From Boxwood to Bakelite


From Boxwood to Bakelite
Jo Morgan uses her polishing skills to replicate the missing parts of an Art Deco cocktail cabinet

Jo Morgan uses her polishing skills to replicate the missing parts of an Art Deco cocktail cabinet

The handles of this Art Deco cocktail cabinet were made of Bakelite. Some of the long profiles were broken and parts were missing. It was possible to cut and glue some of the broken parts together to form new handles, but it still left a number that were missing completely. One option was to make a mould and create the handles using modern resin, but this would most likely still have had to be coloured and aged in some way to match the old ones.
A second option was to form the handles out of a fine grained wood such as boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) and then colour them. I decided to try this and see how things developed. The challenge was to produce something that would give the effect of Bakelite by using the materials readily available to a furniture restorer.
One of the most notable qualities of Bakelite is the blending of colours that can happen within the resin. This means that any paint applied needs to have a wash effect using something that allows the colours to blend and disperse. A background colour is needed and then the addition of the colours seen in the handle with something that is neutral to give the wash effect. 

A handle before being taken apart

A handle reformed using pieces that have been cut and then glued together

I planed the boxwood to the same thickness and, using an original handle as a template, traced and then cut the wood to the same shape using a coping saw. Then I drilled a hole to the same size at each end and sanded all the edges with a 120 grit and then a 240 grit wet/dry paper

Bakelite, also known as polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride, was an early form of synthetic plastic developed by Leo Baekeland in New York in 1907. Baekeland was attempting to find an alternative to shellac and experimented with strengthening wood by impregnating it with a synthetic resin. By controlling the pressure and temperature applied to phenol and formaldehyde, Baekeland produced a hard mouldable material, which he named ‘Bakelite’. The material’s electrical non-conductivity and heat-resistant properties made it suitable for use in electrical insulators and radio and telephone casings, as well as kitchenware, jewellery and toys. Bakelite items are highly collectible and there is even a Bakelite museum in

Bakelite pendulum clock

The background colour
I used acrylic paint as it forms a good strong base and does not react adversely with the sanding sealer and powdered colours to be used later in the process. The handles varied slightly in colour and pattern, but there was a common, light background to them all.
I matched this background by using Yellow Ochre and Buff Titanium. With a fairly wide, flat profiled brush I painted the handle with long, even strokes until the top and sides were covered. When the paint was dry I did the same with the back. Once that was completely dry I lightly sanded the handle with a fine 600 wet/dry grit paper to give a smooth finish.

Buff Titanium and Yellow Ochre Paints before they are mixed

Mixing the acrylic paints to match the lighter background colour in the original handle

Applying the acrylic paint with long brush strokes

Mixing the colours
I mixed all the colours I could identify in the Bakelite in separate containers using sanding sealer as the mixer for the powder colours, which were brown umber with a little red oxide, flake white with a little yellow ochre and black. When practising this process on spare wood pieces I came to realise that time was of the essence as sanding sealer dries quite quickly on the brushes, on the handle and even in the jar lids I was using as mixing plates. I found that drying times could be increased if larger quantities were mixed, but then there was some wastage. I also found that each colour and the sanding sealer needed its own brush in order to avoid colour cross-contamination.

Use a separate container and brush for each colour

Mixing the flake white with a little yellow ochre and sanding sealer

Applying the colour
Using an original handle as a template I put small spots or streaks of colour in the same places as the original. I then used the sanding sealer to wash the colours into the streaks and blurs seen on the original. Where the dot or streak of colour had dried a little too much, a little patience and wiggling of the brush over the spot loosened it. As the sanding sealer dried, some spots that had seemed very small, grew more in size than I had expected, but as every Bakelite handle is individual this didn’t matter too much. I also found that I could carefully add more colour while the sealer was still wet, so if a lighter area needed more brown or a black area had become too dark I could change this fairly readily. It did tend to cause a slightly lumpy effect in the sealer, but allowed me to increase colour where needed.

Applying the spots and streaks of each colour to match the original handle

Using light brush strokes in a diagonal direction to blend the colours using sanding sealer

Drier spots of colour may need a little time to loosen

Drying and painting the sides
Depending on the air temperature, the sealer dries over a number of hours. Once dry, I was able to add corresponding colour to the sides, for example, where the edge of the handle showed brown I continued the brown over to the side.

When the handles were completely dry I gave them a light sand with a 600 grit wet/dry paper to reduce the lumpiness in the sealer. Then I did two coats with an acrylic lacquer allowing it to dry with a fine sand between coats.

Apply coats of lacquer allowing each one to dry

The finished product next to an original handle


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