By David Moncrief
Bakelite is a synthetic resin formulated circa 1909 by the Belgian inventor, L.H.Baekeland . During the height of its popularity, Bakelite was used to replace items previously made of celluloid or hard rubber. It has become highly collectible and can be found in many forms including jewelry, buttons, radio cases, dice, poker chips as well as many other items some of which can sell for hundreds of dollars. |
Unfortunately with the passage of time, similar items get grouped under a common name. This is the case surrounding most 'vintage' plastic items that have been lumped together and often referred to as 'Bakelite'. While not all of these items are made of bakelite, there are a few simple tests that will quickly reveal the composition. While you can test for the authenticity of bakelite using various methods, if you plan on becoming a serious collector there is no substitute for experience. Learn to tell bakelite items from non-bakelite items by touch and smell.
Method 1: Experience and knowledge can be your most convenient methods for testing so visit reputable dealers and study their bakelite items familiarizing yourself with its feel, weight, colors and construction. Once familiar with bakelite you will be able to test by smell. While rubbing your fingers over the item to be tested, rub until the item is warm and then smell it. If the item is bakelite you will notice a formaldehyde smell. Get familiar with the odor of formaldehyde. Note that the strength of the odor may vary.
The following tests are best performed on your own items. If you must test an item other than your own, always ask permission beforehand.
Method 2: Using a Q-tip that has been moistened with the kitchen cleaner '409' rub a small, discreet spot on the item to be tested. The end of the Q-tip will turn yellow regardless of the color of the bakelite. Rinse the bakelite to remove any residue of the cleaner. (See photo below for positive test.)
Method 3: Using a Q-tip that has been moistened with the bathroon cleaner 'Scrubbing Bubbles' rub a small, discreet spot on the item to be tested. The end of the Q-tip will turn yellow regardless of the color of the bakelite. Rinse the bakelite to remove any residue of the cleaner. (See photo below for positive test.)
Method 4: Submurse a portion of the item in hot water to test for the formaldehyde smell. This test should be performed with caution and not used on any items set with stones, any electrical items, items too small to be hand held in hot water, or any item thay might suffer damage.
Method 5: Another more dramatic method is to heat a needle and briefly insert it into a hidden spot on the piece to see if the formaldehyde smell is present. This method can be destructive to the piece and is not recommended.
Note - There are many reproduction pieces coming to the market - so beware, know your product before buying. Original bakelite was carved so there will be no mold marks.