Catalin: The Crown Jewel Of Table Radios

Jan 6, 2015

Motorola 50-XC, circa 1940.
Credit P. Litwinovich collection

As the country emerged from the Great Depression, and with war looming on the horizon, Americans were looking for something to cheer them up. The radio industry answered with Catalin cabinet radios. Catalin is a brand name for the popular thermosetting polymer developed by the American Catalin Corporation in the 1930s. It is an early plastic made from phenol formaldehyde resins. Early on, radio manufacturers had sought an economical replacement for costly wood cabinets. The invention of Bakelite allowed cabinets to be injection molded or cast for a fraction of the cost. Bakelite could be highly polished, and many beautiful Art Deco designs utilized it from the late 1920s on. It had one major drawback, though- its color choices were limited to black and dark brown. Bakelite was also a phenol formaldehyde resin, but its formula resulted in a weak structure, so carbon fiber or sawdust was added to strengthen it, thus giving it the black or brown color. Catalin, on the other hand, was clear. It could be dyed with solid or translucent dyes, mostly refined from coal tar. These dyes were often brilliant hues of red, green, blue, or yellow, and many shades in between. By partially stirring them into the Catalin resin, a marbleized look with three-dimensional depth could be achieved. It also means that no two Catalin sets will have exactly the same marble pattern. Like Bakelite, Catalin could be polished to a magnificent shine. Apart from radio cabinets, many small items such as costume jewelry, hair barrettes, poker chips, trinket boxes, and other small appliance cabinets of the day were made from Catalin.

Catalin radios are spectacular. Hundreds of thousands of the cheerful, tabletop radios were made with this early plastic. Towards the end of the 1930s, some sold for as little as $15. Most models were offered in several different colors or combinations of colors. Today, they remain highly sought after by collectors. But, alas, where did they all go?

Catalin has a down side. Although it was initially stronger than Bakelite resins and therefore did not need fibers added to it, it would turn out to have long-term stability issues. It will slowly dissolve in water. It oxidizes, making it appear darker in color. It also is intolerant of temperature extremes. Exposure to hot temperatures for prolonged periods, combined with oxidation, will also make it brittle. As a result of these factors, the environments where unused radios are often stored- hot attics, damp basements, barns, and sheds- led to the demise of the majority of these sets.

Fada Bullet, circa 1940.
Credit Fada sales brochure

In the beginning, manufacturers unfamiliar with Catalin did not take measures to shield the cabinet from the heat created by vacuum tubes, resulting in what collectors refer to as "tube burn," discolored, often cracked areas of the cabinet above hot tubes. As time progressed, heat shields were added to designs to prevent this. Although heat shields saved the cabinets, they present another problem for collectors. Most were made from asbestos fiber, which was one of the most popular heat resistant materials of that time period. Should you come upon one of these, it should be taken to a licensed professional asbestos abatement company to have the asbestos removed and all traces of it cleaned from the cabinet. If you plan to operate the radio, a replacement shield can be made from fiberglass, Nomex, or Kevlar.

Manufacturers and radio repairmen also tended to over-tighten the screws used to mount the chassis in the cabinet, and some manufacturers failed to oversize the mounting holes to allow for movement. Catalin expands and contracts very little with temperature change, so as the chassis expanded and contracted it would often strain and crack the cabinet. Today, Catalin radios are extremely rare, adding greatly to their value. The Fada Bullet and the Motorola 50xc, pictured above, are considered "holy grail" radios by serious collectors. I've seen the Fada fetch as much as $6,000 and the Motorola as much as $11,000 at auction. All of the models shown in this article were available in multiple color schemes.

Pictured below is the Emerson Catalin tombstone radio, considered to be one of the rarest Catalin sets. Given the fragility of aged Catalin, the large size and heavy chassis put substantially more strain on the cabinet than smaller radios, resulting in many cabinet failures. Very few remain. I saw one offered at a live auction in near perfect condition fetch $25,000.

Emerson AU-190, circa 1938.
Credit Photographer unknown

After World War II, the Catalin radio, in general, did not come back. A few models, such as the RCA 66X8 shown below, were produced immediately after the war as manufacturers returned to consumer production. These were soon replaced by newer petroleum based plastics, many developed as a result of the war effort, which were cheaper to make and more resilient. They could not, however, match the beauty of Catalin. Radios themselves emerged from the war in a different light. They were now everyday items, more utilitarian and less a status symbol than they were in the past. Television emerged as the new modern wonder. Radio as a media and an industry was still strong, and would hold that position for years to come, but the sets themselves had lost their magic. The RCA 66X8 is often referred to as the “Tuna Boat.” However, I was unable to learn how the model acquired this nickname.

RCA 66X8, circa 1948.
Credit P. Litwinovich, Tony Page collection

Should you come upon a Catalin radio for sale, let the buyer beware! There are many imitations out there. Manufacturers often produced Catalin look-a-likes, especially post-WWII, made from a cheap plastic known as Plaskon. The way to avoid them is to know your models. Catalin is identifiable by several methods. First, the color goes all the way through. Marbled patterns will have depth that you can see. With Plaskon, the color is on the surface. If you tap on it gently, Plaskon will sound like plastic. Catalin will produce a soft, pleasing sound, similar to tapping on wood. Finally, swab a concealed part of the cabinet with a cotton swab soaked in Fantastic, Formula 409, or other similar emulsifying cleaners. You should remove some color and surface oxidation. With Plaskon or other plastics you will only get dirt, if present. The best thing about Catalin is that it can be easily restored to its original beauty. A very fine automotive or plastic polishing compound will remove the darker oxidation, as well as minor surface scratches. Finish with an automotive wax to restore the original shine and reduce oxidation. Keep the screws that mount the radio in the cabinet slightly loose. Screws that are too tight are the biggest source of cracks in otherwise perfect Catalin cabinets.

These little radios brought cheer to many as America emerged from the Great Depression. It is too bad that so few of them remain. Google images of Catalin radios to enjoy pictures of many different models.

Next month, in the first of two parts, we will take a look at the beginnings of truly portable radios.