Bakelite and catalin: Collectible early plastics

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vintage catalin radio

Bakelite and catalin are trade names for closely related antique plastics that are popularly collected today in the form of old timey radios (‘catalin radios’), colorful jewelry, toys and more. The following is an introduction to the plastics and an identification guide.

Bakelite and catalin are both made from phenol and formaldehyde, and are phenol formaldehyde resins. Because of this they have many of the same characteristics.  However, the two were made in different ways so also have distinct differences.

Bakelite was made by from 1907-27.  Bakelite used filler of cloth, paper, cotton and even sometimes asbestos. This meant the plastic was heavy, very strong, opaque and came in only dark colors. Bakelite usually came in only black and dark brown, and was used usually used for ‘utilitarian’ purposes, including pipe fittings, coffee pot handles, and electrical outlets.

antique coffee pot with a bakelite handle

antique coffee pot with a dark brown bakelite handle

When Bakelite’s patent ran out in 1927, the process was picked up by the American Catalin Company which called their version of the plastic catalin. The American Catalin Company used the same phenol formaldehyde chemicals, but made the plastic in is a different way. In particular no fillers were used. This meant that, unlike the dark and dreary Bakelite, catalin was often translucenct and made in a wide variety of bright colors and interesting designs, including a marble of different colors. Catalin was used for more fun, decorative and collectible items, including jewelry, toys, trinkets, decorated boxes, brightly colored radios. Catalin tended to shrink with age, which explains for the sometimes warped and shunken frames for catalin radios. Catalin was made from 1928 to about World War II.

antique catalin napkin holder

Antique catalin napkin holder.  Bright colors like this means it’s catalin not bakelite.

Collectors and dealers mixing up the names.

As they are such closely related plastics, collectors and dealers often get the names mixed up, calling catalin bakelite, and bakelite catalin. Most so called ‘bakelite jewelry’ on the market is actually catalin. Some sellers on eBay and elsewhere play it safe and call it ‘bakelite catalin.’

Happily, both plastics are vintage (1907-WWII), so if you know its one of the two but aren’t sure which, you can be at least confident the item is old. You can even use the catch all ‘phenol formaldehyde resin’ to cover them both, though that might not sound as romantic as sale.

antique catalin toy motorcycle

antique catalin toy motorcycle

Identification of bakelite and catalin

First I’ll show the tests to used to identify phenol formeldahyde– meaning both bakelite and catalin. As they are both made of the same chemicals, these test for both. Then, once something is identified as phenol formaldehyde, we’ll look at how to differentiate between the two.

Bakelite/catalin general appearance: Bakelite and catalin is heavy and clunky. It makes a distinct sound when two pieces are clinked against each other. Visually, there should be no seams or mold marks. There is no pure white in color, as the whites formed a yelllowish patina with time.

Bakelite/catalin hot water and rub test:  Hold the plastic under hot water for perhaps 15 seconds, then smell it. If it smells strongly like medicinal chemicals, then it likely is bakelite/catalin. Though it doesn’t work as well, you can rub the plastic with your them and sniff for the strong medicinal small.

Lucite, a plastic that can resemble bakelite/catalin has no smell under the hot water/rub test. ‘French bakelite,’ which is a mostly modern faux-bakelite, smells like burnt or sour milk.

Bakelite/catalin polish test: The common metal polisher called simichrome polish can help identify Bakelite. If you rub a q-tip with simichrome polish on bakelite or catalin, the polish on the q-tip will turn yellow. Simichrome polish is available at many hardware stores and online. The same test works with Dow Bathroom Cleaner or 409.

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marble-style catalin radio

So, then, is it Bakelite or Catalin?

If you can determined an item is phenol formaldehyde, the next  question is is bakelite or catalin. If you know the date of the item, then it’s easy. Bakelite: 1907-1927. Catalin: 1928-1940s.  Bakelite only comes in dark colors, usually black or dark brown. Catalin can come in a wide variety of color colors, including bright colors and marbling. Bakelite is opaque, while catalin is often translucent (can often see this at the edges of an item). If the item is brightly colored jewelry or similar items, it is more than probably catalin.

51N2vrbXdhL._SX307_BO1,204,203,200_Purchase a copy of Identifying Common Materials in Antiques

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