6 Ways to Identify Bakelite

Using Your Senses to Discern Phenolic Plastics

 First and foremost, never use the hot pin test to determine whether something is or is not made of Bakelite

Some older plastics (like celluloid, for example) are very flammable, and a hot pin can be dangerous to not only the plastic but to you as well. If that's the only test you're familiar with at this point, don't worry. There are many other ways to test valuable Bakelite pieces that are much safer, and several of them only require your senses to accomplish. Remember though, it's good to employ more than one of these tests until you get very comfortable identifying Bakelite.

It's true that some folks well-versed in Bakelite identification recommend the hot water test (learn more about this easy test below) as the standard when it comes to accurately identifying this form of plastic. While this has proven to be an effective method of testing to release the formaldehyde-like scent of Bakelite, most pickers trying to learn about vintage plastics don't have access to hot water when making buying decisions in the middle of a flea market field. Given this fact, it's wise to learn various methods to identify Bakelite rather than finding out after the fact that you have made a costly mistake.

Again, you may need to employ more than one test to rule out a false positive (or negative) result. Use all your senses in concert to help you determine whether or not an object you are examining is Bakelite. 

  • 01 of 06

    Testing by Sound

    vintage Bakelite Bangles
    Nick Young/Moment Open/Getty Images

    One way to start learning about Bakelite identification is listening for the familiar "clunk" when two pieces you know to be Bakelite are tapped together. This very distinctive sound is often heard when two or more bangles made of this popular plastic are worn at the same time.

    Try gently tapping two pieces of another type of plastic together, and compare the sound to two pieces of true Bakelite the next time you're out shopping where this type of plastic is on display. You'll need to do other tests, of course, to confirm but this is a good point of departure. 

  • 02 of 06

    Testing by Feel

    Carved Bakelite Bangle
    Carved Bakelite Bangle. Photo by Jay B. Siegel for ChicAntiques.com

    Consider the weight of a piece of plastic jewelry. Bakelite feels heavier when compared to some other types of plastics, like celluloid as one example.

    Hold another type of plastic you have identified in one hand, and a piece you know to be Bakelite of approximately the same size in the other. You will often notice the heavier feel of Bakelite. Again, more testing will be required to confirm, but this is another good test to know when out shopping in the field. 

  • 03 of 06

    Testing by Smell

    Carved Wood Turtle Dress Clip with Bakelite Back
    Carved Wood Turtle Dress Clip with Bakelite Back. Photo by Jay B. Siegel for ChicAntiques.com

    Rub the item in question vigorously with your thumb until you feel the plastic heat up. Then, before it cools, take a whiff. A distinct chemical odor similar to formaldehyde will linger with most genuine Bakelite. This often takes a bit of practice, but it works well for many people while out shopping.

    Some noses find better results when the piece of plastic is placed under very hot running tap water before sniffing it. This test works well with bangle bracelets that are made entirely of Bakelite, and is a very good way to confirm a piece once you get it home.

    With pieces like the clip shown here, the wood may be damaged and discolored if it gets wet. If wood is present, it's best to stick to other methods of testing only the Bakelite portion of the piece that do not involve immersing it in hot water.    

  • 04 of 06

    Testing by Sight - Using Simichrome Polish

    Bakelite Figural Candleholders
    Bakelite Figural Candleholders. Photo by Jay B. Siegel for ChicAntiques.com

    Simichrome Polish is a non-abrasive cream formulated to clean metals. You can also use it to test Bakelite for authenticity, and this is the preferred method for many plastics lovers (although others prefer the hot water test mentioned above).

    To test with Simichrome, sparingly apply a dab of the cream to a soft cloth and gently rub a small spot on the inside or back of the item being tested. If it is Bakelite, the cloth should turn yellow with ease (although the color may vary from light to dark). If a piece is laquered, it may test negative. Black Bakelite pieces often fail this test as well. Use the other tests above, especially the hot water test, to confirm authenticity if a piece you suspect to be Bakelite fails with Simichrome.

    Bakelite testing pads are also an alternative to carrying a tube of Simichrome polish with you when you shop. These easy-to-stow pads provide a similar result to Simichrome or the 409 method mentioned below, and have proven to be quite reliable. Following up with the hot water test when you get home is also an option. 

    Continue to 5 of 6 below.
  • 05 of 06

    Testing by Sight - Using Formula 409 Cleaner

    Victorian Revival mourning motif brooch with empty acorn cup signifying loss, c. 1930s
    Victorian Revival mourning motif brooch with empty acorn cup signifying loss, c. 1930s. Photo by Jay B. Siegel for ChicAntiques.com

    Scrubbing Bubbles was once the standard cleaner to use for Bakelite testing, but Formula 409 is now recommended instead. To use, dampen a cotton swab with 409 and rub it gently on the inside of the item being tested. If it is Bakelite, the swab will turn yellow.

    If a piece is laquered, it may test negative with 409. Black Bakelite pieces often fail this test as well. Use the other tests above, especially the hot water test, to confirm authenticity if a piece you strongly suspect to be Bakelite fails with 409. 

  • 06 of 06

    Testing by Sight - Inspect the Piece Closely

    Carved Bakelite Cuff Bracelet
    Carved Bakelite Cuff Bracelet. Photo by Jay B. Siegel for ChicAntiques.com

    Look for wear scratches and patina that very new pieces of plastic don't normally exhibit. Also look for tiny chips on the edges of carving. Examine the piece with a jeweler's loupe or another type of magnifier, if needed. Generally, an old piece of Bakelite will exhibit some minor scratching and wear, even though it is in excellent condition by a collector's standards and may be quite valuable.

    Also keep in mind that Bakelite will not have mold seams that can be present in other types of plastic jewelry. With some practice, you'll learn to use all your senses to correctly identify Bakelite.