Tolex or Not Tolex: That is the Question

Our amps, speaker cabinets, and even guitar cases are typically covered in Tolex, but what exactly is this ubiquitous material? Where did it come from, and how did it come to be used in so many guitar related applications for almost 70 years? And what does it have to do with WWII?
 
The earliest mention of the word Tolex I could find is in TESS, the US government trademark database where the trademark was first registered on Christmas Day 1945. When you think of the other things that must have been happening during that first holiday following the end of WWII, it seems a rather curious date, but there you go.
 
Tolex’s birthplace was General Tire and Rubber Company in Akron Ohio. The name moved around as General Tire diversified, changed management and acquired and divested business units over the years. The great-grandchild, if you like, of General Tire that still manufactures this type of covering is Omnova Solutions Inc, which is still based in Ohio, although earlier this year Omnova itself was acquired by UK based multi-national, Synthomer PLC.
 
The Tolex trademark appears to have lapsed in 2005 and I could not find Tolex itself listed as an Omnova product today, at least, not exactly. You can trace the family tree though to current Omnova brands Nautolex, a fabric covering for marine applications such as boat seating, and Boltaflex an indoor upholstery fabric.
 
So, what actually is, or was Tolex? I could not find any patents associated with it and it has been variously described in the trademark history as ‘coated fabrics’ or ‘plastic sheet and film material’ so it really is just an old, expired brand name for plastic upholstery material. These days, the word Tolex is used only by old guitar players that still use vacuum tubes, germanium transistors, and other such relics, long consigned to the trash can of history by younger, wiser folk.
 
Plastic upholstery, or coverings, are often designed to look like leather hence sometimes called leatherette, or faux leather. Presstoff was a faux leather made from paper pulp invented in Germany in the 19th Century and used commonly during WWII since genuine leather was rationed. Other brands such as Rexine in the UK and then Tolex in the US followed up on this idea. They were water resistant, cheaper and often more available than leather, so it made sense that they would be used in automobile upholstery and for book coverings even after the war was over.
 
Some early guitar amps from the late 1940’s and early 1950’s such as the Harmony 8418 were covered in actual leather. Leo Fenders first ‘woodie’ amps from early 1946 were hardwood, switching the use of a Tweed luggage covering material in early 1947. The first two tone leatherette covered Champions appeared in 1949. Fender describes the first use of the brand name Tolex material in 1959. Leo Fender is known today as a master of cost optimization and for making the most out of what materials were available at the time. We can see this in the move from hardwood, to tweed, to Tolex. Like so many other things in the electric guitar world, our Tolex covered amps and speakers have a direct line back to Leo Fender.
 
When we talk about Tolex today on modern products, we are no longer describing the brand name material from General Tire used on those early amps, but something similar from a variety of different manufacturers. It’s usually a fabric backing with vinyl or other plastic bonded over it, but it could be just a plain plastic material.
 
Some amps and brands are practically defined by their Tolex. When I think of an Orange TH100 or a Marshall Silver Jubilee or a piggyback Fender it’s the color of the Tolex that sticks out in my mind. Fortunately for us, there are a large number of different amp coverings available today from the vintage browns and blondes through alligator and snakeskin to even carbon fiber. None of them are actually Tolex any longer. That is, until someone decides they want to try and resurrect that dead trademark. Any takers?

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