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After Disaster Strikes: Drying Wet Books & Papers

15 May, 1996

This article was submitted by Doug Reade. Doug is a hand bookbinder and disaster recovery expert, and owner of Reade Books Restoration, a full-service firm in Seattle, Washington. They have constructed a freeze-drying unit of unique operation, and can handle over 100 books at a time.

After Disaster Strikes

Books and papers that have gotten wet by fire, flood, broken pipe or what-have-you can be 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 -15 degrees F 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.

Recovery Process

The recovery process is fairly simple:

  1. 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 way.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 have bonded.

Moldy Books

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.

Dirty Books

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. Freeze immediately.
  • 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 call.

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!