How to make a thrift store for vintage bakelite

Cynthia Shirk /

Shopping at thrift stores, flea markets and estate sales can be overwhelming. With the sheer volume of things, how do you know where to start? How to spot the gems among all the trash?

As a professional dealer who has been combing through thrift stores for nearly 30 years, I can help. If you’re ready to cut your shopping time in half, score bigger deals, or walk away with some bragging-worthy finds you can flip for cash, read on.

From hard-to-find household items to resale revenue, anything in my “Thrift Shop Like a Pro” series is considered a BOLO (“on the prowl”) item. When you find it, buy it!

Read on to learn more about this month’s featured find.

Featured Discovery: Bakelite

Cutlery with bakelite handles

This month’s featured find isn’t just one item, but a material used to make many items – Bakelite. Invented in 1907 by a chemist Leo Baekeland, bakelite was the first synthetic plastic. Its development paved the way for the modern plastics industry.

Because Bakelite was moldable, heat-resistant, and relatively lightweight, it was used to make a variety of industrial and household products.

First announced publicly in 1909, its popularity coincided with the start of the Art Deco period, and many bakelite items reflect the clean lines and stylistic elements of the time.

Today, Baekeland’s namesake product is prized by collectors and designers around the world. Some of the most sought after items include:

  • costume jewelry
  • Drawer handles and knobs
  • game pieces
  • Handles for kitchen utensils and cutlery
  • Buttons
  • Clock and radio showcases

Why buy it?

antique bakelite jewelry
Cynthia Shirk /

If you’re not an art deco enthusiast or a jewelry lover, there’s another compelling reason to buy Bakelite – resale value.

Because it’s easily confused with modern plastic, Bakelite can still be found at thrift stores and garage sales across the country.

Two years ago, the manager of a thrift store took me aside and said, “I’ve saved some old bracelets for you; I’ll go get them. She came back with a shoebox full of jumbled bracelets. Several were plastic, but a few were bakelite. The whole box was $5 and I couldn’t pay for it fast enough. I sold three bangles for $110.

Although most jewelry is in private hands, it is not uncommon to find Bakelite hardware attached to antique furniture. I would gladly buy a damaged dresser just to salvage the bakelite drawer pulls.

On Etsy, this set of six drawer pulls in bakelite and brass is listed for $295. On eBay, this bakelite octagonal bracelet sold for $231.68 and this apple themed brooch brought in $390.

What to look for

Vintage bakelite jewelry
Nimisid /

Distinguishing a piece of bakelite from modern plastic takes practice. Without testing the item (which we’ll talk about later), look for these features:

  • Mass: Bakelite is heavier and denser than modern plastic. When two pieces of Bakelite are tapped together, the sound is similar to the sound of pottery.
  • Color: Part of Bakelite’s initial popularity was the amazing spectrum of colors it offered. Look for caramel yellows, cherry reds, grassy greens and bright lemony oranges. There is also a certain depth and richness to the colors that is hard to describe. Once you’ve seen a few coins up close, you’ll know what I mean.
  • Marbling: Bakelite can be solid or mottled. Marbled pieces feature distinctive “swirls” of greens mixed with gold, red with orange, or brown with amber. In jewelry, more marbling means higher resale value.

How to test authenticity

Vintage bakelite radio
josefkubes /

Think you’ve found an authentic piece of Bakelite? The “sniff test” is a quick way to find out before you buy. Using a bracelet as an example, here’s how it works: First, rub a small area of ​​the bracelet with your thumb (rub long enough to create some heat). Then smell the item. If the rubbed area gives off a distinct chemical smell (think formaldehyde), it’s probably bakelite.

Still not sure? Try it “409 test” in a small square at home. This is a more definitive way to determine if a piece is real bakelite.

Pro Tip: Bakelite is durable, but abrasive cleaners can dull the finish. To clean an entire Bakelite piece, a soft cloth, lukewarm water and mild dish soap are best.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click on links in our stories.

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