Salvage old documentsJun 21st, 2010 | By Rick@Leonard Family Legends & Legacies | Category: Featured Articles, How-To
The basic problem with old documents, especially those stored in low-humidity environments like an attic, is that the paper itself dries out and becomes brittle. Just opening a document or newspaper article can destroy it. Photos, in particular, should never be unfolded or uncurled without some TLC. And by TLC, I mean archival gloves at the very least, and the use of a do-it-yourself humidification chamber if you have any hope at all of salvaging something usable.
You can buy humidification chambers at archival supply stores, but who’s got one of those in the neighborhood? And besides, you’ll pay through the nose, i.e. several hundred dollars, for the privilege.
You can build your own humidification from basic plastic storage containers, light grids, and a few Tupperware containers. The chamber needs to be large enough to hold the documents in question, but those stackable containers we all hide our Christmas ornaments in should be about right (aprox. 2x2x3 feet with a lid).
Next, you’ll need a “shelf” on which to place the dehydrated pictures or documents. I prefer to use the plastic lighting grids you typically find covering fluorescent light fixtures set into the ceiling. These are available at most hardware or Home Depot/Lowes stores and can be cut to size roughly 18×28 inches. You might also use metal screen or “chicken wire” as long as it lies flat. The shelf should be a couple of inches narrower on each side than the chamber itself.
Next, set the “shelf” on four or five Tupperware containers in the bottom of the chamber. Any support will work, as long as its waterproof, because the last step is to pour 1-2 inches of water in the bottom of the chamber. NOTE: Find a suitable location where the humidification chamber might sit for a day or two before you pour any water. That’s how long the documents/chamber will have to sit without being bumped or jostled.
Finally, after pouring the water, making sure not to get any on the shelf itself, place your pictures or documents on the shelf just as you found them and carefully snap the lid on the chamber.
Monitor the progress every twelve hours or so until the documents once again become flexible, but never wet enough to feel wet. Rolled documents like maps will generally start to unroll on their own, but you want the paper flexible enough to flatten without breaking.
Once the papers are flexible enough to flatten, its best if you place them between two sheets of plotter paper and lay some books or a sheet of plexiglass on top to complete the flattening. Give it another 12-24 hours and voila! You’ve got something worth saving!
Now, if none of this makes any sense, you can watch a YouTube video of the whole process right here:
I know, I could’ve started with the video and saved all that reading, but what fun is that?