Minor Book Repairs – Sprucing Up Your Old Friends

It is okay to do some minor maintenance on some old books, like that beloved Hardy Boys copy you’ve had since the 7th grade.

It is okay to do some minor maintenance on some old books.

Favorite old books are like friends. But they can start to show wear with handling and age. While restoration of very valuable books should always be left to experts, it is okay to spruce up your grandmother’s leather-bound hymnal or that beloved Hardy Boys copy you’ve had since the 7th grade. Here are some quick hints.

Use soft, crumbly gum erasers are great for removing pencil marks.

Use soft, crumbly gum erasers are great for removing pencil marks.

Soft, crumbly gum erasers are great for removing pencil marks. You can get these at most art supply stores in colors ranging from ivory to tan. Do not use a hard pink eraser or erasers on the top of pencils, because these mar the paper. Kneaded, “silly putty” erasers are not recommended either—they absorb the graphite and will eventually stain the paper.

Taping is fine if done correctly. Never use Scotch tape because it yellows over time and will eventually make the tear look worse. Archival-quality document repair tape is made from acid-free tissue that is very thin, yet very strong. It virtually disappears when smoothed over a tear and will not yellow. This is absolutely the only tape to use for book repairs and can be purchased online or in art supplies stores. Always tape dust jacket tears from the back to reduce visibility.

Archival-quality document repair tape is made from acid-free tissue that is very thin, yet very strong.

Archival-quality document repair tape is made from acid-free tissue that is very thin, yet very strong.

Leather will become cracked, faded and dry with age. But an oily furniture moisturizer (not polish) will do wonders to a leather book cover, cleaning off the grime and bringing back both the luster and color. Howard’s Feed-N-Wax is particularly good, but any other penetrating feeder will do. For best results, the consistency of the moisturizer should be slushy—neither liquid nor solid. Use a very soft cloth and rub a small amount into the leather, taking care to avoid the pages and any cover paste-ons, as the oil will stain paper. Wipe dry.

General-purpose leather conditioning products can also be used, but the absorbency of a deep furniture preserver is the best for old leather book covers.

An oily furniture moisturizer will help bring a luster back to leather will become cracked, faded and dry with age.

An oily furniture moisturizer will help bring a luster back to leather that become cracked, faded and dry with age.

A steel-edged label peeler is a must for bibliophiles. Usual price tag removal almost always tears a spot on an old dust jacket. But this tool, with a razor-sharp blade, will safely remove stickers and residue, even if a tag is 50 years old. Most book collectors will say that if they could only keep one preservation item, this would be it. The peelers are inexpensive and can be found online.

Many old books can smell musty or smoky if they’ve been stored in a basement or smoker’s home. Wrap the book in clean white paper or several layers of tissue paper. Bury it in a box filled with unused kitty litter and sprinkle with baking soda. Leave for one to two weeks and the odors will vanish. Book deodorizer pouches are also available online. Simpler to use, these pouches are placed in a plastic bag with the book and are advertised to absorb the odors.

A steel-edged label peeler is a must for bibliophiles.

A steel-edged label peeler is a must for bibliophiles.

If part of a book’s spine cover has come loose from the backing, it is ok to glue it back in place. In fact, it’s preferable to prevent further damage. There are several plastic glues available for binding repairs that will remain flexible when dry. But if you have only one or two books needing mending and don’t want to invest in a specialty glue, Elmer’s is perfectly fine.

And finally, there are a few things that won’t work at home. Don’t try to remove an owner’s customized bookplate from inside the front cover, it will only tear the endpaper. Ink and crayon won’t come off. Books that are badly water damaged, warped and mildewed are not recoverable using amateur methods. And a damaged book that is totally falling apart, with a missing spine and many lost pages, needs to be put out of its misery. Separate the glossy illustrative plates and salvage them individually.

Remember, a professional should always restore truly valuable books. These hints are provided just for improving the shelf appeal of your favorite collectibles.

Liz Holderman is a Worthologist who specializes in collectible books.

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