What to look for when buying or selling Bakelite Telephones

There are many potential pitfalls to avoid when buying or selling British Bakelite Telephones (1929 to 1960). This website has been put together to help you avoid some of these problems, so that you can make the right decision when you buy or sell your antique telephone.

Although this information has been deliberately simplified we have also included links to more detailed information about these old telephones, where appropriate.

The vintage telephone information on this website has been compiled with the help of 3 retired GPO telephone engineers (Technical Officers) with a total of 112 years experience, dating from 1937 onwards.

WARNING , with reference to rare 232 British Bakelite telephones there has been a recent trend in a very worrying practice. See Bakelite 232 Telephone Problem Details Please read this article carefully, although at first this sounds like a small problem fixing this can be Expensive.

Basic questions you should ask when looking at Buying or Selling Antique Telephones are:

  1. Is it a British Bakelite Telephone?
  2. Is it an Original Chrome Telephone Dial?
  3. Condition of the Bakelite body of the Telephone
  4. Braided Handset cords
  5. Pull out Telephone Drawers
  6. The main Bakelite Telephone Models
  7. Conversion Restoration and Servicing

Whenever buying antique telephones always take your time and research these classic telephones fully, to make sure you get the best deal for can for your money.

1) Is it a British Bakelite Telephone?

The first thing to be aware of is that there is a massive difference in quality between the classic British made Bakelite telephones and the foreign made versions, which look very similar at first glance. This is particularly true of the poor quality Indian versions of these Bakelite telephones made in the 1950's.

Because most of these foreign inferior quality Bakelite Telephones were made in the 1950's and 60's in the same basic shape they look like genuine British telephones. They can even be advertised using terms similar to "Genuine 300 series Bakelite Telephones". So one tip is "Always ask and check with the seller if the telephone is British, both the case and the handset".

The quickest way to identify a British Bakelite telephone is to look at the markings impressed into the Bakelite on the underside of the telephone handset, half way between the mouth piece and the earpiece. For more details please select the "Bakelite Handset Markings" page.

Please note you should also check the telephones Bakelite case, as it could be a foreign telephone base with a British Bakelite telephone handset.

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2) Is it an Original Chrome/Steel metal bodied Telephone Dial?

The single most important (and valuable) mechanical part of these old GPO telephones is the original metal bodied chrome dial (£20 to £40 of the value). The quality and superb engineering of these original metal bodied dials means that they can be serviced and if required repaired to last and last.

Unfortunately rather than service these classic metal bodied dials some old telephone dealers go for the quick/easy option and replace them with modern, lower quality (£2 to £7 in value) chrome/steel fronted plastic body dials. These plastic bodied dials were really designed for the cheaper more modern plastic telephones of the 1960's 70's and 80's. Although some of these plastic bodied dials are still good quality compared to modern telephones they are only worth a fraction of the metal bodied originals.

Thankfully it is easy to spot these plastic bodied "fake" chrome dials on Bakelite telephones (even in a photograph) if you look at the shape of the chrome (steel) "finger stop". For more details look at the "Original Chrome Dials" page

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3) Condition of the Bakelite Body of the Telephone.

Once you have established the authenticity of the vintage telephone the next most important thing to look for is the condition of the Bakelite. These old telephones are made of Bakelite a thermosetting plastic, which means that once heat and pressure had been applied to the mould it can not be reversed. This makes it almost impossible to successfully repair any cracks in Bakelite phones.

Cracks in Bakelite

Cracks even fine hairline cracks reduce the value of Bakelite telephones significantly. Although larger cracks may show up in photographs, hairline cracks may not be immediately visible on these classic old telephones. To look for fine hairline cracks it is often necessary to examine the Bakelite of the telephone closely under a bright light, or in direct sunlight. See the "Cracks in Bakelite Phones" page.

Chips and nibbles

Whilst small chips (nibbles) below a few mm on certain parts of these antique telephones are to be expected, and are regarded as consistent with usage, large chips above 4mm reduce a vintage telephones value (although not as drastically as cracks).

Dull and faded Bakelite.

Correct and sympathetic restoration of black Bakelite telephones can often restore much of the original shine, without damaging the Bakelite. This is important as the sheen of a Bakelite phone does impact on its value. Colour fading is particularly important on ivory, red and green antique telephones, as any fading caused by exposure to direct sunlight (over long periods of time) on these coloured vintage telephones can't be reversed.

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4) Braided Handset Cords.

Although nearly all British Bakelite GPO telephones started life with a braided and plaited handset cord (between the telephone and the handset) they proved to be a weak point electrically and so the GPO replaced them over time (usually in the 1960's) with more reliable plastic curly handset cords. Due to reliability issues with original braided handset cords most telephone restorers replace the originals with replicas. However the quality of these replacement braided cords can differ enormously from telephone restorer to telephone restorer. If you are not sure its a good idea to ask to see close up photographs of the braided cords that your telephone restorer uses.

The choice of original plastic curly cord or braided handset cords is down to individual preference and has a very small impact on the collectable value of the antique telephone.

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5) Pull out Telephone Drawers.

Most of these classic Bakelite telephones contained a pull out drawer (aka a cheese drawer) to keep important numbers, such as local dialling codes handy. However the contents of these drawers often jammed the telephone bells so the GPO routinely replaced these drawers with drawer blanks. On later model GPO Telephones and bakelite telephones produced for office use these drawer blanks were fitted as standard in the factory.

In general if the antique telephone contains a pull out drawer it will be worth slightly more than a similar telephone with a drawer blank.

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6) The main Bakelite Telephone Models

Please see below for the main type of Bakelite telephone antiques

200 series Bakelite Telephones (1929 to 1957)

200 Series Bakelite Telephone 1/232's predominantly from the 1940's and 1950s. These Art Deco telephones were designed to use external bell sets, so they do not contain internal bells. Be aware that without the matching "bell set" these Bakelite telephones will not ring. Some antique telephone dealers fit small modern ringers inside the telephone case, although because of there small size these modern ringers do sound a bit tinny. For more details on 200 series telephones see the website British Telephones.

300 Series Bakelite Telephones (1937 to 1960)

300 series bakelite telephone 332's Predominantly from the late 1940's and 1950s although some were produced in the early 1960's. These were the first British Bakelite telephones to have bells inside the telephone body, a revolutionary idea at the time. The Main 300 series telephone models were:
  • 332 - Standard 300 series Bakelite Telephone
  • 312 - Call Exchange (Single chrome button)
  • 328 - Bell ON/OFF chrome buttons
  • 314 - Bell ON/OFF buttons and Call Exchange

The order above also indicates increasing rarity and potential value. For more details on 300 series bakelite telephones see the website British Telephones.

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7) Conversion Restoration and Servicing

10 years ago the market for antique telephones was largely limited to "collectors" such as myself however by far the biggest market for these vintage telephones today are people who want to own a retro telephone or classic British icon of design and engineering.

The big difference today is people now want to use these old telephones on the modern telephone system. The good news is that this can be done sympathetically (without damage to the telephone or its antique value). However to do it properly so that the telephone does not intermittently interfere with the other phones in the house, fail to ring on occasion or test incorrectly from the telephone exchange is not always easy. For example as a minimum it usually requires very careful mechanical adjustment of the bell and chrome telephone dial.

If you are buying a Bakelite telephone please make sure the seller has had this conversion and servicing performed by a professional, alternatively only pay the amount you would expect to pay if it was an unconverted telephone (approx 50% less).