Restoring Vintage Bakelite

Before & After
What is Bakelite?

Bakelite was discovered in 1909 by a New York chemist Belgian-born Dr. Leo Hendrik Baekeland. It's one of the first plastics made from formaldehyde resin. While originally used for industrial purposes it later found its way into the jewelry, radio & toy market.

Identifying Bakelite

Smell: Experienced collectors can identify Bakelite by smell. Bakelite has a very distinct odor when heated, similar to petroleum jelly or camphor. A common test is running Bakelite under hot water or vigorously rubbing one area of the piece until its warm. If it smells like formaldehyde it's probably Bakelite.
Weight: Bakelite is much heaver than modern plastics of similar mass.
Appearance: Most Bakelite items do not have seams and mold marking, the finishing process removes them. The most common colors were black or brown with a smooth high gloss glaze.


Collectors appreciate the natural patina on vintage items. Polishing Bakelite is a debated topic, please research the value of your piece before cleaning it.

The base chemicals used to create Bakelite break down over time. As the surface oxidizes it will become yellow and dull in appearance, often mistaken for nicotine stains. The cleaning process listed here is safe and effective for most vintage items. Generally when cleaning Bakelite pieces I start with mild solutions and work before trying polishing compounds.  A mix of Dawn dish soap and warm water is safe for most antique plastics and Bakelite. If possible soak the item for 30min or more, afterwards use a clean cloth to wipe away any loose dirt and debris. If this method doesn't improve the luster polishing might be required.

Simple Soap Bath


Liquid metal polishes are held in high regard in the Bakelite community. These polishes have mild abrasive properties and are perfect removing oxidation, grime & grease. Simichrome or Brasso are my personal favorites and are found in most hardware stores.


Place a small amount of polish on a clean cloth or toothbrush and proceed to rub in a circular motion.  Any metal attached to the Bakelite will only benefit from the liquid polish. Notice the improvement of the round medallion on the view-master

Leave the polish to dry and proceed to buff the surface with a lint free cloth. If a brown or yellow residue appears on your cloth, this is perfectly normal. You may repeat this procedure until the acceptable finish is achieved. After polishing, you may want to protect the surface with Novus #1 or similar wax.

If you have any questions regarding this tutorial, please comment below


  1. low heat heat gun flattened out the plastic lenses enough to get them back in. they were poked in sometime or left in the sun. light heat not too long . watch them very closely keep the heat gun moving and they will flatten down. soon as they move a tiny bit back off the heat. turning over and repeat for any up turned corners. imagine this would work with hairdryer too. point air directly down so they dont blow away.


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