Art Deco Catalin and Bakelite: – What is it?
Catalin and Bakelite, amongst other early plastics, are now highly collectible. Prized for their colour, tactility, appearance and use in every day life. But what are Bakelite and Catalin? How can you tell them apart?
Bakelite was invented in 1907 by the Belgian-American chemist Leo Baekeland. It is best known as one of the first plastics made from synthetic components.
Leo Baekeland was born in Ghent, Belgium in 1863. To my surprise, I found that Baekeland was instrumental in the development, in 1893, of an early photographic paper, ‘Velox’. He sold his invention to George Eastman for one million dollars in 1899. That was a lot of money back in the late 19th Century! Eastman went on to use the invention in his ‘Eastman-Kodak’ photographic company which, in its hey day, was worth billions of dollars…
Leo was, hence, already a millionaire when he came across a new material formed from mixing Carbolic Acid with Formaldehyde. Thus inventing the material we know today as ‘Bakelite’. Leo died in 1944 and his grave was specially made in Bakelite plastic.
For the scientists amongst us, Bakelite is a thermosetting phenol formaldehyde resin with the long name, polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride. It is formed from a condensation reaction of phenol and formaldehyde. I’ll spare you the chemical formula!
- The chemicals were mixed to form a liquid,
- The liquid was allowed to harden,
- Ground into powder.
- The powder was mixed with fillers (e.g. wood flour and bone) and placed into a mould.
- Heat and high pressure were applied to re-melt the powder and make it conform to the mould’s shape.
The Bakelite formed from this process is a “thermosetting” plastic, meaning that it could not be re-melted and gave it some special properties including: –
- Strength and durability (It does not change colour or shape over time, and is chemical resistant).
- Excellent electrical insulation
- Smooth surface (meant it required no polishing)
- Cheap to manufacture
Bakelite was used for its electrical non-conductivity and heat-resistant properties in electrical insulators, radio and telephone casings, and such diverse products as kitchenware, jewellery, and toys. These included some of the most iconic designs of the 2oth Century from famous stalwarts such as; Wells Coates, Serge Chermayeff and Eden Minns.
One of the disadvantages of Bakelite is that it is opaque because it contains fillers. This limits the number of colours to dark brown, black and, rarely, a deep brown/red, white and green: look for the rare coloured versions of the Wells Coates designed Ekco A22 Radio of 1945 if you don’t believe me…
It is not easy to polish dulled vintage Bakelite to a shine either! Apparently, you have to use Greygate polishing paste no.5 for best results.
Starting from the rather uninspiring masterbatch granulation (powder!) in the main featured image, Bakelite is still manufactured today mainly for use in industrial applications.
Like Bakelite, Catalin is also an early type of plastic but, in contrast to Bakelite, Catalin could be produced in many different colours, as dyes could be added to the almost transparent polymer syrup prior to pouring in the mould for setting.
It was a popular choice for household goods and jewellery during the Deco period. It is hard as brass and pretty heat resistant. Every piece was individually cast and polished to a hard sheen, making it very expensive to manufacture.
Gone were the days of products, especially radios, being all dark brown or black. Catalin could be made in red, yellow, blue, green, or alabaster white. Designers quickly took advantage of that fact, producing products in a new rainbow of striking colours.
One particular radio, made by FADA, was offered in a variety of colour schemes. In today’s market these Catalin cased radios are highly sought after. FADA’s Model 1000 “Bullet” (see image on the left) commands pretty high prices (starting at over £300 for one with a cracked case). That’s if you’re lucky enough to find one in good condition!
An unfortunate characteristic of Catalin is that its colours darken with time, so unrestored Catalin will look quite different now than it did when it left the factory. The white looks more like butterscotch! In addition, heat also darkens Catalin, and it turns brittle with age.
By the late 1940’s products switched from Catalin to using cheaper and more durable plastics.
So there you have it, the industrial strength and durability of Bakelite vs. the beautiful swirly colourful, slightly transparent, rarer but weaker Catalin. I love both Catalin and Bakelite but… I admit Catalin just has the edge for me, despite its fragility.