark and possibly explode, so blow it out quick NO time for making wishes... (wink)
Celluloid is REALLY easier to test this way first; rub it hard with your thumb then sniff... if it smells like Vicks, Menthol or Camphor it is celluloid.
 
Amber will fool you into thinking it is bakelite.
Especially the old beads.
It will not test with Simichrome but the heat test freckle results are the same as Bakelite. Look for the smell difference!
Amber smells like green PINE needles or Juniper Trees.
 
Ivory & Bone will also fool you into thinking it is Bakelite. Look with a magnifying glass at the surface tell tales. Wood grain similarity will be present somewhere on bone pieces and a pearly cross hatching will show slightly on the surface of Ivory.
Burn Testing will leave a brown freckle BUT it will smell like burning Hair, fingernails or bone.
----------------
SO, What's UP With all the Falderal for Testing?
In my personal opinion ... it's silly if you just like plastics...
EXCEPT to sort the Vintage from the retro or Modern!
If you personally enjoy a piece or it has sentimental value... wear and enjoy sharing it!
 
HOWEVER, IF you are selling;
THEN it is highly important to test in order to utter the word BAKELITE in your ad and be able to back it up!
 
Collectors and Sellers Both NEED TO Face it...
SOME items simply WILL NOT TEST for BAKELIE unless they are sawed, drilled or burned!
Even then... Neoprene and Nylon—originated in 1930 !!!
SO, Moonglow is Nylon... who wants to saw into Moonglow?
NOT ME!
 
Many of the Clear "Prystal" Bakelite's will not test either because the formaldehyde was left out of the formula or the asbestos was too refined to hold the formaldehyde over the decades since production and it dissipated.
Prystal Bakelite Colors were generally; Apple-Juice Yellow, Clear (Ice), Blue, Green, & Red. Some Tortoise Shell.
IF you saw cut Prystal Bakelite the fumes burn like "HELL" in your nose, throat and eyes! (My Brother works on old radios and I've seen him come up from a saw gasping and weeping even when he wears a mask!)
 
Plastics Invention Data Example;
Teflon was discovered by Roy Plunkett at DuPont in 1938 but it was too high priced to use on pots and pans until decades later!
NOT that WE are looking for Teflon today,
BUT I state it just as an example of EARLY plastics discoveries that today we depend on and are considered quite Modern!
Teflon Knees EVEN!
 
Note; Many original Bakelite and plastic's workers died of Larynx or Lung cancer related diseases. Many were fairly young when they died.
Wear a mask if you are testing with a saw, drill or hot needle!
 
Original manufacturers had no idea that eventually we (80- 90-100 plus years later) would become so infatuated with their products that we would require a pedigree for approval or rejection.  IF they had known, they may have signed & dated everything! Then again signing and dating were one extra process they would NOT have considered cost effective for production during the Depression and WW2 years...
 
 
 
WHAT TOO LOOK FOR AND WHAT TO EXPECT;
 
Finished *Bakelite* jewelry has no visible seams because it was poured from vats and cast originally in sheets, tubes and various shaped rods. THEN cut and finished often as craft projects by high school students, scouts and even Jewelers!
Some manufacturers had little packaged kits available by mail order that included an animal shaped slice, a pin-back, rivets or screws, Celluloid or glass eyes and an instruction sheet for a nicely finished piece. Kit contents depended on the theme. NOT only pins... there was a large variety of item styles offered at the time (Even the ever popular CHERRIES) and that is one reason there is such a large variety of Jewelry items around now that are SIMILAR but not just the same... the differences are all in the crafting & Crafter!
Generally Bakelite is heavier than other plastics and bracelets especially make a SWEET "clunk" sound when tapped against another bakelite piece instead of the "click/clack" sound that 2 plastic's tapped together makes.
BAKELITE WITH AN OVERDYE FINISH!
There are old pieces of bakelite that had originally been overdyed or airbrush dyed with a darker tone over the original color like this Guy;
 
OR Overdyed and cut through to make a two tone piece (MANY Bracelets were done this way, like Black or dark brown over cream color).
These pieces are hard to test as the dye comes off when rubbed with the test chemicals, (that will ruin the value of the piece).
Experience then is the only guide for these pieces... knowing the styles they appeared in originally.
In manufacture, these were cut in slices from logs of certain sizes and dimensions. SO... these pieces will all have great similarity though the hand carving, findings and color tone finishing does make for slight differences.
Metal findings; usually have little or no glue or adhesives holding them in place. Usually you will find that clasps, etc. were heat-set (embedded into) the item or attached with tiny screws, pegs or rivets (with some of the later you will find that the crafter did use a little dab of yellow horse hide glue to hold the item in place while inserting the rivets.) One MUST remember that these items were for the most part Hand Crafted or made in small family owned shops that seldom produced more than 1 gross of anything alike. (1 gross is equal to 144 or 12 dozen).
PATINA; is important. Heavily used pieces are expected to have some amount of fine scratches or dull spots due to handling & wear. Originally a cast medial bakelite has some tiny pits and freckles in the surfaces. however SOME PEICES THAT WERE SELDOM WORN will have little wear patina. LOOK FOR color differences.
AGE alone causes SOME color oxidation. THAT actually depends on how items have been stored. Original owner use i.e. Hand creams, Lye based soaps, Perfumes & Toilet Waters liberally applied, Nicotine, etc. These thing leave a residue which over time has an effect on color. ALSO; Exposure to daylight has had a LOT of influence on colors over the ensuing decades.
ALL old whites will be at least slightly yellowed if not downright butterscotch. Many blues and Turquoise's will now be assorted shades of green, some darker blues will be almost black! Lavender & Purples are often NOW peach to brown... It also depends on the original bakelite "recipe" Many bright reds by now are maroon, other reds however have survived quite well ! Many yellow's and green's are now shades of brown.
HOWEVER! Remember, many of these items were NOT generally worn.
First, they were cheap & generally frivilous. Generally NOT considered HIGH Fashion! EXCEPT as a FUN daytime accessory.
MOST were hand crafted and given originally as gifts of loving toil, those were smiled at and set away in a chest or drawer where they were occasionally opened smiled at as a gay memory and closed away again.... THOSE are the one's we now ponder and sadly worry over being TOO NICE to be Genuine !
 

--------- Further Thoughts ................
Note on; Vintage Bakelite Chains... FORGET ABOUT IT!
IF they are there at all they are SHORT, Seamless, Handmade, somewhat crude and bulky. (like a Hobo Art, Sailor Art or Prisoner Art project for a watch fob). On rare occasion they may have been later used for a bracelet.
 
Vintage plastic Necklace & Bracelet Chains are ALL Celluloid.
Nice Oval 1/2 x 1/4 inch links with seams or openings.
Also round links with 2 or 3 coils, ranging from 5/16 inch up to 1 3/4 inch across.
All the above came in a WIDE range of opaque colors plus Tortoise and clear.
Belt or Purse Chains are also Celluloid and Vary from large 5/8 inch up to larger 1 inch bulky oval and coil links made to look serviceable but feminine.
Colors are usually Apple-juice, Tortoise, Black, Brown or White (now aged to cream).
 
Retro (early 1950's to 60's) plastic chains are solid cast hard plastic and usually clear simple pastel colors. Not considered popular in the mid to late 50's, production was limited and sold primarily in the fabric stores.
 
Modern plastic chains 1960's trough 1990's are a cast polymer Lucite. HUGE range of colors and sizes. (1/4 inch up to 2 inches) many times these are sold for Aviary use. Hawks, Parrots etc.
 
Charm necklaces were a Flash in the Pan RAGE in the late 1970's early 80's. VERY different from Vintage Bakelite Charms with celluloid chain.
 

SO... What the HECK IS BAKELITE???
AND what is collectible?
Almost ALL old plastics are collectible.
Amber is considered a plastic and artists have used it as a jewelry media for centuries!
AMBER goes all the way back to before God speaking to Moses, (God's design for the High Priests Breast Plates; among the adorning Jewels were also to include AMBER)!
 
Bakelite and Other Popular 20 th Century Plastics;
FIRST and Foremost IS Understanding the birth of the Plastics Industry. We are talking Industrial Revolution!
CHANGE from old methods and earth based ingredients to NEW Machine technology and Microbiologists and Chemists theories.
 
Also, The GREAT Depression; Banks closing, Hundreds of Thousands of people out of work, Families Starving.
 
In addition; World Wars One and Two plus the War in the Pacific and then Korea. ALL of which too place within a 55 year span.
 
War related Technology was the driving force for most early 20 th century inventions and Decorative items like Bakelite JOOLZ, were simply bi-products.
 
The Most sought after plastic today is Bakelite which is a Phenol based Thermo-plastic resin. 
Originally a Lab bench fire accident in Leo Baekeland's lab while looking for a replacement for beetle shellac. It turned out to be a stepping stone for Baekeland to pursue his dream inventions
AND it revolutionized the Plastic's industry.
 
Bakelite can be sawed, CARVED, drilled and polished to a high sheen like glass. It is also heat resistant, hence it was / is used PRIMARILY for electrical components, automobile and radio industries parts AND cookware handles.
 
Over 10,000 US patents were registered for Phenol Thermo-plastic resin formulas in the early part of the 20 th Century (1900 through 1945). Fact is that very few in (the Grand scheme of things) Decorative patents were registered to Leo Baekeland!
Other Companies picked up where Leo Baekeland left off and glorified the Decorative Plastics line.
Catalin, Marbelite, Joanite, just to name three off a LONG list, YET, because of his original BAKELITE patent, WE now refer to all thermoplastics as BAKELITE and in the back of our minds we credit them all wrongfully to Leo Baekeland.
 
SOME Thermo Plastic's test easily / Some do not, but they are still what we consider Bakelite today.
 
If you search Baekeland, Bakelite etc. on-line you can come up with other Historical Data as well, but try to avoid Bakelite Sales sites with overblown TEXT but that have not really researched their data. (Especially if they recommend toilet bowl cleaners for testing)... There are a lot of those too!
 
Hope these testing & Historical tips help!
April
HellsKitten890
 
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