Friday, February 13, 2009

The Retro Style of Bakelite


Dr. Leo Baekeland, a Belgian scientist, immigrated to the United States for better career opportunities. In 1907, while working as an independent chemist accidently discovered the compound of carbolic acid and formaldehyde. When he tried to reheat the solidified compound he discovered it would not melt, no matter how high the temperature. He trademarked the compound "Bakelite" as well as two other variations, "catalin" and "marblette" - today also referred to as Bakelite. This was the first completely synthetic plastic, therefore, Dr. Baekeland became the father of the present plastics industry.

Due to its durability and beauty, Bakelite's uses were limitless. Its popularity grew very quickly, and within 15 years it had taken the world by storm. You could find everything from electrical plugs to ornate jewelry made from Bakelite. It was even used on the dashboard face of the Mercedes Benz car. Bakelite could be produced in a wide array of colors, but the most common were white, brown, green and red. Pieces dating back to the 1920s-1940s have oxidized and developed a wonderful patina that is sometimes a completely different hue than the original color. For example, white often turns to butterscotch, light blue changes to forest green, and pink turns to orange.

Original or Reproduction
So how do you determine if a piece is genuine Bakelite?
  1. Smell
    When Bakelite is heated it has a very strong odor which comes from the carbolic acid in the composition. On some pieces you can release the smell simply by rubbing them hard with your thumb and creating heat. Others will need very hot water to release the odor. On some the odor is so faint you may not detect it.
  2. Sound
    When you tap two Bakelite pieces together they will make a deep clunking sound, rather than the higher pitched clack of acrylic or Lucite plastics.
  3. Hot Pin Test
    Bakelite is a thermoset plastic so it cannot be remolded with heat. To test if a piece is bakelite get a very very hot pin from an open flame source, then touch the pin to the item. If it is Bakelite it will not penetrate. It may give off the acid smell and it may leave a purple burn mark. If the pin penetrates or melts the plastic then it is not genuine Bakelite.
  4. Formula 409
    This product works very well to test whether an item is Bakelite. Make sure the item is clean, wet the end of a Q-tip with Formula 409 then touch it to the piece. If the Q-tip turns yellow then the piece is genuine. If you believe a piece is Bakelite but it doesn't pass the 409 test, don't count it out. Sometimes polished Bakelite will not react or pass the test.

Although these tests are foolproof, they will determine if a piece is genuine Bakelite.

Stopped Production
Bakelite has always been known as "the material with 1000 uses," and it surely did earn this name. It is now treasured for its unique, irreproducible beauty. When the Bakelite patent expired in 1927, it was acquired by the Catalin Corporation that same year. They began mass production under the name "Catalin". The Catalin Corporation was responsible for nearly 70% of all phenolic resins that exist today.

In 1942 Bakelite-Catalin stopped sales of their colorful costume jewelry in order to concentrate on the nation's wartime needs. The company produced thousands of products that found their way into the military. By the end of the World War II, new technologies for molded plastics had been developed. These new products consisted of plastics such as Lucite, Fiberglass, Vinyl, and Acrylic - all which were molded. Thus, Bakelite and Catalin became obsolete, except in the hearts of collectors who still pursue it today.

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