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Author Topic:   Bakelite. Why no new guitars?
Gerald Ross

From: Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA

posted 23 June 2000 11:27 AM     profile   send email     edit
I think I posed this question before...

So, if Bakelite is the ultimate lap steel
building material, why don't today's builders use it.

Hard/Impossible to find?
Difficult to work with?

Michael Johnstone

From: Sylmar,Ca. USA

posted 23 June 2000 11:57 AM     profile   send email     edit
They can shatter like an old 78 record if you drop them on a hard floor and they go out of tune easily because of extreme sensitivity to temperature changes.They sound real good though-very consistant in their response across the range of the instrument.This is probably due to the inert nature of bakelite.In the case of Ricky "penguins" the chambered body probably adds to the resonance.If someone could cast a replica out of epoxy resin,ABS or some other more modern and robust composite,you might be able to capture that mellow bakelite tone,fix the problems AND sell a bunch of 'em. -MJ-

From: Hawaii, Big Island

posted 23 June 2000 12:14 PM     profile   send email     edit
I wonder if anyone's made a Graphite or Carbon fiber steel yet?....but, yeah, bakelite isn't the ideal material to work with, and the tuning, damage problems are something most manufacturers would not want to deal with,
J D Sauser

From: E-03700-DENIA (Costa Blanca), Spain

posted 23 June 2000 12:53 PM     profile   send email     edit
I looked into this for quite some time. Bakelite is probably the world's first "plastic". There are more modern versions of it still used for knobs, handles and other industrial and electrical parts.
The problems inherent with the use of bakelite have a close tie to what you also love so much to hear when it's used on a guitar like the early Rickenbacher "B"-series: It's heavy (mass) and therefor it sounds mellow, but it's also brittle (porous), so it breaks easily, BUT it also sustains very well and won't suck up those overtones, all because of the fact that it is brittle.
A similar thing happens with aluminum: Cast aluminum has a similar mass and it is also quite brittle. When it brakes, the broken section will look very similar to broken bakelite... porous. Again it sustains well (but it's not as mellow as bakelite). Now try extruded aluminum... it's not the same at all. You can not break extruded aluminum (OK, some of you can break it, I'm sure... ), you can bend it. Therefor it won't sustain much and will suck up a good portion of your overtones... as a mater of fact it sounds like $#!## (IMNSHO). That's why I can't understand how some of today's PSG-builder can be using extrusion aluminum (milled) for their guitar's necks and say that it adds to their sound. If they're lucky, it won't do too much to their sound. Ever seen a bell made out of extrusion?

But anyway, back to the bakelite story. If you want the sound of bakelite, you will need bakelite. And bakelite is really easy to get by and it's also very, very cheap... probably not even 5 bucks for a Rick-size steel (Yeah, I can already hear your hearth pounding), BUT sorry, the problem is the molds. See, bakelite is a "thermo-set" material, which means, it's poured under high pressure and heat. That's when it makes it's "reaction" and actually becomes "bakelite". Therefor the molds have to be made of steel and mirror polished, because the finish of your "little" bakelite guitar comes from the mold. You can not polish bakelite after its cast and you can't melt it, it's a one shot thing. What you see in the mold, is what you get.
Now, Ladies and Gentlemen, a mold of the size of a single neck lap steel made to order today in the USA... +-$250000.oo... in Asia ~$150000.oo, or maybe only $100000.oo if you're lucky. HERE IS OUR PROBLEM!

I'm still searching for alternatives...

.... J-D. <

[This message was edited by J D Sauser on 23 June 2000 at 04:22 PM.]

Bob Stone

From: Gainesville, FL, USA

posted 23 June 2000 01:52 PM     profile   send email     edit
Hello JD,

Sounds like youv'e done a lot of homework on Bakelite. Thanks for the info. However, I am restoring a pre-1937 B6 and have polished it to a high luster by hand using grades of sand paper from 110 to 1500, then 0000 steel wool and Simichrome polish. In fact, it's so smooth I have to be careful handling it. It does seem that where I broke through the original surface that the porosity migh show a little more--I can't really tell. This guitar was so rough when I bought it my work has helped the appearance.

Also, it's worth noting that much early Bakelite jewelry (collectible today) was carved from rough shapes, then polished.

The question on my mind is, why isn't someone making those old 1.5" pickups with the big magnets? That ain't rocket science. Must be a patent thing, eh?

My two cents.



J D Sauser

From: E-03700-DENIA (Costa Blanca), Spain

posted 23 June 2000 03:55 PM     profile   send email     edit
Well, one may be able to re-polish a originally flat surface, but as I've been told, you coulden't bring a part that came out of a rough mold to a durable luster. Now, what you state about the jewelery... I don't know... it's certainly worth looking into... but then, these jewelery bakelites look quite diferrent from our beloved black stuff...

A little story (not really relevant): Back in Europe (Switzerland), my father had to design a little battery operated table clock that was to be given to soldiers during WW-II. He designed it to be made of bakelite, because it was available, cheap and modern, he had to cut corners every way he could, because of material shortages. He told me, that it went so bad, that he had to find a way so the two screws that would hold the base and the top together where also used to conduct the current from the battery to the top with the watch (a simple magnet system, I believe to remember), so they could save some wire . Imagine!
Anyway, he told me, that one thing they could not cut corners on was the mold (mirror polished), but back in these years, it just meant a lot of labor, and there was enough people around willing to work!

Not really the same situation today, now ain't it ... J-D.

[This message was edited by J D Sauser on 23 June 2000 at 04:28 PM.]

Andy Volk

From: Boston, MA

posted 23 June 2000 04:39 PM     profile   send email     edit
Very interesting discussion, guys. The inherent instability of Bakelite as mentioned above is clearly the reason it lost viability as a material for musical instrument bodies. National also tried using it for necks in the 30's but had it's own set of problems. There must however, be more modern , stable, synthetic compounds with similar acoustic properties but, as JD states, nobody wants to take a financial risk to produce molds for such a small niche market.

[This message was edited by Andy Volk on 23 June 2000 at 04:41 PM.]

Blake Hawkins

From: Land O'Lakes, Florida

posted 24 June 2000 07:11 AM     profile   send email     edit
Antique Radio collectors routinely polish Bakelite radio cabinets. They use soft buffing wheels and white diamond compound.
There are some special bakelite polishes on the market, but Semichrome seems to be the polish of choice.
As Bob mentioned, if you rub too hard and break through the hard surface,then it won't come back.
Bob Stone

From: Gainesville, FL, USA

posted 24 June 2000 08:20 AM     profile   send email     edit
Let me clarify my experience in polishing Bakelite. My Ric had some deep scratches (maybe 20 mils, or so) on the back of the body. I took it down with 120 grit--first experimenting on a small area--and most definitely broke through the original hard surface. It polished up really nicely. To me it seems more like the slight porosity I see in some areas of the polished guitar are localized, possibly manifestations of the non-homogeneous quality of a Bakelite casting. Just a guess. I also took quite a bit off the face of the headstock and it looks absolutely beautiful--no porosity. Trust me guys, sanding and polishing Bakelite gives excellent results. And all my work has been by hand--no power buffer. I'll post photos when I get it together, hopefully less than 2 weeks.

It is also worth noting that Bakelite can be machined and threaded. Examples are the neck joint, tuner post holes, neck bolt holes and female threads as well as threaded holes for the metal plates and pickup. Molds are very expensive, but really only necessary for mass production. I bet someone--maybe even me?--could make a Bakelite lap steel body from a solid block of the stuff, or a very rough shape, using ordinary power and hand tools. It seems like it wouldn't be any more difficult than working hardwood, for example, once one becomes familiar the material properties.

Can such a hunk of Bakelite be purchased?

Just because Bakelite is thermosetting, doesn't mean that has to be a big deal. In metallurgy lab back in 1967 we imbedded specimens in blocks of clear thermosetting plastic cylinders we made from powder. The pressure came from a little hand-pumped hydraulic jack and I believe the heat source was a small electric coil. Really simple stuff. Or am i crazy?

Now back to a question I asked earlier but got no response to. Has anyone done an A-B comparison with a Bakelite Ric and a Sierra lap? Are you out there b0b?

Jason Lollar

From: Seattle area

posted 24 June 2000 06:03 PM     profile   send email     edit
I have seen Bakelite online after searching through the Tomas Guide. I think it comes in sheets up to 2" thick. Look for phenolic or linen phenolic.
Ian McLatchie

From: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

posted 25 June 2000 06:21 AM     profile   send email     edit
Bob: Rick Turner is (or was, at least) making a pre-war horseshoe repo. I haven't heard any, but I'm told they sound great.
John Rickard

From: Phoenix (It's A Dry Heave) AZ

posted 25 June 2000 11:42 AM     profile   send email     edit
Its hard enough trying to get someone to make bakelite pickguards let alone lap steels. Even Fender quit using it on their 52 Tele Reissue (bummer).

Slide It On Over

chris ivey

From: sacramento, ca. usa

posted 26 June 2000 04:33 PM     profile   send email     edit
plus, i think asbestos was used in the bakelite process, which would make it about 100th of a percent as dangerous ecologically as MTBE in your gas (which they can't stop using til they find something more dangerous)...!!!
Bob Hoffnar

From: Brooklyn, NY

posted 27 June 2000 09:53 AM     profile   send email     edit
I'm still searching for alternatives...

I shall check with "She That Knows All" and you will recieve the answer when she feels we are ready


Mark van Allen

From: loganville, Ga. USA

posted 12 July 2000 02:50 AM     profile   send email     edit
I have played my Sierra lap 8 up against several pre-war 1 1/2" pickup Ricks and it sounded as good and had more sustain than any of them...but I'm not sure they were the best sounding Ricks I've heard, just the ones I ran into since I got the Sierra. It's really a fine guitar, I think they nailed most of the Rick vibe and tone- but there's always that elusive 45 year old chemistry...

Mark van Allen-"Blueground Undergrass" Pedal, Non-Pedal, Lap, and Dobro

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