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Tying up loose ends

By Robert Colver
Source: O.P. World, June 1998

Before venturing into new territory, I thought I'd clean up a couple of loose ends from previous articles and hopefully answer some questions–asked and unasked–that I may have raised.

More on getting rid of old tape

In discussing paper repair, I ventured the hope that you already knew enough not to use cellophane tape to repair torn pages. One of my dealer clients patiently reminded me that the people from whom he buys books, maps and documents are not so enlightened. And as if to drive the point home, that day's UPS shipment brought a fragile, inscribed Joyce in wraps that had been virtually rebacked in multiple layers of Scotch Magic Tape.

Can anything be done about getting rid of old tape repairs and stains? The short answer is: Maybe... Sometimes... If you're lucky. The long answer follows. Cellophane tape with pressure-sensitive adhesive, what 3M hates to have people refer to generically as "lower-case-scotch tape," has been around most of this century. And over that time, the chemical formulation of the adhesives has changed repeatedly. And 3M has by no means been the only company manufacturing it. All of these adhesives react differently to the passage of time, to heat, light, humidity, and other environmental factors, and to the chemical composition of the paper, cloth, leather or whatever they come in contact with. And they respond to different solvents–if they even respond. All of which precludes a nice, neat "Do this and your problem will be solved" answer.

Older tape that has attained that rich, brown color is the most problematic. The brown color indicates that the adhesive has, to all intents and purposes, chemically become part of the paper. Often, the paper will become almost transparent. At that point, the cellophane can usually be popped right off. In short, once it has ruined what it was supposed to repair, it stops doing what it was put on to do, which is hold the pieces together.

At least two generations of conservators have been looking for the alchemist's stone that will remove the tape chemicals and stains from the paper. The published literature, and now the online discussion groups, have been full of suggestions and experiments–some marginally successful–none definitive. If the book, map or document you have with brown tape stains is worth it, send it off to a professional paper conservation lab and let them at least try.

If it's not worth that expense, you can try removing the cellophane yourself if it doesn't pop off. If the tape is relatively new and still seems flexible, try peeling it off before using solvents, particularly if it's not covering type or other textual matter. Solvents and heat will drive some of the adhesive into the paper, leaving a sticky residue. It's better to lose the thin layer of paper fibers that will stick to the tape if you can do it without losing text or too much paper. Start peeling the tape by carefully lifting one end with a knife blade. Use tweezers until you've lifted enough to get a grip with your fingers. Peel horizontally, with the loose end as close as possible to the page. Don't pull upwards. And be sure to go s-l-o-w-l-y!

If dry peeling seems to be pulling up too much paper, or you're losing text, a lot of older tape adhesives, and the adhesive on the matte-finished Scotch Magic Tape and its imitators, will usually soften in naphtha (lighter fluid). Naphtha won't affect printers ink, most document inks, or map colorings. But if you're the least bit suspicious, do a spot test with a cotton swab dipped in naphtha.

If you can, soak the taped area on the back side and let it soften the adhesive. Then lift a tape edge and carefully slide a thin spatula between the cellophane and paper to lift it. (I use one of those plastic spatulas the art-supply store sells for applying acrylic paints. It's very thin and very flexible.) Again, work slowly and keep an eye out that you're not picking up text. If you can't get to a back side, dampen the area around one end of the tape with a naphtha-soaked swab and let it wick under the edge of the tape. Lift that edge and keep progressively dampening the area where tape joins paper.

When the cellophane is off, gently scrape as much of the softened globs of adhesive off as you can, putting on more naphtha as needed. Then even more gently, wipe the area with a soft cloth dampened in naphtha. When the naphtha evaporates, test the spot. It will probably still be slightly tacky. If you gently and carefully go over the area with a vinyl eraser, or better yet, a rubber-cement eraser, you will remove most of the tackiness. Give it a final massage with the tip of your finger-its natural skin oils should remove enough of the tackiness to prevent the paper from sticking to other sheets.

Clear cellophane tape on leather presents slightly different problems. Peeling it up dry will usually take the top layer of leather cells with it, which is what makes leather look like leather. The resultant scar is hard to re-color and redress. Gentle heat, from a hair dryer or heat gun held about six or eight inches away, will often soften the adhesive enough so the cellophane can be lifted. The adhesive residue can then be removed by gently wiping the leather with a cloth dampened with naphtha. Unlike with paper, any tacky residue can be overcome with a consolidant or leather dressing of some kind.

The wide clear-vinyl adhesive tape that some libraries have used to "reback" leather and even cloth volumes is trickier to remove. The tape is thicker and the adhesive seems more invasive. Spine leather or cloth under such tape, being more deteriorated than the cover material, is usually a write-off. Which could mean you have little to lose by trying the heat-and-solvent trick. But it's probably a good idea to entrust the book to a binder who has had more experience with both the tape and the materials underneath.

Cellophane tape is by no means the only home-remedy repair people have used on books. If you've been in the business long enough, you've seen the famous "Johnson & Johnson Rehinge" using surgical adhesive tape to hold on a loose board. And then there's the "Duct Tape Reback."

Fortunately, as any nurse or athletic trainer can tell you, the stickum on surgical adhesive tape is completely soluble in garden-variety alcohol. If it has been on there a while, it can leave a permanent brown stain, but at least the tape and adhesive will come off.

And I've yet to find a duct tape adhesive that lacquer thinner won't take. Be cautioned however. We're usually talking more than a dab of lacquer thinner on a cotton swab for this operation. Do it only in a well-ventilated environment. And leave your cigarette lighter in the other room!

The cloth library book tapes vary. Some use pressure-sensitive adhesives, which will soften under heat and/or solvents. Others, usually the older ones, used moisture-activated adhesives, such as dextrin glues or hide glues, and can be softened by coating the tape with water held in suspension in paste or Klucel-G cellulose gel and letting it soak through to the adhesive. You may first need to go over the outside surface of the cloth tape with fine sandpaper to break through its coating.

Tape removal generates almost as many opinions and deeply held beliefs as religion and politics. I'd be interested in hearing any successes you may have had. Or any spectacular failures for that matter. If it's something that works, I'll share it. If it really works, I'll steal it!

A crayola horror story

A few years back, I alerted a local dealer to keep his eye peeled for the Limited Editions Club Gulliver. I wanted a copy, with its folio Brobdingnag and its l6mo Lilliput. He called me a few months later and said, "I've got one, but you don't want it." When I asked why, he said: "Come look at it. You'll see."

I went. I looked at it. I saw. He was right. It was a beautiful copy. But the previous owner had written, clear across the pastedown and free fly of Brobdingnag: "Property of Mrs. X Y Z." With her complete address. And her phone number. Including area code. In inch-high letters. In bright crimson crayon. If there is an eighth circle of Hell...

I know I'm not alone. Most dealers have an Oz horror story. Something about how Denslow's crisp black and white line drawings cried out to be filled in by a kid with a box of Crayolas on an unused rainy afternoon.

If you have such an Oz, and are waiting breathlessly for me to tell you how to get the crayon markings out of it, you might as well inhale. There probably isn't a way. Crayons present a double-barrel problem. First, there's the medium. Crayon wax loves to melt deep into the fibers of the paper. Solvents will soften wax, but that only serves to drive it deeper into the paper. Which aggravates the second part of the problem, the coloring. I'm firmly convinced if DaVinci had done The Last Supper in Crayola, it wouldn't need restoration. It would be as bright today as the day he did it. Assuming the crayon dye were oxidizable— and a lot aren't—water-base bleaches such as peroxide or chloramine-t won't break through the wax to get at it. Even such now-banned wax solvents as carbon tetrachloride that had bleaching properties didn't completely remove either the wax or the dye. Dyes in many colored pencils present the same problem.

If it's a small crayon marking—a discreet name on the fly or pastedown or a price mark, you can try painstakingly scraping it out with the tip of an Xacto knife. It sometimes works, depending a lot on the paper. One dealer I know has had measured success plucking the wax out with an infinite number of little balls of masking tape held in tweezers. He also has a 10-year-old son he can threaten or cajole into doing that kind of endless, mindless work for free.

So your extra-illustrated Oz will probably have to stay that way. But hey! You could always catalog it "Picasso's copy."

Chewing gum remedies

To be honest with you, in 12 years I've never had a book come through here with chewing gum on it. Or in it. But I hear it happens. So I'll pass along what I have been promised are surefire remedies.

The first is probably more archival sound, although talking about archival sound and Juicy-Fruit in the same breath sounds a little strange. Put the book, with the gum exposed, in the freezer overnight.

The second is for people who lack that kind of patience. Spray the wad of gum with a direct blast from a can of butane lighter fuel, which will quick-freeze it. Put out your cigarette first. Either way, the gum supposedly pops right off, leaving no trace. Remember, if it works, you heard it here first. If it doesn't, I never heard of such a crazy idea!

Bob Colver owns Ram's Head Bindery in Durham, NC. He's been mending books for the antiquarian book trade far 12 years.