How to clean and test items that you think is bakelite or catalin phenolic resin, which I will refer to occasionally as “the substance”
Over the years I have seen many sellers attempt to justify the title of “Bakelite” or “Catalin” saying they have rubbed the surface of the item or heated it up in water and smelt a chemical smell, or have used “Simichrome Polish” ( a US product) to obtain a positive result. This result is achieved by putting simichrome paste on a cloth and rubbing the item and if a brown stain is observed on the cloth then bingo its bakelite or catalin or phenolic resin.
I purchased some of this magic paste and can categorically say that it works no better than any metal polish, including Brasso. I personally use Autosol metal polishing paste, an automotive product used to clean chrome on cars and is readily available at retail car accessory outlets. Using this product not only tests the material but also gives it a deep lasting sheen and hopefully will save you money too!.
It is true to say that cleaning any of the substances I have mentioned will result in a dark brown stain on your cloth, BUT if the substance is clean to begin with, you will not get any stain what so ever, no matter how hard you rub.
When sellers say that they have rubbed the substance or heated it up in water and smelt a chemical smell may well be quite true since one of the ingredients of catalin and phenolic resin is phemaldehyde which can be smelt when either rubbed or heated in water – IF you already know what it smells like!
It’s really difficult to carry with you paste and duster to an antique fair or to attempt to polish anything you see for sale on the internet so you have to rely on the description and feel if you can actually get to the item and your intuition. Bakelite is hard, brittle and will have been cast in hard dyes. Catalin and phenolic resin are also cast but are somewhat softer and feel silky smooth and have less rigid cast lines – in general. Catalin and phenolic resin can also have flecks, streaks or swirls in it and occasionally it may be translucent.
My final tip on cleaning all these materials is the use of “Mr Muscle” kitchen cleaner in a spray bottle. Lightly spraying will remove all of the years of dirt and nicotine the item may have collected. The surface when dry will look flat but after a polish with Autosol will bring the surface right back to its original finish.
Good luck and enjoy.