Dear Bibliobull – Dirty cards

Dear Bibliobull –

I recently bought a number of 1950s trading cards on eBay. The cards depict different airplanes from WW1 and WWII, and I would like to assemble the cards into some sort of shadow box or other display as a gift for my elderly father who flew planes in WWII. The cards are not in good condition – there is old scotch tape residue on some corners, a bit of writing with pen and pencil, a few tears, but mostly, years and years of plain old “dirt”. I would like to brighten the cards as much as possible, if only by doing surface cleaning and removing the yellow/brown scotch tape residue, if possible. I’ve tried to gently do surface cleaning using Absorbene and ground gum eraser. While there was mild improvement, it’s not what I’d hoped. Can I just soak the cards in a small pan of water and perhaps some dish-washing liquid to try to remove old dirt?

Card Flipper


Dear Flipper –

If we were talking about a sheet of paper or a postage stamp you could indeed wash it. But trading cards, post cards, and much printed ephemera are generally constructed in layers, like an Oreo cookie, with printed paper outside and chipboard in the center. If you wet it, you will most likely end up detaching all the layers and ending up with a mess. The cardboard is not printed directly, but the paper stock adhered to the cardboard. The thicker the center layer, the less likely the cardboard is to curve or bend.

Dirt is either on the surface or in the case of stains it is beneath the surface. If it is beneath the surface you have to live with it, some folks try ‘bleaching’ but the bleach will alter the inks, and will never stop breaking down the fibers; in 10 years you will have dust.

To remove surface dirt, you first try ‘adsorbing’, this method will not interfere with the inks. Absorene and/or ground eraser particles get the surface dirt to adhere to it instead of the paper.

Beyond adsorption there is abrasion, rubbing the surface of the material off, taking the layer of dirt with it. This works on unprinted surfaces, and can work on deeply printed materials with some loss of quality. Printed materials such as trading cards will suffer surface loss, if you rub against the inked areas. Usually only a white unglossy border can be carefully abraded, perhaps an eraser with embedded grit or a sanding sponge etc…

White plastic and gum erasers work with adsorption, when rubbed over the paper surface, the graphite bonds with the eraser surface. Rubber erasers work both with adsorption and with some amount of abrasion.

In your situation, I would try going over the surface in small circles with the softest eraser you can find, either an art gum eraser or the Sanford magic Rub, perhaps in stick form. Using a solid eraser will allow you to apply more pressure than you could using eraser granules.

As for the tape, the older the adhesive is the harder it is to remove. Modern tapes have an acrylic adhesive which responds both to heat and to heptane (rubber cement thinner) or naphtha (lighter fluid) [not at the same time!] These highly evaporative chemicals will also not hurt the inks. If you cannot get the residue off with lighter fluid and a Q-tip, try heat. Use a quilting iron, a clothes iron or even a hair drier to warm it enough to roll it off. There are rubber ‘crepe’ erasers used for removing rubber cement that work well for rolling soft adhesive.

Older cellophane tapes used a synthetic rubber compound which oxidize over time and become hard. Though not reactive to chemicals, they MAY still come off with heat. Professionals (people with more than average patience) use heat applied to small spatulas to slowly work the old tape off the surface.

Biblio Bull-

psst! if in the end these items are going to be framed, it may be easier and more satisfying to have them scanned and clean the images digitally and then frame new prints.

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