Phenol-formaldehyde resin

This is a synthetic resin, commonly known as phenolic, made by the reaction of phenol and formaldehyde, and employed as a molding material for the making of mechanical and electrical parts. It was the earliest type of hard, thermoset synthetic resins, and its favorable combination of strength, chemical resistance, electrical properties, glossy finish, and nonstrategic abundance of low-cost raw materials has maintained the resin, with its many modifications and variations, as one of the most widely employed groups of plastics for a variety of products. The resins are also used for laminating, coatings, and casting resins.

Phenolic resins are used most extensively as thermosetting plastic materials, as there are only a few uses as thermoplastics. The polymer is composed of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and sometimes nitrogen. Its molecular weight varies from a very low value during its early state of formation to almost infinity in its final state of cure. The chemical configuration, in the ther-moset state, is usually represented by a three-dimensional network in which the phenolic nuclei are linked by methylene groups. The completely cross-linked network requires three methylene groups to two phenolic groups. A lesser degree of cross-linking is attainable either by varying the proportions of the ingredients or by blocking some of the reactive positions of the phenolic nucleus by other groups, such as methyl, butyl, etc. Reactivity can be enhanced by increasing the hydroxyl groups on the phenolic nuclei, for example, by the use of resorcinol.


The outstanding characteristics of phenolics are good electrical properties, very rigid set, good tensile strength, excellent heat resistance, good rigidity at elevated temperature, good aging properties; also, good resistance to water, organic solvents, weak bases, and weak acids. All these characteristics are coupled with relatively low cost.

Phenolics are used in applications that differ widely in nature. For example, wood is impregnated to make "impreg" and "compreg"; paper is treated to make battery separators and oil and air filters; specific chemical radicals can be added to the molecule to make an ion-exchange material. Phenolics are also widely used in protective coating.

The hundreds of different phenolic molding compounds can be divided into six groups on the basis of major performance characteristics. General-purpose phenolics are low-cost compounds with fillers such as wood flour and flock, and are formulated for noncritical functional requirements. They provide a balance of moderately good mechanical and electrical properties, and are generally suitable in temperatures up to 149°C. Impact-resistant grades are higher in cost. They are designed for use in electrical and structural components subject to impact loads. The fillers are usually paper, chopped fabric, or glass fibers. Electrical grades, with mineral fillers, have high electrical resistivity plus good arc resistance, and they retain their resistivity under high-temperature and high-humidity conditions. Heat-resistant grades are usually mineral- or glass-filled compounds that retain their mechanical properties in the 190 to 260°C temperature range.

Special-purpose grades are formulated for service applications requiring exceptional resistance to chemicals or water, or combinations of conditions such as impact loading and a chemical environment. The chemical-resistant grades, for example, are inert to most common solvents and weak acids, and their alkali resistance is good. Nonbleeding grades are compounded specially for use in container closures and for cosmetic cases.


Proper balance of fillers is important, because too large a quantity may produce brittleness. Organic fillers absorb the resin and tend to brit-tleness and reduced flexural strength, although organic fibers and fabrics generally give high impact strength. Wood flour is the most usual filler for general-service products, but prepared compounds may have mineral powders, mica, asbestos, organic fibers, or macerated fabrics, or mixtures of organic and mineral materials. Bakelite was the original name for phenol plastics, but trade names now usually cover a range of different plastics, and the types and grades are designated by numbers.

The specific gravity of filled phenol plastics may be as high as 1.70. The natural color is amber, and, as the resin tends to discolor, it is usually pigmented with dark colors. Normal phenol resin cures to single-carbon methylene groups between the phenolic groups, and the molded part tends to be brittle. Thus, many of the innumerable variations of phenol are now used to produce the resins, and modern phenol resins may also be blended or cross-linked with other resins to give higher mechanical and electrical characteristics. Furfural is frequently blended with the formaldehyde to give better flow, lower specific gravity, and reduced cost. The alkylated phenols give higher physical properties.

Phenol resins may also be cast and then hardened by heating. The cast resins usually have a higher percentage of formaldehyde and do not have fillers. They are poured in syrupy state in lead molds and hardened in a slow oven.

Some of the uses for phenolic resins are for making precisely molded articles, such as telephone parts, for manufacturing strong and durable laminated boards, or for impregnating fabrics, wood, or paper. Phenolic resins are also widely used as adhesives, as the binder for grinding wheels, as thermal insulation panels, as ion-exchange resins, and in paints and varnishes.

Molding Compounds

The largest single use for phenolic resins is in molding compounds. To make these products, either one- or two-stage resins are compounded with fillers, lubricants, dyes, plasticizers, etc. Wood flour is used as an inexpensive reinforcing agent in the general-purpose type of compounds. Cotton flock, chopped fabric, and sisal and glass fibers are used to improve strength characteristics; mineral fillers such as asbestos and mica are used where improvements in dimensional stability, heat resistance, or electrical properties are desired. The compounds are usually produced in granular, macerated, or nodular forms, depending on type of filler used. Since the color of the base resin is not stable to light, molding compounds are commonly produced only in dark colors such as black and brown.

Molding compounds are usually processed in hardened steel molds and molds can be designed to operate using the compression, transfer, or plunger-molding techniques, depending on the design of the article to be fabricated. Molded parts can be drilled, tapped, or machined.

About one third of all phenolic resins produced is processed into parts by molding. Compression and transfer molding are the principal processes used but they can also be extruded and injection molded.

Molded phenolic parts are used in bottle caps, automotive ignition and engine components, electrical wiring devices, washing machine agitators, pump impellers, electronic tubes and components, utensil handles, and a multitude of other products.


The thermosetting nature and good water- and fungus-resistant qualities of phenolic resins make them ideal for adhesive applications. Almost all exterior-grade plywood is phenolic resin bonded. This constitutes the second largest market for phenolics. The essential ingredient in many metal-to-metal, and metal-to-plastic adhesives is a phenolic resin. One-step phenol-formaldehyde resins are used predominantly for hot-pressed plywood. Special resor-cin-formaldehyde resins curing at room temperature are employed for fabricating laminated timber.


The third largest use for phenolic resins is in the manufacture of laminated materials. Many variations of paper, from cheap kraft to high-quality alpha cellulose, in addition to asbestos, cotton, linen, nylon, and glass fabrics are the most commonly used reinforcing filler sheets. The laminate is formed by combining under heat 177°C and pressure 3.4 to 14 MPa multiple layers of the various reinforcing sheet; after saturation with phenolic resin, generally of the one-step type dissolved in alcohol.

Paper laminates are used most extensively in the electrical and decorative fields. A large number of the laminates for the electrical industry are of the punching grade, making it possible to fabricate all kinds of small parts in a punch press. The laminate used for decorative purposes usually contains a surface sheet of melamine resin-treated paper for providing unlimited color or design configurations. Other fillers are used for special applications where superior dimensional stability, or water, fire, or chemical resistance, or extra strength is required.

Casting Resins

Plastic parts can also be manufactured by pouring resin into molds and heat-curing without pressure. Two basic grades of casting resins are manufactured commercially. Both are of the one-stage type and are cured under neutral to strongly acidic conditions depending on the application. The first grade is manufactured for its variegated color and artistic possibilities and is used primarily in the cutlery and decorative field. Since this type of cast material is noted for ease of machining, it is well adapted for small production runs or where machined prototypes are desired.

The second grade of casting resins includes all those modified by fillers and reinforcing agents. Designed primarily to have low-shrinkage characteristics during cure, they are usually set with a strong acid catalyst to obtain a low temperature set. Uses include containers, jigs, fixtures, and metal-forming dies.

Bonding Agents

Phenolic resins are noted for their excellent bond strength characteristics under elevated temperature conditions, and thus are used in such applications as thermal and acoustical insulation, grinding wheels, coated abrasives, brake linings, and clutch facings. Glass wool insulation is manufactured by spraying water-soluble one-stage resins on the glass fibers as they are formed. Heat given off by the fibers as they cool is sufficient to set the resin. Where organic fibers are used, finely pulverized, single-stage resins are distributed between the fibers, either by a mixing or a dusting operation, followed by an oven treatment.

Grinding wheels bonded with phenolic resin are commonly known as resinoid-bonded wheels. By combining a liquid single-stage resin and a powdered two-stage resin, the material can be evenly distributed with abrasive grit and fillers so that the mixture can be pressed into wheels and baked in ovens. Some wheels are also hot-pressed and cured directly in a press. Resinoid-bonded wheels are used primarily where the application requires a bond of exceptional strength such as in cut-off and snagging wheels.

Coated abrasives are manufactured by bonding abrasive grit to paper, fabric, or fiber-board by means of phenolic resins of the liquid one-stage type. Sander disks and belts are common applications.

Brake linings and clutch facings are made by bonding asbestos, fillers, metal shavings, and friction modifiers with phenolic resin, usually performed by a mixing, forming, and baking operation. Most resins for these applications are specially formulated, but simple two-stage resins are sometimes used. Formulation for each friction lining or clutch face must be determined carefully. Wood composition products of all descriptions are manufactured by hot-pressing sawdust, wood chips, or wood flour containing 8 to 20% resin. Two-step resins are most frequently used in composition boards. One-step resins are employed for special applications where the yellow color or the slight ammonia odor of two-step resins is undesirable.

Foundry Use

A relatively new application holding great promise for phenolic resins is in the shell mold process for the foundry industry. The basic principle involves binding sand grains with resin. The process is equally well adapted to making cores and is satisfactory for practically all metals, including magnesium and high-chrome alloys.

The process has many intriguing possibilities. Molds thus made can be reproduced in exact composition, detail, and size; they are rigid and, having no affinity for water, can be racked and stored indefinitely, with or without cores. Castings from these molds have excellent surface finish and detail and can be held to close dimensional tolerances. The process can be completely mechanized, yields more castings per ton of melt than sand casting, simplifies cleaning of castings, minimizes problems with sand control and handling, and is a relatively clean operation. It is revolutionizing the foundry industry.

Consumption of resin in the foundry industry has grown rapidly, and conceivably this could become the largest single outlet for phe-nolics. However, markets for phenolic resins in plywood adhesive, insulation, and wood composition board applications have also expanded.

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