Tortoiseshell or Bakelite? Bakelite test

As objects made of tortoiseshell are very scarce, before investing in what appears to be a tortoiseshell cane, carefully examine the handle. Bakelite objects were made in a mold of two parts and often show a joint line. Bakelite, a nonflammable early plastic formed by combining carbolic acid and formaldehyde, was introduced around 1910 and used, along with many other items, for mass-produced, inferior quality cane handles, not to deceive or imitate, but rather to replace tortoiseshell as it was easily reproduced. If a joint line is not seen, your next step is to smell the smoke–to determine whether a cane handle is made of tortoiseshell or Bakelite. To do this, in an inconspicuous area of the handle, perhaps where the handle attaches to the shaft, apply a hot needle. When burned with a hot needle, tortoiseshell smells like burning hair. Bakelite smells like burning plastic or kerosene.

Linda Talley, website visitor, offered the following approach: To determine whether an item is tortoise shell or Bakelite, there is another noninvasive step that does not require the destruction of any materials. Since Bakelite is formed of formaldehyde, if you simply rub your fingertips over the surface of the questionable substance quite hard until it begins to feel very hot, if the substance is Bakelite, you should be able to smell the acrid odor of formaldehyde clearly on your fingertips.

Faux tortoiseshell crook handle on children’s cane or possibly salesman sample.
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Bakelite crook handle.
057- Tortoiseshell crook (2)
Tortoiseshell crook handle.


For antique cane and walking stick enthusiasts