Restoring and Maintaining the Shine on Bakelite

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This guide will tell you a little about Bakelite the compound, its composition and why it has not proved to be 'the Material of 1000 Uses' as originally envisaged due to the fact that over time Bakelite oxidises and loses its bright shine.  The guide explains why this happens and then methods of restoring the finish that can be and are used both by the amateur and professional restorer, before explaining the best ways to preserve this finish.   The advice comes both from my own experience and background in polymer technology as well as using that from others (including personal connections and from internet searches) who have been restoring Bakelite for many years.

Bakelite and dulling due to oxidation

Bakelite is a compound of carbolic acid and formaldehyde, a phenolic resin with the chemical name polyoxybenzylmethylglycolanhydride (makes you realise why it is simpler to just call it Bakelite!).  When discovered by accident in New York by Leo Baekeland in 1907 it was found to be a revolutionary, non-flammable early plastic, that was soon put into production.  In order to keep costs down and to improve the properties of the material (the resin is very brittle in natural state), it was mixed with filler material (typically wood flour, cotton or asbestos dust) and colour pigments before being thermoset under high temperature and pressure to its desired shape.  Despite being marketed as 'the Material of 1000 Uses' and being used for many years to make a huge variety of items, both industrial and domestic, Bakelite has not proved to be the perfect plastic as was originally envisaged due to the fact that it oxidises over time. Exposure to light and other environmental conditions such as cigarette smoke, which unfortunately a lot of this vintage plastic has been exposed to, especially in domestic environments, where smoking was far more prevalent in the past causes Oxidation.  Oxidation can have several different effects on Bakelite, depending on the original colour, it can go darker (with a pale original colour) or lighter (with a dark original colour) but is usually more dull and drab in appearance. This colour change is due to a reaction with oxygen in the presence of ultraviolet light which turns the phenolic resin into phenyl alcohol, with other contaminants in the air acting as catalysts to this reaction.   
The photo below shows a typical oxidised bell push that 8 years ago had a good shine but has since been exposed to the sunlight, the air and environmental pollutants
Although this degradation looks unsightly, the thin layer of phenyl alcohol actually protects the item from further damage as it serves to block ultraviolet light from penetrating past the surface. The good news for anyone owning or buying such an item is that in most cases the dull surface can be carefully buffed and polished away, exposing unoxidised shiny resin, thus returning the item to its original bright finish.  Do be aware however that once this new layer of resin has been exposed to light further deterioration will occur over time meaning that the surface will once again change colour and dull.  Unfortunately there is a limit to the number of times the surface can be re-buffed before you will notice it develop a permanent roughness due to the coarser filler material being exposed which will no longer take a shine.

The picture below shows the side of a Bakelite socket, where the oxidised layer of phenyl alcohol has been buffed away in sections to show the 'before' and 'after' results of buffing, the dull sections demonstrate how the fittings can turn in time, (and is how fittings are often found when purchased as unrestored), however as can be seen this surface can be buffed away to expose a 'new' shiny surface that lies below.  I guess in layman's terms it could be compared, not to rust (which where iron oxidises and then continues to oxidise until it completely rusts away), but to the dulling you can often get with cars paintwork.  In time paintwork dulls, but the colour and finish can be restored by buffing this thin dulled surface off with products like T-cut or colour restorer.  We also know that this shine we restore by buffing can then be maintained for longer periods by giving the car a good waxing, something we can also do to maintain the shine on Bakelite.  Other similar examples are brass or silver ornaments, which have not had a lacquer coating to protect them, exposure to air causes them to dull over time, the surface then requires a good buffing with a product such as 'Brasso' or a silver polish to bring back the shine.  As can be seen in the photo  the same principles apply to Bakelite, this photo has been taken before any wax has been applied and is just the result of buffing on a professional wheel, the dulled oxidised layer can be buffed away to bring back the shine.  It is for this reason, all good 'professional' restorers will use some method to buff the Bakelite prior to sale, thus removing this dulled oxidised layer, whether they realise the chemistry behind it or not!


How to polish Bakelite back to a high shine

There are several methods that can be (and are) used by both the amateur and professional restorer, all of which involve to some extent using a fine rubbing compound (grit) to remove the oxidised layer exposing a new layer of unoxidised resin.  Please note that it is suggested you use a dust mask when following any of these methods as although any filler is likely to be wood flour there is the very rare chance it could be asbestos (very occasionally used as a filler), which although safe when fixed in the resin could become harmful if it gets into the atmosphere and is breathed in when polishing.
Metal Polish / Brasso / Simichrome Polish can be used with lots of elbow grease, applying in a gentle circular motion before being rubbed off with a clean cloth, this method works reasonably well however it can leave a whitish residue (the rubbing compound) in difficult to get to areas, which then often requires careful removal with a cotton bud and alcohol.
Car Paint Colour Restorer / T-Cut etc. work in the same way as metal polish, again possibly leaving a whitish residue requiring removal.
Greygate No.5 Polishing Paste was developed in conjunction with the GPO for polishing the contacts on the old black 200 and 300 series Bakelite telephones.   It was originally used when these telephones were renovated in the GPO factories prior to re-issue to new customers (this was of course long before the throw-away society of today!).  Although developed to clean contacts it was also found to give a very good shine to the Bakelite casings.  The polish consists of a very fine grit suspended in waxes and mild solvents that not only removes the oxidised layer but also, due to the wax content, offers a little protection from future oxidation.  Again this is best applied in a circular motion, then rubbed off.  Using this polish often brings back the shine quicker than using a metal polish etc. A further benefit of using this polishing paste is that it does not leave a residue requiring further cleaning to remove.  This is perhaps one of the best methods of cleaning Bakelite jewellery, where the use of buffing wheels and compounds can sometimes remove the edges off the delicate workmanship that can be found on some items.
Professional Buffing Compounds, Tripolea, Vonax etc.  Here different grades of polishing grits suspended in hard waxes are used with soft polishing mops on a buffing wheel to remove the oxidised layer and bring out the shine. This method probably gives the deepest shine, although on the downside, the use of buffing wheels has been known to remove the fine detail of some items especially jewellery when overused.  Although the grits are suspended in wax, the buffing action generates heat which means the waxes tend not to be left on the surface of the item being polished.  Kits and compounds can be purchased readily from a number of suppliers on ebay or directly (easily found through an internet search).  Please Note: When polishing by wheel it is important for safety to always wear a mask and goggles and gloves.

Maintaining the Shine

Given that deterioration through oxidation will always occur (it's why we have to restore the finish) and anyone who tells you otherwise simply fails to understand the chemical properties of this early plastic, how can you maintain the shine for as long as possible?
Well, as a result of my own studies into the oxidation process and taking advice from an area in which experts have been restoring Bakelite for many years, i.e. telephone restoration, where originally the GPO refurbished telephones before supplying back to new customers and then more recently many independent restoration experts have worked, the best advice to give to prevent oxidation of the surface and the associated dulling is to keep the item out of the light!  In reality, however, this is not always practicable as the items are usually on display or are fitted in rooms where they will get at least some exposure to light, so the best method to use here is to protect the surface layer (the resin that has the gloss shine) by applying a coat of hard beeswax polish, this fine coat of wax over the surface goes some way to prevent the oxygen attacking the resin.  Regular re-application of a wax (annually is probably sufficient for items not often touched, more frequently for door knobs, switches etc.) will prolong the shine replacing any wax that gets worn away.  It is worth noting that beeswax is to be recommended over other waxes as those with a silicone base are harder to rub off to a shine and also potentially leave a slippery coating on the surface that may result in you damaging or even breaking your valuable Bakelite item as it slips out of your hands (particularly a problem with heavy Bakelite telephones - I've sold several replacements to people who have just done this with their original telephone). Another 'expert' has suggested applying wax leads to a quicker build up of dirt and grime, well ask anyone who polishes items in their home, (I guess that is most of us!), do we do it as we know it will mean or polished items get dirtier quicker?  I think not!  If it were the case I think all of the polish manufacturers would have gone out of business many, many years ago, I can't believe anyone would make such statements or be fooled by such them.
Do be aware that although this wax coat is far superior to no protection at all, it can only slow the natural oxidation process down, it cannot stop it and so over many years the surface will still dull and so will again need a full restoration.

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