Trash To Treasure! How to Clean And Polish Bakelite Cheap and Fast!
How to Clean Bakelite
Bakelite is a synthetic plastic resin first produced over a century ago, and used in thousands of applications. Nowadays, Bakelite has been replaced by more modern plastics, and may be the first plastic to achieve vintage status. While tough, Bakelite will develop a hazy or dull finish when exposed to the elements. Specialized products are required to clean it safely and effectively, but the restored shine will last for many years if the Bakelite is kept out of direct sunlight.
Cleaning and Polishing Bakelite
Rub off dirt and dust.If there is dirt or dust on your Bakelite, clean it off by rubbing with a dry cloth. Use a dry toothbrush to reach small crevices, grooves, and cracks.
- If you are not 100% certain the material is Bakelite, use the methods in the identification section to confirm it before continuing. If you have a strong nose, you might notice a diagnostic smell while rubbing the plastic.
Select a cleaning product.There are several products commonly used to clean Bakelite. While these are often specialized and more expensive than general purpose cleaners, using one of the following is highly recommended. Bakelite requires a slightly abrasive cleaner to remove the deteriorated surface material, but can be permanently ruined if an overly abrasive cleaner eats through to the pulpy filler material inside.
- Use Magnolia Glayzit or Soft Scrub for slightly faded Bakelite.
- Use Brasso, Novus plastic polish, Simichrome metal polish, or an automobile rubbing compound to treat more severe fading and/or light scratches.Brasso is usually the cheapest, but may require more elbow grease.
Follow the safety instructions for your product.It's usually a good idea to wear gloves and work in an area with good ventilation. The warning label on the product you chose will provide more specific information.
Rub the product on with a cloth.Put a dollop of the cleaning product onto a clean, soft cloth. Rub it over the surface of the Bakelite in circular motions. You might notice some improvement immediately, but you do not need to achieve a fully restored shine in this step. Add more of the product onto the cloth whenever necessary.
- Do not apply a lot of pressure to Bakelite objects, especially if they are scratched or cracked, or you may wear through the outer surface and into the pulpy (and potentially toxic) filler material.
- Catalin objects, which includes most "Bakelite" jewelry and brightly colored Bakelite, do not have filler material and can be scrubbed as hard as you like.
Allow certain products to dry.If you are using Novus, Magnolia Glayzit, or an automobile rubbing compound, leave a thin layer of the material over the Bakelite surface until it dries to a cloudy or hazy film.Skip this step if you are using a different product.
Buff the Bakelite with a dry cloth.Use another clean, dry cloth to buff the Bakelite material until the excess cleaning product is removed and a shiny surface is left behind. Do this regardless of the cleaning product you chose.
- If necessary, repeat with another layer of cleaning product.
Use last resort methods.If several applications of the cleaning product fail to restore the shine or repair damage from scratches, you can use one of the following methods restore protection and an attractive appearance to the Bakelite. This is only recommended as a last resort, due to the possibility of damage:
- Use a high speed cloth buffing wheel tolightlysmooth the surface. Overuse can permanently remove the Bakelite's outer surface.
- Orvery lightly and evenly sand the Bakelite with finest grit sandpaper you can find (1000 grit or above). Once sanded, apply the cleaning product again, or cover the surface with paint.Again, over-sanding or using coarse sandpaper can permanently damage the Bakelite.
Identifying and Cleaning Early Plastics
Run the item under hot tap water for 15–30 seconds.This will cause many early plastics to release a distinct smell. This step is not recommended for broken items, or items with delicate non-plastic attachments. If the item is dirty, rub it with a cloth first to remove the dirt. If you have a sensitive nose, you may notice the smell simply from rubbing.
- A smell of formaldehyde means the plastic is Bakelite or Catalin. You might recognize the smell from preserved animal specimens in biology labs.
- A rotten milk smell comes from Galalith (French Bakelite).
- Camphor smell (a pungent evergreen or old-fashioned mothball odor), comes from celluloid.
- If there is no smell, it is probably Lucite, but could be a different plastic protected by a finish or paint.
- If the smell doesn't match any of the above descriptions, it's possible the piece is a modern "Fakelite" imitation product.
Rub with a test chemical.Use this method if the hot water test was inconclusive. You may use Simichrome, which can also be used for polishing, or Formula 409, which can cause damage but is a more accurate test.Either way, take a tiny dab of the material with a cotton swab, and rub it against an inconspicuous corner of the plastic that has been dried and rubbed clean of dirt. If the cotton swab comes away yellow or yellow-brown, the material is probably Bakelite.Otherwise, you may need to take it to an antique shop for identification.
- Wash off the material with mild soap and water, then dry immediately.
- Some black Bakelite objects, or Bakelite that has been recently re-worked, may not respond to this test.
Treat Bakelite and Catalin as described in other sections.Catalin is essentially the same material as Bakelite, and can be cleaned and polished using the same methods. In fact, since Catalin does not contain the pulpy "filler" materials used in Bakelite production, it can generally stand up better to slightly abrasive treatments, such as metal polish or sanding.If your object could use a stronger polish, check whether it is Catalin using these guidelines:
- Catalin was often produced in bright colors. Bakelite is usually brown or black unless it has been painted, but there are exceptions.
- Most "Bakelite" jewelry is actually made from Catalin.
Dry and clean celluloid.Celluloid is the only common early plastic that can be damaged by water, but if you dry it immediately after the water test, it will likely be unharmed. Use a soft cotton cloth or swab to dry the plastic, since celluloid can be easily scratched. A barely dampened cotton swab can remove small spots of discoloration, if dried immediately afterward, but further cleaning and repair may require an expert.
Clean Galalith.Galalith is a white, glossy plastic made from milk casein and formaldehyde. Dust it with a soft cloth, but avoid using chemical cleaners. If it is severely scratched, take it to an antique expert for repair.
Clean Lucite.First, rinse or scrub off dirt on the lucite surface. Use plastic polish to buff or repair scratches in this clear, acrylic plastic. To repair severe damage, you may need to use a polishing wheel.
- Novus brand plastic polish is likely the best-known. Use Novus 1 for buffing, Novus 2 for light to moderate scratches, and Novus 3 for deep scratches.
QuestionThe handle on my old revolver is probably bakelite. It smells like vomit, and I would like to get rid of the odor.Top AnswererBaking soda is effective in removing odor. It is generally placed next to the item with odor within a container that can be closed to provide an airtight seal. It is the equivalent of a box of baking soda in the fridge to capture odors. Another method is to wrap the item in a layer or two of clean white newsprint. Do not use newspaper as the ink can transfer onto plastic. Again, place the wrapped item into an airtight container. Use a gallon-size freezer bag if no container is available. It may take a couple of weeks for the odor to dissipate. Change the paper if the odor is still evident after two weeks.Thanks!
- The surface of Bakelite can change color as it is exposed to sun or heat. Don't be alarmed if your polishing reveals a different color underneath, as long as the material still has the same smooth, hard plastic feel.
- One Catalin owner successfully used Canola oil for some pieces, and melamine sponges for others. However, the Catalin objects were in good condition and had only recently been damaged by contact with very hot water.It is unclear whether these methods would work on Bakelite or Catalin that has accumulated more significant damage.
- Some of the products used to clean Bakelite can be difficult to find. Hardware stores may be able to place an order for you if they do not have the product in stock. You can sometimes find them at antique fairs, antique stores, and flea markets.
- Do not use the hot needle test or other harmful tests to identify plastic. Even if the test does not harm Bakelite, many similar plastics could melt or burn.
Things You'll Need
Liquid metal polish (or other cleaning product – see instructions)
Several clean cloths
Sources and Citations
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