25 tips for shopping estate sales

estate sale

If you love vintage like we do, you have probably spotted an estate sale sign or two in your travels.  But have you ever shopped at estate sales? Estate sales are different from shopping flea markets, thrift stores, auctions or garage sales. They present some unique opportunities for interesting finds as well as the ability to get in on the ground floor so to speak.  

Here are 25 tips for shopping estate sales–helpful ideas for both new shoppers and seasoned pro’s alike.


  1. Bring your own bags and packing material.
  2. Do your homework. If the sale is online, look at the pictures, read the descriptions and know the rules, i.e. no large purses, cash only, etc.
  3. Be respectful, courteous and polite, after all, you are in someones home. Use your manners.
  4. Ask questions, are they willing to discount for multiple items, will they hold a large piece for a day, etc?
  5. Parking! Don’t block driveways, stop in the middle of the street, or block in other vehicles.
  6. Bring cash.
  7. Look over items your are considering carefully. You don’t want to buy something only to find it’s damaged later on.
  8. Come early or come late. Early birds get the first pick, but coming later often means better deals.
  9. If you find an estate sale company you like, follow them on social media or their blog, and let them know. Everyone wants to be acknowledged, and you may get early entrance or special deals by being a preferred customer.
  10. If you are shopping for large items, be prepared to bring them with you or have someone pick them up quickly. This includes things like moving pads, rope or strapping, a large vehicle, and enough strong bodies to help out.
  11. Bring your smartphone and be sure it’s charged so you can research items on the spot. 
  12. When digging through drawers, boxes, or cabinets, don’t leave a mess. Put things back as you found them. 
  13. Make a pile, or ask the cashier to have someone set items aside that you are interested in. This way you can review items in detail and make a final decision on your purchases.
  14. Shop with a friend, and know what you are looking for. This way you can each to a quick round of the sale and come back for in depth shopping.
  15. Follow the rules. Don’t jump the line, bring in large bags, or be pushy. Most sales have rules posted in advance or at the door. Please abide by them.
  16. Plan your route in advance. Look online for sales in your area and plan out your route before you go.
  17. Bring water and snacks with you in the car. 
  18. Take along a magnifying glass for reading identification marks and spotting defects.  
  19. Bring paper and pen to record what you bought as you may or may not receive a receipt.  
  20. A flashlight might be needed for those dark corners or in the garage, attic and basement.
  21. Once you have paid for something, take it to your vehicle so it won’t be mistaken as an available item.
  22. Don’t forget to ask for an itemized receipt, especially if you are a reseller. You will need it for taxes.
  23. Know what you are shopping for, but be open to new items. You never know what you will find.
  24. Wear comfortable clothing and shoes.
  25. Check the weather before you go. Be sure the sale is not cancelled due to inclement weather.

To learn more about estate sales and find ones in your area, be sure to visit EstateSales.org and check out their blog as well at The Goods.

3 new tricks to teach old TV carts

tv cart
Two styles of vintage TV cart in their natural habitat, at the curb with a “free” sign

Historically speaking, as the size and shapes of televisions change, so do the size, shape and popularity of the furniture that holds them.

Working backwards from now: today’s flat screens go on the wall or on anything that’s got 12″ of depth. TVs have become like statement art–the focal point of a room.

The 1990s through 2000s bubble back TVs popularized big entertainment centers with compartments to hold the VCR or DVD players, video game systems, DVDs and VHS tapes and giant cable boxes. These originally expensive pieces of furniture are now readily available at charity shops, priced right to be reinvented into play kitchens or puppet theaters.

1960s and 1970s TVs  came in sizes from tiny portables to huge furniture consoles. In between the extremes was a modestly-sized set that came with a simple wheeled stand so it could be moved to get better reception from your rooftop antenna or your set-top rabbit ears.

1960s TV stands are often found lurking about at the back of basements (and yes, sometimes with the TV which hasn’t worked in 40 years still on it). TV stands are one of the things that get kept because “it might be useful.” Now that more boomers are downsizing, it’s pretty common to find an old TV stands being released into the wild, set “free” on the curb. 

What do you do with a useful piece of furniture that long outlived it’s original purpose? Not everyone can see the lovely in a metal frame with some wood or wood substitute shelves and plastic wheels. But they are kind of cool in an inexplicable way. A repurposing challenge if ever there was one. We scratched our creativity and came up with three ideas for making a little TV cart magic.

tv cart

The Craft Cart

As luck would have it, suitcases fit quite nicely on a 1960s TV cart. If you live in a small space and you don’t have room for a whole craft studio, you can make one with a couple of vintage suitcases and a TV cart.

An added benefit is that TV carts provide a way to stack shaped side suitcases, like hard-sided 1960s and 70s American Touristers. Shaped sides will slide off each other if they don’t have a structure to keep them in place.


The Recycle Cart

TV tables from the 1970s have two shelves but no high back handle. With their wheels to make them mobile, they can be used a little more versatilely than their 1960s predecessors. Solve your recycling storage challenges by adding some vintage gym baskets and using it as a mobile corral for your non-trash refuse.

tv cart recycling

Guest Room Hospitality Cart

If your guest room is also your office is also your yoga room, a vintage TV cart can make it a little more welcoming to your guests when filled with necessities (towels, extra pillows and extra blankets) and niceties (good reads, a nightlight and lotions).

What else could a TV cart become? Imagine adding some spray paint, some fabric, some pixie dust and some elbow grease…

Do you have a vintage TV cart in your life? What tasks does it do for you? We’d love to know!

23 Tips for Buying Vintage and Antiques at Auctions

The VU team loves a good auction. It’s got all the elements of a good adventure: the inspection of the auction lots, the listing of things you’re interested in, the watching and the bidding and of course the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

Going to your first auction can be a little intimidating. You might worry that you won’t know how to bid. Or that you will have auction regret for bidding too much and winning. Or auction regret for bidding too little and losing. We’ve put our brains together and compiled some auction tips because we want you to get in there and have some fun. As long as you’re not bidding against one of us…no wait…that brings us to the start of the list.

  1. All’s fair in love and bidding. Your money is as good as anyone else’s money. If you want something, you can bid on it. 
  2. Auctions have previews either the day ahead or early on the same day of the auction. Do not bid on anything you have not examined, even if the bidding seems too good to be true. Every one of us can share a story about how that ended poorly. 
  3. Bring your camera or smartphone with you to take pictures of the items you are interested in – that way, you can do advance research on the items before the sale. Or look them up onsite. 
  4. Items are sold individually or in lots ranging from a small tray of items to a whole table of them. Usually there is a tag or label that tells you what is being sold together.
  5. If there are box lots, peek at what’s on the bottom of the box. We don’t do it and we don’t suggest doing it, but sometimes potential bidders will rearrange the contents so the good stuff is hidden from view.
  6. Don’t buy big things without measuring. And without knowing how you are going to get it home.
  7. Dust doesn’t necessarily mean something is old. It just means it’s dusty. Pick it up and handle it to see how old it really is.
  8. Textiles and rugs are often good buys at auctions. Most textiles and definitely any rugs should be cleaned or stored at freezing temperatures for a few days before they are brought into your home. Beautiful rugs are good. Moths that hide in them are not.
  9. Make a list of lots you would like to bid on with a bidding limit. Setting a ceiling helps prevent your competitive streak from taking over and paying more than you want for something.
  10. Auction houses add a buyer’s premium, a percentage of the sale price, to the final purchase amount. The amount varies, but always be aware of that when you are bidding.
  11. Keep of running total of what you’ve bought so you know how much you’ve spent and so you remember to find all your lots at the end of the auction. Auction houses will usually write your bidder number on your purchases, but they don’t group your things together, so you will have a treasure hunt and it’s easy to forget a treasure.
  12. Be an observer. Get to know the players. Who are the dealers who buy lots of things? Who are the collectors who came for one item and are determined to get it? Who are the people buying things for their own use? Auction houses tend to have some of the same buyers at all their sales. You can help figure out your bidding strategy if you know how others bid.
  13. If you are new to auctions, you may want to let others start the bidding on items you are interested in. The auctioneer will start the auction at a certain price. If no one bids right away, he or she will drop the price slightly until someone starts bidding. By allowing other, more seasoned bidders start the bidding, you will probably have a better chance of winning the item at a better price, than if you started the bidding at a price closer to what you are willing to pay.
  14. Sit or stand in the front, near the auctioneer. This allows you to see clearly and hear about the items that are being put up for bid, and it helps to ensure you are seen and acknowledged when you place your bid.
  15. Put on your poker face! Really. If you show excitement about finding an item you want to bid on, you call more attention to it (and to you) and chances are more people will bid against you.
  16. If you are there for one specific lot, you know approximately what it’s worth and how much you are willing to pay, don’t be afraid to let everyone know you plan to take it home by raising your number and holding it up rather than raise and lower it to enter a new bid. Sometimes this display of auction determination will get less avid bidders to drop out earlier. 
  17. Remember that a bid is a final purchase. Only bid on things you really want to take home with you – you can’t change your mind after winning the bid.
  18. Don’t be a sniper! No one likes a sniper and it will give you a bad reputation among the people who attend the auctions. A sniper is someone who places their first bid at the very last minute before bidding closes. If you are truly interested in an item, it’s better to bid on it at some point before the bidding ends for that item. At that point, if you bid at the very end and win the auction, you are not seen as a sniper – mainly because you had already been invested in the bidding.
  19. Lose graciously. If you lose an item to another bidder, it’s best to do so with grace. Don’t show emotion or complain – you’ll only attract attention to yourself. You may see the same people attending all the same auctions you attend, so by avoiding calling attention to yourself, you may be able to avoid a potential rivalry.
  20. Make sure to bring along anything you need to get your purchases home safely. Things like boxes or bags to contain small purchases, bubble wrap or other padding to protect delicate items, furniture blankets to protect the surfaces of furniture, and rope or tie-downs in case you need to haul something home on the roof of your vehicle.
  21. Some auctions can be very long. Make sure you plan enough time in your schedule to stay until the items you are interested come up for bid. Bring water, snacks, and even a portable folding chair with you for the day-long auctions. If the auction is being held outside, you’ll also want to make sure to dress appropriately for whatever the weather may be. Bring an umbrella for rainy days or to provide shade on hot and sunny days.
  22. Get to know your local auctioneers. When you establish a relationship with them, they’ll know the kinds of things you are looking for and oftentimes will give you advance notice of upcoming auctions that have items you like. Sometimes you can even preview those items long before the preview is open to the public. It’s nice to have that “inside information”.
  23. Some auction houses have a regular schedule of auctions each month, and the auctions they hold are often within their specialty. For example, some auction houses deal with commercial businesses, some with liquidating estates, others specialize in farm auctions. Getting to know your local auction houses will help you decide with auctions to attend. Don’t be afraid to branch out! Attend auctions in rural communities, auctions in industrial areas of the city, or auctions in affluent neighborhoods. You never know what you will find!

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Do you have any additional tips regarding auctions that you would like to share? Add a comment below!

The antique handsaw conundrum: restore or repurpose

vintage saw
Workshop fresh saws, some dating back to the early 1900s.

There are vintage treasures to be found in every workshop. There’s the workbench itself, with it’s decades of paint spatters, nicks, chips and holes from drill incidents. There are the wooden or metal utility drawers, repurposed from a previous industrial life into storage for screws, nails and this-and-thats in the home workshop. And there are the tools. The wooden handled screwdrivers, the whetstone in it’s wooden box, folding rulers, the calipers, the eggbeater hand drill and the king of the workshop–the beautiful, durable handsaw.

The handsaw has always been the top of the workshop heap. When you are building something, the hammer, the drill, the screwdriver all have to wait until the saw cuts everything to the proper size.  You can use louder, faster mechanical saws, but the technology that made the handsaw the tool that built our nation (literally) has not been outmoded. The handsaw made a hundred years ago can do the same job as the power saws tantalizingly arrayed at the front of every home supply big box store. It may take longer to get the job done, but it will definitely be more satisfying.

In addition to being workshop stalwarts, antique saws are also beautiful. The handsaw handle illustrates the form follows function principle. The curves and crannies all have a purpose for adjusting your grip, but they’re mighty attractive too. Some makers add carved details to make them even more wonderful.

All of which presents a conundrum: should antique handsaws be restored to continue their workshop lives or should they be repurposed to capitalize on their aesthetic charm?

The answer, as with most vintage and antique pieces, rests in your own priorities.

If you’re a woodworker, you definitely would stand firmly on the restore side. Restoring a vintage saw is an act of skill, patience and pride, so you’d only invest your time if you know your end product will give you a big time workshop ROI. Josh Burroughs wrote a great how-to post on makezine.com to get you started. And Erik von Sneidern, curator of the DisstonianInstitute.com provides invaluable links to saw resources (Disston saws in particular) as well as this fabulous essay, Why Bother with Handsaws?

If you would like to repurpose a beautiful old saw, you might have to do nothing more than put a couple of holes in the wall and hang it, because it has the patina of real life that can’t be faked. Katrina Lounsbury used a collection of vintage saws to create this focal point in her garden.

garden shed with saws
Saws become a garden focal point from fleamarketgardening.org

The craftosphere is dotted with ideas for turning saws into coat racks or what have you, but having been on the pointy tooth side of a saw more than a few times, it’s hard to imagine why you would put your fingers and/or your textiles near it. Many talented landscape and hand lettering artists use saws as their canvases. If you’re going to think of form following function, repurposing a saw into visual art makes way more sense than trying to manufacture a way to repurpose it into a household organizer.

painted saw
Hand lettered saw by santangelostudio on Etsy.

If you decide to try your hand at painting a vintage saw, illustrator Kelsey Phillips has a tutorial on prepping a saw for painting.

If you have a vintage saw in your life or vintage saw decor plans in your future, it’s always good policy with any antique to do a little internet snooping and see if what you have is either rare or collectible. It’s not that rare saws sell for enough to buy a villa in France; it’s that they have artifact value that would be prized and honored by a collector. There is no shortage of old saws in this world, your local Habitat for Humanity ReStore will likely be able to hook you up with any number of them at a very reasonable price, so if you do happen to have something kind of special, you can pass it on to someone who would appreciate it, confident that you will find a replacement saw for your decor or art project.


Storing Vintage Holiday Decorations

Now that the holidays are over, the gifts opened and put away, it’s time to take down and store your decorations for another year.  Many of our most coveted and favorite vintage holiday decorations are heirlooms handed down from older generations or purchased to commemorate special occasions in life. You’ll want to store these in such a way as to ensure they remain intact and in good repair for next year and years to come.

Those vintage ornaments and decorations require a bit more care than just placing them into the box and storing them back in the garage.  Here are a few quick tips to keep you holiday decor in top shape for many more holidays.

Before you put each item away, take a close look at them. Wipe each item down, even if it’s just a quick dusting. Check for any damage, breaks or loose parts, anything that may need a quick repair.  Many vintage items can easily become unglued, or loose over time. Taking the time to do any minor repairs now will save you time and effort next year when you unpack them all again.

Packing those vintage ornaments away properly will also ensure they remain in pristine shape for next year. Before you throw them in a box and forget them for another year, make sure to wrap them well.  Acid free paper will ensure vintage inks won’t fade and some bubble wrap or foam will keep delicate pieces from getting broken.

As tempting as it is to stash holiday decor in the garage, it’s probably not the best place for those delicate pieces of family history. The extreme temperature and  humidity changes can warp older plastics or create mold on vintage fabrics. If you can, find a cool dry place to store your most prized holiday decorations and ornaments. The back of a closet is a good location where your vintage holiday decorations can remain undisturbed until next year.

What are Christmas crackers and why are they awesome

christmas crackers

christmas crackers

You’ve probably noticed the boxes of Christmas crackers on your holiday shopping travels. They’re the boxes filled with what look like cardboard models of Brach’s Milk Maid Royals, straight center cylinders, nipped in with a twist and a flare of paper at the end. Originally part of the British Christmas narrative, the American market must be embracing them because they are easy to find these days. 

The basic cracker structure is pretty much the same. Cardboard cylinder, twist concealing a paper strip that is chemically treated to make a snapping sound when you pull on the flared ends to tear them off and get at the cheap plastic prize, fortune and, most important, tissue paper crown inside. Seeing everyone you share your holiday with standing around wearing paper crowns is ridiculously satisfying for reasons science cannot explain.

If you’re purchasing Christmas crackers, the price differential is based on the trinket that comes in the crackers. You pay more, you get slightly better cheap prizes. Do not be fooled by the packaging. Cracker makers package them to appeal to every aesthetic, from elegant gold with refined script labeling to sweet polka dot and stripes style with cheerful labeling and everything in between.  The packaging may be different, the stuff inside is exactly the same. There is usually a small photo of typical prizes on the back of the box. (Last year, our cracker prizes were stick-on mustaches. Those crackers were worth their weight in adhesive felt, providing hours of quality entertainment.)

You can definitely make your own crackers and fill them with whatever would make your crowd as happy as seals with their very own bucket of fish bits. The DIY Christmas cracker market may be somewhat niche, but there lots of retailers online, including shops on Amazon, Etsy and Ebay, ready and willing to provide the absolutely essential cracker snaps and more. 

Cracker snaps from Old English Crackers. 

Olde English Crackers has pretty much everything you need, including  cracker snaps and tissue paper hats.

British celebri-chef Jamie Oliver offers a how-to with some creative ideas for what to use for paper on your crackers.

And over on tutsplus, Eleanna Kotsikou has a fabulously detailed tutorial for making crackers that will satisfy even the most diehard DIYer.

Mr Bean
Mr. Bean and his cracker. What happens next is pretty much what you would expect to happen in a Mr. Bean show.

No post on Christmas crackers would be complete without mentioning Merry Christmas, Mr. Bean (1992), the viewing of which has become a holiday tradition with our extended pack of Christmas eve celebrants. It’s available on Hulu. Our Canadian friends can watch it on CBC 12/24 at 9:30 pm.

50 Things to do on Black Friday that don’t involve the mall


  1. Take the kids and go to a movie.
  2. Take the neighbor’s kids and go to a movie.
  3. Play a round or two of miniature golf. No course near you? Invent one. Kitchen chairs make awesome obstacles.
  4. Decorate the house for the upcoming holiday.
  5. Start a large jigsaw puzzle and invite everyone to join in.
  6. Write out, address, and send your holiday cards.
  7. Take Mom to lunch at her favorite restaurant.
  8. Go ice or roller skating with or without the kids.
  9. Bundle up and take a walk on the beach.
  10. Call or visit friends or relatives who can’t get out easily.
  11. Take the dog out to the park.
  12. Make freezer dinners out of all that leftover turkey.
  13. Work for someone that NEEDS to go shopping.
  14. GIVE rather than BUY – to the food pantry, to the local animal shelter etc.
  15. Slow down and rest for the upcoming fast paced season ahead.
  16. Take a bubble bath
  17. Sort your socks and weed out any that don’t have matches once and for all. But what to do with the lonely single socks?
  18. Invite friends over to play a game of Risk. Stock provisions, this might take most of the day but it will be worth it.
  19. Make a flock of origami cranes to leave in unexpected places as an unexpected happy surprise.
  20. Visit a historic site that’s within an hour of your home that you have never been to.
  21. Make a New Years Resolution a month early. There’s no time like when you’re heading into a stressful month to make a small change that makes you feel good about you.
  22. Visit your local nursing home or veteran’s hospital and spread some cheer! While you are there get a list from the staff of the resident’s needs and add a few of those to your shopping list.
  23. Call the local children’s home and get a wish list for one or two of the children. 
  24. If you saved last years Christmas cards – drag them out for the kids to cut up and make ornaments to decorate their rooms. 
  25. Have a bonfire, roast marshmallows, sip hot cocoa, and watch the Leonid meteor shower .
  26. Read aloud. Spoken word is magical.
  27. Organize a Christmas carol flash mob somewhere unexpected. The coffee shop. The library. The Post Office.
  28. Go on a pine cone treasure hunt–see how many different kinds you can find.
  29. Repot your root-bound houseplants.
  30. Make hot chocolate from scratch.
  31. Get your creativity on and make your own Advent Calendar.
  32. Get out one of those shoebox of family photos to sort and organize. There are stories in that box that only you know, and they ought to be shared.
  33. Build a pillow fort. The bigger the better.
  34. Start your paperwhites or amaryllis bulbs
  35. Sort through your closet with someone younger. You might not plan on wearing some of those 80s  gems again, but your younger chum might think they’re crazy cool.
  36. Go to the gym and work off yesterday’s feast.
  37. Volunteer at a local homeless shelter.
  38. Re-gift that sweater that you will never wear to someone in need.
  39. Teach someone something. Like how to crochet, make paper mache, or pottery.
  40. Curl up with a good book.
  41. Gather with friends or family and make Christmas cookies.
  42. Get your gifts wrapped and ready to go under the tree. Challenge yourself to use green and creative wrapping to make the gift extra fun.
  43. Make a gift list if you still have shopping to do. Maybe try using a new to do list app.
  44. Put up your outside holiday decor before the snow flies.
  45. Do some shopping online and avoid the crowds.
  46. Get into your most comfortable clothes, grab a vintage quilt or kantha quilt, some pillows, and binge-watch your favorite television shows. Don’t forget the snacks!
  47. Visit a local art and craft center where you can create pottery, sketch, or paint. Go with a friend or family member, relax, and have fun! You could even use your finished project as a Christmas gift.
  48. Go on a wine tasting road trip! Find wineries in your area, plan a route, and make a day of it. 
  49. Spend a couple of hours at a used or rare book store, browsing through their selection. You never know what you might find!
  50. Do absolutely nothing – you’ve earned it!


Hammered aluminum tableware polishing throwdown

hammered aluminum trays

hammered aluminum trays

In the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, metal serving pieces could be divided into two categories: fancy and not-very-fancy.  

Fancy were the silver and, more commonly, silver plated tea sets, trays, vegetable dishes, platters, gravy boats, bowls and other table what-have-yous that were trotted out for holidays, when the boss or teacher came for dinner and maybe Sunday supper.

Not-very-fancy were the hammered aluminum servers. These were much more laid back, going to bake sales, backyard barbecues, potluck suppers and hanging out on end tables filled with mixed nuts in shells waiting to be cracked. 

It was a tale of two servers. Silver plate lived on the sideboard or buffet or in the hutch. Hammered aluminum lived in the kitchen, the pantry or perhaps the back of a cupboard.

That was then. Now it’s hammered aluminum’s time to shine as the star server. Of course there’s still love for silver plated teapots with saucy little feet and urn-shaped champagne buckets, but not necessarily on the dining table. Back in the day, it would have been etiquette heresy to plop your amaryllis in a champagne bucket. But now? Heck yes, let me get my potting soil. 

Hammered aluminum was made in a vast array of patterns by a vast array of makers. Florals and botanicals, scrolls and flourishes, geometrics were common. Quality varies from maker to maker. Rodney Kent, Continental, Wendell August and Buenilum are among the nicer brands. You can judge better quality from just okay pieces by the thickness of the metal and the quality of the stamped image.

Condition wise, hammered aluminum was a workhorse, so most pieces have scratches, scuffs, abrasions and water spots. When you find a kitchen-fresh piece at a yard sale or thrift shop, it probably has a nice even layer of kitchen grime and dust (as you would too if you had been living in a kitchen for 50 years). A nice sudsy sink with a good grease cutting dish detergent and a soft sponge or cloth will see to that layer. You may need a toothbrush and cotton swabs to get into the nooks and crannies. FYI, Abrasive scrubbies and gritty cleaners are to hammered aluminum what wooden stakes are to vampires. Never should they cross paths. And the dishwasher is strictly out of the question.

To polish or not to polish is a subject of debate. It’s your collection, you should do as you please. These not rare antiques that will diminish in value if you restore the shine. However, hammered aluminum was not intended to be shiny like silver plate. It has more of a soft warm burnished glow. That being said, I like mine polished.

For years, I’ve polished my aluminum with Wenol metal polish. I was fairly satisfied with it. Until I read about using a metal polish from the auto supply store on Dannie Woodard’s blog, The Aluminist. Since Dannie Woodard quite literally wrote the book on hammered aluminum, it seemed a good idea to take her advice, which lead to…

The Hammered Aluminum Polish Throwdown

aluminum tray

The tray: a Buenilum double handled rectangle. Note that there is a layer of hazy grease-based residue in the tray’s dimples left even after washing.

aluminum polishing

The contenders: On the left, Wenol Metal Polish. On the right Autosol Metal Polish. Equal amounts applied thinly and buffed. (Yes, I use paper towels, soft cloths are better, but paper towels are easier). The paper towels above right are from partially through the buffing process. The black residue on the Autosol side is much thicker and darker. Metal polishes remove a tiny bit of the surface of whatever you are polishing, the residue is definitely an indication of the results to come, Autosol is stronger and/or more aggressive than Wenol.

aluminum results

The results: The Wenol tried mightily, but it left behind a lot of the residue in the dimples on the tray. However, it produced a more satin, less bold finish. The Autosol ate up the grease residue and buffed to a fairly high shine. Ultimately, I used the Autosol to finish up the Wenol side.

Note: Some hammered aluminum has a dark patina in design crevices. There’s a fair chance it was put there by the maker to bring out the details in the accents. Polishing can often remove that patina.

polished aluminum tray

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Bonus round: The back of the tray had an area where something had left a right angle shaped residue, not sticky, not touched by dish detergent or Goo Gone solvent. Could Autosol handle it? 

aluminum polish back

Autosol for the win again. It took three applications and buffings, and the residue did not completely remove, so while the right angle is still noticeable, it is nearly gone.

Vintage plastic jewelry 101: science meets style

bakelite necklace
Molded Plastic Earrings
Molded Plastic Earrings

So you found an awesome vintage accessory like plastic brooch, bracelet, or something more utilitarian like a plastic kitchen tool, radio, drawer handle or knob. While you can easily test it to determine if it is Bakelite, what if it’s not? What exactly is it made of? Here are just a few of the many vintage plastics and resins you may find along with examples and descriptions to help you determine what you have.

Celluloid Chain with wood acorns and leaves

First, there are two very basic types of plastic. They are Thermoset and Thermoplastic. For our purposes, and not to get too technical, the big difference is Thermoset plastic can only be “set” once, while Thermoplastic can be softened or melted down and “reset” multiple times.

Both Bakelite and Catalin are examples of Thermoset. On the other hand Celluloid, Casein or Galaith, and Acrylic are examples of Thermoplastic.

Celluloid was used widely in the late 1800’s to early 1900’s.  Celluloid is made with camphor and smells like camphor or Vicks Vapor Rub. When heated it will smell like pine sap or mothballs. Never use alcohol on celluloid as it will dissolve it. Celluloid is thinner than other plastics and prone to cracking or yellowing over time. Another term used for Celluloid is French Ivory.

Galalith or Casein is sometimes called French Bakelite. It is made of milk, and smells like burnt milk when heated or run under hot water. It was popular starting in the late 1800’s and was still produced until the 1960’s when it was discontinued.

Clear Lucite beaded necklace

Acrylic starts out as a clear thermoplastic that can be colored. Lucite is a trademarked name given to acrylic by DuPont while Plexiglass is a similar material trademarked by Rohm & Haas. Acrylic has no smell when heated, is lighter in weight that Casein or Bakelite and can be cheaply and easily manufactured.

Lesser known plastics used for jewelry production include Polystyrene and Cellulose Acetate. Polystyrene is the same plastic used in most yogurt containers, as well as styrofoam. It’s flammable and can be used as a solid or foam plastic. Cellulose Acetate if often used to make buttons. Cellulose is made from wood fibers and is mixed with a variety of chemicals to create a form of plastic.

So now that you have a bit of knowledge regarding plastics, dig through your stash or go out and find some wonderful vintage pieces and let’s see what you’ve got.

Vintage Acrylic Ring
Vintage Acrylic Ring

Bakelite 101: the gem of plastic vintage jewelry

bakelite collage

Anyone who likes vintage jewelry knows the allure of Bakelite. There’s just something special about it, the colors, designs, feel, and that sound. That wonderful clunky sound.

Bakelite bangle before professional polishing
Bakelite bangle before professional polishing
Same Bakelite bangle after professional polishing
Same Bakelite bangle after professional polishing

Bakelite or it’s cousin Catalin was used for lots more than jewelry though. It was originally created for use in the industrial world. Think electrical insulators, distributor caps on cars, radio parts, telephones, etc.

Which brings us to that eternal vintage jewelry lover’s question: how do you tell if it’s Bakelite, fakelite, or something else all together? There are a few simple tests that can answer your question.

One quick thing to look for, Bakelite will never have mold or form markings on it. If you feel a line running around the center of a bangle, it is not bakelite.

The easiest and safest way to test Bakelite is the Hot Water Test. As simple as it sounds, just place your item in hot water (not boiling) for about 15 seconds. Now smell it. If it’s true Bakelite it should have a somewhat sweet old chemical smell to it similar to formaldehyde. Many types of plastic and resin have distinct smells. So this one is going to be a bit of a learning curve. Once you know that distinct smell however, you will never forget it.

Simichrome Polish test for Bakelite
Simichrome Polish test for Bakelite

Another way to test Bakelite is with Simichrome Polish.  Simichrome polish is a pink polish made for cleaning metals. It is a bit pricey, but will last for a very long time. It can be purchased online and it works well as a way to test most Bakelite. But, there are some Bakelite items that will not test positive with Simichrome.  These include newly polished or made items that do not have an aged patina, items that have been overdyed and some black or red Bakelite items.

To test for authentic Bakelite with Simichrome polish, take a cotton swab or clean rag and dab a bit of polish on it. Rub you piece for a few seconds and take a look at your swab or rag. Is the area yellow? If so, it’s Bakelite. If not, it’s something else.

I have also read about and heard that Original 409 works similarly to Simichrome polish. As I have not personally tried it, it’s not something I can vouch for however.

There are online sellers who sell Bakelite testing pads that you can purchase and carry with you to test items before you purchase. You can do a Google search for “Bakelite testing pads” to find out where to buy.

Another note regarding Bakelite. There are a number of wonderfully talented artists using old bakelite stock to create new items.  Some involve intricate carvings, overdyes, and laminates or inserts that were never seen in the past. These true artisans create both new and old designs of such high quality, they are well worth the price and will retain their value over time.

A quick word about “fakelite”: There are many unscrupulous sellers out there passing off newly manufactured items that resemble Bakelite but are not. Buyer beware. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. However, there are many fabulous new items made to look like vintage bakelite. If a seller is honest about what they are selling, I find no reason not to enjoy these new products.

Just because your item isn’t Bakelite doesn’t mean it isn’t vintage or a worthwhile purchase.There are many forms of vintage plastics and resins that were used to create fabulous pieces of jewelry, purses, household items, and more. Part 2 of this post covers those other vintage plastics.

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