Bakelite help

Hello, Orchid! I was hoping someone might be able to help out a
friend of my boyfriend by giving him some advice on Bakelite and
possible alternatives. JD Sauser is an instrument maker/ pedal steel
guitar player and I have given him advice on metals in the past.
Unfortunately, I don’t know much about Bakelite and plastics so I was
hoping one of the knowledgable Orchid members might help him out.
Thanks for your time! Juliet Gamarci

I looked into this for quite some time. Bakelite is probably the
world’s first “plastic”. There are more modern versions of it
still used for knobs, handles and other industrial and
electrical parts. The problems inherent with the use of
bakelite have a close tie to what you also love so much to hear
when it’s used on a guitar like the early Rickenbacher
“B”-series: It’s heavy (mass) and therefor it sounds mellow, but
it’s also brittle (porous), so it breaks easily, BUT it also
sustains very well and won’t suck up those overtones, all
because of the fact that it is brittle. A similar thing happens
with aluminum: Cast aluminum has a similar mass and it is also
quite brittle. When it brakes, the broken section will look very
similar to broken bakelite… porous. Again it sustains well
(but it’s not as mellow as bakelite). Now try extruded
aluminum… it’s not the same at all. You can not break extruded
aluminum (OK, some of you can break it, I’m sure… ), you can
bend it. Therefor it won’t sustain much and will suck up a good
portion of your overtones… as a mater of fact it sounds like
$#!## (IMNSHO). That’s why I can’t understand how some of
today’s PSG-builder can be using extrusion aluminum (milled) for
their guitar’s necks and say that it adds to their sound. If
they’re lucky, it won’t do too much to their sound. Ever seen a
bell made out of extrusion?

But anyway, back to the bakelite story. If you want the sound of
bakelite, you will need bakelite. And bakelite is really easy
to get by and it’s also very, very cheap… probably not even 5
bucks for a Rick-size steel (Yeah, I can already hear your
hearth pounding), BUT sorry, the problem is the molds. See,
bakelite is a “thermo-set” material, which means, it’s poured
under high pressure and heat. That’s when it makes it’s
“reaction” and actually becomes “bakelite”. Therefor the molds
have to be made of steel and mirror polished, because the finish
of your “little” bakelite guitar comes from the mold. You can
not polish bakelite after its cast and you can’t melt it, it’s a
one shot thing. What you see in the mold, is what you get. Now,
Ladies and Gentlemen, a mold of the size of a single neck lap
steel made to order today in the USA… ±$250000.oo… in Asia
~$150000.oo, or maybe only $100000.oo if you’re lucky. HERE IS

I’m still searching for alternatives…

Contact JD Sauser :

          Therefor the molds have to be made of steel and mirror
polished, because the finish of your "little" bakelite guitar comes
from the mold. You can not polish bakelite after its cast and you
can't melt it, it's a one shot thing. What you see in the mold, is
what you get. Now, Ladies and Gentlemen, a mold of the size of a
single neck lap steel made to order today in the USA...
+-$250000.oo... in Asia ~$150000.oo, or maybe only $100000.oo if
you're lucky. 

May I respond to this as a problem solving exercise, not as an

What you want is a dimensionally stable mold that can take heat and
pressure to hold the shape of the object while the thermosetting
plastic Bakelite cures. Since you can’t put cookware with bakelite
handles into the oven, presumably the curing temperature is modest
and under 400 deg F. Baekeland made the original discovery by mixing
phenol and formaldehyde under room temperature conditions.

Brass can handle this temperature quite easily and you can make your
own sand cast mold and finish the mold surface by hand grinding and
polishing. As you are making guitar parts you don’t need tolerances
in the thou inch. So taking a bit off here and there from the mold to
make a good fit and finish is good enough. You already have the
original part from which you can make a wax pattern for sand casting.

Kelvin Mok

Excellent suggestion, Kelvin! I think that direction would work for
them. I know also that CNC milling technology is getting pretty
widespread and more affordable. Perhaps such a mold could be
machined from solid brass stock. I would bet that the original part
could be “tracked” and the computer could reverse the dimensions and
cut. Also, since this might be a limited production run, I think I’d
call Cadillac Plastics, talk to a tech-rep, and see if there are
castable plastics that might even work at 400 degrees or so. A
plastic mold might possibly be taken directly from the original, then
finished out to compensate for shrinkage. (Just wood-shedding this
topic, in case these ideas strike anyone as idiotic, which I’ll allow
they could be.)

David L. Huffman

Hello - I missed the original question, so this may not apply, but as
a lover and collector of Bakelite jewelry I had to respond. First of
all, Bakelite definitely can be polished, using sequential sanding
steps and finishing up with Simichrome. Second, the major unique
characteristic of Bakelite is that once it has been created and formed
it cannot be remelted (although it can burn) - which is why it was
used in so many cooking utensils and tools like soldering guns. It
does tend to give off a harsh smell when it’s hot, though (which is
one way to determine if something really is Bakelite, and is probably
the reason you wouldn’t want to put it in the oven). There is old
stock around if someone wants to create something new. One of the
reasons it isn’t made anymore is because it’s a nasty process
involving carbolic acid and formeldahyde. If the goal is to repair a
guitar or build a new one, you might try scouring antique shops for
old guitars that could be cannibalized. I have seen a lot available
on ebay - you might check there to get an idea of what’s available.

Kara, I think you could also use an old Mahjong Set also known
as"Four Winds". I have a really nice old set, made from Bakelite. I
believe there have been some for sale on E-Bay. I have also seen alot
of jewelry made from the old pieces, however one could be used to make
the pieces of the guitar. Susan Chastain

My 2 cents worth on this is to question the “unworkability” of
bakelite. Maybe some experimentation would be in order.

I come from “use it up, wear it out, make it do…” background. The
bakelite knobs on our dutch oven and saucepan lids have gone into the
oven numerous times through 4 generations now, and while they are not
pretty they are essentially undamaged.

The family joke is that my dad could fix anything if you would just
give him some epoxy and flat black paint. I played a school owned
beat up bass clarinet at one time. The mouthpiece was a decrepit
bakelite tooth worn horror. Dad rebuilt that mouthpiece with his
epoxy and flat black paint, sculpting the shape to fit me perfectly.
His mold was made from aluminum foil and toothpicks as I recall.

That mouthpiece turned a piece of junk back into a musical
instrument. It’s sound was very true and deep, and my band director
was in awe. No appreciable wear occurred during the years I played
that clarinet.

The mouthpiece was truly Bakelite, not a similar material. If it
could be that badly cut up by decades of teeth, surely it can be
worked with commonly owned tools?

I know I made this letter longer than necessary - but I am really
proud of my Dad, and like to brag about him.

Donna Marie

Bakelite is used extensively in metallurgy to mount small samples for
polishing and comes in a granular form. These sample mounts are
normally made in a steel mold using 3000 - 4000 psi pressure and are
heated to approx. 250 - 300F. The bakelite does not melt and flow in
the mold, but rather the pressure causes it to plastically deform and
fill the mold. When the correct temperature is reached, the material
sets and can be removed from the mold while still hot. If pressure is
lost or is insufficient during the heating, it will not fill the mold
nor become completely solid.

One supplier of bakelite (for metallurgical use) is Buehler Ltd. @
800-295-7979 in Lake Bluff, Illinois