Saturday, January 9, 2016

"Camo" Bakelite: Actual Bakelite, Car Paint, or what?

Hello all! In an attempt to get this blog back on the road, I wanted to share some info on the ever-elusive and rare"camo" bakelite.

"Camo" Bakelite pieces are well sought after, and valuable because they are so different from other Bakelite. You probably know this and either have, or want one... but, no one really knows what it is because it doesn't test the same, smell the same, or feel the same as other Bakelite. Maybe you have heard the rumor that it's automotive paint..

Well, I'm not going to make you read the entire blog to get to the answer..
So.. is it actual Bakelite, or car paint?

Answer: YES to both!

These pieces are made from layers of Phenolic automotive paint. Here's an explanation with a little too much info (because I'm a plastics nerd, and like talking about it):

In the 1941 book that this photo was taken from, there are many manufacturers that bought the rights to the Bakelite formula, and have have come up with their own patented and named versions.

From a 1946 book about the Plastics industry, which has an extensive list of all of the manufacturers at that time.

The Durez Corporation was very prolific in the 1930s, switching to the War effort, as everyone did.
They manufactured many Phenolic resin products, but were best known for their paints.
Before you read on, I must state that I don't have direct proof of what I state in this blog. Information about Bakelite in general is scarce, and has to be pieced together by enthusiasts like myself, so I will explain how I came to my hypothesis, and conclusion.

When I first saw these pieces, it immediately reminded me of doing body work on old cars. I grew up in my Father's mechanic shop, and worked there throughout my childhood. When a person sands through layers of paint, they get this "Camouflage" effect, as the higher layers of paint get sanded down. It's like a topographical map, with the layers being different colors.

Next, I recognized the smell of 1930s paint, also from working on cars. It is a specific sort of dried/ hot plastic smell, but somewhat organic.
 Also, I have only seen these pieces in the colors that cars were painted in the 1930s.
There were a few variations, but these are the typical colors of Automobiles at the time.

Another clue that these jewelry pieces are layered paint is that there is no adhesive between the layers, and the layers are uneven; hence the topographical map striation. Even on pieces like brooches and beads, where most of what you see is the striation, you can see that the layers are inconsistent.

From my personal Bakelite collection; A few things that I get to wear!

I believe that the round spots on the bangles is where the drip accumulated after they were dipped. That creates the high spot, and all of the layers on top of it get sanded away. I have seen on several pieces what looks like a line where there was a wire that held the piece as it was dipped.

This "Wood Grain" style would have been done tube style, and the sliced, revealing the striated layers.

This would have been a labor intensive process, and that would explain why there aren't many of these pieces around, and why most of them that I see are the cut striation type. The latter type could have been poured in large sheets and cut up, rather than dipping each piece individually.

There are sometimes bubbles in the formula, that also indicate a quick drying process. Other Bakelite material generally has time for the bubbles to reach the "flash" material at the top, and not become part of the final product.

In my research, I found "Fordite", also known as Detroit Agate, and Motor Agate.
Cars used to be hand painted, and the overspray, and drips would accumulate on the sled and rails that the car body was put on to be pushed into a curing oven. After many repetitions of this process, the paint would build up to the point that it got in the way of the process. Since it is a hard substance, and built to a thickness of many inches, it had to be broken off. This would expose the beautiful layers of different colors. The factory workers took pieces home to work with, and created the genre of new material. They were random chunks at this point, and someone got the idea to purposely make jewelry from it.

I surmised that they way that would make the most sense, and by the formation of the layers, that it would have started with a bangle shape that was dipped in the paint, creating a new layered hue each time. I have yet to find any direct information about this process, but I think it's a solid hypothesis, and is illustrated by one of my pieces that has a chip and some surface cracks.

The chip reveals the solid piece that was dipped in the layers of paint.

I have yet to find out if this process was done in a factory, or by a craftsperson. As always, I welcome additional information, or correction!

This was just one of those mysteries that I had to figure out..

Thanks for reading!
For beautiful Bakelite pieces like these, please visit and be sure to look through what I have sold in the links on the left. My best pieces sell within minutes.
I'll try to post interesting Bakelite related information regularly.

No part of this may be copied, or used without express written permission by me. Of course, you can tell your friends ;-)