Saturday, March 31, 2007

Vintage Plastics

I'm off to enjoy the sun and a beautiful weekend here in the Tampa Bay Area. There's much going on, and I don't want to miss it. I just discovered that this is the most event-filled weekend of the year! So, here's an informative little piece I wrote on vintage/antique plastics. It was designed to teach how to test for Bakelite:

There is something enchanting about Bakelite and Galalith (a.k.a. French Bakelite). Both are very old plastics dating from the late 1800s/early 1900s. These products allowed jewelers to get creative with shapes, designs, and colors and introduced costume jewelry to the masses.


Some people (including dealers!) have actually mistakenly believed that the ONLY vintage plastic worth collecting is Bakelite. However, Galalith is a similar plastic with a different chemical makeup that actually predates Bakelite by a full decade!

While Bakelite is made of phenol and formaldehyde, Galalith is made of milk proteins. So if your "Bakelite" piece doesn't test out to be Bakelite, don't be too hasty to discard it! It could be Galalith and further testing is needed. There are also additional old, collectible plastics such as celluloid, so don't assume your piece has no value if it's not Bakelite. There are specific collectors who prefer Galalith or celluloid to Bakelite (I actually collect all three).


*A Quick Note about Terminology* Bakelite is a common term for plastics that were made with phenol and formaldehyde. Another type of Bakelite is called Catalin, but we'll use the term Bakelite here to describe ALL plastics of this composition.


Be aware of the fact that Bakelite was fashioned into many items such as furniture knobs, electrical outlet plates, brush and mirror sets, and pretty much anything else that we use plastic for today. So, if you have something made of plastic that's particularly old, test it before you discard it.


Almost all experts agree that the best test for Bakelite is the Simichrome test: It's foolproof! Simichrome is a metal polishing paste that is a faint tannish-pink in color. Take a small amount of Simichrome and apply it to a Q-tip. Rub it onto the plastic in question, and if the plastic turns the cream to a mustard color, you know you have Bakelite.

NOTE: Do the Simichrome test on a portion of the piece that won't show (such as the back of the piece) and don't rub hard - you don't need to. Also, clean your piece with soap and water before you perform the test, and clean it again afterwards.

There are other chemicals and methods that people advise, but none of them are as non-invasive or as conclusive as the Simichrome test. For instance, some people suggest a hot pin (which can crack, melt, or burn the object). I've also heard other chemicals recommended which can permanently dull or mar the finish of a piece.

So, trust me: Invest in Simichrome polish. It's truly worth it and it's not that expensive (it runs about $10, on average). You can purchase it on Ebay or you may be able to find it locally at a hardware or car parts store.


Your piece may still be collectible and may be worth as much, or more. Run it under very hot tap water: How does it smell?

Perhaps it smells like wet wool, mothballs, or another strong chemical smell. If so, it's likely that your piece is celluloid.

Perhaps it smells like burnt or sour milk. If so, you probably are holding a piece of Galalith (a.k.a. French Bakelite).


The Lazy Iguana said...

Why is the stuff no longer made?

Saur♥Kraut said...

Hey hon! You know, I have no idea. I guess it's because modern plastics are more maleable. For instance, a bangle can be made in two parts, then sealed together. Old fashioned plastics were brittle and once they were formed, there was no way that they could be reheated and shaped in any way, or forged together. I also believe modern plastics are cheaper to produce and, of course, there's the chemical compositions. Bakelite had some pretty toxic stuff in it. Still, it's amazingly durable stuff!

The Lazy Iguana said...

Well toxic stuff aside, an evil capitalist such as myself might just produce fake "antique" plastic by making new bakelite.

The new boat (ends) justify the means.

Saur♥Kraut said...

Lazy, I've often wondered about that. There IS imitation Bakelite out there, but it's not made the same way. I would think that true imitations that would hold up to testing would be highly lucrative.