How to tell the difference between bakelite and plastic

Updated April 17, 2017

Bakelite was created in 1909 and is considered a forebear of modern plastics. A resin composed of phenol formaldehyde and known as a phenolic, Bakelite is nevertheless still referred to by the name associated with its inventor, Dr. Leo Baekeland. Commonly used in jewellery applications, Bakelite has become a collector's item. Modern manufacturers have attempted to capitalise on Bakelite's popularity by producing modern plastic versions. Knowing the difference between the two is therefore helpful.

Check the weight of similarly sized pieces of Bakelite and plastic, noting that the heavier of the two is the Bakelite.

Knock two pieces of one material together followed by two pieces of the other. Listen for a deep clunky sound to determine which material is Bakelite; other materials will often emit a higher-pitched clacking sound.

Rub a piece of each material until warm using your thumb. Smell the pieces noting that the Bakelite has a distinct odour of formaldehyde, burnt milk or carbolic acid, depending on the type of Bakelite.

Immerse each material in hot water, not boiling, and sniff once more for the odour of formaldehyde, burnt milk or carbolic acid.

Inspect photos of the objects, if available, as Bakelite colours often fade over time.

Dip a cotton swab into Scrubbing Bubbles bathroom cleaner. Touch the cotton swab to each material and watch to see if the cotton swab turns yellow; this is the reaction you can expect between Bakelite and the composition of the bathroom cleaner.


A common testing suggestion to determine if an object is Bakelite is to pierce the object with a red hot needle. However, Bakelite is sometimes constructed with celluloid which is extremely flammable, making injury a distinct possibility.

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About the Author

Mike Biscoe has been writing since 2009. Focusing on travel, sports and entertainment topics, he has credits in various online publications including LIVESTRONG.COM and Trails. He often writes articles covering uncommon travel destinations from firsthand experience. Biscoe holds a Certificate of Completion in acting from the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts.