Celluloid was one of the earliest of synthetic plastics, and one of the most versatile. While most modern plastics are made from petrochemicals, celluloid is produced by nitration of cellulose - typically of vegetable origin - which is then plasticized with camphor, another natural substance.
Imitation tortoiseshell celluloid vesta (match holder), 1890s
Celluloid is unparalleled in its ability to capture virtually any color, any degree of transparency, any special effect, including shimmering pearlescence, mineral-like veining, metallic powder, and more. Different colors of celluloid can be cut or broken into chunks and recombined (and then cut and recombined again and again, if desired), permitting an almost infinite variety of patterns.
Classic celluloids from the late 1920s and early 1930s
Indeed, one of the earliest commercial applications of celluloid was to make a very convincing imitation ivory, complete with ivory’s distinctive internal crisscross graining. In the 1920s and 1930s, inspiration came from gems and minerals, and celluloid was made to look like jade, lapis lazuli, turquoise, onyx, quartz, agate, and marble. Celluloid production tapered off rapidly from the 1940s on. Other plastics could be made faster and cheaper. Their color range was more limited and they didn’t have celluloid’s luster and feel, but they could be injection molded for huge economies of scale. Fortunately, the art of celluloid manufacture was not lost – though things could easily have turned out otherwise. As is, the big celluloid-making factories of the past are long gone. Our celluloid stock is all custom-made to our specifications in small batches, using traditional, labor-intensive methods of manufacture. Once made, it must be oven-seasoned for a period of months before it is ready to be used. It takes a little extra effort to work with real celluloid (and a lot more to make it!). Yet the results are more than worth it: nothing approaches celluloid’s qualities, both aesthetic and tactile. On top of this, celluloid is easy to drill, turn, cut, and thread, and can be readily glued or solvent-welded if required.
Celluloid in sheet form can be molded with heat and pressure, but slabs and rods are normally worked by cutting and machining. Celluloid is easily shaped with ordinary tools, and though it is hard enough to take a high polish, it is neither brittle nor prone to chip. As with other plastics, reasonable care must be taken not to overheat celluloid when drilling, turning, and polishing. It will soften at around 160F, and at higher temperatures will scorch. Although celluloid will burn vigorously if ignited, popular accounts often exaggerate its volatility. The cellulose nitrate that is the main component of solid celluloid is significantly less nitrated (and thus significantly more stable) than that used for old-time celluloid film stock and celluloid lacquers – let alone the highly nitrated cellulose nitrate used for gunpowder. Nonetheless, when working with celluloid it is advisable not to let finely-divided scrap accumulate, and to keep celluloid dust, chips, and shavings well away from potential sources of ignition. Celluloid in any form should not be exposed to open flame. Appropriate fire extinguishers are mandatory for any shop that works with plastics, but especially so when working with materials such as celluloid.
When warmed or wetted, celluloid will give off a distinctive (and rather pleasant) aroma of camphor. Like most plastics, celluloid may be harmed by exposure to alcohol, bleach, and other harsh chemicals, including proprietary cleaning products such as Windex or 409. Very hot water may cause clouding. Celluloid is relatively permeable, and is capable of being dyed. A celluloid pen that holds its ink directly within its barrel (that is, not in a sac or cartridge) will not leak, but may stain if used with certain highly penetrating inks (blues and blacks are generally safe, while reds and purples are riskier). Celluloid shrinks slightly as it ages, with most shrinkage occurring when the material is “green”: as with wood, proper seasoning insures maximum stability. Celluloid pens from the 1920s and 1930s demonstrate how components made from well-aged stock can retain their fit for the better part of a century. Our celluloid slabs and rods are normally seasoned for a minimum of four to five months, three to four being the industry standard in the early 20th century.
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