Bakelite is a thermoset plastic. This is a plastic which starts molten as a liquid but once solidified, does not revert to its liquid state when heated. In crude terms it consists of a resin (which gives the glossy appearance) plus a bulk filler material, usually wood flour. The shiny surface you see and admire is the top layer of resin but this is often very thin. It is created during manufacture by the pressure the ingredients are under while setting. Once rubbed away through atmospheric action, over-enthusiastic polishing or by scorching in the sun's rays, it is lost and nothing will bring it back. You are then left with a pitted mixture of resin and wood flour (or sometimes asbestos powder), and wood flour, being very fine sawdust is not that glossy.
Provided that the top layer of resin is intact, bakelite is not porous; the recommended method of cleaning is a very dilute mixture of water and dishwashing liquid, with an overnight soak being best to get rid of any grease. After drying, a light buff with Polishing Paste No. 5 which also goes by the name Baykobrite. This product apparently contains a very light scourer and a waxy agent which highlights and protects the gloss finish. It was formulated by British Telecom to refurbish old bakelite phones to new condition.
A description of Polishing Paste No.5 and an ordering link is available here. It's listed here at $USD15 for a 60 gram tube. Baykobrite can be ordered from The Radiophile, Larkhill, Newport Road, Woodseaves, Stafford, ST20 0NP, (phone/fax 01785 284696), at £3.00 a tube plus postage (approx). If anybody knows of a New Zealand distributor or supplier, please let us know.
If your bakelite surface is rough, then there is a good chance the top layer of resin has worn away, and no amount of soapy water will assist. In this case, you need to cut away the discoloured layer. There are two different methods to do this:
- Use a fine grade of wet sandpaper (180 grit) and progress up to 600 grit.
- Use an abrasive polish, in particular the car polishes that contain dark brown paint pigment. Rub on, allow to dry and buff away the residue.
It's likely that this will need to be repeated every 12 to 24 months or so, as without the original resin surface, bakelite is porous. Remember, it's mainly a mixture of wood flour and colouring agent.
There are a number of methods to maintain the finish. Probably the most permanent is to have a good painter to spray the bakelite with a number of very light coats of clear lacquer. Other, less permanent, and perhaps less worrisome methods (after all, you'd need to have a lot of trust in your painter after all that work), are:
- Application of Meguiars Plastic Polish #10 (should be available from Repco or Super Cheap Autos stores, although they may need to order it).
- Application of Mothers Pure Carnauba Wax. This wax is completely non-abrasive, so can be used as often as you want to keep the bakelite protected without removing any of your previous hard work.
Email us if you have any further tips.