Introduction: Restore Bakelite to Original Finish

Bakelite is an early plastic, developed at the start of the 20th century.  It was one of the first synthetic plastics ever to be produced.   All those beautiful old radios that you see for sale in antique stores are most likely made from Bakelite.   Also made from Bakelite was a lot of electrical appliances such as light switches, telephones, and also wire insulation.  The reason why it worked so well was it's high resistance - not only to electricity, but to heat and chemical action.


Ok - enough of the history lesson.   This Instructable is about how to restore Bakelite to its original shine and lustre.  Over time Bakelite starts to oxidise due to sunlight and over time will become dull.  The surface has a thin layer of oxidised material which can be removed with some careful cleaning.  

So if you have some plastic that is Bakelite and need to clean - read on.

Here's a very old promo reel on Bakelite for those who want to learn more about Bakelite.  Tip - skip through the first 6 minutes as this is just an interview and is very tedious.


Oh and if your not too sure if it is Baklite or not, run the item under hot tap water. If it smells like formaldehyde, it is Bakelite. If it smells like camphor or burnt milk, it is not Bakelite.

Step 1: Restoring Light Switches. Removing the Screws

In this Instructable I will be restoring some old light light switches.  I rescued these from an old shearing shed  near where we go camping.  We had been camping in the area for over 20 years and the shed has deteriorated so much that it wont be long until someone decides to tear it down.

1.  The first step is to remove all of the screws holding the cowling on.  

2.  If the screws are rusty put them into some rust remover and let them soak for 30 minutes.

*Safety*
Please make sure that you always were a face mask when dealing with Bakelite.  It can be dangerous to breath in the dust when polishing.




Step 2: Clean the Bakelite

As you can see from the photos bellow, the switches were very dull and dirty.  As mentioned before, they had been in a shearing shed for over 70 years so it's no wonder their condition was poor.

Steps.

1.  Clean with either some soapy water or a non acidic product.  I used a foaming window cleaning as I find it removed the dirt well.

2.  Spray with the cleaner and let sit for a couple of minutes.

3.  Clean with a rag and wipe off all excess cleaner.

Step 3: Buffing With a Grinder

I have a grinder with a buffing wheel attached so I used this to restore my switches.  If you don''t have one don't worry, you can also do the same with with elbow grease!

Steps:

1.  Add some buffing agent to the wheel.  I used a car polisher to do the job.

2.  Start to press the cowling against the wheel.  You can add some pressure but just remember, Bakelite can become brittle over time so try and determine how much pressure to add.   Also, keep a good hold on the cowling, you don't want it to fly off and smash on the ground.

3.  Keep moving the cowling around, don't let the polishing wheel stay too long in one place as it will heat-up the Bakelite and it will change colour.

4.  Keep going until you have removed all oxidised coating.

5.  The finish should come to a high shine.

Step 4: Buffing Manually

Steps:

1.  Grab some Brasso and work it into the Bakelite.  You will need to use some elbow grease and it can take some time to remove all of the oxidisation.

2.  Use another cloth to wipe off any excess Brasso and polish it well.

3.  If you  notice a couple of spots not quite shining, then repeat the process until you have the desired finish.  Just remember to give the switch a good polish with a clean rag after you have done with the brasso.


Step 5: Finishing Touches

Steps:

1.  Finally clean off any rust remover from the screws and replace back into the switches

2.  Give one finial polish to the switches and your done.

Comments

author
lazyletters (author)2017-07-07

I just restored some walnut bakelite handles from an old house. I scraped off the white paint where they had been not removed prior to painting the doors, and then hand cleaned with hob cleaner, it's a mild abrasive in a liquid base, with just a soft cloth. It cleaned off the paint residue and buffed them up nicely and quite quickly. I'm going for a car wax for the final finish as the carnuba wax is a bit more durable than bees wax. As they are handles and still in use, they were not as bad as these light switches.

author
mjursic (author)2014-01-22

Here's a question for everybody that almost everybody gets wrong--how is it pronounced? If you guessed, like almost every antique dealer I have ever known ever--bake-uh-lite, then you guessed wrong. It's bake-lite. 2 syllables. Now you know!

author
RetroPlayer (author)mjursic2014-06-01

Odd. I have never once in my lifetime heard it pronounced bake-uh-lite. Doesn't even make sense why someone would pronounce it that way.

author
DavidL812 (author)RetroPlayer2017-01-14

I think it is named after its inventor, Leo Baekeland, whose name is in three syllables. Why the "ae" in his name got changed to "a" in the product, I don't know.

author
flim (author)RetroPlayer2015-03-27

I am Dutch and we pronounce it bah-kuh-leet :)

author
mjursic (author)RetroPlayer2014-06-01

I agree! As a generalization, Toronto antique dealers don't. I've been corrected for not szying bake-uh-lite. Thanks for confirmation. Good instructable.

author
mjursic (author)mjursic2016-10-05

I got it wrong. It's Bake-uh-lite. Sorry, 3 years on.

author
Yonatan24 (author)mjursic2016-10-05

I thought it was pronounced something like "Bahk-ul-ite".

author
daniel.titus (author)mjursic2015-04-09

watch the historic video embedded above. It is correctly pronounced Bake-uh-lite. Not bake-lite.

author
grannyjones (author)2015-06-05

I believe Bakelite is still used in circuit breakers, just not the gorgeous brown color.

author
goodcookedfood (author)2015-04-21

Can anyone point me in the direction of someone I can hire to repair some bakelite for me? thanks

author
ray.dadd.1 (author)2014-11-27

Hi all
I'm from the uk and thought I would mention that Bakelite contains asbestos . In the uk it would be against the law to reinstall this product .
Please be careful with these products .

author
flim (author)ray.dadd.12015-03-27

It can contain asbestos. Other additives can be sawdust, rock dust, paper or textile fibers. Another version of bakelite is duroplast. Bakelite is just a patented brandname.

author
ray.dadd.1 (author)2014-11-27

http://www.asbestos.com/products/general/plastics.php

author
Mollybracha (author)2014-11-21

Hi, I have a question that may be a challenge. Is there a method for removing mold from Bakelite mah jongg tiles? I restore vintage mah jongg sets and have been unable to find anything that addresses this specifically.

Thank you in advance for your thoughts in this.

author
Deltic (author)2014-01-22

Nice job! - It always pays to remember that when you're polishing something what you're actually doing is abrading the surface. This process leaves lots of tiny scratches & Brasso is a fairly rough abrasive medium. As a former metal polisher I would always recommend 'Silvo' or toothpaste as a finer product, leaving a much better polished finish. As pointed out below this will need protecting to prevent it deteriorating once again, especially as it will receive a lot of handling. I would be inclined to give it 2 or 3 coats of clear automotive lacquer to keep it looking good.

author
lonesoulsurfer (author)Deltic2014-01-27

Great advice - I'm going to add something to the end of the instructable about adding clear lacquer. Do you have any brands you could recommend?

author

I use wax and polish it well this lasts a long time.

author
Deltic (author)lonesoulsurfer2014-01-28

Since there is a huge variance in brands depending on country I'd just use a reputable Motor Factors & ask their advice. You will lose a little bit of the shine but that's normal & is a small price to pay for the convenience. Don't forget to thoroughly clean off any polishing residue with soap & hot water prior to lacquering.

author
terezi (author)2014-02-07

I've always heard that Bakelite dust is very dangerous to breathe and that it is why it's no longer made (except the Chinese variant that some people call "fakelite"). I don't see any mention of using a mask, but I know some Bakelite artists (who carve old-stock) and they ALWAYS use a mask.

author
sconner1 (author)2014-01-30

Would you reccomend a light wax polish to stave off new oxidation?

author
Blaise_Gauba (author)2014-01-21

Wow...great job! I love Bakelite objects (I don't know why), but all the same, there's something about things made out of that stuff. Just too cool. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

author

Agree - I remember my grandma having products in her house made of the material. Brings back happy memories.

author

Yeah...I just remember handling Bakelite pieces and how much I really liked them.

author
shteef (author)2014-01-20

They look lovely, great job. You might find they oxidise again quite quickly after you've cleaned them up. Once they look nice and shiny, give them a good coat of automotive car plush and then buff them. The wax will protect their shine. They look nice with brass screws too, but that's just my personal taste.

great job though

author
lonesoulsurfer (author)shteef2014-01-27

Great advice. I want to do this to the switches and add something to the instructable - do you have any brands you could recommend?

author
mscearce (author)2014-01-21

Nice! I'm restoring a 66 Austin Healey that has a bunch of bakelite in the interior. This will make restoring it alot easier. Thanks.

author
lonesoulsurfer (author)mscearce2014-01-27

Anytime - hope your restoration goes well, sounds like a fun project

author
jeffritzmann (author)2014-01-22

Don't get me wrong, they look great. But, you can use metal polish on Bakelite to bring the original shiny finish back without scratching, and it looks even better than this. No buffing wheel needed, you can easily remove the oxidation by hand. All in one step. You'll want a basic metal polish creme, one that can be used for all metals. It usually comes in a tube. I use Flitz brand, and it works amazingly well, and is fast and easy.

author

I decided to take the easy way out and use a buffer for most of these. They were pretty heavily oxidised.

The ones I did do with hand though using Brasso turned out just as good, it just took a lot longer.

author
Chickadees (author)2014-01-23

Great process! Thanks much for sharing it.

author

Anytime

author
MrBillG59 (author)2014-01-24

Would it do any good to give the polished bakelite item a coat of clear spray paint to help preserve it?

author
lonesoulsurfer (author)MrBillG592014-01-27

I'm not too sure but it's probably worth trying on one and seeing how it turns out. I know that people use a car polish wax to give it a coat.

author
NitroRustlerDriver (author)2014-01-24

Here is more information on what "Bakelite" really is.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phenolic_resin

Phenolic resin and cotton cloth are laminated together into sheets (much like fiberglass) and used in the aircraft industry for electrical insulators and other parts. It machines similar to wood and is very mess. You end up with a fine gritty dust when it is machined. Bakelite is essentially the same stuff, only instead of cotton cloth, it is mixed with wood flour and formed into the final product.

author

Great info - thanks

author
oilitright (author)2014-01-21

This is a great structable. In one picture is something that really caught my eye. The grinder with the 3rd wheel which looks like a buffing wheel. What sort of arbor adapter is needed? I've never seen this and it would be a real aid as I use several grinders in my shop and not having to change out some different wheels would be pretty cool.

author
duncan_a (author)oilitright2014-01-22

You can normally find conical 'pig tail' adaptors. the conical part screws into the centre of the buffing wheel (they're usually just layers of fabric stitched together) and the other end is sized to fit the thread of the grinder. Remember the direction of rotation though...

author
oilitright (author)duncan_a2014-01-22

I Google searched and didn't find anything. If I can't find something online I usually am up a creek, living in places 100 miles from a real city has it's drawbacks. I'll remember it though and you never know I might stumble across one someday. Thanks again.

author
duncan_a (author)oilitright2014-01-22

This was one I just tripped over - http://www.caswellplating.com/buffing-polishing/buffing-adapters/tapered-buffing-spindle-left-thread-5-8-bore.html - the search terms were "buffing wheel bench grinder" - hope that helps, there should be some on eBay I would think...

author
MrBillG59 (author)duncan_a2014-01-24

Two of those will cost you $30. If you have the space, I bought a dedicated polishing machine (a bench grinder with the extended shaft and two cloth wheels) from Harbor Freight for about $50. That's not much more money and it will take the load off your bench grinder. You need to have the extra space, though.

author
MrBillG59 (author)MrBillG592014-01-24

http://www.harborfreight.com/6-inch-buffer-94393.h...

http://www.harborfreight.com/8-inch-buffer-40668.html

author
emerson.john (author)2014-01-21

Synthetic plastics? As opposed to, say, organic plastics? Your finished product looks great!

author
grunthos (author)emerson.john2014-01-23

Yes, that's correct. Casein is a good example of an organic plastic:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casein#Plastics_and_...

http://www.plastiquarian.com/index.php?id=60

author
louis.m (author)2014-01-22

Nice Instructable, but I have one comment, you start with:

Bakelite is an early plastic, . . .

Actually it's not a plastic, plastic is short for thermoplastic wich means that is softens and eventualy melts when heatend.

Bakelite is the opposite, it's a thermohardening phenol formaldehydde synthetic (becomes rigid when heated), named after it's inventor the chemist L. Baekeland , born in Belgium who lived and worked in the USA , but even Wikipedia.org makes the mistake of calling it a plastic !

author
Kevanf1 (author)louis.m2014-01-22

Mmm, actually, yes Bakelite is an early 'plastic'. The term does not originate from thermoplastic. This is merely a term to, as you rightly state, to describe an artificial material that is in a plastic state when heated or reheated. This is Modern plastics are either thermosetting like Bakelite (capital because it was a trademarked product) or thermoplastic. Thermosetting plastics can not be softened and remodelled with heat while thermoplastic 'plastics' can. The term was used in the beginning of the manufacture and discovery of artificial materials.

author
Bgallentine (author)2014-01-21

Um - it's what it sounded like to me too, Steve -

author
Tom Hargrave (author)2014-01-21

Be careful working with Bakelite. A lot of old Bakelite contains asbestos filler. It's perfectly safe because the asbestos is trapped inside the plastic but cutting or grinding will release some of the asbestos into the air.

author
dimdiode (author)2014-01-21

good work, they look great

author
Gregbot (author)2014-01-20

cool! thanks!

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Bio: I've always liked pulling things apart - it's the putting back together again that I have some issues with.
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