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Cunard White Star Line, RMS Queen Mary Art Deco Bakelite ash trays. A guide to the simple restoration of these iconic transatlantic pieces.

by Jonathan Quayle |

The iconic two tone bakelite ash trays chosen for use onboard Cunard White Star Lines, RMS "Queen Mary" in 1936, later used fleet wide until 1968. Nothing epitomised the new Cunarder more than these striking ash trays originally intended for the liners public and staterooms for passenger use, the styling of these ashtrays was pure English Art Deco, with a decidedly continental 'modern' feel.

For a detailed breakdown on the history of these ash trays, please check put my blog on the subject, found under 'blogs'.

These ashtrays, as already discussed were produced in vast numbers and varying editions from 1936 until the withdrawal of the Queen Mary's sister ship, RMS "Queen Elizabeth" in 1968. As a result many have survived to the present day, some bought onboard legitimately as souvenirs, whilst others were 'liberated' by passengers wanting a real piece of the ship. The examples that turn up range dramatically in condition, some taken in 1936 on the first few voyages were treasured and survive in a joyous ivory and ebony celebration of English Art Deco, whilst others saw constant barrage of use bearing witness to years and years of stubbed out cigarettes, faded, stained and looking rather sorry for themselves.

The good news is that all is not lost if your ash tray is looking worse for wear, they can be restored and returned to how they made have looked when new. The following blog details a rough walk through of how this can be achieved. But be warned this path is not for the faint of heart! These ash tray, some of which are 80+ years old are more fragile than they appear. I have been buying and restoring these for over 20 years, and I must confess I have lost serval on the way. I will talk you through the 'danger' zones when they are most fragile. But the way I look at it, if you have a rather sad looking ash tray that you will not enjoy as is, then this technique might be worth a try!


So here we have an early unrestored bakelite ash tray, c-1936, an example as used onboard, not a souvenir. As you can see the overall condition is good, there are no crack, few chips (bar some minor fleabites). As you can see the paint/wax infill has all been lost.

The profile and colour are all ok, this example is not too faded. The original 'ivory' effect on these when new was a form of lacquer applied, combined with oxidisation and 80+ years of use and cleaning etc, its almost gone white.

The first of the 'danger' areas I will point out is found at the base of the rests, connecting to the main bowl of the ash tray. This is the ash trays weakest point, check now for faint cracks, if cracks are present its probably a good idea to stop now! Once the screws are removed and we prise apart the two sections these crack WILL fracture. The bakelite can be re stuck, but it might be better to just live with the ash tray you have, as is.

Find the correct sized screwdriver, this is very important. Old screw are fragile and the head can easily be scored and distort making it much harder to remove. Carefully removed the screws and store in a safe place.

Now we come to the thickest part of the whole procedure, these is where things can go wrong fast, so always take your time. Before attempting to separate the two section it might be worth leaving the ash tray to soak in hot (not boiling) water, this should help loosen up 80+ years worth of dirt.

Gently prise the two parts apart, DO NOT prise from one area, gingerly leaver a finger nail under at the front under the rest, then travel around the ash tray gently lifting, if you encounter an resistance STOP, gently repeat until the two part.

There are two areas this can go wrong, so keep an eye on both when attempting to part the two, No 1, at the already discussed weakest point under the rest to the main bowl, fractures could appear and brake at this point. No 2, The white corners of the ash tray (shown here) either side of the weakest point of the black bakelite tray, through there design and use these can fracture and sheer off. The key here is to take time, if theres any resistance, stop.

Once you have the two safely apart, you can see the accumulation of 80+ years worth of dirt and nicotine. Worry not, this will all wash off.

This example had a few tiny fleabite chips, personally I would leave them, but should you want a pristine finish you can use a very fine grade wet and dry sanding paper, shown here, that can smooth away a chip making it nearly noticeable (see before, above, after, below).

Once any remedial work is completed we can get down to simple cleaning. Clean soapy water is the best way, it should be warm as opposed to hot, and NOT boiling, to high a temperature can cause the bakelite to crack or weaken.

A soft brush and dish soap will work wonders, take care to support the ash tray in your hand, and carefully clean.

An old toothbrush is a great tool to get those hard to reach places.

Sometimes on the weakest point on these ash tray on the black rests of the bowl theres often a build up of nicotine and dirt. This may simply wash off, but it unwise to use anything harsh on the bakelite without risking scratching or damaging it. I have found that after a clean with a soft scouring sponge, if theres still a built up, carefully use a scalpel to remove the dirt etc, again being careful not to damage the bakelite underneath, golden rule, take your time.

All being well you should have two cleaner looking elements, devoid of dirt, but looking rather faded, as shown above.

For the next phase you'll need a wax based black traditional shoe polish, a flat ended knife or something similar.

Make sure your ash tray is totally clean and totally dry after cleaning. Rub a clean cloth over and buff to seal the area on the front, this will help the wax not stick to it.

Use the flat edged knife or spatular etc to infill the letters, this is originally how these were made, so its a totally authentic way to restore these ash trays. Remove as much excess from the from with the blade, it will make the second part far easier. Very quickly, do not let the wax dry, use a damp (not wet) cloth, and in one motion wipe the front and and any remaining excess away. Don't worry if this does not work the first time, quickly place back in the hot water and gently scrub the wax out, let it dry, and attempt again. Sometimes from past experience it works straight away, others its taken me two or three got, again take your time.

All being well it should look something like the above. DO NOT fiddle with it at this stage, leave it to dry and set, any attempt to clean and polish will result in the wax smudging. Any remains marks can be rubbed offer after.

Back to the back inside ash tray, for this you will need the black wax traditional shoe polish again, and a fine grade wire wool. An important danger point and to note here is the black section on itself is at its weakest, the rests have nothing to rest on, if you are too heavy handed with it whilst cleaning the WILL brake. Cup the bowl in your hand with your fingers acting as a support to the rests, then gingerly apply the wax all over the top surface, let it sink in, apply in a circular motion. Depending on how faded your ash tray is you may need several coverings. Once the correct amount of wax has been applied, take an old duster and gently polish the wax into the desired finished, again remember to cup the ash tray in your hand, your fingers support the rests. You should be able to get a reasonable shine close to the original effect, the more layer and polishing you do, the better the shine will become, but agin remember the fragility of these pieces. Make sure you removed all excess wax and polish with a cloth, as if there is any remaining it will squeeze out when re connecting the two parts, with a risk of staining the white bakelite. 

So after all this, this is how your two sections should look.

This is another danger point, that again relates to the weak point found at the base on the rests. when re attaching both parts be very gingerly in your approach, take your time, place the two together. Much as you did when departing them squeeze down one point very gently, then move around the ash tray, slowly applying pressure until the two parts are correctly sat back together. Again if you feel any resistance, stop, do not force it. Prise careful part and try again.

Once you have the two properly seated together, return the screws and secure, DO NOT over tighten the screws, to much pressure on them can crack the casings they are set into.

A simple furniture polish can be applied to give an overall shine to finish, and you should be all set, your ash tray will be good for another 80+ years!

After, above.

A combination or before and after shots of two ash trays, the one of the left being the one in need of restoration, the one on the right in original good unrestored condition.

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