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Lots more below!

FAQ 7o. Cleaning and Restoring
Mah Jongg Sets

by Sandy Beach

I'm often asked "How do I clean (or restore) my Mah Jongg Set without damaging it?"  Good question. Whenever you clean or set out to restore any part of a Mah Jongg set, there is the chance of damage and also the potential for diminishing value in the eyes of purist collectors who feel that any attempt to clean or restore a vintage or antique set takes away from its authenticity and value.

However, that said, let me say, I am a player, not a purist and I want my sets to appear as clean and bright and fresh smelling as possible. So I offer here my own tips for cleaning sets. I make no warranties and urge you to always proceed with caution in working on any set.

If you have tips that others would find useful, please share them with others by filling out the form at the bottom of this page. Thanks!


Cleaning Tiles:
Don't do what I did with my first Bakelite set and throw them in a sink of hot soapy water--I peeled a lot of original paint off that set.

I clean most of my tiles (bone and bamboo, Bakelite, Catalin, celluloid, wood, but NOT ivory, composition, or cardboard) with rubbing alcohol. I use a soft cloth or paper towel dampened (NOT soaked), with isopropyl alcohol and rub down all six surfaces of each tile (a good thing to do in front of the television). This removes most of the grime and sometimes leftover adhesive from joker stickers. An orange stick (wooden manicure stick) is great for removing little gooey spots of black oily grime, without damaging the tiles.

Old joker stickers and any leftover adhesive can be cleaned up with either alcohol, water,  WD-40, or as a last resort, fingernail polish remover. Use nail polish remover with extreme caution, because most paints are soluble in it. Some people use the non-acetone polish thinner with good results and less threat to the paint.

Leftover fingernail polish, with which some jokers were made, usually has to be removed from Bakelite or other plastic tiles with either nail polish remover or thinner, but tiles may be permanently stained afterward. For bone and bamboo tiles, I found that I could remove nail polish without staining by using a razor blade at an acute angle and scrapping the polish off gently--don't "slice" the polish off, use a rather back-handed scraping motion.

Regarding bone and bamboo tiles: Don't try to overclean or really whiten these tiles. Chlorine bleach will etch the bone surface and won't get down into the grain anyway. The natural graining of bone is part of the character--don't bother trying to make them something they aren't--you'll just ruin the surface, possibly the paint and generally won't make them look any better anyway. (However I have used a bleach containing cleaner like Tilex on b&b tiles that had been flooded, and it cleaned the bone fairly well and cleaned up the bamboo quite well.)

I can't tell you how to clean ivory tiles, because I don't have any, so I haven't tried it. They are so rare and valuable, I'd recommend taking them to a jeweler or restorer with experience in ivory. But don't plan on making them white--if ivory tiles have been played with, the oils in peoples fingers will have caused darkening with the years. This is the "patina" of well-used ivory", so just enjoy it.

Cleaning Racks
I pretty much clean all racks the same way, whether they are plastic or wood. I use Dow "scrubbing bubbles" Bathroom Cleaner (or any ammonia based foaming bath cleaner) for both plastic (including Bakelite and Catalin) and wood racks. I spray them down, use an orange stick to get to the crevices, then just wipe them off with a clean paper towel. Amazing how much grime comes off. BTW, if the racks are Bakelite or Catalin, you will get a yellow to orange stain on the paper towel--this makes a good test for these plastics, while you are cleaning them.

Cleaning Cases
For the vinyl (faux alligator, etc.) cases that come with American sets, I use the Dow Cleaner again, inside and out. It doesn't seem to do any damage and leaves the case (even the cloth parts) clean and gets rid of mustiness very well.

For cleaning the wooden boxes or cases that come with early Oriental sets, I generally just oil these with a good furniture oil. This cleans and helps preserve the wood. Do not oil the inside of the drawers however, since the oil may seep into the bone tiles.

Whatever you are cleaning, though, leave it all out to dry for a couple days before repacking it.

Cleaning "Coins" and other odds and ends.
I usually swish coins through cool soapy water, but beware: the older Bakelite ones may warp, or discolor. Don't use bleach on the older coins. The newer vinyl plastic coins wash well. With either type, rinse and spread them out on a paper towel and make sure they are good and dry before restacking or packing them away.

Bettors, dice, Bakelite coin racks, etc., I tend to just wipe down with water dampened cloth or paper towel, since the usually aren't too dirty, but may well be musty.


Restoring Tiles
Repainting: The Paint on both Bakelite (and other plastics) and bone and bamboo tiles is fragile. For very minor fill ins, I use indelible fine point pens from the office supply store.

For a major or complete repainting, the recommended method is a fine brush and the paints sold for model painting from craft stores. A magnifying light (sometimes called an architect's light at office supply stores) can be most helpful with this.

A third alternative, for those of us who have difficulty using a tiny brush brush, are fine point "paint pens" also available from craft supply or artist paint stores.

Hint--get darker shades of colors than you think you'll need, or you'll have neon tiles.

There's not a great deal more you can do to restore tiles. If Bakelite or Catalin tiles are badly scratched, you can try polishing them with "semichrome" or other paste metal polishes (which say they are safe for plastics). I've also read that car polishing compound is a cheaper alternative that works just as well.

For bone and bamboo tiles that have gotten badly separated at the dovetail joint and look truly bad, you can fill the cracks with wood putty (yes, I hear you purists gasping). Use a darker color than you would expect. E.g. "mahogany" filler actually looked more natural than "natural" filler on the one set I did this with. Press the filler into the crack and keep rubbing it with your finger until all excess has been rubbed off--yes, it's rather damaging to the fingers too.

Tile Replacement
Most of us know the "joy" of trying to find tiles to either fill in missing ones, or getting matching ones for jokers.

The sad truth is there are no two identical sets. At least in my limited experience. But I swear that, in the all the sets that have passed before me, I can always find some slight difference in the sets. It seems each batch of Bakelite had it's own color and oxidation characteristics. And even each set of bone and bamboo tiles is ever so slightly different, although this is a little easier to understand since all the early sets were handcrafted.

So the trick is to find the closest possible matches for any tiles you need. Overall I think it's easier to mix and match the bone and bamboo tiles with out the differences showing than it is to match Bakelite or Catalin or celluloid tiles.

For Bakelite and other plastic tiles, your best bet for tile matching is probably the National Mah Jongg League (NMJL). They have a full closet of tiles for matching, and can help you from May to December only. The League isn't the only place to look. See also our Tiles Wanted bulletin board (tile seekers post; tile sellers read), where there are other tile vendors listed at the top, and see our Tiles For Sale bulletin board (tile sellers post; tile seekers read).

If they don't have the tiles you need, see the Tiles for Sale page on this site--you might find what you need. But I have found very few cases of being able to match plastic or Bakelite tiles from pictures on the  Internet.

If you do get some tiles that don't quite match, substitute the new ones into your existing set and put joker stickers on your old tiles--this mixes up the tiles better and the jokers don't stand out so much.

For bone and bamboo tiles, the NMJL has some of those also, but not as good a selection as plastics. And as I mentioned earlier, I think B&B tiles are easier to almost match than plastics. There are several sets of on the Tiles for Sale page that may work for you. I find that approximated dimensions are generally good enough, with the relative thickness of bone to bamboo being the most important.

If you have extra blanks in your B&B set, you can have a jeweler or scrimshaw artist make a missing tiles for you. Or you CAN try it yourself with a dremmel tool, etching the design, then painting it. Not perfect solutions, but it will certainly make your set playable.

More later--now post YOUR tips. And good luck with your set.


Share Your Cleaning and Restoration Tips

EMAIL YOUR TIP to mj at to submit your tip. Good tips will be posted below. No information you provide through this website shall be deemed confidential.

NOTE: For a while, the posts below were arranged in reverse chronological order (newest ones at the top of the list), and many still are. Some posts have been rearranged, placed in proximity to one another because of similarity of topic. Use your browser's search or find feature to eke out topics containing key words. - Webmaster

CoolOldGames has wonderful walkthroughs about restoration and repair, at

Want tiles engraved? Dee Gallo engraves and restores sets, and creates custom sets. Visit

Repairing Crisloid tiles

From: "Dorothy H
Sent: Saturday, August 07, 2010 11:44 AM
Subject: Repairing cracked Crisloid tiles
> Hello.
> I have Crisloid tiles that are cracking and have puncture type damage,
> probably from remaining in the original cellophane for years. Is
> there a way to repair them (fill the punctures and cracks)?
> Also, the link to [Note: Arkay Engravers closed for business in 2017] on your cleaning section of
> the site does not work.
> Thank you.
> D

Hi D,
Thanks for the broken link report. Weird that when you go to a nonexistent page on arkayengravers, it sends you to a completely unrelated page. I fixed the link, thanks to you. [See note above]
I looked in FAQ 7c3 and found Crisloid -- that's the name of a manufacturer. The key is to know what kind of plastic we're talking about. So my advice for you is "figure out what kind of plastic they are." Maybe take them to a plastic store, see if they have any advice for you. Look in your local yellow pages under P for plastics.

Tom Sloper
湯姆 斯洛珀
Author of "The Red Dragon & The West Wind," the definitive book on Mah-Jongg East & West.
Los Angeles, California, USA
August 7, 2010

Dateline April 13, 2009. Lately I've received emails from folks who say they've performed a plastic test on their tiles with something called simulchrome (or simichrome?). I do not recommend applying chemicals to your tiles to determine the chemical makeup of your tiles. It isn't worth it to find out exactly what kind of plastic your tiles are, if you have to cause damage to one of your tiles! In my humble opinion.
Tom Sloper
Author of "The Red Dragon & The West Wind," the definitive book on mah-jongg East & West.
Los Angeles, CA (USA)
April 13, 2009

Our mah-jongg case handle needs repair.

>From: Judith Rubin
>Sent: Wednesday, July 16, 2008 11:36 AM
>Subject: case handle
>My antique case's handle has disintegrated. Do you know if/where I can find a replacement vinyl or leather (black) handle? Could we rebuild the handle and if so, how? Thanks. Judi

Hi Judith,
Try "luggage repair" in the yellow pages. A lot of shoe repair places also do luggage repair.
May the tiles be with you.
Tom Sloper
Author of "The Red Dragon & The West Wind," the definitive book on mah-jongg East & West.
トム·スローパー   /   湯姆 斯洛珀  /  탐 슬로퍼
Los Angeles, California, USA
July 16, 2008

Restoring antique box

>From: Fayeks21
>Sent: Friday, December 25, 2015 9:33 AM
>Subject: Cleaning/Restoring Question
>hi I recently received and old 1923 ish mj
>set in a wood box with 5 draws, the pull handles on several are missing . Any idea where I can find replacements.

Hi, Fayeks. A good hardware store will have a selection of drawer pulls. You can ask there about ordering different ones if they don't have any that are suitable. You can also do a Google search for small decorative drawer pulls.
If you insist on hardware that matches what's on the other drawers, you can contact mah-jongg tile vendors. People who sell mah-jongg tiles (as opposed to complete sets) usually have bought up incomplete sets, and have a lot of spare parts. You can find tile sellers on the Tiles For Sale bulletin board. There's a link above left. Good luck!
May the tiles be with you.
Tom Sloper
湯姆 斯洛珀
Creator of the Sloper On Mah-Jongg column and the Mah-Jongg FAQs -- donations appreciated.
Author of "The Red Dragon & The West Wind," the definitive book on Mah-Jongg East & West.
Los Angeles, California, USA
December 25, 2015

Where can I get antique Chinese mah-jongg box hardware?

>From: Laury T
>Sent: Wednesday, January 25, 2017 6:23 PM
>Subject: Mah-Jongg Q A
>My mah-jongg question or comment is:
>Howdy Tom,
>I recently bought a lovely bone and bamboo set just for its flower tiles. Half of them are the left side of a flower basket and half of them are the right side of a flower basket. Put a left one and a right one together and ta've created a full basket of flowers!
> The box is supposed to look old, but I can't guess it's age. It's not unlike many I've seen before. It has carved Chinese writing on its front door that slides up. Unfortunately, the tile-drawers are missing the pulls and I can't open said drawers unless I flip the box forward. Other pieces of brass hardware are also missing or broken such as tiny pins, straight brass accents, corner protectors.
>Besides Ebay, where can I look for Mahjong Chinese hardware?
>Thanks much,

I don't know, Laury. Try contacting sellers of loose tiles, and collectors of antique sets. Sometimes those folks might have a box that's not rescuable that still has some brass on it. Sellers of loose tiles you can find on the Tiles For Sale and Tiles Wanted bulletin boards (on the Tiles Wanted board, check the links at the top). And for collectors, see if you can join the Mah Jongg Collectors Assn. on Facebook. Or maybe folks who do set restoration might have what you need.
Good luck! May the brass corners be with you.
Tom Sloper
湯姆 斯洛珀
Creator of the Sloper On Mah-Jongg column and the Mah-Jongg FAQs -- donations appreciated.
Author of "The Red Dragon & The West Wind," the definitive book on Mah-Jongg East & West.
Los Angeles, California, USA
January 25, 2017

Chinese Bakelite: what kind of glue?

From: "Jay Davis" (jmd5)
Sent: Monday, April 21, 2008 11:48 AM
Subject: Mah-Jongg Q+A
> My mah-jongg question or comment is: Hi, I have a set of chinese†
> bakelite tiles with thin translucent green backs. Quite a few of the†
> backs have come off and I would like to know what kind of glue I†
> should use to reattach them (I was hoping to use something that would†
> not show through). Thanks! Kim

Hi Jay,
I'm not sure what your tiles are made of. The term "Chinese Bakelite" is apparently one that was coined recently by sellers of older mah-jongg sets, and since it's a made-up term, there's no dictionary where anyone can look up the term and see which kind of plastic that really is. And even if everyone agreed that "Chinese Bakelite" is the same thing as "yellow casein," there's no way I could be positive that you knew for certain that your tiles were yellow casein.

So, since I'm not sure what kind of plastic your tiles are made of, I have to give a generic answer. Modern plastics like acrylic and polyurethane are best glued together with solvent (which you could get at the plastic store, where they could furthermore look at your tiles and confirm which solvent is right for your plastic). But it's likely that your tiles are made of a formaldehyde-based plastic, and I don't know about the backs (those might be an acrylic, or another formaldehyde-based plastic).

So I think you probably want to use "superglue." It's clear. But like Peter Gallagher wrote in FAQ 7o, use it sparingly for best results. Also, unless you buy a slow-drying variety, act quickly after applying it to align the pieces, otherwise they could get stuck together improperly aligned.

May the tiles be with you.
Tom Sloper
Author of "The Red Dragon & The West Wind," the definitive book on mah-jongg East & West.
トム·スローパー   /   湯姆 斯洛珀  /  탐 슬로퍼
Los Angeles, CA (USA)
April 21, 2008

How to darken your Bakelite tiles

>From: Jeanette
>Sent: Sunday, January 27, 2008 3:17 PM
>Subject: Mah-Jongg Q+A
>My mah-jongg question or comment is: Re: Darkening Bakelite Tiles
>Joan Krimstein wrote [on the Q & A Bulletin Board] on† December 19, 2007†:†
>Can bakelite tiles be darken to†match the rest of the tiles.†† I have extra flowers, that will be††
>needed for Jokers, but they seem a bit lighter in color.† Anything I†can do?†
>I purchased†4 Jokers on Ebay†several years ago to match my other 4 Jokers as well as the rest of my Bakelite set which does have some variation in the shading.† They were an exact match in every way except they were "lighter".† I made a "STRONG" pot of coffee and soaked the 4 tiles in this for about an hour.† I noticed that they did get a little darker.† I wound up soaking them overnight in the (now-cold) coffee and was very pleased with the result.
>Hope Joan sees this, tries it and it works for her.

How to avoid darkening your Bakelite tiles

From: "Renee Spero"
Sent: Wednesday, December 19, 2007 10:00 PM
Subject: Cleaning/Restoring Tip
> Here's my tip:
> This is more of a warning tip than a restoration.† I was moving and did not
> want my 1950 bakerlite/catalin tiles to rattle or chip in their case.† I
> took crushed newspapers and stuffed the case with them. I did not use my set
> for several months. When I opened it and took out the crushed newspapers I
> found that my tiles that were originally a light buttery color had turned
> dark orangy/yellow from the newsprint.† I hope this experience helps someone
> else.

Ellejai aka LJ wrote on February 1, 2009:

>PS: I was reading on the [bulletin board, January 18, 2009] about a person who had been storing their tiles in a box inside of a plastic bag and the tiles in one tray darkened quite a bit. It is not a good idea to store tiles in a plastic bag (or wrap) unless it is a special "acid free, archival save" type. Archival paper would be the best choice if you must wrap a set to preserve it. Plastic gives off chemicals that can damage items, especially if tightly sealed. It might be why some of her tiles discolored faster that others. I'm not an expert, so don't know if a reaction between two types of plastic can darken the Bakelite/Caitlin tiles or if it was a reaction between the box and the plastics that might have been the problem. Her case looks like it might have a leather cover over the box structure. The lack of air circulation to the leather, may have allowed moisture from the leather to form inside the plastic bag and cause the stain from the leather to penetrate the tiles. Maybe none of the above is correct, but I've seen enough damage in old items to suspect the cause. I once bought a bone set of tiles that had been stored for years and never used. They were in fact still in the original plastic wrap. In that case the plastic of the wrap adhered to the bone and left a shiny residue. Since the set was a fairly cheap one to begin with I wasn't unduly upset, but just as a warning to others, it's better to unwrap any plastic from your sets, plastic or bone, asap.

How to brighten your bone tiles

From: Kay Bishop - KBooklover at
To: tomster at
Sent: Wednesday, January 17, 2007 3:55 AM
Subject: Cleaning Tip (and atta-boys for the great website)
First of all, I wanted to thank you for your great website. It was an enormous help in figuring out what my Mah-Jongg set was made of (bone/bamboo), how old it was (typical 1920's set) and whether it was complete (it was). As a young child, I was fascinated with the beautiful tiles. Now that I've inherited this set, your site has renewed my interest in learning the game and sharing it with others.
Here's a tile cleaning tip that I didn't see mentioned on your website, and gave very good results on my bone tiles: Use a white vinyl eraser (well, actually, several erasers - my set was very dirty). This is how conservators clean antique ivory. I used the rectangular "Magic Rub" erasers available in most office supply stores. The eraser is soft enough to be completely harmless to the bone, and there is no color that could transfer into the pores of the tile. And at least in my case, I found I could erase right over the paint that was down in the engravings. No matter how hard I pressed, the paint was undisturbed.
Rick Tolley

Name = dee gallo
Email = dlgallo/AT/
Date = 2/12/05
Tip = For those players and collectors who don't want to try restoration themselves, please contact me for cleaning out old cruddy paint, re-painting tiles, re-creation of lost tiles, matching the engraving or carving of all types of tiles including Bakelite, Catalin, French Ivory, Enrobed, Bone and Bamboo and Ivory (ivory only if you already have a blank!). I have even restored an entire black lacquered set. I am an artist who has extensive experience in carving, scrimshaw and painting. I can send you pictures of my work if you are interested. I also offer services carving custom tiles, such as joker sets, case ID tags, racks and the famous 3-Legged Toad Lucky Charm (mini-bone). You can find my page links at CHarli's Web, home of Simply the Best person!

Date: Tue, 25 Jan 2005 13:51:48 -0500
From: Autumn Romanov [huntersmoon/AT/>
Subject: Helpful info on ivory
Dear Tom,
I happened across this looking for a good way to polish bone for beading. I didn't check it out completely, but I hope it's of some help. it was on a website for knives, at
Repairing Ivory
AcryliKey is a registered ivory repair system which has been designed by the manufacturer, specifically, for the repair of ivory piano keys.
However, in case where the scale replacement is not an option, this system could be possibly and succesfully used for any knife scale repairs.
Full page of Ivory repair instructions and tips are located on the company's web page at:
Acrylikey? Ivory Repair Systems UK
Tel: 01254 774599 | Email: sales/AT/ | Fax: 01254 773158
Price | FAQ | Repairing Ivory | Bleaching Ivory
Thanks for your time,
Marlbank, ONT. Canada

Ivory-cleaning tip

>From: Averil
>To: Tom Sloper
>Sent: Saturday, May 02, 2009 4:33 AM
>Subject: Tips link was turned down
>Hi Tom
>Iím delighted to find your site itís proved very informative - Iíve been up all night reading it J. I was fortunate enough to purchase an ivory & bamboo Mahjong set in the late seventies and have never seen another like it since. I think itís of early Japanese origin and the tiles are in beautiful condition. Since you hadnít found any tips for cleaning Ivory I checked the net and found this quite helpful link below. I got inspired to photograph my set and will send some pictures sometime. I like the patina on mine which gives them a soft mellow timelessness & character so I wonít be looking at trying to change that with mine.
>Here's my tip:

Name = Martin Atkinson
Email = matkinso/AT/
Date = September 14, 2004
Comments = >I have a Mingg with the four wind discs. The lid does not fit properly on the container and the WInd discs needrepainting.
>Do you know of someone who deals with bone/ivory products who could adjust and repair this Mingg?

Hello, Martin.
No, I sure don't. For the "adjusting" part, you could check the local phone directory and see if there are general repair shops.
Or you could try a hobby shop where they sell model kits, parts, and paints. Perhaps a model maker would be willing to try to adjust your mingg lid - and model makers would probably also be willing to touch up the paint for you too. If the hobby shop owner doesn't have anyone to recommend, perhaps he'd let you post a flyer.
Good luck! - Tom
Tom Sloper

Los Angeles, CA
Sept. 14, 2004

Here's another idea for those who might need help having tiles repainted. You could try the local hobby shop, they might know of a model maker or role playing gamer who'd be willing to paint your tiles for you. If they don't know of anyone offhand, they might permit you to put up a flyer. Make sure that whoever you hire reads the tips above first!
May the tiles be with you - Tom
Tom Sloper
Tomster at Sloperama dot com
Los Angeles, CA
Date: Seveno (^_^) de Mayo, 2004

Name = susan raff
Email = sdr814/AT/
Date = april 23 2004
>I do not have a tip.. I tried emailing Marvin Backerman because I would like info on having my set repainted. When I used his email address, the return message stated.."no match for this name"..could you please give me info on having my set repainted..
>susan raff
> i would be very grateful for any help you can give me...

Hi Susan, if you're just looking for info about retouching your tiles yourself, it's here on this page. You say you just want information - there's a lot of it right here (including other services besides Marvin's).

But if you want to pay someone to repaint your tiles, and if Marvin can't be reached, then perhaps someone will see if you put an announcement on a bulletin board. I'm trying other channels to reach Marvin. Keep an eye on the Q&A bulletin board and on this board for further updates. - Tom
Tom Sloper
Tomster at Sloperama dotcom
Los Angeles, CA


Here's a tip I hope you find useful:
I play with a 1920's bone/bamboo set and sometimes a sliver of bamboo lefts off the back if a tile - usually at the edge. I glue this back immediately with 'superglue' - the transparent stuff that dries in seconds. You need to be very careful to apply as little glue as possible, to avoid annoying residue or worse again - fingerprints. If you use the liquid version rather than the gel, it runs into the groove where the sliver has lifted and can make a perfect, invisible repair. In a matter of seconds, you can literally carry on with the game and a repaired tile. I intend to keep the glue handy when I play from now on!

Another tip: I injected wood glue into all my bone/bamboo tiles as they were in danger if coming apart. You can use a very thin hypodermic needle to get right in there in the tiniest cracks. As the glue dries, it contracts, and, applied carefully. can be invisible. Afterwards you can use wood putty (as you mentioned) to fill. Speaking of wood putty: I disagree with you about using a darker colour - I tried it on one tile and it didn't look a good as it would have if I had a colour which matched the bamboo.... (I hope to get a matching colour eventually)

>From: gina smith
>Sent: Sunday, March 11, 2007 9:39 AM
>Subject: from gina
>I am happy to do paint removal and replacement - contact me at and can sometimes replace the "flippies" on racks depending upon the composition of the rack (solid brass, coated brass or plastic with metallic paint.)

>From: Michael Stanwick
>Sent: Sunday, October 2, 2011 2:32 PM
>Subject: Paint
>Tom, i regularly had to put paint into my counting sticks. I used fine tipped felt pens of the colours needed. If necessary I shaved the felt tips to get very fine points. Worked a treat!
>Michael Stanwick
>Sent from my iPad

Amy writes: "I just purchased an old mah jongg set and at first, it seemed that anything I did was removing paint along with all the grime that was coating the bone and bamboo tiles. Then, I tried baby wipes...they were soft and worked wonders... I used them (gently) when they weren't sopping wet, and used a Q-tip to dry them. They came out shiny and still brightly colored. Just thought you may be interested :)"

From: Tom Sloper
Email = Tomster at Sloperama dotcom
Date = March 29, 2004

At the Game Developers Conference in San Jose, March 2004, I ran into an old comrade who collects and restores bakelite radios. Knowing this about him, I took the opportunity to ask him about restoring catalin tiles (since, as discussed in FAQ 7c3, so-called "bakelite" tiles are most assuredly catalin). Catalin tiles, my friend told me, started out white and yellowed with age. He told me that catalin objects can be polished every year or so with NOVUS, a plastic polish that also can be used to freshen painted objects. A Q-tip can be used to clean the painted grooves (What I would do is to simply rub the tile on a Novus-dampened cloth lying flat on the table, then use a dry clean Q-tip to remove any Novus residue from the grooves). - Tom

From: Tom Sloper
Email = Tomster at Sloperama dotcom
Date = March 29, 2004

Further to SDWALLCE's crumbling tiles (below), my friend who knows much about bakelite and catalin (above) opined that the tiles are most likely celluloid, which does indeed tend to deteriorate over time. He didn't offer any tips on how to repair them, unfortunately. But at least we have more information to go from...! - Tom

Name = gina
Email = gtsgfs/AT/
Date = March 12, 2004
Comments = >In regards to the questions from SDWALLCE [see below]:
>[snip] ... when I see the deterioration of the backs of some of the tiles shown, it reminds me very much of several pairs of dice that I had that came with a couple of sets I had bought. They disintegrated into "crystals" like salt,crumbled actually, and gave off a distinct odor of camphor. Although I did a thorough search, I couldn't find the name of the plastic that they were made of and I don't think that there is any way to repair them.

>Hi Tom,
>Here are some photos of [a 1920's plastic Pung Chow] mah jongg set I bought ... They appear to be made of some type of plastic.
>The backs of a few are crumbling & a few of the tiles appear cracked on top. My husband thinks they might be repairable with resin compound. ... [snip]

I don't know. If he tries it, I'd like to hear the results. Or perhaps he should read FAQ 7c3 first. The sort of plastics they might have had in the early 1920s surely aren't resin-based, but repair might be possible, I suppose. Maybe go on Google, and do some research on techniques for repairing Bakelite radio housings and such. ... [snip]
Tom Sloper
Tomster at Sloperama dot com
Los Angeles, CA
Date = March 10, 2004

Gina Smith also sent us information in response to a post on our Q&A Bulletin Board about a plastic called Alite (see FAQ 7c3). Along with that description, she added some tips for cleaning Alite tiles:

Alite is a vintage plastic that made up the American Beauty set by Royal Depth Control , manufactured and distributed by Crisloid Products, probably in the late 60's early 70's or even a bit later.

You can clean the tiles by taking a lightly damp cloth and wiping them, very lightly over the painted areas, and drying immediately.  Do not rub.  If there is goo, there is a product called "Goof Off"* that I have used that will removed sticky stuff but not the paint.  I usually get it on the internet. 

P.S. If the tiles are discolored from oxidation, as with all vintage plastics,you cannot change the color - the tiles have oxidized!

* There is also "Goo Gone." Personally, I use "Goo Gone" a lot, for cleaning a lot of sticky and gooey stuff. I got it locally, at either the hardware store or the drugstore. You can Google the question "Goof Off vs. Goo Gone" to learn more about the difference. - Tom

Name: damon
Email: dploumis/AT/
Date: 04 Aug 2003


We received one of the old sets as a a wedding gift. Both the box and the tiles were quite grimy. As I was polishing, with metal polish the brass edges on the box,I got a bit on the wood itself and after rubbing briskly, the wood came back to gleaming life. I then tried it on the bone tiles and the too look great and no colour was lost. It really works.

Name: Tom Sloper
Email: tomster[AT]sloperama[DOT]com
Date: 08 Jun 2003


Hello Dave McKienzie (djmckie), you wrote:

>I purchased a new Hong Kong set ... Is there anything else I can try to get rid of the smell? Is this a common problem with certain sets?

It is indeed a common problem with sets made of that particular plastic (I have several, and I know exactly what you're talking about). I recommend that you try Febreze, or Wizard Neutra Air, both of which are designed to neutralize odors (available at the grocery store). Don't spray the tiles directly - that might affect the paint (although if you've ever tried to remove the paint intentionally from Hong Kong tiles, you probably wouldn't worry about that too much). Spray a clean soft cloth to the point of dampness, and use that to wipe the tiles individually (on each surface of the tiles).

You might need to do the procedure a couple of times.Another idea would be to get a different case for the tiles too - those cheap Hong Kong vinyl cases can exacerbate the problem.

Additional tip, added June 2011: After you use the Febreze tip above, you should also try putting used dryer fabric softener sheets into the case. You can also just basically leave the case open somewhere for a few weeks. The treatment and some air should reduce the odor, then apply the treatment again, air again, etc.

Name: Tom Sloper
Email: tomster[AT]sloperama[DOT]com
Date: 23 Apr 2003


Hello claire hecht (davidhecht), you asked:

>How can we keep a very new [plastic} set from getting sticky?We wash them constantly,but after a few games the same condition occurs.Thanks for your helpClaire

It sounds to me like somebody has sticky fingers! (^_^)You probably can't keep the tiles from getting sticky, but there is an easy way to wash them.

My friends at the Japanese mah-jongg club use this technique.Line up all the tiles face-up in a big rectangle and wipe across all of them at once using a SLIGHTLY damp soft cotton cloth.Then turn them all face-down and wipe the backs.(You could also turn them all on their sides and wipe the sides.) That's a lot easier than wiping them one by one.

Now that I think of it, that's easy for the Japanese folks because their mah-jongg tables have a lip around the edge.You could try wiping the tiles in trays - either the tile trays from your set (if you have the shallow type) or any kind of lipped tray you might have around the house.

And one last suggestion. Maybe keep damp finger towellettes or finger bowls by each player, especially if there are snacks.No need to find out which player's fingers are sticky - just make everybody observe cleaner finger habits at the game table.


P.S. If anybody has a question, please post it on the Q&A board (not here).

Name: claire hecht
Email: davidhecht/AT/
Date: 22 Apr 2003


How can we keep a very new [plastic} set from getting sticky?We wash them constantly,but after a few games the same condition occurs.Thanks for your helpClaire

Name: claire hecht
Email: davidhecht/AT/
Date: 22 Apr 2003


How can we keep a very new [plastic} set from getting sticky?We wash them constantly,but after a few games the same condition occurs.Thanks for your helpClaire

Name: Chad Leonard
Date: 30 Mar 2003


There are now a couple different products availible to help in removing stickers.My favorite is RE-USE. I removed lick and stick Big Joker stickers from seated emporer style flower tiles. It removed none of the paint, and many of the big joker stickers could be reused, if anyone would touch a stamp that old with their tounge.RE-USE and Goo gone are availible at most craft stores.

Name: Tom Sloper
Email: tomster[AT]sloperama[DOT]com
Date: 11 Mar 2003


Lately, I've been hearing from folks who unfortunately washed their tiles.That isn't the best way to go. Wiping the tiles (while laid out tightly bunched together, all face-up) with a slightly damp cloth (slightly damp so as not to get liquid down into the painted grooves) is the recommended technique.If your tiles are plastic, and it's discolored, you could try dampening a soft cotton cloth (like an old but clean t-shirt) with some Windex, see if that helps.Good luck! - Tom

Name: Norm
Email: ngdaley/AT/
Date: 17 Feb 2003


I have progressed from pasting labels on the tiles to fill in for missing tiles. I make a copy as before but now take a fairly small punch or heavy pin and perforate the paper around the edge of the tile. I then place this over the blank tile and then blot with a paint pen or Marks-a-lot pen. This gives a good outline of the tile I want to make. I can now use a dremel tool with a fine etching bit to engrave the tile and be sure to be close to the original. I can then use the same punch to dip into the various colors of model paint (one color at a time) and when dry, scrape with a razor blade at a very shallow angle so as to not shave any bone. The results are excellent compared to a sticker. Circles or dots are the most difficult but even flower tiles can be acceptable.

Name: Norman Daley
Email: ngdaley/AT/
Date: 16 Mar 2002


In restoring catalin and bakelite tiles with the red paint/fingernail polish or whatever on them, I found using Lacquer thinner worked very well with some elbow grease. It had no effect on the original paint on the tiles. I then printed tiles from various sites on the web onto label paper I got at Staples. I reduced these to 65% of their exhibited size (which was too large) and after peeling and pasting on the tile, I covered with 3/4 inch Scotch Brand tape for gloss and protection. Great looking results. Norm

[Note: the following thread from the Q&A bulletin board is copied here since it is germane to this topic - Webmaster]

Name: Peter Gallagher
Email: pega/AT/
Date: 23 Feb 2002


To Lynda Hausmann (and Tom, of course): Having done a little "carving" of bone myself, (I haven't yet gotten much further than simple bone dice <more difficult than you might think - believe me!> ), I have delved into the treatment of bone prior to cutting/sanding/carving/etc...

I discovered that bone has fatty deposits.

If the bone is not properly bleached in the preparatory stages, the fatty deposits can remain in the bone and can be seen (often later) as light-brown "staining". You can see this in many antique sets - there are many with a couple of "stained" tiles. My understanding of this is that the staining is often due to aforementioned fatty deposits which have not beeen properly removed prior to making a MJ tile from the piece of bone in question.

I won't go deeply into the process, but it requires boiling (lightly) with some detergent added to the water. Actually; overbleaching results in very "lifeless" bone and should be avoided. Also: bone piecess (jewelry etc.) are sometimes bathed briefly in lamp-oil- which gives a "marbled" effect and adds life and lustre to the piece..

There's tons of info on how to prepare bone for carving on the Net, so a simple search with (e.g.) Google, will help.

I'm not suggesting that Lynda (or anyone else reading this) needs to know how to prepare bone for carving, but there is much info available out there which might throw some light upon the sudden discolouration of the tiles...

I basically agree with Tom - it seems a mystery; but perhaps sudden changes in temperature caused fatty deposits in the bone to discolour.

If the set in question is old, then I would have expected any fatty deposits in the bone to have revealed themselves long before now.... (and yet; I can think of no other"cause" of sudden discoloration ...).

Unlike the bamboo backing, which is prone to infestation by woodworm, the bone faces are basically quite dead material and not subject to infestation by insects, fungi, orany other biologocal cause I can think of... apart;that is; of latent fatty depositsmaking tehmselves known at a surprisinlgly later date.

Perhaps, if Winsconsin is a damp area, some mildew has in fact taken home in the set, in which case: perhaps some careful roasting in the oven or even a gentle treatment in the microwave might help. I would attempt this with one of the spare tiles before subjecting the while set to such an experiment!

I'm curious as to eventual outcome of attempting to "unstain"/"restore" the set!!! Best regards, Peter

Name: Tom Sloper
Email: tomster[AT]sloperama[DOT]com
Date: 22 Feb 2002


Hello Lynda Hausmann,

I have never seen bone spontaneously change color as you describe. It's a mystery!

One possible theory: perhaps the tiles were already discolored, and the previous owner found a way to whiten them, and the whitener wore off.I have some bone tiles that are discolored - it seems to be mildew or something that has seeped into the bone itself. But I also have several bone sets in which the color is a lovely creamy ivory color - the same color, I'm sure, that the tiles have been for many decades.

For tiles to change from their natural color to a different darker color all of a sudden... I have no ideas other than the above.I'm planning to take one of my antique sets to the east coast this summer. Hopefully they won't suddenly change color on me like yours did! Seems unlikely, but then what happened to yours is unlikely too.

Sorry I can't be more helpful... - Tom

Name: Lynda Hausmann
Email: Hauslyn2/AT/
Date: 22 Feb 2002


Hi Tom, I purchased an older (20's) bone and bamboo set approximately 4 months ago. I have only played with this set on three separate occasions. In those four months the tiles have discolored a great deal from a fairly decent white to a brownish yellow. I read your section on cleaning and restoration of tiles, but I didn't happen to stumble upon anything that might explain why the tiles would discolor so quickly. This discoloration appears to be in the grain itself and not just surface oil. Any ideas as to cause? (Would a change in climate cause this? They were originally in San Francisco and now reside in Wisconsin.) Thanks so much, Lynda

Name: deby
Email: capt-zero/AT/
Date: 21 Nov 2001


I'm just starting out with an interest in Mah Jongg and bought a lovely looking bakelite or catalin vintage set of tiles at auction. I haven't got it yet but I know it has a few faded looking tiles and I'm cautiously considering restoring them. I know very little about bakelite and catalin, but as an artist on paper I would caution against using indelible ink or other pens. You may run into a "bleed" problem years later (have you ever noticed how ink marks on old Barbie dolls sink into the plastic and spread out?). I don't know if this would be the same case with bakelite and catalin plastic. I would go with modeling paint which is probably designed to sit on top of the plastic and not sink in. The old paint on tiles probably chips and flakes because it was designed with the same idea. I'd be patient and apply a few micro-tiny samples of the colors I intend to use in places where it won't be to noticable if it bleeds, then I'd wait a few months to see whathappens. If anyone else has tried repainting their tiles I'd like to hear about their results and what they used. Hope this helps everyone! regards,deby

Name: Tom Sloper
Email: tomster[AT]sloperama[DOT]com
Date: 07 Jul 2001


If your tiles are modern plastic tiles, you can probably do what my Japanese friends do: line up all the tiles, face-up, and wipe across the lot of them with a slightly damp cloth (not a soaked cloth). If the tiles are not antique, there shouldn't be any resulting damage to the paint down in the nooks and crannies of the tiles.

Got questions about mah-jongg?Ask them at our Q&A Bulletin Board --

Red stains on Catalin tiles

On Friday, April 17, 2020, 07:12:31 AM PDT, Leslie wrote:
Removing red stains on catalin tiles
Good Morning, Tom ~
I read the entire section #7o Cleaning & Restoring, but saw no mention of those pesky red stains that can appear on vintage catalin tiles. Iíve bought several sets that have these stains: oddly, they are overwhelmingly on the edges of the tiles. While I donít mind them aesthetically, they are problematic during play. Once a player gets familiar with that particular set, she/he can identify that tile, similarly to a ďmarkedĒ deck of cards. Do you have any advice on this issue? Thank you very much.
Leslie Z

Good morning, Leslie ~
My recommendation is to retire such a set, stop using it or only use it sparingly. You say you have several? Each one stained differently? Rotate them in your play sessions. One week play with set A, another week play with set B, another week with set C. Or just buy an unstained set. I have no solution for removing the stains.
Stay safe. Don't touch your face. Don't panic! And may the tiles be with you.
Tom Sloper
Author of "The Red Dragon & The West Wind," the definitive book on Mah-Jongg East & West.
Author of the Sloper On Mah-Jongg column and the Mah-Jongg FAQs -- donations appreciated.
April 17, 2020
Los Angeles, California, USA

Name: Tom Sloper
Email: tomster[AT]sloperama[DOT]com
Date: 08 Jun 2001


I make replacement tiles by making computer-printed labels.

First, either scan or photograph the tile design you want to duplicate.For example, I had a bamboo set that was missing a 2 Crak.I photographed another 2 Crak with my digital camera.

I made a grid in MSPAINT and printed it, and used the grid to determine the exact pixel count I needed for the label to fit the tile. I resized the photo to the correct size.

Then I adjusted the colors until it looked right when printed.Then I printed it on label paper.

Ordinarily, for bakelite or bone tiles, I also laminate the label.But for bamboo I decided to leave it flat (it matches the tiles better that way, but it'll wear out sooner if the set is used a lot).

Then I cut out the label with an X-acto knife, trying not to cut through the backing (that makes it easier to peel the label off the backing) and applied to a replacement tile.

I really like the results with this method. I've even used it to make Vietnamese jokers, Singapore flowers, and Japanese red fives.

Name: Beth Goodwin
Email: Bethkay/AT/
Date: 16 Apr 2001


I recently purchased a beautiful old Catalin set made by Cardinal. Unfortunately, it had a very strong musty odor. I did not have success with Febreeze, but have had success with placing dryer sheets in the bottom of the case. The fragrance from the sheets lingers when I remove the set from the case, but this is certainly better than a musty smell!

Name: Sharon Prien
Email: rprien/AT/
Date: 08 May 2000


I've had beautiful results painting worn sets.I custom mix enamel hobby paints to match the colors in the existing set or can custom color.The most important first step is to make sure the tiles are free of any oily residues by cleaning with alcohol.Next, with a small paintbrush or a toothpick smear paint on the area you desire to color (you don't even have to stay between the lines!...just smear!) Turn the tile face down and blot it (lightly) on a flat paper towel.Now for the fun part!Spray a little DeSolve-It on a pad of paper.Again holding your tile face side down, rub on the pad of paper.The paint will stay in the depressions and be gone elsewhere! I've tried several methods... this is produces the most original results.You literally can't tell them from original paint jobs. I also do it for those faint of heart or those wanting exact color matches.Happy Refurbishing!Sharon

Name: Joyce
Date: 29 Mar 2000


I have been very successful with tracing the character onto thin tracing paper with a fine pencil and then I use fine micro pigment ink pens to color in the character. When this is done, I then paste the paper onto a blank tile, with tacky glue, let it dry, trim off excess paper & glue and Presto!! A new tile has been made. It is not perfect - but it certainly makes the set playable. Hope this can help someone else. It took a lot of hit & misses to figure this out. Joyce (jkcowgal/AT/

Name: Renee
Email: mausi305/AT/
Date: 25 Mar 2000


I recently purchased a MahJong set which must have been in a damp basement for years. I cleaned the tiles with baby wipes as Amy suggested but the trays and box smelled awful. My grandaughter suggested that I spray them (case and trays) with Fabreze -I used the extra-strength and sprayed twice - and lo and behold the odor vanished completely!

Name: Michael Stanwick
Email: mstanwick/AT/
Date: 21 Jan 2000


Because of my interest in saving old sets for playing or collecting purposes, I have had to either restore the tiles(see earlier posting)and/or have a box custom made for the set. If you consider the tiles etc to be worth it then the latter can be a worthwhile experience. I have had two slide-top boxes made so far in the slide-top traditional style, each being either of dovetailed or finger jointed construction and containing three compartments. The best wood for this purpose, if rosewood is unavailable, is mahogany. But make sure it is from a valid source and not from indiscriminate rainforest deforestation. By having the box stained black and then rubbed down with a wax containing a dark brown colouring - such as Antiquax here in the UK - a really 'antique' look can be achieved. The lid can also be carved with the mah jong chinese ideographs and then painted to give that authentic look. Make sure you research the style 1st by viewing boxes on such sites as the MJ Cyber Museum or at ebay.

Name: Charlene Bayley
Email: charlene/AT/
Date: 21 Oct 1999


To get rid of the mildew/musty smell in the older cases, fill the case with crushed newspaper and leave closed for 2-3 days. If an oder remains after the newspaper trick, place a flat dish filled with baking soda in the case and again close for 2-3 days. Should both of these methods fail you can always place one of the scented envelopes inside the case or spray with freebreeze.

Name: michael stanwick
Email: michael.stanwick/AT/
Date: 30 Aug 1999


In my view old sets dating from the 1920's, unless made for decorative purposes, are sets to be played with *and* kept for posterity. If the tiles need restoring - like any painting or item of furniture - then why not. In view of this, when the bone is slightly narrower than the bamboo backing the tile can be sanded down with a very fine sand paper of the 'wet and dry' variety. This also applies when the cracks have been filled with a wood putty('natural' colour is by far the best) that is left protruding after it has thoroughly dried. After many plays, the tiles will take on skin oils etc and the wood putty will disappear into the background (if it appeared a lighter colour.) This may seem strange, but after a tile has thoroughly dried or after a light sanding, try rubbing your finger down the side of your nostril to pick up the oils and then rub it into the side and ends of the tiles. It will give them back some of the patina they have lost.

Tile engravers in New Zealand?

> From: Ann Batten <anbattenme dot com>
> Sent: Friday, April 18, 2014 2:27 AM
> Subject: Re engraving tiles
> Hello Tom,
> I have just been recommended to your website by a very experienced player in Auckland, NZ. I have enjoyed browsing it and have saved to to my bookmarks.
> I have bought a very nice antique Mahjong set but the character tiles have no numbers.
> Do you or any of your readers know where in NZ I may find a person who can engrave tiles. I believe that the set is bone.
> Best regards
> Ann

Hi, Ann.
I have no information about tile engravers in New Zealand, or anywhere else (besides the Arkay listing above). com [Note: Arkay Engravers closed for business in 2017] Your question is now "out there" for anyone to see (and I've left your email address visible but bot-proofed so people can contact you directly), but I don't think posting a question on a website is going to get you an answer to this kind of obscure question. You need to pro-actively look for engravers.
So let's think about this logically -- what kind of products do engravers usually work on?

  • Signs,
  • Trophies,
  • Jewelry...

    Right? Maybe you can think of some more. What you need to do is look for businesses that do those things, and inquire with them. Good luck!
    May the tiles be with you.
    Tom Sloper
    Creator of
    the weekly Mah-Jongg column and the Mah-Jongg FAQs -- donations appreciated.
    Author of "The Red Dragon & The West Wind," the definitive book on Mah-Jongg East & West.
    Los Angeles, California, USA
    April 18, 2014

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