Thursday, September 29, 2011

Bakelite in Photography

Bakelite is an early plastic or resin made from synthetic materials. It was developed in the early 1900's and used to make items such as jewelry, billiard balls, toys and game pieces, radios, flatware sets, and many other products produced from the early to mid 20th century. In photographic equipment, the most common items produced in Bakelite were cameras, light meters, lens caps and cases, developing tanks, and projectors. Kodak and Coronet are two of the more popular brands to use Bakelite regularly.
Coronet camera made of Bakelite
The manufacturing process was labor intensive and the material was formed from an elimination reaction of phenol with formaldehyde, usually with a wood flour filler. It is still being produced occasionally for industrial uses, but no longer for consumer merchandise due to the labor and cost involved to produce. This makes Bakelite fall into the “retro” or “vintage” material category, and is often classified as a rare and more valuable plastic than modern plastics. Because there are so many different types of plastic, and some are very similar to Bakelite, it is often questionable as to whether an item is truly made of Bakelite or not. When it comes to vintage cameras, being made of Bakelite typically isn't a huge concern as it is with vintage jewelry, but the retro aspect still appeals to some camera collectors. Some cameras were only made out of Bakelite, and in these cases, it's easiest to check a McKeown's for that information. Otherwise, there are also a few manual tests you can perform to determine if the plastic is indeed Bakelite.

Lens cap made of Bakelite
Appearance and sound tests: Bakelite is a heavy, denser material than most plastics. It typically feels thicker and has a smooth finish. The finishing methods used to produce Bakelite removed any seams in the material so true Bakelite shouldn't have edges that visibly come together- it should look like it's all one piece. There were also certain colors that were and were not produced in the material and can be researched further for more detailed inspecting. The sound of two pieces of Bakelite clanking together typically produces a lower-pitched “clunky” sound. The sound is a little more subjective though, and shouldn't be solely relied upon as a testing method.

Smell tests: Because Bakelite contains formaldehyde, it has a certain smell when it's warmed. You can warm the material by rubbing your fingers over it creating friction until it's warm, or by immersing the piece in hot water. Some places also recommend a hot pin or needle test to test for smell, but this is NOT a good idea since some plastics are flammable, and the hot pin test can also damage the piece by leaving a melted mark on it. The intensity of the smell can vary, and this only works if you already know what formaldehyde smells like.

Cleaner tests: 409 All Purpose Cleaner, Scrubbing Bubbles, and Simichrome Metal Polish are all known products used to test for Bakelite. For these tests, you put some cleaner on a cotton swab and then wipe it on a small area of the Bakelite. If the swab turns yellow, it's Bakelite. If it turns any other color- brown, gray, no color, then it's not. Be sure to clean off the Bakelite or other plastic after using the cleaner with a little soap and water and keep in mind that cleaners may strip some of the shine from the Bakelite, so proceed with these tests with caution and do your test in a small, discreet spot.
Light meter made of Bakelite
Although many people stand by these different tests, keep in mind that none of these tests are always 100% conclusive. For example, black Bakelite is said to be finickier in testing than other colors. And if you're not already familiar with what the material smells, feels, and sounds like, then some of these tests won't be able to help you.

Click here to find in-stock Bakelite items at