Thursday, 23 February 2017

How to identify Bakelite

Bakelite is probably the most exciting plastic for every collector. Those who are not familiar with this early plastic will see it as simple modern and plain plastic. But if you look closer, well, better stick your nose to it, you will see (and yes, smell) the difference.

Cut and carved Bakelite buckle

To start with, Bakelite items are usually very old, and the preferred way of manufacturing included screws instead of glue. This may also help identify the material, but it also means the items don't usually have clean finish on the wrong side, with metal pieces sticking out here and there.

Look at these screws in this layered Bakelite buckle.

Bakelite sheets may have been stacked one on top of the other to produce a layered effect, like the one seen in the buckle above. They could also be combined with other materials, like casein.

Simichrome polish tested: the side is Bakelite, the center looks more like casein.

Simichrome polish tested: this belt buckle also combines Bakelite and casein

How to identify Bakelite

Although the best way is to smell them, we will also focus on some overall characteristics. First of all, Bakelite pieces are a bit heavier than normal plastic items of the same size. They also make a very characteristic sound, a bit deeper than plastic (however, this is difficult to identify when you deal with such small items as buttons). Also, Bakelite items were usually made from larger pieces, like sheets and tubes (for bangles, for example), which were later cut and shaped. This means that the buttons or buckles made of Bakelite will not have seams, as they were cut from larger pieces. This is sometimes difficult to tell, though, as Bakelite can be polished to very fine shiny finish. Also, antique casein buckles were made the very same way: cut out from larger sheets. Vegetable ivory is also cut and carved with no seams. And modern plastic buttons can be manufactured in such a way that seams are no longer obvious.

These leaf buttons are clearly cut out and polished on the right side.

So let's stick to the nose. Bakelite smells. This is a fact. But to be able to tell, we need to heat it a little bit using hot water. Rubbing is also helpful, but may not be enough. The scent is close to that of formaldehyde, or if you are not familiar with it, just a smelly chemical odour. Some argue that the definite trial is with a hot pin. STOP! Don't ever use a hot pin for testing anything! 1. you will destroy it by creating a small hole, and 2. you risk setting it (and perhaps yourself as well) on fire, as your piece may turn out to be made of celluloid. Remember the destructive forces of celluloid?

Your nose may not be trained to identify chemicals, also, you may need a second proof that your item is made of Bakelite. I use Simichrome polish to do that, as I was not able to smell some of my items I suspected made of Bakelite.

Manufacturer's website

Simichrome polish is a product designed to clean metal pieces, and I must say it does the job all right (I was able to clean some really nice old metal buckles thanks to it), but miraculously it also changes colour when in contact with Bakelite. To perform a test you will need some rubber gloves (it is dangerous for the skin) and a cotton bud. Dip it in the Simichrome polish, but just a little bit, and rub vigorously. After a few seconds it has to turn yellowish, maybe brownish.

There are a few drawbacks in this method. It does not work with black and red items (curiously), it also failed on my brown buckle which you can see above, but luckily it passed the smell test and the sound test. Also, your item may be simply dirty, so before applying Simichrome polish on the surface, make sure it is clean and free from dust. Otherwise even water-dipped cloth will get yellowish. If you are not sure, repeat the test. You should get the same result.

Any other colour, or no colour change means it is not Bakelite. A lot of my items turned the Simichrome polish into fuchsia pink, sometimes they just let off the dye, for example green or black. But again, black and red items may fail the test by not giving out any colour.

There are other chemicals used for Bakelite identification, with the same results, out there, like Formula 409 cleaning solution, but although very popular in the USA, it is not available in Europe (and besides I hear it is very harmful or the environment). But if you happen to have it at hand, you may as well give it a go.

Other characteristics of Bakelite

Bakelite is very durable, which helped all those items survive intact to this day. However, the colours may not be as long lasting. Transparent pieces tend to turn yellowish, getting the tone of apple juice, like the belt buckle below.

This buckle may have been clear and not yellow some 80 years ago...

Also, it is virtually impossible to find a bright white item. White Bakelite turns yellowish over the time, so definitely more off-white than bright white.

This belt buckle is made of a larger thin sheet, cut out and carved,
but its bright colour makes it clear it is not Bakelite.
Further tests revealed it is made of casein.

Anyway, I hope you perform your tests safe and discover your buttons or jewellery are made of this precious plastic. If not, don't worry, they may be made of casein or Lucite plastic, which is also cool.

I had to add here some photos of my newest Bakelite acquisitions. They are all large carved Bakelite buckles, some with hook and loop, some with prong.


  1. Found this really useful have not been collecting buttons very long
    Thank you