Sets made from Plastic Materials
Oct 2, 2010Public

This album shows my plastic chessmen (excl. those in travel/pocket categories & some others). Many look somewhat askance at the idea of these being 'collectible' but I think that they CAN be - especialy the earlier plastics, up to say 1950 or so, that simply feel better/heavier; it's difficult to describe. Each to their own!

Firstly, what is a 'plastic'?  As can be seen from the above attempt at a definition by Dupont as late as 1945*, the 'group' can be very wide indeed. They can perhaps be broken down into three main sub-groupings as set out below in comments.

The aim of the rest of the images in this initial section is to consider further specific plastics (or trade-names for plastics) that are used in chess sets that I own. 

A vast range of plastics have been ommitted,  as not being specially relevant to chessmen (as far as I know!), and this includes many natural and early ones such as Vulcanite, Gutta Percha, Bois Durci etc.  Go out and look!

Image - a pair of Hunter 'Lowther' green rubber wellies.

Natural rubber is a natural plastic that comes from the Rubber Tree, originally found only in the Amazon rain forest. Local Indians tapped these trees and made items from the sap thousands of years ago.

It was first introduced to Europe, via France, in 1736, reaching England in 1770 when it's ability to rub out pencil marks was noticed by J.Priestly (who had 'discovered' oxygen!) : this gave it its name of 'rubber'. However, rubber, at this stage, had a major problem - it wasn't stable, and, in hot weather, would revert to a sticky gum, whilst, in cold weather, would become brittle.

Matters continued like this until a rubber fanatic - called Charles Goodyear - came along in 1834. His story is told here : via a reprinted 1958 Reader's Digest article. His breakthrough came in 1839, when he inadvertently discovered the vulcanisation process that led to rubber finally becoming a stable product.

The first real such plastic was called Parkesine, and was discovered by Alexander Parkes, an Englishman. He exhibited this at the Great International Exhibition of 1862 and obtained a patent in 1865. For some time, people had been looking for an aternative to rubber, and in 1845 a chap called Schoenbein experimented with plant fibre and nitric/sulphuric acids - creating cellulose nitrate: this was used as a explosive and in producing collodion. Parkes took it a stage further by also using camphor as a plasticizer. He started The Parkesine Company in 1866 to make/market it, but in trying to sell it too cheaply, made such an inferior product that the company went into liquidation!

The next year, The Xylonite Company was started by a former associate of Parkes to make almost identical products. It, too, failed in 1874. The name Xylonite is derived from the Greek 'xylon' meaning wood.
Photo: GALALITH (from the greek words meaning milk & stone) was discovered in 1897-8 when Wilhelm Krische, a German, was asked to make a white board that could be written on and easily wiped clean for school use. He experimented with casein, a protein in milk and, although failing in the original aim, did discover a new plastic he called 'galalith'.

 It was refined by the addition of formaldehyde to the process to produce a wonder-material that could be made easily, quickly and cheaply; could be worked, molded and/or embossed and dyed/coloured to produce a wide range of colours and effects as shown in the above sampler. It was first exhibited at the Paris Exhibition 1900. 

It was widely taken up as a replacement for ivory, horn etc in the making of buttons etc and, later in the 1920's on, for beautiful, and upmarket, costume jewelry. Huge amounts were produced in Germany and France and, later, in England (where it was marketed as Erinoid). Production was suppressed by the outbreak of WWII and never recovered.
Photo: Another sampler for Erinoid - this was another name (mainly in England) for casein plastic, and was effectively identical to Galalith. I understand that "Erin" was used as part of the name as much of the milk rennet used was sourced from Ireland. 

Note the address of the makers as shown - Lightpill Mills, Stroud, Glos, UK. This was very close to where The British Chess Company (which had used Xylonite, an earlier form of plastic) had its factory (at Rock Mill) - the dates for these companies however do not marry up (1911, Syrolit Ltd, which became Erinoid Ltd in 1914 - it eventually became part of BP) .

The Original 'Bakelizer' - image from: National Museum of American History

In 1907, in the USA, Dr.Leo Baekeland, took two simple chemicals - phenol and formaldehyde - mixed and heated/pressurized them in an autoclave (which he called the 'Bakelizer' as pictured above). The result was an amber-coloured sticky resin that he called 'Bakelite' - the world's first entirely man-made/synthetic plastic - the first in a family of 'phenolic resins'. It could be produced in a limited range of quite bright colours in this state.

The problem with this plastic was that it was extremely brittle in its basic form and of little real use. Baekeland experimented further, and found it could be strengthend considerably by adding fillers - mostly using sawdust. However, this resulted in any colour turning a dark, muted hue.   It's main advantage over earlier plastics was that it could be moulded quickly and simply; it retained shape even when heated, pressurized or subjected to solvents - ie a thermoset plastic.

Another phenolic resin, very similar to, but different than, Bakelite, first made in the US by The Catalin Corporation in 1927 on the expiry of the Bakelite patent. 

Unlike Bakelite, Catalin did not need to have fillers added to make it practical for use.  As such, it could be brightly coloured (as shown in the above image of a catalin poker-chip rack seen on eBay, with nicely swirled colours). It soon became a firm favourite in the US, and was very widely used for many products in the 1930's and 1940s in particular.  

Like Bakelite, it too is a thermoset plastic, remaining stable in shape etc after formation, and does not burn or melt. At the time, neither Bakelite nor Catalin could be glued.

It's drawbacks are that some Catalin colours change considerably (especially white, see later image) and it has a tendency to shrink with time and, depending on the use to which it has been put, this can result in cracking of the material. The former shows up in chess sets - the latter tends not to.

Tenite was the first modern thermoplastic, developed by Eastman Kodak in 1929. It is a cellulosic plastic, based on woodchips, and is still made by Eastman (see: ) . As shown on that site, (modern) Tenite products can be supplied in a number of forms, depending on the type and percentage of plasticizer used - it is no wonder identifying different plastics by look/feel is so tricky for us amateurs!

Tenite was certainly used in the US Gallant Knight sets (see later images) and is believed to have been used by Drueke in its 'Octagonal' sets. It may well be that it had considerably wider application in plastic chess sets. 

The image above is from: and shows the Tenite plastic American football helmet, made by Eastman Kodak and first played with on 5 October 1940 - the team wearing it won 40-0!

I know of no way of specifically identifying Tenite (other than through external evidence).

As stated in connection with Bakelite, that plastic (in its true sense) simply could not be made in White - anything that has a true white colour therefore cannot be Bakelite.

The image above (from Catalin Corner, a vintage radio collectors group) is of two Fada 252 radios made of Catalin - except it isn't! It is the same radio - the top version is as it was found and the bottom after restoration. UV light is said to convert the phenol into phenolic acid, which is browny in colour, giving rise to the 'butterscotch yellow' colour. It is only surface deep, and can be removed by careful sanding and polishing. The original white radio was sold as 'Alabaster White' in colour. This effect can be seen in connection with my Lowe set in a later image where I scraped the surface in a non-exposed area. So - any such old 'yellow' plastic may well be Catalin: try a scrape test. 

As stated with Galalith/Erinoid, that plastic was made in white - and retained it's colour!
Photo: A catalin piece (not owned) with a very recent break (bishop's knop) - this clearly shows the original white material immediately beneath the 'discoloured' surface.
Photo: Discussion has taken place amongst collectors as to how early plastic chess sets (prior to the introduction of injection moulding techniques) were made: carved, turned or cast? 

The above photo has been "borrowed" from the Billiard & Snooker Heritage Collection site at : where they state: "Meanwhile [in context, this is c.1928] at Ludwigshafen in Germany, the large Chemical Co,. RASHIG GmbH began producing an entirely different ball with a phenol formaldehyde base – this was a “Resin Casting” – each ball being separately cast in glass mould – cured and then extracted by breaking the mould off the ball.....The ball is then turned and finished on a centraless grinder and finally polished in the same manner as the original Bonzoline and Crystalate* Balls"

(* a material considered here re the Combination disk sets)

RASCHIG GmbH  was formed in 1891 as a chemical plant. It is a leader in high-performance thermoset resins.

An interesting possibility!
Photo: American phenolic resin (bakelite/catalin etc) sets

For those interested in relatively early plastics and the way they were incorporated into American society, I would recommend the following site for a decent overview:

Fellow collector (Picasan and CCI member), Duncan Pohl, has undertaken a fine review of US plastic sets/makers that can be seen here:
Photo: Page from the Sept.1936 issue of Modern Mechanix - a US magazine shown in the website referred to on the previous page.

One quote from a later page of the article: "Outwardly similar, they are chemically different. Lustrous, vari-colored Catalin, for instance, cannot take the place of Bakelite in telephone and radio; nor can black Bakelite replace Catalin in the construction of toilet articles and chessmen, where beauty is needed and dialectricity is not".
Photo: Close-up of the page from the Sept.1936 issue of Modern Mechanix shown in the previous photo. 

This shows that catalin chessmen were being made in the US at that date.
Photo: An even closer image of the catalin chess set from the advert - unfortunately, I still can't make out the nature of the piece to try to identify them! This is about as close-in as I can get without losing the image as just a series of pixels.
Photo: CH254 a lovely American set made of catalin - by ES Lowe, probably mid-1940's/early-1950's.

Catalin is the trade-name for a phenolic resin, and was effectively the first successor to Bakelite, the first of that range of thermo-setting (meaning that, once set, it would not change, even under heat, pressure etc) plastics. It has a different manufacturing process to Bakelite and, in it's raw state, is virtually colourless, so it can be coloured easily and also takes surface stains well - unlike original Bakelite which, in its raw state was amber-coloured (it could be coloured, but produced only dark, muddy-looking results, especially when strengthened by fillers: green, red, black & blown - often mottled) .

The red side is a solid red - sometimes these sets have a swirly 'marbled' look to the red pieces. More on the "white" pieces later!

A good history of Lowe and the sets it produced/sold can be found here:
Photo: CH254 - all the pieces come in sections joined by metal screw rods. This is typical of all such sets (at least those made in the US that I have seen; certain European sets use integral screws threads - see CH277 below - although others, even those seemingly also by Uhlig, employ metal rods eg see ).

I have read that catalin once formed did not take a glue join well (at least with the glues available at the time). It also had a tendency to shrink - both of which no doubt led to them adopting this method of joining the sections.

My feeling - currently without any real evidence - is that these sections were cast and not turned. These plastics were often cast (eg radio etc cases), and the method of construction (sectional, eliminating most complex undercuts) would suggest it - turning could easily have been performed in monobloc form (albeit with increased wasteage).
Photo: CH254 The White side pieces

The 'white' side was indeed originally white - sold as "alabaster white" by the makers - as is shown by the slight scratch above, below the central hole.  

Either UV light or contact with air effected the phenol and turned it into the butterscotch we now see - how long the process took is not known to me, but it must have led to some bemused purchasers. The effect is only surface deep as indicated by the light scratch.
Photo: CH254 - markings on one of the pieces.

Are these just plier or some-such tool marks, or something else? This - enhanced with a green marker pen - is about as detailed as I can get, I'm afraid. There is nothing similar on any other piece, nor on the other side of the column as one might expect from a gripping-tool.
Photo: An example of a similar set (not owned by me) where the catalin has not wholly changed colour - the basic white colour can be seen quite clearly.

Note the difference in the shape of some pieces here with my set.
Photo: CH294: catalin chess set - US (possibly - as the set was bought from there, but I'm not sure: the design doesn't "feel" like it, somehow). Likely date:  late 1930's - early 1950's.  K=3.1in  

Exterior of leather-covered box containing the set. The top section is lockable through the catches on the front; the bottom tray simply pulls out and is not lockable - it has no sides to it and it's purpose is unclear (probably, to house a board). The box is monogrammed "P.K." - whoever he might have been.
Photo: CH294 - the interior, with pieces in situ.

The interior is nicely padded with a very soft leather, with separate wells that fit each piece (the bases are virtually identical in size); the lid slopes down towards the front. At first sight, it would seem that the box is purpose-made for the set - but, the pieces do not entirely stay in place with the lid closed, so this is by no mean certain.

The pieces look to be made of catalin - a phenolic resin, and the successor to bakelite. Each piece is made of two sections - the base and 'the rest'. Unlike other sets of this material that I have, or have seen/discussed, the two sections are joined neither by threaded pegs of the same material nor by metal screws, but - for the few that I have been able to prise apart - simply push together for a remarkably snug fit.

A few pieces needed some repair work - this was very ably done, in a notoriously tricky medium, by Milissa Ellison, who is US-based and can be contacted on this e-mail:
Photo: CH294 - close-up of the pieces in their individual wells.

The white pieces are of the "traditionally-seen" butterscotch colour. The black side are what, in pen terms , would be called "wood-grain effect" - a transluscent brown & dark-brown/black mix, which gives an extremely attractive look in my opinion. 

As with all early phenolic resins, the pieces are pleasingly heavy and have a very nice feel to them.

For anyone interested in the fascinating restoration process of this set by Milissa please click here:

Image 35 of this album shows discolouration of a white pawn - I've since been able to remove this by using a "non-abrasive" metal polish that I have successfully used on other plastics; BUT - if you try this with catalin, be very careful about the level of pressure used or you will find you reduce/remove the surface-only butterscotch colouration of the catalin pieces! You have been warned.
Photo: CH294 - black pieces, natural light

The K's & Q's are interesting. The King's crown more closely resembles the coronet more usually seen on Queens - and seems to hark back to those on Kings' crowns in some English sets from the C18th.  The finial on the Queen, looks more like some modern King's crosses with the top broken off - which it isn't by the way!