A History of TUFNOL - Early Development

George Ellison - electrical engineer and entrepreneur

TUFNOL Laminated Plastics were the brainchild of Birmingham-based electrical engineer and entrepreneur, George Ellison. Originally from Runcorn in Cheshire, he was educated at Manchester Grammar School and had served an engineering apprenticeship in Switzerland. After a period working for General Electric and the Westinghouse Corporation in the USA, and a brief spell of manufacturing in South Africa, he started his own electrical factory in Paris in 1898.

However, due to family pressures, in 1906 he left Paris and set up a new factory in Birmingham, England making switchgear for electrical distribution systems. Birmingham at that time had an extraordinary culture of technical innovation and inventiveness and, for a number of decades, far more patents were filed there than any other city in the world. From the start, George Ellison wanted his products to be the best and most reliable that anyone could buy and he sited his switchgear business near the Jewellery Quarter in Birmingham, England to benefit from the very highly skilled workers available to make intricate components. His company was highly successful and, in less than a decade, it completely outgrew the space available so, in 1916, he commissioned a new, purpose-built factory, a few miles away in the Perry Barr district of Birmingham.

The birth of TUFNOL
Tufnol high pressure press, 1926
Making Tufnol sheet in a high
pressure press, 1926.

In 1921, George Ellison decided that they needed an improved type of electrical insulation material and set up a small development team to work on it. The material they produced was called Synthetic Resin Paper, or 'SRP', made from layers of high quality kraft paper, bonded together under high pressure with phenol formaldehyde resin. It was said to resemble 'a piece of dark horn' with very interesting properties. It was hard and very strong, yet easily machinable, it was a first class insulator, it was water resistant and, importantly, it could be manufactured with consistently good quality.

This excellent and versatile material proved to be so useful, that many other companies wanted to use it and it clearly had a future. In 1926, it was given the name 'TUFNOL' (from 'tough phenol') and, three years later, a second new factory was commissioned in Wellhead Lane, right opposite the main Ellison Switchgear factory and a new company called 'Ellison Insulations' was launched to manufacture and sell TUFNOL.

However, George Ellison applied his own distinctive approach to this. The whole ethos of Ellison's companies and their products revolved around quality. Their switchgear was to be the 'Rolls Royce' of switchgear - it should be made to last forever and never break down. So the laminated insulation material they made also had to be good. And it had to be made by engineers and sold by engineers, who could help and guide their customers to use it to best advantage. To provide customers with good quality finished machined components, a large machine shop was set up at the TUFNOL factory and this eventually grew to become one of the largest dedicated plastics machining facilities in Europe.

Tufnol Gears brochure 1937
Tufnol Gears brochure, 1937.

Ideas for new uses of TUFNOL grew quickly and, by 1932, at least seven different grades of TUFNOL were already being made using different grades of cloth and paper to suit different end-uses. Paper based grades were generally used for electrical insulation components, whilst cotton and asbestos fabric grades were better for mechanical components such as gears and bearings.

Individual names were needed for the new types and the idea of giving them each a brand name was adopted. For example, the cotton fabric grades, ranging from fine-weave cloth to coarse included "Carp Brand", "Vole Brand", "Whale Brand", and "Crow Brand". Quite why these brand names were taken from animals, birds and ships is something of a mystery. The original 'SRP' was called ' Kite Brand TUFNOL' and it is still available today.

Like most good product ideas, TUFNOL was not alone in the market and, in the 1930s, the Bakelite company themselves built a factory in Tyseley, Birmingham to manufacture products including 'Fabroil, the new silent gear material'.

Tufnol Bearings advert 1939
Tufnol Bearings press advert, 1937.

During the following decade, TUFNOL materials found thousands of applications throughout industry, replacing metals like cast iron and steel, brass and bronze for a wide variety of mechanical engineering components such as gears, bearings, wear resistant parts and insulation in heavy electrical machinery. Many of the original brands available at that time are still in production and widely used today.

Next page - TUFNOL from 1940 to 1960