Debunking the Myths of Bakelite Switches

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Some Common Questions and Buyers Guidance When Looking For Bakelite Switches.


Is Bakelite still made?
Bakelite was common in light switches and power outlets into the 1960’s, but was replaced by cheaper materials so virtually disappeared from the scene but not completely.
Today Bakelite is a registered trademark of Hexion Specialty Chemicals AG.  and its use has seen a resurgence due mainly to it being much heavier and more pleasant to the eye and touch. This in part is thanks to its production; instead of being produced using the injection-moulding procedure, Bakelite is moulded directly from its raw form using the “matrix method”.
 
Are Bakelite Switches Safe?
Standards are often confused with regulations but they are very different. In its simplest form, think of standard as the size and shape. Almost all switches are interchangeable because they are all the same shape and size. Vintage Bakelite switches are pre-standardisation so mostly are not standard. Regulations concern your safety.  A newly fitted refurbished switch that does not meet current regulations may invalidate your home insurance.  An existing unmodified Bakelite switch may not.
 
So what are the regulations?
Almost all regulations center on new fittings and installations but there are a number that we as professionals need to consider before offering up our restorations. Without giving away our competitive edge the Art Deco Emporium Ltd. always state on their listings when a switch does not meet regulations so you can take it as a given that our switches do unless stated otherwise.
Things to look out for:
  • Does the switch have a screw top lid?
    Typically vintage dome switches will not meet regulations unless they can be “locked”
    'If you can access the live parts of a switch without the use of a hand tool then it cannot and never will meet regulations.'
    If a seller states to the contrary then buyer beware.
  • Should a Bakelite switch be earthed?
    Bakelite is non conductive and just like a modern plastic switch does not require grounding.
    There are caveats; can you touch any metal parts, screws etc.? If the answer is yes then grounding may be required. Again all switches supplied by  Art Deco Emporium Ltd. will have an earth tag added where required. Brass switches will definitely require the addition of an earth tag and these are not common to vintage switches so buyer beware. Some Bakelite switches where you can touch the metal fixing screws don’t need grounding by design. 
What about asbestos, doesn’t Bakelite contain asbestos?
Very early Bakelite did indeed contain asbestos but these are far and few and centered around industrial applications like power insulators and the like. Domestic switches didn’t nor did telephones, radios, jewellery, plates, egg cups, napkin rings, buttons... I think you get the point.
 
How do you refurbish Bakelite?
Bakelite is  non porous, high density, non conductive and incredibly impervious to heat and chemicals but the downside is it's brittle, so don’t drop it.
Given all of the above, it is a beautiful material to work with. We can drill it, grind it, buff it and sculpt it. There are a plethora of artists carving beautiful objects out of vintage Bakelite. What you cannot do is change its properties.
 We mostly use boiling water to “melt” old paint but sometimes we do use chemical strippers. To bring back the top coat we sand it down to a smooth finish.
At  Art Deco Emporium Ltd. we use industrial buffers for this task. The brushes are lightly coated with a special soap that has fine abrasive particles impregnated within.  To get the finish we require we start at a suitable coarseness and work our way down to a completely clean brush. For some deeper scratches we resort to starting with a simple wet emery cloth.
 How best to clean my switch?
Simple damp cloth is all you need to remove the build up of figure prints and dust followed by a dry clean duster.
We mentioned Bakelite is non-porous so nothing you apply to the surface will have any affect whatsoever despite claims to the contrary. Nefarious Bakelite restoration sellers often use beeswax or silicon oil to mask their inability to process the material properly. Make no mistake, they look good in the photos, but common sense tells you it won’t last. Knowing this empowers you to ask if other claims made are true or just sales pitch to get you to buy. One seller  even claims it will protect your switch for years to come from UV light!! Why on earth would you want that indoors assuming of course you never smear it off in daily use? Just don’t fit the switch by your sunbed.
What about the insides?
All switches refurbished by Art Deco Emporium Ltd. will never need to be opened excepting the initial fitting of course. After we have renewed the internal contacts where applicable and set the contacts to meet current regulations, our switches undergo vigorous testing. The mechanism and the switch contacts are protected by an expensive and industry approved coating ensuring faultless operation for decades to come. This process does not come cheap but is vital to your safety.
If a switch has been lubricated then it’s usually to mask bad workmanship and should not be considered a selling point. All mains switches give off a tiny amount of carbon when in use. Today this is not an issue but vintage switches were sometimes greased because it was seen as improving the switching. Manufactures stopped doing this by the 1960’s once they realised their mistake.
As with asbestos, we have learned there are far safer materials to use and better ways to do things. Grease, no matter how little, will cause partial build-up and even little critters to stick to the mechanism. Over time this can become a serious issue and very unsafe to use. At  Art Deco Emporium we do not use any form of grease, we don’t need to.
 
Can I get Support?
Should you need help with any project, pick up the telephone. All our listings show our contact details. If you want, you can email us with your questions and photographs.
 
Can you renovate my switch?
Yes we have a renovation service.
 
Aftercare?
As much and as often as needed. The more we help you, the more you tell others about our service and products.
 
Can I see your products?
Yes and no. To stay affordable we work out of multiple workshops and we are not insured to take retail visitors however there are a number of places you can still see our renovations.
  • Almost all listed buildings in Local Authorities
    Mainly ceiling roses and pendants.
  • BBC’s ‘Call The Midwife
    Art Deco Emporium Ltd. supplied most of the sockets, switches and ceiling fittings you see.
  • Rillington Place’ The BBC’s new three-part drama, air date is currently unknown
     Every electrical fitting seen throughout the house from floor to ceiling.
  • ITV’s ‘Breathless
    All domestic fittings on set.
  • Welsh Rural Museum
    Light fittings in cafeteria and shop.
  • Glasgow War Museum
    Light switches
and countless other places too numerous to list here.
 
 

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