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Art Collectibles Reflections by Kathy and Bill Lair

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My Love Affair With Bakelite

July 7th, 2008 · No Comments · Collectibles

3 bakelite jewels strawberry charm exotic green and red flower pendant and carved black flower pin

I’ve had the hots for Bakelite for as long as I can remember… before books… before boys… before art… there was Bakelite! I was too young to put a name on those objects of my desire… but I knew I was in love with that pair of translucent sea green fish swimming through my mother’s jewelry box… and the big picture hat that looked as if it were made of butterscotch candy. I wanted to see it again and again, feel it, taste it… I begged her to let me see them at every opportunity. Twenty years later while foraging through a flea market, I found the most wonderful red heart hanging from a sensual arrow pin. It was big, marbled, shiny and lucious. The memory of my childhood attractions returned. I was was in love all over again! I began hunting. I found more and more of these beautiful objects. They were little works of art, hand carved treasures.

In the early days, cleaning my treasures in warm water released an old familiar smell… another childhood memory of family outings, day trips, picnic lunches, and the smell I got when drinking milk from those old green cups in the family picnic basket. They must have been Bakelite too! Since then, I’ve bought (and kept) and sold hundreds of Bakelite items. Buyers often want to know if I’ve tested the piece to be sure that it”s Bakelite or they ask me What is the test for Bakelite?

Before I explain the tests, I’d like to point out that Bakelite is just one of the brand names for a class of plastics known as phenolic resins. Most phenolics are thermosetting plastics which means they need heat to make them harden (not like Lucite and Acrylics which harden on their own chemically… Thermoplastics.). Thermosetting plastics can never be melted and reshaped. All phenolics, depending on the company making them, had slightly different formulas. Some are more stable than others. Some, like Bakelite, will test positive with the liquid applied tests because it was made from a less stable formula and the surface oxidized (changed with exposure to air) more easily than others. Catalin (another brand name) was a more stable phenolic and as such doesn”t respond to the surface tests used on Bakelite.

Bakelite responds to various cleaners, Scrubbing Bubbles, Windex, 409 and others, by leaving a yellow deposit on a paper towel when wiped with one of these substances. The more it has oxidized (changed color) the more intense the yellow will be. If you are planning to sell something you’ve tested like this, do it on an unobtrusive spot so that you won”t change the look of it. Don’t clean the whole piece so that the buyer will still have a place to check it themselves.

Catalin is more stable, doesn’t oxidize in air or react to these tests but it is still a phenolic resin. Lots of the jewelry made in the late 30’s and early 40’s was actually made from Catalin. Catalin has the same look as Bakelite and is just as collectible. Many folks consider the two to be the same… which they really are… but since Catalin doesn’t respond to these tests, some people overlook it. Catalin can be tested with the hot water test. I prefer to cite the Scrubbing Bubbles test on eBay because that”s what most buyers want to know… but pick a piece you know is Bakelite and run it under hot water. You can smell it. It’s a very distinctive smell once you are aware of it. Catalin smells like that too. I’m not sure if it”s the phenol or the formaldehyde or a combination of both. But just a caution… don”t use it on anything blue or purple. I did that once on a great little laminated chevron rainbow piece and the blue and purple changed to gray which ruined it.

Then there is always the red hot pin test. If you must test this way… do it in as unobtrusive a spot as possible so as not to ruin the piece in the event that it is not Bakelite (back of pins, inside bead hole). Thermosetting plastics can never be melted and reshaped. They are heat resistant and have been used for products where resistance to heat is important… pot handles, toaster handles, insulators, radio cases, etc. These pieces will resist your attempt to push a red hot pin into them while other plastics will melt. Hold a pin in a flame until the tip glows red hot. Use a pair of pliers to hold the pin or push the head end into a big cork before heating or use a pin in a wooden handle (the type potters use) so that you don’t burn yourself. Try to push the pin into the piece in question. If it won’t go in or only leaves a tiny pin point dot, it is a thermosetting plastic. Be careful when you do this as celluloid and any thin walled plastic will melt quickly. The pin could go through the entire piece and ruin it. Any piece that allows the pin to pierce it is made of some other type of plastic.

Be careful doing the hot pin test. Keep pieces away from open flames and from your face when you are testing them. Cellulose nitrate will ignite instantly near an open flame. Polyurethane and other foams should not be tested this way as they are highly flamable and have an awful smoke when burning. All plastics have their own individual odors and can be identified by them. More information about these tests, the nature of plastics, a chart of plastics with their individual characteristics and smells can be found in the book Art Plastics Designed for Living by Andrea DiNoto. This is just a great book, not only for this technical information but also for history, design information, and some really great photos of fantastic objects.

Kathy’s words

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