Many people discover their heirloom family documents becoming yellow and brittle due to acid in the paper, or they discover fading colors on prints or other artwork. The inclination might be to “restore” these paper artifacts to their original conditions. The idea that paper objects can be completely “restored” after many decades of deterioration is false. True restoration is a very expensive process that requires a highly-trained person, and many people have unrealistic expectations about the results. However, there are things you can do to preserve your important paper documents and artwork and even improve their condition.
Control the environment. First, stabilize the humidity and temperature to minimize further deterioration. The Library of Congress recommends keeping humidity between 30 to 40 percent and temperature below 72 degrees Fahrenheit for paper artifacts. An hygrometer will help you monitor humidity levels.
Store paper in a dark and dry location (avoid basements and attics) and store flat if possible. Seek advice from a conservator before attempting to flatten rolled paper.
If displaying paper, limit exposure to light, especially sunlight and fluorescent lights. Light will fade colors and hasten deterioration.
Handle paper with clean cotton gloves.
Use a document cleaning pad to clean the surface and a draftsman’s brush to remove crumbs from the cleaning pad. When done properly, it will remove surface dirt, but it will not remove foxing (brownish age spots), coffee stains, water damage or greasy stains.
Use a vinyl eraser to attempt to remove stubborn dirt. Be very careful and non-aggressive with erasers to avoid thinning and tearing the paper.
Seek help from a professional conservator if the above methods are not satisfactory.
Stabilizing Acidic Paper
Remove paper from folders, files or other containers with other acidic paper. Acidic paper will be obvious as it will exhibit yellowing and brittleness (beginning along the edges).
Use a deacidification spray carefully, judiciously and per the manufacturer's directions. Some acidic papers can be stabilized with use of these products, but it is best to seek professional advice before use.
Use acid-free buffer paper between pages of paper artifacts to reduce migration of acids and acid-free folders to store paper.
Use Japanese-hinging tissue paper and wheat starch paste to repair minor tears. Avoid, at all costs, clear or masking tape.
Tear strips of Japanese paper instead of cutting, and use a piece of blotting paper under the paper to be repaired.
Carefully align the edges of the tear, and use small weights to keep the tear in place.
Apply a thin coat of wheat starch paste (mixed per manufacturer's directions) on the Japanese paper and place over tear.
Lay a piece of wax paper over the mend with a small weight on top and allow to dry for at least an hour.
Cleaning will do wonders to “restore” the appearance of antique paper, but it requires a careful touch. Inquire at local museums, archives or libraries to get recommendations for a conservator.
Do not attempt any restoration project before seeking advice from a conservator.