Drying Wet Books and Papers
Submitted by Douge Reade
About This Tip's Submitter:
Doug Reade is a hand bookbinder and disaster recovery expert, and owner
of Reade Books Restoration, a full-service firm in Seattle, WA. They
have constructed a freeze-drying unit of unique operation, and can handle
over 100 books at a time.
Books and papers that have gotten wet by fire, flood, broken pipe or
what-have-you can be recovered. Recovered by the homeowner, without
extensive training, and without expensive tools (such as the large-scale
freeze-drying unit I've set up). It is time-intensive, and therefore
not for the patience-challenged, nor a good idea if you have a whole lot
of stuff, but if you've got one or two wet books, and the time to spare,
you can get results just about as good as I can.
The most important thing, upon which everything else hinges, is get
the book frozen A.S.A.P. Once
the book dries out, the wrinkles and warping are set, and there's nothing
anybody can do about it. But freeze it, and all damage stops.
And the book can stay frozen, in stasis, until you're ready to handle it.
Wrap the book in a U of wax or freezer paper, or in a plastic bag.
It's best to freeze it at -15F or lower, so if you can get access to a
commercial freezer space, it would be a good idea. If that's not
available, a home freezer will do in a pinch, but the results won't be
quite as good. If possible, freeze the book spine down, and supported
so it won't lean or fall over. If you have to lay it on its side,
make sure that the book is fully and flatly supported. If you have
anything under it smaller than the book, the book can and will mold itself
around that object.
OK. You'll need a home freezer (once frozen commercially, the
books can be stored in a home freezer without a problem), and a hair dryer.
The recovery process is fairly simple:
- Start with the cover. Open the cover (gently pry loose the inside
page, if it's sticking). Run the air stream from the hair dryer (I'd recommend
top settings on both heat and fan) over the cover, back and forth, top
to bottom, and inside and out. When it feels dry and warm to the
touch (not hot!) go on to the inside page. Same procedure.
Smooth the page with your hand as you work. Work page to page this
- When the next page starts to feel wet to your fingers, stop. Stick
in a piece of paper as a bookmark, and put the book back in the freezer.
Take out the next book (if there's more than one) and start on it. Leave
the first book in the freezer for at least a day.
- Covers may soak up more moisture than the pages, so you may have to do
the cover several times. Just keep the book frozen, and work only
so long as it's frozen, quitting when it starts to thaw.
Special Situations and problems:
There are a few circumstances (aren't there always) which are a little
more problematic than the general procedure I outlined above. You
may run into these:
- Art Books.
- Coffee table books.
- Books with a lot of pictures.
- This type of book relies on a particular type of clay-impregnated paper
to print the sharp, clean colors of the pictures. The problem comes
when this paper gets wet. The clay leeches to the surface of the
paper, and if the book even begins to dry, the clay will bond to itself
and form a solid, irrecoverable block out of the book. Therefore,
it becomes even more imperative than usual that the book be frozen before
it has a chance to dry. Once it's frozen, you can proceed as usual, although
you will probably have to exercise some caution in turning the pages as
you dry them. Have a sharp knife handy to open any edges that may
The specific chemicals usually recommended for treating mold are expensive
to get, difficult to handle, and downright nasty to be around (there's
not one of them that's not carcinogenic). So let's avoid them.
If the book is still wet and starting to mold, get some 99% isopropyl alcohol
solution. It's usually available at most drug stores, although some
states have an upper limit of 97%. That's fine, too. Put it
in a spray bottle and spray the book down. Spray everywhere you see
mold. Spray everywhere you think mold might be. It's already wet;
it won't hurt to get it a little wetter. Then freeze it. (N.B.
If you're freezing it in your home freezer, and you're keeping food in
that home freezer, you'll definitely want to plastic bag the book.
Probably several layers. Unless you like the taste of isopropyl alcohol.)
Proceed as usual.
I don't mean that kind. I mean mud, silt, etc.
- In general, don't bother to clean the book off. Getting it frozen quickly
is the most important thing. The dirt will usually brush off quite easily,
once the book is dry.
- Thick mud, silt, and toxic chemicals, however, should be washed off before
the book is frozen. Mud will hinder freezing, and silt will not clean
off easily after drying. Mud and gunk on the cover can be washed
off by holding the book closed, fore-edge down (that's the side from which
the book is opened), and hosing it down gently with a stream of clean water.
- Silt or toxic chemicals on the pages, however, requires that the book be
washed, and this can get tricky. The problem is that wet paper is
surprisingly fragile, and great care has to be taken or you'll shred the
book trying to save it. Immerse the book in a tub of clean water
and gently riffle the pages. Do not scrub, do not apply any more
pressure than you have to. The idea is just to rinse the pages.
When done, do not press the book together to get excess water out. Just
hold is gently by the spine until the water stops flowing out, then freeze
sooner than immediately. (These books will take a LONG time to dry.)
I don't recommend this procedure unless it's absolutely necessary, and
even then you might consider whether or not your time and trouble aren't
worth enough to just let the damn thing go and get a new copy. Your
- And that's it. You can do it yourself, if you've got the time and
the determination. If you've got more than half-a-dozen books to
do, though, I'd seriously recommend seeking out a professional. In
the long term, hand-drying can be awfully mind-numbing!
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