Bakelite explained by the Chemical Heritage Foundation

On this Day:

In 1909, the inventor Leo Baekeland patented the first thermo-setting plastic, Bakelite, which sparked the birth of the plastics industry.

Polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride, better known as Bakelite (sometimes spelled Baekelite), was the first plastic made from synthetic components. It is a thermosetting phenol formaldehyde resin, formed from a condensation reaction of phenol with formaldehyde. It was developed by the Belgian-American chemist Leo Baekeland in Yonkers, New York, in 1907.

Bakelite was patented on December 7, 1909. The creation of a synthetic plastic was revolutionary for its electrical nonconductivity and heat-resistant properties in electrical insulators, radio and telephone casings and such diverse products as kitchenware, jewelry, pipe stems, children’s toys, and firearms. The “retro” appeal of old Bakelite products has made them collectible.

Bakelite was designated a National Historic Chemical Landmark on November 9, 1993, by the American Chemical Society in recognition of its significance as the world’s first synthetic plastic.

The characteristics of Bakelite made it particularly suitable as a molding compound, an adhesive or binding agent, a varnish, and a protective coating. Bakelite was particularly suitable for the emerging electrical and automobile industries because of its extraordinarily high resistance to electricity, heat, and chemical action.

The earliest commercial use of Bakelite in the electrical industry was the molding of tiny insulating bushings, made in 1908 for the Weston Electrical Instrument Corporation by Richard W. Seabury of the Boonton Rubber Company. Bakelite was soon used for non-conducting parts of telephones, radios and other electrical devices, including bases and sockets for light bulbs and electron tubes (vacuum tubes), supports for any type of electrical components, automobile distributor caps and other insulators. By 1912, it was being used to make billiard balls, since its elasticity and the sound it made were similar to ivory.

During World War I, Bakelite was used widely, particularly in electrical systems. Important projects included the Liberty airplane engine, the wireless telephone and radio phone and the use of micarta-bakelite propellors in the NBS-1 bomber and the DH-4B aeroplane.

Bakelite’s availability and ease and speed of molding helped to lower the costs and increase product availability so that telephones and radios became common household consumer goods. It was also very important to the developing automobile industry. It was soon found in myriad other consumer products ranging from pipe stems and buttons to saxophone mouthpieces, cameras, early machine guns, and appliance casings. Bakelite was also very commonly used in making molded grip panels (stocks) on handguns, submachine guns and machine guns, as well as numerous knife handles and “scales” through the first half of the 20th century.

Beginning in the 1920s, it became a popular material for jewelry. Designer Coco Chanel included Bakelite bracelets in her costume jewelry collections. Designers such as Elsa Schiaparelli used it for jewelry and also for specially designed dress buttons. Later, Diana Vreeland, editor of Vogue, was enthusiastic about Bakelite. Bakelite was also used to make presentation boxes for Breitling watches.

By 1930, designer Paul T. Frankl considered Bakelite a “Materia Nova”, “expressive of our own age”.  By the 1930s, Bakelite was used for game pieces like chessmen, poker chips, dominoes and mahjong sets. Kitchenware made with Bakelite, including canisters and tableware, was promoted for its resistance to heat and to chipping. In the mid-1930s, Northland marketed a line of skis with a black “Ebonite” base, a coating of Bakelite. By 1935, it was used in solid-body electric guitars. Performers such as Jerry Byrd loved the tone of Bakelite guitars but found them difficult to keep in tune.

Charles Plimpton patented BAYKO in 1933 and rushed out his first construction sets for Christmas 1934. He called the toy Bayko Light Constructional Sets, the words “Bayko Light” being a pun on the word “Bakelite.”

During World War II, Bakelite was used in a variety of wartime equipment including pilot’s goggles and field telephones. It was also used for patriotic wartime jewelry. In 1943, the thermosetting phenolic resin was even considered for the manufacture of coins, due to a shortage of traditional material. Bakelite and other non-metal materials were tested for usage for the one cent coin in the US before the Mint settled on zinc-coated steel.

During World War II, Bakelite buttons were part of British uniforms. These included brown buttons for the Army and black buttons for the RAF.

In 1947, Dutch art forger Han van Meegeren was convicted of forgery, after chemist and curator Paul B. Coremans proved that a purported Vermeer contained Bakelite, which van Meegeren had used as a paint hardener.

Bakelite was sometimes used in the pistol grip, hand guard, and butt stock of firearms. The AKM and some early AK-74 rifles are frequently mistakenly identified as using Bakelite, but most were made with AG-4S.

By the late 1940s, newer materials were superseding Bakelite in many areas. Phenolics are less frequently used in general consumer products today due to their cost and complexity of production and their brittle nature. They still appear in some applications where their specific properties are required, such as small precision-shaped components, molded disc brake cylinders, saucepan handles, electrical plugs, switches and parts for electrical irons, as well as in the area of inexpensive board and tabletop games produced in China, Hong Kong and India. Items such as billiard balls, dominoes and pieces for board games such as chess, checkers, and backgammon are constructed of Bakelite for its look, durability, fine polish, weight, and sound. Common dice are sometimes made of Bakelite for weight and sound, but the majority are made of a thermoplastic polymer such as acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS). Bakelite continues to be used for wire insulation, brake pads and related automotive components, and industrial electrical-related applications. Bakelite stock is still manufactured and produced in sheet, rod and tube form for industrial applications in the electronics, power generation and aerospace industries, and under a variety of commercial brand names.

Phenolic resins have been commonly used in ablative heat shields. Soviet heatshields for ICBM warheads and spacecraft reentry consisted of asbestos textolite, impregnated with Bakelite. Bakelite is also used in the mounting of metal samples in metallography (per Wikipedia).

First, a Story:

I just got a job on a production line making bakelite Draculas.

There’s only two of us working there, so I have to make every second count…

Second, a Song:

The Science History Institute stated: “Bakelite was invented in 1907 by Belgian chemist Leo Hendrik Baekeland as a replacement for shellac and is considered to be one the first plastics made from mostly synthetic products. Bakelite gained immense popularity after its invention due to its heat resistant and nonconductive properties and its ability to be dyed any color of the rainbow. Bakelite was used for jewelry, kitchenware, radios, telephones, tobacco products, and toys, especially billiard balls. Although it was eventually replaced by other fully synthetic plastics that were less expensive to produce, Bakelite has experienced resurgence in popularity, mostly with regards to jewelry and household items.” (per

Here is “The Bakelite Breakthrough: How plastics came of age” from the Science History Institute. I hope you enjoy this!


Thought for the Day:

“Well, it was kind of an accident, because plastic is not what I meant to invent. I had just sold photograph paper to Eastman Kodak for 1 million dollars.” – Leo Baekeland

Have a great day!

Dave & Colleen

© 2021 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky

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