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Vintage Poster and Paper Conservation Techniques

Updated on October 22, 2014

Conservation for works of art on paper

Do you have a valuable poster that needs a little work? Learn about the process of poster conservation and restoration, and make an estimate of the costs.

Conservation is the art of restoring and protecting many types of vintage posters, maps, autographs and works of art on paper including lithographs, silk screens (serigraphs) and modern offset printing.

These improvements are best made using "reversible" techniques and water-based adhesives that can be removed at a later date without harming the poster.

Stained and folded document with all four autographs from the Beatles after restoration
Stained and folded document with all four autographs from the Beatles after restoration | Source

Poster restoration or conservation? - A difference of degree

The difference between conservation and restoration can be measured by the amount of repairs made to the work of art. Conservation uses mild techniques to stabilize the poster and protect it for the future. Restoration makes physical changes to the paper to improve the appearance and presentation of the artwork.

The decision to spend money on poster restoration and conservation depends on the existing condition of the paper and the rarity of the artwork. Quite often, seriously damaged posters can be completely transformed into a valuable artwork for your collection or to sell at auction.

Document, clean and stabilize
Document, clean and stabilize

Preparing the artwork

Art conservators first take photographs and make notes about the poster to document the existing condition. To prepare the artwork, any tape and adhesive is removed, including any attempts over the years to repair or preserve the artwork. Depending on the condition of the poster (see related article), some of the following techniques can be used to restore the original glory of your vintage poster or work of art on paper.

The next step in the process is to halt the effects of time. Most paper produced after 1840 was make with wood pulp which contains lignin and other impurities. When reacting to air, moisture and light, the impurities slowly eat away the cellulose that holds the paper together. Before 1840, "rag" paper was made with cotton and other fibers that are still used to make fine quality printing paper, and currency in some countries.

Take the acid out of old paper

Acid neutralizing is a mild treatment that first removes any surface dust. Then, the paper soaks in a solution that stabilizes the acid in the paper while adding a buffer which soaks up any additional acids to prevent further damage. In contrast, de-acidification uses a stronger treatment to actively take acid out of the paper. Poster conservation specialists can also bleach paper to remove dark stains and water damage.

Archival Mist is a well respected brand of acid neutralizing spray made for scrapbook artists and people who collect newspapers and paper memorabilia. The spray balances the pH level to neutralize acid, and spreads an alkaline buffer to absorb acid in the future. Not for photographs but great for the backside of unbuffered matting boards that may come in contact with photos.

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Acid-free Archival Spray


Reduce the acid in old paper from newspaper clippings, scrapbooks, posters, tobacco cards, cards, certificates, correspondence, diaries.


1-1/2-Ounce Archival Mist

5 Ounce Archival Mist Aerosol

* Covers 25 square feet of paper

* Non-toxic and odor-free

* Does not affect ink or colors


See the reviews on Amazon for more information, and try the Pioneer Acid-Free Glue Stick Pen for scrapbooking.

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Touch-ups

Minor paper restoration

Paper defects are repaired before the artwork can be mounted on linen or paper and framed.

One of the easiest repairs to make is joining the edges of torn paper, and even fitting pieces together that have been ripped off. Pin holes and larger holes can be filled-in with rice paper or scraps of authentic paper from the time period.

These are simple paper restoration techniques, but entire sections of a poster can also be recreated that are almost undetectable. Refer to the article on poster condition for images and a glossary of different paper defects.

Once all the problems and defects have been mended, you can decide if you want the poster to be backed with linen. If the poster is in great condition, or if you want to frame the poster, then linen-backing is not required. If the poster is fragile or missing pieces, then linen may be the only way of joining the pieces together, or to simply keep the paper from disintegrating.

Do you conserve? - Working with poster conservation

Do you use the services of a poster conservation specialist or art conservator? Make you vote and make a comment , or add comments to the feedback box, below.

Have you ever used an Art Conservator?

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Alphonse Mucha - "Winter" (1896)
Alphonse Mucha - "Winter" (1896) | Source

Linen-backing

Mounting vintage posters on a linen fabric background

Conservators use archival linen or cotton to create a stable background to support a vintage poster or any work of art on paper. First, archival paper is pasted to the back side of the artwork using acid-free and chemically inactive rice paste or other water-based adhesives. While the paste is drying, a very fine grade of linen, cotton fabric or duck canvas is stretched over a wooden frame, in the same way that an artist prepares a canvas for painting. The linen has a little tension in it when the artwork is pasted to the surface and left to dry for several days.

The linen mesh is very useful for flattening out folds and mending torn paper. Using this kind of linen backing is the only way to match up the panels of large 3 and 6-sheet posters for a huge piece of wall décor.

This process is completely reversible because the adhesives can be washed off with water in the future. Special care must be taken to remove all the dirt and writing on the back before the art is mounted on linen. This way, the writing will not have a chance to eventually bleed through and affect the image.

Conserving Art on Paper video - Smithsonian Institute

Visit a conservation lab in this well produced video from the Smithsonian Institute (3 minutes)

Canvas stretched over a wood frame
Canvas stretched over a wood frame

Prices for poster conservation - Linen-backing

Many conservators show prices on their website for linen backing common poster sizes. They may also list the price of standard services, like washing or bleaching, and hourly rates for paper stabilization (prep-work) and restoration work.

Poster sized artwork can be mounted on linen for an average of 12 dollars per square foot. (Calculate the square inches of your poster and divide by 144 to get the number of square feet.) Prices vary from 8 to 16 dollars a foot for a number of reasons. Very small and very large posters can be more expensive to work on due to setup and handing costs. Conservation specialists with a large workspace in urban areas may also have higher expenses. Fortunately, the internet makes it easy to deal with reputable poster specialists located anywhere in the country.

Preparation and touch-up work in often charged at an hourly rate between $50 - 100. The price of shipping the posters to and from the conservator is also a consideration.

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Non-conservation

Techniques to avoid

There are several ways to "improve" the condition of posters that are irreversible and actually harmful to valuable artwork.

Dry mounting the paper to foam-core or any other backing is not recommended, and laminating paper between layers of sticky plastic is not an archival technique. Depending on the adhesive that was used, a restorer may be able to remove a poster that was mounted to a backing board and prepare it for conservation.

Many people add tape to the corners of posters with the best intensions of protecting the paper from thumb tacks, only to open the posters a few years later to find oily spots damaging the image on the front. Please don't make the same mistake (find out more). There are some temporary adhesives made now that are non-oily and guarantee not to damage your poster. The best method to preserve any paper is to completely enclose the artwork in an airtight enclosure.

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Picture framing - protecting artwork from the elements

The final step in poster conservation is the proper care and storage of the artwork. The best way to keep paper in mint condition is by investing in a picture frame to protect the paper. An "archival frame" is made with acid-free materials in a tightly sealed enclosure. The function of the matting board is to create an air space to avoid direct contact between the paper and the plastic or glass. The mat has a hole cut-out to see the picture and it can be used to cover the edges of the paper if the margin is showing signs of wear.

Plexiglas is often used for framing posters (also called Perspex or Lucite) because it's less troublesome than glass if it breaks. Special coatings can be applied that protect the artwork from ultraviolet light emitted by the sun or even from ordinary light bulbs.

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Encapsulation - Keeping out air and moisture

Encapsulation is another word for an envelope or enclosure that is used to store paper, and any kind of artwork. Without a doubt, polyester is the best material for long-term storage of paper. A specific type of Polyester called Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) or (PETE) is a clear plastic known by the brand name Mylar and Melinex.

The properties of this plastic are ideal for archival-quality storage. Polyester has high clarity to see-through the material and view the paper. This way, the document can stay inside the envelope and away from oily fingers and liquid spills. Polyester is air-tight which keeps out dust and humidity. The party balloons with a shiny mirrored surface are made of Mylar to keep the gas inside. Polyester also has just enough flexibility to bend like paper or thick cardstock without cracking.

Polyester can be scratched easily and it's expensive to produce. Other types of plastic were developed that are much softer and less expensive for a similar amount of clarity. Millions of products are created (and recycled) every day made from PolyPropylene (PP) and Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE). Learn more about types of archival plastic at dotpattern - the digital museum of collecting.

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Use large toploaders to encapsulate posters and works of art on paper

Ultra Pro 24 x 36 Top Loaders - (buy one or packs of ten)

Protect posters in large-sized "toploaders", the same ones used to keep baseball cards and trading cards in great condition. Each rigid-plastic sleeve fits two posters back-to-back, so it's easy to flip the toploader over to display the other side. Choose from many different sizes to fit anything from small tobacco cards to posters up to 29 x 43 inches (71 x 109 cm).

Find more toploaders at dotpattern - the digital museum of collecting.

Standard trading card size toploaders - Protect baseball cards and game cards

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Share your experiences with poster conservation

Do you have any recommendations, or horror stories? Please share your thoughts so we can all learn what to expect when caring for posters and works of art on paper.

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    • Lady Gotrocks profile image

      Lady Gotrocks 6 years ago

      Very nicely done.

      Blessed

    • jojokaya lm profile image

      jojokaya lm 6 years ago

      interesting and nice lens

    • Paul Ward profile image

      Paul 6 years ago from Liverpool, England

      Bluetak on your first home after leaving parents is a rite of passage!

      Good, informative lens

    • aerome profile image

      aerome 6 years ago

      Nice work, very interesting!

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Awesome lens! Very informative.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Very interesting and informative, you obviously have expertise in this area. Well done!

    • FanfrelucheHubs profile image

      Nathalie Roy 6 years ago from France (Canadian expat)

      Another interesting and well written lens of yours. Blessed by the resident "collecting memorabilia" angel!

    • WildFacesGallery profile image

      Mona 6 years ago from Iowa

      Very nicely done. * blessed*

    • cuteordeath profile image

      cuteordeath 5 years ago

      I have laminated most of my posters. They aren't super nice or vintage or anything, so I didn't think it was a bad idea. ^^;

    • dotpattern profile image
      Author

      Pat Moire 5 years ago from West Village, New York City

      @cuteordeath: Thanks for your story cuteordeath. Enjoying the artwork is the most important thing and lamination makes the poster nearly indestructible. Conservators can actually restore laminated posters by carefully slicing off the paper from the sticky stuff. It is so time-consuming and expensive that it's only worth it for the most valuable posters.

    • Lady Lorelei profile image

      Lorelei Cohen 5 years ago from Canada

      Excellent article with some very necessary tips. Thank you and best of wishes.

    • dotpattern profile image
      Author

      Pat Moire 5 years ago from West Village, New York City

      @Lady Lorelei: Thanks for stopping by and also joining my fan club. It's a pleasure to meet you and I look forward to learning more from you about green tea and gardening.

    • MariaMontgomery profile image

      MariaMontgomery 5 years ago from Central Florida, USA

      Thank you for a truly informative lens. I really enjoyed reading it.

    • Gypzeerose profile image

      Rose Jones 5 years ago

      Can't imagine ever doing this myself, but who knows - for some bizarre reason I really love paper crafts. It is nice to know about these services in case someone needs them. Out to my friends at Stumbleupon.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Can anyone recommend the best (and least-expensive) way to remove drymounted foamcore backing from artwork? I have an Andy Warhol print where many years ago I stupidly covered the print number when backing the artwork. Any suggestions for where I can safely have this backing removed without damaging the artwork itself?

    • dotpattern profile image
      Author

      Pat Moire 4 years ago from West Village, New York City

      @anonymous: Great question, and the answer is yes. A poster conservation specialist can loosen the adhesive and remove the board. This is a premium job, but you will be increasing the value big time.

      The internet gives you the option to find low prices, anywhere, and ship it to a place you trust (give them a quick phone call). Most any paper and poster conservation place can do the job. Seeing the shop in person is nice, but not necessary. Try to get a fixed fee, and budget for preservation and framing too.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      @dotpattern: I'd want it to be be done by a reputable place that I could visit to discuss face to face here in New York City so I'll research that, unless anyone can recommend someplace that is trustworthy and reasonable. When our art was drymounted with foamcore many years ago, we stupidly covered the limited edition number on the back of the art, and the value of the art will be dependent on that number. It was a limited edition of 250, but I can't recall what number our print is out of the 250. Over the years, the artwork shows bubbling, so it likely wasn't drymounted well, and I'm hoping the damage will be considered minimal and not affecting the value too badly. Thanks for your help!

    • John Dyhouse profile image

      John Dyhouse 4 years ago from UK

      An interesting and thoughtful lens. I am not a poster collector but as an artist there are a number of things which are close to heart

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