How to Conserve & Restore Old Paper

Written by hallie engel
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How to Conserve & Restore Old Paper
When handling old papers, put away drinks and food to avoid accidents. (Hemera Technologies/ Images)

Old documents, such as death certificates, property deeds and even personal letters, provide links to the past that can be both sentimental, and of legal significance. The ravages of time can severely damage paper, hastening its decay. However, it is possible to repair and store papers in a manner that will ensure they last for years to come.

Skill level:

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Things you need

  • Acid-free gloves
  • Basin
  • Acid-free boxes, sleeves and envelopes
  • Soap
  • Rags

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  1. 1

    Save papers from water and take the steps needed to restore them. Carefully lift papers from water, or other liquid, taking care to brush away any debris and place them in a tub of clean water to rinse. Papers which are only damp can be air dried and dusted with talcum powder to absorb moisture. When partially dry, weigh them down with something flat and heavy to prevent wrinkling. Books can be placed standing upright, their pages spread, and allowed to dry.

  2. 2

    Remove mould from old paper as a first step in restoration. Brush away any loose pieces of mould gently by hand, using a soft rag. Dry the paper if it is damp, allowing it to sit in a well ventilated room. If the paper can be washed, wipe it down with a soapy cloth and rinse it clean with water, removing any residue or suds. Remove stains by using a gallon of water mixed with half a cup to one cup of bleach, cleaning the paper with a wet sponge to rinse it away.

  3. 3

    Store the paper in the proper setting to preserve it. Cool, dark and dry places are ideal for paper storage, as exposure to sunlight can fade ink and discolour paper, while heat and humidity can promote the growth of mould. If the paper is framed and hung on the wall, place it in an area with little sunlight, and close the curtains to protect it further. Avoid storing papers in basements and attics, which are prone to damaging temperatures and high humidity levels.

  4. 4

    Place papers in files, folders and boxes that won't damage them. Though any old envelope or plastic sleeve might seem fine, such items can contain acids which will erode the paper over time, hastening its degradation. Only store papers in plastic folders made of polypropylene, polyester or polythene, as other types will eventually release acids. Place sheets of acid-free paper between each piece of paper to be preserved, if storing multiple items in one folder or box, and use acid-free envelopes as well.

Tips and warnings

  • Wear gloves when handling old or important papers, as acids in human skin can damage them.
  • Newspaper is printed on very acidic paper, so make photocopies of articles in case they can no longer be preserved, and store them separately from other items.
  • Do not use tape on old or damaged documents, as it can cause further problems, degrading the quality of paper and ink.
  • Make photocopies of important papers and documents, so in the event that they cannot be saved, their information is kept in tact.

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