Producing Bakelite plastic isn't a do-it-yourself project. However, understanding the process can help you appreciate the history of the material and distinguish it from imitation Bakelite, known as "fakelite." Working in his chemical lab, Leo Hendrik Baekeland accidentally discovered the formula for the first synthetic plastic while trying to invent an alternative to shellac. He had intended to create a domestic source for shellac to provide insulation material for the new electrical industry. Like plastics of today, it is easily moulded and durable. It filled its marketing promise of, "the material of the thousand uses."
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Things you need
- Pressure vessel
Mix the phenol and formaldehyde in a pressure vessel to form a resin.
Pour the resulting resin in a mould, either the shape of the finished item or a block of Bakelite that can be cut, carved and polished.
Harden the resin under high temperature and pressure, in excess of 71 degrees C Centigrade. Original Bakelike was formed in something called a Bakelizer which could produce the necessary high temperatures because, at lower temperatures, the result is soft and porous, essentially worthless.
Tips and warnings
- Bakelite products included jewellery and the cases for radios. The Russians even used it to manufacture magazines in rifles and structural aircraft components.
- Collectors prize genuine Bakelite products originally marketed to the middle and lower classes because it was cheap to make and sell.
- During the moulding process, the manufacturer could add materials to change the colour and translucency of the Bakelite. These materials included asbestos, clay, mica, graphite and wood pulp.
- The chemicals, equipment and processes used to manufacture Bakelite make this a dangerous and expensive project for anyone who wants to produce only a few pieces of Bakelite.
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- Mechanical Engineering" magazine; Plastic Arts: The Chemistry That Has Formed So Many Of The Objects In Our World Traces Its Roots To An Accidental Discovery 100 Years Ago; Frank Wicks; June 2007
- mbzponton.org: The rise of Bakelite and other plastics in the USA during the 1930s
- "Electrochemical and Metallurgical Industry" journal; Bakelite for Chemical and Electrical Purposes; December 1909