Bakelite Determination

Hi, could someone please tell me how to determine if a item is truly
bakelite? I heard there is some kind of test using Dow “scrubby
bubbles”. Is this a method, and how does it determine real bakelite?
Appreciate any help. Thank you so much. Sandy

Sandra, If you can afford to cause a minute fault on the piece, you
can do the following: Heat a needle or icepick to red heat and touch
the piece in an inconspicious place. IMMEDIATELY sniff the heated
area. If it is Bakelite, it will smell like Phenol=Carbolic acid=
Lifebuoy Soap (If you are old enough to remember that.)
Regards…Bob Williams

Hi, could someone please tell me how to determine if a item is truly

Scrape a small sliver off the object; the sliver need be no more than
a millimetre. Either hold it in a pair of tweezers, or on a bit of
metal, and heat it in a flame; even a match flame will do. Carefully
smell the vapour or smoke. A phenolic smell as of carbolic indicates
a phenol formaldehyde plastic such as bakelite. A fruity smell
indicates a plastic very similar to perspex or lucite. A waxy smell
indicates polythene or polypropylene. Burnt feathers or hair indicates
an epoxy resin. cheers, – John Burgess; @John_Burgess2 of Mapua
Nelson NZ

Hi, Sandy - There are several things to keep in mind when attempting
to determine if something is bakelite:

  1. Bakelite is heavier than other early plastics, and makes a lovely
    clunking sound when items such as bangles are knocked together.

  2. If it is a piece of jewelry, you will not see mold lines.

  3. Oxidation - bakelite develops a definite patina over time. Early
    bakelite came in a very limited range of darker colors. As the
    process and formula progressed, colors became brighter and more
    transparent, and the fillers and dyes have a wide range of stability.
    Aged bakelite always mellows in color. Clear bakelite turns into the
    popular applejuice color, white develops a patina and becomes
    butterscotch, greens can mellow into pea greens or khakis, blues
    generally turn green. The patina can be very desirable, or it is
    sometimes polished away to reveal the original color.

  4. A piece of jewelry, or any item, really, will also have a surface
    patina of fine scratches and pitting, which is good evidence of age.
    Bakelite is not made anymore, but there is old stock around which is
    being made into new jewelry - some of which is meant to deceive the
    customer and to look like old jewelry in order to get higher prices,
    and some of which is used by honest craftspeople. Old plain bangles
    are commonly carved by both honest and dishonest craftspeople.

  5. Hot water test - if you can get the item wet (i.e. if there are no
    rhinestones, leather, wood, string, etc. attached to it), run it
    under hot tap water for about 30 seconds and then smell it. Bakelite
    has a distinctive odor - once smelled it is never forgotten. American
    made bakelite gives off a stronger odor than European made.

  6. 409/Scrubbing Bubbles/Dow Bathroom Cleaner (non-bleach) test:
    Make sure you do this in a discrete area, such as the inside of a
    bracelet or the back of a pin, as it can mar the finish of your item.
    Spray a small amount onto a q-tip and lightly rub a small area of your
    bakelite. Bakelite will leave a yellowish stain on the q-tip
    (European made leaves a more brownish stain). Immediately wash your
    piece. It the chemical has left an unsightly mark, polish with

HOWEVER, sometimes a piece will simply not meet these criteria. Some
bakelite doesn’t give off a smell under hot water, and sometimes you
can’t even do the hot water test. The chemical tests react only to
the oxidized patina of aged bakelite, so if the finish on your piece
has been stripped recently by buffing or polishing, or it is a newly
made piece of jewelry, it will probably not test positive. Sometimes,
the chemical test doesn’t work at all. Sometimes, you simply have to
make an educated assumption and go with your instincts.

You should also be aware that the term bakelite is sometimes used by
people to mean any old plastic, although it should mean only the
phenolics. Technically, bakelite was a brand name for a
phenol-formaldehyde plastic. Later brand names were Catalin and

One of my favorite books on the subject is “Bakelite Bangles” by
Karima Perry. Great info and lots of fabulous pictures.

That’s basically it, although I’m sure I left something out. I’ve
been fascinated by bakelite jewelry since I was a kid, so I collect
it, and as a jeweler and lapidary you know I can’t leave anything
alone, so I’ve started to learn about working with the stuff, too. If
you have any other questions I’ll do my best to answer them.


Hi John: I don’t have an answer but I have a story you may not have
heard about Bakelite. In the 20’s and 30’s manufacturers made cigarette
holders among many other pieces of jewelry out of Bakelite.
Unfortunately, Bakelite has a tendency to “explode” when near fire, so
many woman got their face or fingers burned from using Bakelite
cigarette holders or so the story goes. I have a collection of
Bakelite but am not interested in testing the story out.


An antique dealer once showed me how to test for genuine Bakelite:
you rub the item on your clothing really fast and hard until it gets
hot, then smell it. It has a distinctive burnt smell which other
plastics don’t have. Can’t really describe it, but once you’ve smelled
it you don’t forget.

Rene Roberts

No no no no no! Never use the hot needle test! You will greatly
reduce or even destroy the value of an item (and some pieces of
jewelry are fetching thousands of dollars these days). You could also
get hurt - your item might be made of celluloid, which is flammable.
Use your eyes, your ears, the hot water and/or 409 test (see my
previous email on the subject). kara

           Unfortunately, Bakelite has a tendency to "explode" when
near fire, so many woman got their face or fingers burned from using
Bakelite  cigarette holders or so the story goes...snip 

Sounds more like a story about celluloid, not Bakelite.

Centerpart Studio

Christine, I think the story about exploding Bakelite cigarette
holders somehow got jumbled as it passed thru many mouth-to-mouth
interpretations. Bakelite is a highly cross linked polymer that does
not melt, is difficult to burn and certainly does not explode when
heated. HOWEVER, at about the same time that Bakelite came out,
another polymer called “Celluloid” was very popular. Celluloid was
made from Nitrocellulose, which is extremely flammable and indeed
explosive. In fact, Bakelite was invented to replace celluloid which
was used in the manufacture of billiard (pool) balls. Incidentally,
movie film from the 20s and 30s was also made from Celluloid. Many a
movie theater burned to the ground when film caught fire from the
heat of the projection lamps. Regards…Bob Williams

Robert: You may be right…I knew it was one or the other…I
collected Celluloid before Bakelite so that makes sense…

thank you for the clarification Christine