Bakelite was the world’s first synthetic plastic, common in the first half of the 20th century but rarely used today. Many consumer goods used it into the 1950s, such as phones, radios and even some toys, such as Lionel transformers. When in good condition, Bakelite has an attractive appearance very distinctive from modern plastics. Here’s how to clean and polish Bakelite to bring out is unusual beauty.
Bakelite frequently is dull and dirty in as-found condition, but you can clean and polish it with household items. Bakelite frequently responds well to Dawn dish detergent.
Bakelite’s inherent attractiveness
When in good condition, Bakelite has a marbled appearance, much like a semiprecious stone. Due to its varied-color swirls, it was even used for jewelry in the mid-20th century.
When it’s clean and in good condition, Bakelite has a headturning appearance. It doesn’t quite look like wood or stone. But it definitely doesn’t have the sterile, monotonous appearance of modern plastic either. Since we don’t see it everywhere anymore, the novelty only increases its appeal.
We don’t use Bakelite much anymore. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with it. Modern plastics are much less expensive, lend themselves better to modern mass production, and are stronger in some applications. It’s not dangerous or anything. It’s just largely obsolete. That’s no reason to fear it.
Rule #1: First, do no harm
Always start with the gentlest methods first. There’s no going backward, but you can always step up a bit.
How to clean Bakelite
Bakelite dulls with time due to oxidation, detracting from its appearance. You can easily clean off the oxidation, along with dirt, while leaving its patina intact. Patina isn’t a bad thing, as it adds warmth and character to its appearance. It’s fine for a vintage object to look vintage. You just don’t want it to look dull and dirty.
Dampen a soft cloth with warm water, then add a drop of ordinary Dawn dish detergent. Dawn’s properties lend itself well to cleaning Bakelite. Gently scrub the surface with the cloth. If you can disassemble the item, soaking it for a good 30 minutes or more in warm water with a few drops of Dawn is safe, and could be less work.
Bakelite designs often had grooves or other intricacies. You can scrub them with an old toothbrush or another soft brush to remove any dirt and oxidation that’s built up in those crevices. The more thorough of a job you do, the better it will look.
The water and/or the cloth will definitely discolor as you go through the process. Some of that is dirt, and some of it is the oxidation coming off the Bakelite. It looks like nicotine because it’s yellow, but it probably isn’t.
How to polish Bakelite
If the glossy surface doesn’t return after cleaning with detergent, you can polish the Bakelite to bring back its shine. Polishing can also help minimize nicks and scratches in the surface. It’s up to you to decide what’s more important, a more regular surface, or an aged patina. Typically, I don’t find minor nicks and scratches objectionable once the dirt is cleaned out.
At any rate, to polish Bakelite, use a metal polish like Brasso. Brasso is mildly abrasive, so it will cut through severely dirty surfaces that detergent may not, and it will also smooth out irregularities in the surface and return its shine.
Apply Brasso to a soft cloth, then wipe it onto the surface using circular motions. You can also apply some to a brush to get into hard-to-reach areas. Let it sit until dry, usually just a few minutes. Buff off the polish with a soft cloth or brush afterward, and repeat as many times as you need to in order to get the desired results.
Don’t overdo it. Bakelite had a thin, shiny surface and beneath that surface is pulp that doesn’t take a shine. Bakelite is shiny, but most Bakelite items didn’t gleam when they were new. These were inexpensive consumer goods and it wasn’t cost effective to try to make them shine like the sun.
Sometimes the surface is damaged enough that you can’t shine it up with just metal polish alone. If that’s the case, you can try other remedies.
When Bell refurbished telephones made of Bakelite, they just polished the phones with buffing compound using a power buffer at low speed, similar to buffing the paint on a car. You can follow up with a round of Brasso to remove any excess that remains.
Shoe polish on Bakelite
Many hobbyists restore Bakelite with shoe polish. Get a black or brown polish that’s appropriate for the color of your item. Use a plain polish, not a silicone-bearing polish, as silicone is almost impossible to get off if you ever need to.
Don’t try to take a shortcut and do one thick coat. You’ll need several thin coats to get it to look good. Apply a thin coat, let it dry about an hour, then buff it off in random, circular motions. This blends in better with the natural finish than back-and-forth linear motions. Repeat as necessary. The shoe polish doesn’t bond to the Bakelite at all, so be sure to remove all of the excess in your buffing process.
Some hobbyists will spray a small amount of furniture polish on the final coat to add a bit more shine.
Armor-all and other plastic protectants
Avoid using Armor-All and similar products on Bakelite. These products contain silicone, which limits your options if and when the item fades again. It’s better to use the other, time-tested methods with Bakelite, especially if the item has sentimental value to you.