Teaching Paper to Swim

Kate Aguirre is applying to graduate schools in art conservation. She received her undergraduate degree in art history at the...

For my inaugural blog post as the conservation lab intern, I’m going to explain how we teach paper to swim.

You heard me right.

Paper, much like you or me, owes much of its composition to water but can be harmed by it as well. Though we are 60% water, people can drown; paper is formed into sheets from a wet slurry, but if caught in water later it can cockle and stain.  However, like a Finn in a sauna, paper can become more relaxed and healthier in a water bath.

The first step is to make sure the paper—especially the media on it—is not water-soluble! If the paper is safe, it can be submerged.

The deionized water leaches impurities out of the paper. Acid degradation yellows old paper, and washing that degradation from the paper makes the paper not only brighter, but healthier.

Paper in three stages of water bath
The papers on the right are in their first bath. As I replace the water, the pages move to their second bath, in the middle, and then to their third, on the left. As you can see, the water gets less yellow and the paper gets brighter the longer it soaks.

The secret to teaching paper to swim is to keep it well supported at all times. Wet paper is incredibly fragile and prone to tearing. Here I’m holding it between sheets of non-woven polyester fabric that doesn’t snag or stick.

paper sandwiched between polyester sheets
The surface tension of the water creates a safe sandwich between the two sheets of polyester and the middle of delicate paper.

The flimsiness of wet paper is also a part of how the paper gains more flexibility while wet. The washing and drying process reforms the old chemical bonds that held the paper together. With the removal of the degraded particles, this leaves behind stronger, more flexible paper.

Once dried under weights between blotters, the paper is less yellow and more supple, more relaxed and healthier!

conservator submerges paper in water
Ensuring the paper is fully submerged in the water bath


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